The movie "Chang An (长安三万里, Chang An San Wan Li)" is a film brimming with talent and charm. Describing it as such is perfectly appropriate, for no other word captures its essence accurately.
Its romance belongs to the youth rather than the grand palace banquets, and its richness belongs to the ambitious and talented individuals from all corners of the nation rather than mere material wealth. And yet, all of this is influenced by the ebb and flow of political affairs in the court.
When it comes to flourishing Tang Dynasty, we have seen countless depictions of prosperous Chang'an - from theatrical novels to well-made commercial films, showcasing scenes like wine in Hua Qing Chi and open exchange with foreign countries.
However, "Chang An San Wan Li" extends the panorama of Great Tang beyond that magnificent city: west Chang'an, south Yangzhou, Shangqiu & Liangtian, and Xiangyang. It strips away the mystique surrounding Chang'an City itself and even almost dispels any illusion about an era of prosperity.
The starting point lies in two young men living far from courtly life: Jiangxia (present-day Wuchang area) near Huanghe Tower where they first met on a deserted piece of land - Li Bai and Gao Shi engaged in a sumo contest.
Both youths stood bare-chested with fiery eyes full of vitality while skillfully maneuvering their actions between reality and imagination. They possessed nothing but boundless aspirations soaring through clouds.
It is widely known that Li Bai was wild and immortal; his ambition akin to a great roc bird taking flight freely across vast skies; his disappointment at court affairs during his twilight years blurred into confusion.
His life resembled an unfinished epic poem filled with tumultuous ups and downs painted vividly in diverse colors. On the other hand, despite being recognized as a frontier poet and warrior, but Gao Shi's character lacked the same intense and distinct hues.
The main thread of "Chang An" revolves around the friendship between Li Bai and Gao Shi, connecting their tumultuous experiences from prosperous Tang Dynasty to the An Lushan Rebellion, internal turmoil within the dynasty, and the fate of various talented scholars and knights who were like drifting waterweeds.
It was an era where talents emerged incessantly, gathering stars in one place; a time when poetry culture flourished for a while with literati leading the way. However, it was also an excessively extravagant age. Beyond the splendid Chang'an lay a complex Tang Dynasty that is far more intricate than what modern people imagine. Only those who can fully understand it with wholehearted enthusiasm can help us restore its true essence.
"Chang An" has made adaptations and fictional additions to history. For instance, Li Bai and Gao Shi's connection did not begin in their youth as depicted in reality; some changes have been made regarding when certain poems came into existence; whether or not there continued to be frequent spiritual exchanges between them during their later years remains uncertain.
In such a grandiose era resembling a mighty torrential flow, who determines success or failure? Is it poets who achieve eternal fame through their written words memorialized by history. Or is it warrior-generals wielding longbows and sharp swords faithfully serving their country. Approaching this film with such contemplation rather than fixating on adaptation details allows us to glimpse another layer of history.
The most precious thing in the Tang Dynasty
When we read the biographies of Tang poets, there were occasional moments of confusion: many poets often held multiple titles, such as military governor, court physician, and imperial censor. Famous poetic verses coexisted with achievements in other fields in their lives.
Take Gao Shi for example. how a rough man who struggled even with reading and speaking fluently, a warrior whose occupation revolved around swords. How did he become a renowned poet in later generations? It is worth knowing that poetry during the Tang Dynasty was like a bright pearl in the vast ocean; it served as both a mirror reflecting the entire era and an indicator of the rise and fall of a dynasty.
However, during the prosperous Tang Dynasty, poetry itself was actually considered least valuable object. From royal officials to commoners engaged in menial labor, everyone could compose poems at will. "Poetry boards" were found everywhere from famous taverns to frontier relay stations where visitors from all directions could pick up brushes and leave ink marks.
This created an atmosphere of cultural depth within that era. Poetry during the Tang Dynasty flowed abundantly like water from the Yellow River or fragrance from wine; it was something anyone could indulge in freely while expressing themselves.
Due to its prevalence among mediocrity seekers, true aspiring individuals inevitably faced challenges: can one truly achieve success through writing poetry? In the film, at a grand banquet held within Chang'an city's luxurious mansions, little Du Fu with incomplete teeth in dark corners of palaces sighing deeply with an expression full of worries: "I am skilled at nothing but interested in writing poetry. But everyone can write poetry!"
