In recent years, Chinese documentaries have brought us many surprises, such as "Once Upon a Bite," "Masters in The Forbidden City," and "The Flavor of History." These documentaries present various aspects of Chinese culture, including food, traditions, and customs. In this article, we will introduce a documentary series that explores ancient Chinese figures called "Qian Gu Feng Liu Ren Wu (千古风流人物, Eminent Figures Through the Ages)," with a focus on the latest season featuring the renowned figure Su Shi.
Introducing of Eminent Figures Through the Ages
The term "eminent figures" refers to individuals who have had significant influence during their time. Su Shi, Li Bai, Tao Yuanming, Bai Juyi, Ouyang Xiu, these great historical figures not only left behind monumental literary works but also provided guidance for generations of disheartened and confused individuals through their enlightened philosophies of life. Amidst the hardships and twists of fate in life's journey, we should learn from their attitudes, using broad-mindedness to transcend suffering and seizing beauty in our remaining days.
These familiar names are given concrete depictions in this documentary series. They experienced joys and sorrows like ordinary people; they endured pain and disappointment just like anyone else. However, the challenges they faced throughout their lives far surpassed ours multiple times over. Yet when confronted with life's struggles and sufferings, they dedicated their entire lifetimes to allowing adversity to bloom amidst mundane existence.
From 2021 until now, "Eminent Figures Through the Ages" has produced three seasons which have garnered high acclaim due to its exceptional quality. The first season received 8.8 points out of 10 while the second season received 9 points and the third season achieved an impressive rating of 9.1 points out of 10. As evident from its title alone, this documentary series focuses on cultural icons who made remarkable contributions throughout China's history.
Their life stories and artistic achievements are explored to unravel thousands of years' worth of Chinese civilization as well as the cultural essence behind it. The first two seasons presented the life stories of figures such as Li Bai, Lu You, Bai Juyi, and Tao Yuanming. In the latest third season, the unfolding historical narrative continues to guide us into the worlds of various cultural luminaries.
The Life of Su Shi
The title of this documentary series "Eminent Figures Through the Ages" is derived from a line in Su Shi's poem "Nian Nu Jiao: Chibi Huai Gu (念奴娇·赤壁怀古, Remembering Chibi, to the tune of Nian Nu Jiao) ." In this third season, Su Shi was introduced in the first episode, a literary giant, politician, and calligrapher who lived during the Northern Song Dynasty.
In December of 1036 AD, Su Shi was born in Meishan, Sichuan Province. Meishan is a place with profound cultural heritage; during the Northern and Southern Song Dynasties combined, there were only around 900 successful candidates in imperial examinations – an unprecedented number throughout Song Dynasty history. Nurtured by such rich cultural environment, Su Shi demonstrated exceptional talent from an early age and realized his political aspirations through examination success.
In the year 1061 AD, Su Shi officially began his career in officialdom when he was appointed to Fengxiang. His official position was that of a judge, responsible for assisting Prefect Chen Xiliang in managing daily affairs. Some admiring clerks in the government office referred to Su Shi as "Su Xianliang," showing their admiration towards him. Accustomed to receiving compliments, Su Shi accepted this with a calm demeanor. However, when Chen Xiliang heard about it, he became furious, greatly embarrassing Su Shi.
Su Shi had always been proud of his literary prowess and this incident further strained his relationship with Chen Xiliang. Later on, Chen Xiliang built a Lingxu Platform within Fengxiang's jurisdiction and asked Su Shi to write about it. Filled with youthful arrogance, Su Shi saw an opportunity for revenge and wrote hundreds of words filled with discourse on rise and fall, cleverly alluding to contemporary matters.
He initially thought that just like before, Chen Xiliang would make substantial revisions to his writing. However, unexpectedly, without changing a single word, Chen Xiliang had the account of the Lingsu Platform engraved onto stone tablets. It was only later that Su Shi finally understood why Chen Xi Liang criticized him - he feared that after achieving success at such a young age; he might become arrogant and complacent and deliberately weakened his influence. From then onwards their relationship began to improve gradually. Yet this early experience in politics seemed to foreshadow the tumultuous life that awaited Su Shi in official circles.
Fast forward to the year 1067 AD when Emperor Shenzong ascended the throne at merely twenty years old. The following year marked the start of Wang Anshi's rise into power along with a series of reforms known as "New Policies." Within one month of these new policies being implemented fourteen censors were dismissed by Wang Anshi, swiftly removing those who opposed him from the centers of power. Su Shi believed that these reforms were too radical and some specific measures would even disturb and harm the people. Consequently, he voiced his opposition. It was because of this that Su Shi became entangled in the whirlpool of political struggle surrounding the reforms and ultimately had no choice but to request a transfer to avoid further conflicts.
