I think mainland China drama serials are lesser-known internationally than Korean ones, which is not surprising given the current popularity of Korean pop culture. I don’t watch many of them myself but 步步惊心/ Scarlet Heart is one of the few that have made it to my list. This drama is a captivating blend of thrilling politics, history, gut-wrenching romance and philosophical questions of fate and destiny.
The protagonist, Zhang Xiao/ Maertai Ruoxi, is a young woman of our generation who is transported about 300 years back in time to the Qing Dynasty (the last imperial dynasty of China) in a freak accident. There she meets the Emperor Kangxi’s sons, including the future Yongzheng. She gets entangled in the battle between the princes for the succession of the throne, unwittingly becoming a player in the shaping of history.
The crux of this story is the central question about the inevitability of history- while Ruoxi is seemingly able to make her own choices, are they simply leading towards a foregone conclusion? Perhaps free will is an illusion, as she is mentally trapped by her prior knowledge of the princes’ fate. In this instance, ignorance truly is bliss. What is tragic is not the princes’ eventual suffering, but knowledge of that fact and the complete inability to prevent it. Ironically, Ruoxi’s attempts to change history are the very wheels that set it in motion. Furthermore, there is the catch of her not knowing her own fate.
The drama also offers a fascinating glimpse of gender roles in ancient China, and this is something Ruoxi struggles with. Her deeply-ingrained modern sensibilities mean that she sees everyone as equal, regardless of gender or class. She finds it hard to accept that men of nobility are allowed to have multiple wives. As a modern-day female, she would demand a mutually-exclusive relationship with the man she loves.
Given her position of aristocracy (she is the daughter of a military general), her fate lies in the emperor’s hands. She is entirely dependent on his favor and Ruoxi detests this sense of helplessness. Women are essentially treated as property, given to whoever the emperor deems appropriate. While watching this I really admired the female characters, who displayed strength in different ways despite being trapped by their situation.
For those used to the Western historical costumes of period dramas like The Tudors, the dress in 步步惊心 might be unfamiliar. The ornate headdresses (for women), fur-lined capes and mantles, ornately-embroidered brocade robes and occasional black fur hats (for men) are distinctly Manchurian attire (the Qing Dynasty was governed by the Manchurians and not the Hans). Hidden beneath women’s robes are elevated wooden heels that look like chopines. Pay attention because symbolism is present in the colors and motifs of the robes, as well as the ornamentation on the headdresses. Costumes are an element that complement the setting and can make a scene particularly memorable. Another drama serial with sumptuous Qing Dynasty costumes is 后宫甄嬛传/ The Legend of Zhen Huan/ Empresses in the Palace.
I’m struck by the similarities between Western period dramas and Chinese ones- namely the politics and intrigue in the court. Women have to possess a strong sense of self-preservation and compete for title and favor. A woman’s value and potential for marriage is dependent on her chastity and virtue. Oddly, women’s legs and feet seem to be regarded as erogenous zones and taboo areas as they are perpetually covered. I’m sincerely grateful to escape a similar plight by being born in this era.