During those times almost every poet made appearances sporadically throughout films: Wang Wei and Wang Mojie who were known for their aloofness and elegance, Du Fu who was much younger than the others, renowned poets such as Cui Hao and Meng Haoran, as well as Wang Changling and He Zhizhang who shared joy with Li Bai.
These individuals had already gained different levels of fame since their youth. They gathered from various places to Chang'an city, where they bonded through poetry, accompanied by music and wine, indulging in a carefree and generous lifestyle. However, despite the abundance of poets during that time, the individuals behind the poems did not possess the same level of freedom as their poetic creations. Cui Hao's "Yellow Crane Tower" was revered and prominently displayed at the tower not only because it was an excellent poem but also due to his prestigious family background, which held significant importance in society.
As for Li Bai, although his name resounded far and wide with his poetry, he was born into a merchant family. The Tang Dynasty placed emphasis on agriculture while suppressing commerce; merchants were considered lowly citizens. Li Bai lacked eligibility to participate in imperial examinations and could only realize his dream of serving the country by means of recommendation.
However, when he went to pay respects to influential figures, he was rejected due to his humble status. Filled with sorrow and anger, Li Bai vented his frustration through wielding a sword but soon after looked up at the sky and let out a long howl of joyous abandon. This is Li Bai - spontaneous and unrestrained - representing a spirit of freedom prevalent during that era.
Composing poetry requires talent but more importantly passion; it necessitates inspiration from deep within one's heart while simultaneously maintaining an open-mindedness towards the external world. In the prosperous Tang Dynasty where everyone composed poems alike, it served as a portrayal of free-spirited romance.
Li Bai was a worldly poet madman who lived life fully immersed in verse. Poetry was his soul incarnate; while drinking wine he effortlessly crafted lines as if they flowed directly from stomach to mind without end or interruption. At this time, Li Bai still yearned to spread his wings like a mighty roc.
He firmly believed in the saying, "If heaven bestows talent upon me, it must have a purpose," and had unwavering faith that his charisma and talent could attract virtuous individuals from all corners of the world. In the words of Gao Shi, "He did not believe there was any door in this world that would not open for him." This sense of confident optimism and carefree self-assurance were among Li Bai's most prominent traits during his early days.
During this time, Chang'an was seen as the pinnacle of life by many, a gateway to success and fame. Only those who experienced leaving knew how difficult it was to stay. Nevertheless, ambitious individuals flocked to this place with hopes of achieving official positions or partial success through their talents or reputation, including Gao Shi from Bohai.
Gao Shi's ancestors were once renowned generals; however, by his generation, their family fortunes had declined significantly. Gao Shi grew up accustomed to poverty and even resorted to begging for survival at one point. Yet he carried within himself both material inferiority and spiritual self-confidence that comes with being a true man. These contradictions coexisted within him.
When Gao Shi first encountered Li Bai on his journey to Chang'an, he even stuttered a bit. These two young men filled with lofty aspirations became acquainted through fate. Li Bai appreciated the candid chivalrous aura emanating from Gao Shi while Gao Shi himself was influenced by Li Bai's uninhibited free-spiritedness. Many friendships begin in such complementary ways.
Gao Shi evaluated him: "I have never come across someone so unrestrained and unconventional before; yet at the same time, he is the most innocent and naive person I have ever met." During this time, both of them carried an unrealistic filter when it came to the great Tang Dynasty and Chang'an. They were filled with overly idealistic imaginations about the upper echelons of society.
In a logic that governed society, poetry held little value; so what was truly precious? A mind brimming with talent can gather friends from all corners of the world, and feet capable of traversing mountains and rivers far and wide. But even if "who in this world does not recognize you," even someone as blunt as Gao Shi couldn't help but sigh emotionally, "How many true friends can one really have?"
Best friend of Li Bai
Most innocent friend, Li Bai and Gao Shi, were in fact two completely different individuals from beginning to end. The former, a carefree wanderer of the rivers and lakes, untouched by worldly worries. His life was nothing but indulgence and pleasure, even squandering wealth without concern for tomorrow.
Unlike Li Bai's "Let us be drunk today for we may be sober tomorrow," Gao Shi resembled what we now call a veteran leader. He adhered to rules, was honest and steadfast in his beliefs. He firmly believed that taking one step at a time would lead him towards realizing his ideals. After the death of his father, he went alone to Chang'an with a sense of duty upon himself. He vowed to serve the country and bring glory to his family through battles on the battlefield.
The entire film in "Chang An" revolves around their numerous encounters and partings as well as their friendship which unfolds within it. There are countless moving details throughout this film; however, only two instances stand out where the development and changes in their friendship are depicted with exceptional accuracy and subtlety.
One such instance is when they first meet each other, where Li Bai introduces Gao Shi to an exciting novelty - sumo. How could someone like Li Bai who stood at the forefront of fashion not understand? Not only did he know how to play it but he enthusiastically taught it to his newly met friend while also imparting its core techniques: "Using emptiness against substance, borrowing strength for leverage; diverting attention eastward while striking west."
Decades later, this knowledge helped an aging Gao Shi who had become a border defense commander to devise an exclusive military strategy. The lifelong friendship between the two, spanning over half a century, silently and invisibly echoed each other during a time of national crisis. Techniques such as archery, swordsmanship, and martial arts were all practical skills on the battlefield; however, it was Li Bai's initial intention solely for amusement that unintentionally reflected their original aspirations and their first meeting in their youth.
Another detail highlighting the friendship between these two individuals occurred three years after they parted ways. Li Bai experienced his first major setback in life when his father passed away and his brothers divided up the family estate. He became a destitute wanderer, preparing to marry into another prestigious family - the Xu family - as a son-in-law with future children carrying the Xu surname.
Gao Shi strongly opposed this decision. He believed that Li Bai would achieve great things in the future and should have some accountability towards his ancestors. However, Li Bai did not heed Gao Shi's advice but insisted on seeking guidance from another esteemed friend at that time - Meng Haoran. After going through numerous hardships alongside Gao Shi, he finally received Meng Haoran's supportive reply.
Concerned and disappointed, Gao Shi observed Li Bai's acceptance of fate. They returned to the Yellow Crane Tower once again to indulge in wine. As Li Bai ascended the stairs to compose his poem, Gao Shi gazed at Meng Haoran's "affirmative" flag, silently leaving behind a friend's counsel for Li Bai.
Upon Li Bai's return to the table, Gao Shi had already departed without a word, leaving behind a neatly folded flag bearing the symbol of "negation." The delicate texture of their friendship was suddenly disrupted by ripples.
If we truly consider each other as friends with genuine intentions, both parties' opinions should be heard. This childlike display of temper has unexpectedly rendered the bond between these two ancient individuals more authentic and moving.
The entire story unfolds through the recollections of an elderly Gao Shi. Amidst a dimly lit military camp, he looks back on his lifelong acquaintance with deep nostalgia, an epic poem that spans from youth to old age, imbued with elements of compassion and sighs. It is as if he wants to speak but refrains from doing so; seemingly intoxicated in himself. Ultimately, it concludes with a long sigh towards empty space and a skyward howl before waving his sleeve and departing.
Although Gao Shi views himself as crude and clumsy: a man who adheres strictly to convention, he shares an intrinsic nature with Li Bai: lofty ambitions unbounded by trivialities: "Both lords and dukes are our kind; our talents lie in strategy." True friendship has the power to elicit what lies deep within one another's souls, it is akin to love, wherein souls intertwine irrespective of separation or reunion. However, symbolically speaking, it is undeniable that Li Bai and Gao Shi represent two distinct attitudes towards life which inevitably lead to vastly divergent destinies within the feudal era.
The infectious power of "Chang An"
In the flourishing Tang Dynasty where Li Bai resided, it was the favored Yang Guifei and Huaqing Pool that captivated various literary works. On the contrary, "Chang An" only briefly touched upon a single line of reminiscence from Li Bai's later years without lingering.
He resented it. After much difficulty gaining entry into court, he diligently studied the ways of officials and wrote countless poems to please those in power. However, gradually he realized that he simply couldn't conform to this system; he clashed with the mainstream upper echelons. Almost inevitably, he soon encountered political changes within the court and was manipulated by petty individuals before ultimately leaving Chang'an dejectedly.
The true Li Bai was the one who penned with his brush while reveling in wine: "How can I kowtow and grovel before those in power when it robs me of joy!" In fact, it can infer that with Li Bai's bold and unrestrained character, it was certain that he had offended quite a few people at court.
Once an energetic young rebel full of spirit, now burdened by an indelible weightiness and weariness. The former romance and freedom had vanished without a trace; all that remained were bitterness, resentment, sorrowful reflection.
It wasn't just Li Bai, who met such misfortune; among those poets who once indulged together in poetry and wine: Wang Changling, Wang Wei, Cen Shen, Li Yong, who among them met a good end? His best friend Gao Shi, although he eventually achieved success and became a general with greying temples, even quelling rebellions repeatedly and fulfilling his childhood dream of defending the country.
Yet Gao Shi still endured decades of loneliness and defeat. Lacking noble background or poetic talent that could win over the world, he made multiple trips to Chang'an but was repeatedly frustrated and forced to return home. In the years of waiting and endurance, it was his youthful aspirations and emotions that supported him.
Gao Shi was naive, so naive that he nearly fell into the beautiful lie woven for himself. He foolishly believed that with his family's prestigious heritage and expertise in warfare as demonstrated on the battlefield by their powerful sword techniques, obtaining an official position in Chang'an would be no problem at all.
Who would have expected that upon arriving in Chang'an he would discover how their Gao family had long been marginalized? The people of the capital were unaware; they didn't give them any regard. Past achievements were just relics from another time; those currently in power paid no attention. No matter how talented or patriotic one may be, they could only remain anonymous, ignored by all. One's fate fluctuates along with dynastic changes, a cycle encompassing joys and sorrows, all influenced by shifting winds.
Later on when Gao Shi went to Yangzhou to find Li Bai, it took a daughter from the prominent Pei family to awaken him from his delusions. Even though this young master Pei disguised herself as a man possessed exceptional talents including beating Gao Shi in combat prowess, she too suffered under Prime Minister Li Linfu who feared scholar-officials gaining influence within government ranks, she couldn't be given a prominent role and could only stay in her hometown, using the long spears and sharp swords meant for slaying enemies to entertain herself with revelries.
The entire family suffered due to their disfavor by those in power, not to mention that Pei Shier was also a woman. It may seem cruel to view the Tang Dynasty through some of its feudal drawbacks, but "Chang An" achieves this perspective through a romantic approach.
Even though there were many talented poets and scholars overflowing with literary prowess, what does it matter? What good is Gao Shi's simple and loyal patriotism? As Emperor Xuanzong of Tang deteriorated from initially being diligent and virtuous into incompetence and corruption while internal power struggles raged on within the royal court, petty individuals seizing control, the nation fell into ruin.
Those various poet friends who once gathered in Chang'an, from Wang Wei to Du Fu, from Wang Changling to Li Gui Nian, they experienced exile or died full of regret; not one among them received the dignified ending befitting their talents that an esteemed dynasty should have provided.
The film is cleverly crafted, gentle yet emotionally stirring as it seamlessly weaves these historical burdens into a theme centered around friendship, beginning with friendship and concluding with friendship. The lives of Gao Shi and Li Bai differ in their contributions to history as well as interpretations of life itself; their intertwined existence resonates deeply on multiple levels.
As for the conclusion of their relationship, opinions have always been divided. From middle age onward until old age approached, Gao Shi's fate gradually diverged further from Li Bai's. While Li Bai rose to fame in his youth but stumbled later on due to ill-advised actions resulting in charges of rebellion, a tragic end brought about by choosing the wrong people and aligning himself against proper authority. Gao Shi found success late in life but always proceeded cautiously. Faced with his friend's plea for help, he found himself powerless to intervene.
It is worth mentioning that the Li Bai depicted in dramas and legends often appears intoxicated. Regarding his dominant state of mind and attitude throughout different stages of life, one can only speculate and imagine through poetic verses. And who can truly know which poems were not spoken while half-drunk?
Thus, the Li Bai seen by the world always maintained an air of seeming truth but also falsehood, an appearance of nonchalance conveyed through a swaying tone, connecting together a grand era that flowed within him.
This intoxication made Li Bai even more endearing; in comparison, Gao Shi played the sober role, always deep in thought and deliberation, leaving behind room for rationality and introspection both as a legendary figure and representative of a legendary era. One was naive and childlike; the other persevered against all odds, a testament to their talents belonging not just to Great Tang but surpassing any single nationality.