In the autumn of 1074 AD, Su Shi arrived in the impoverished and remote city of Mizhou (present-day Zhucheng, Shandong). Despite being mentally prepared for it, he was still greatly surprised by the harsh realities he encountered there. Upon taking office, Mizhou was suffering from a severe drought. To make matters worse, locusts emerged during this drought period making both disasters extremely dire. Su Shi took it upon himself to lead by example and personally went into the fields to combat the locusts while also petitioning the imperial court for tax relief. Gradually, he managed to rescue local residents from their dire circumstances.
Just as the disaster problem was resolved, the flames of war ignited again in the northwest border. Upon hearing this news, Su Shi's patriotic heart surged, and he quickly organized a hunting activity, hoping to also rush to the front lines with a bent bow to slay enemies.
At the same time, he wrote a famous lyric titled "Hunting Outside Mizhou - to the tune of Jiangchengzi".
Hunting Outside Mizhou-to the tune of Jiangchengzi
This old boy's truly young at heart and mind. My left hand's led by a retriever, a falcon on my right. In coats of fur and hats of brocade we ride. Thousands of hoofbeats swept the hills in sight. I’d shoot a tiger like Sun Quan the heroic archer, to treat the whole town following to the site.
My old heart becomes fearless again, fired with wine. What does it matter if frost covers my temples high. When would Feng Tang be sent with the tally to save this governor who’s ready to fight? Like the full moon I’d pull the bow round and tight. Northwest I aim, I’d shoot the Sirius right!
Traditional lyrics had narrow subject matter choices, but Su Shi expanded its scope by introducing grand hunting scenes into lyrics for the first time. This bold and spirited lyric is considered as pioneering work of free-spirited style.
After successfully managing disasters in Mizhou, Su Shi also repaired an abandoned platform north of the city. In springtime of next year after completion of Chao Ran Tai renovations, Su Shi climbed onto highest point to appreciate beautiful scenery of Mizhou leaving behind another classic lyric "When the Spring is not yet old".
"Why am I nostalgic when surrounded by old friends? Let's make a fresh fire raising the new tea for a toast. How fine to spend our best years on wine and poems."
This lyric serves both as scenic description and emotional expression illustrating pursuit for idealistic moments during one's prime years.
In 1076 AD during Mid-Autumn Festival night, Su Shi along with several friends and literati gathered at Chao Ran Tai to drink wine and compose poetry. In that night where poetry and wine accompanied each other under the brilliant moonlight, Su Shi wrote a poem titled "When was the moon ever so bright? - to the tune of Shui Diao Ge Tou" which remains popular till present day. This poem is considered as one of the finest examples of Mid-Autumn Festival poems; early Southern Song literary critic Hu Zai once commented," After Su Shi's Shui Diao Ge Tou was published, all other Mid-Autumn Festival poems became obsolete."
This "Shui Diao Ge Tou" fully captures joys and sorrows of human existence while also depicting the vicissitudes of life itself. The waxing and waning of the moon cannot be prevented from returning to its fullness; likewise Su Shi's footsteps in officialdom could not come to a halt as he soon faced a major turning point in his life.
In 1079 AD, the Crow Terrace Poetry Trial erupted with imperial censor He Zhengchen among others presenting accusations against Su Shi. New Party members seized upon words expressing dissatisfaction towards reforms as evidence.They accused Su Shi of deceiving the court and harboring malicious intentions.
Subsequently, these individuals began scrutinizing Su Shi's collection of poems, selecting lines that subtly mocked new policies. In no time, Su Shi became a target for condemnation within the court. After being escorted to the capital city, he was imprisoned in a dungeon at Yushi Tai (the Imperial Censorate). Officials at Yushi Tai employed various methods to interrogate him, subjecting him to relentless verbal abuse throughout sleepless nights.
Su Shi endured both physical and mental torment. Precisely during this critical period, Su Shi's close friends such as Zhang Dun fervently pleaded on his behalf before the Emperor. After spending over three months in prison, Su Shi finally received judgment from court: he would be exiled to Huangzhou (present-day Huanggang, Hubei) as a deputy military instructor.
Once upon a time, whether in the political or literary circles, Su Shi was a highly acclaimed star. Now reduced to being an exiled official in a remote area, even losing his personal freedom, his life suddenly became quiet. It is precisely this kind of life that made Su Shi begin to reflect on himself, and his thoughts became more mature, elevating his state of being.
After experiencing the turbulent political storms that almost brought him to the brink of death, Su Shi increasingly enjoyed this simple and genuine life. No matter how unpredictable fate may be, Su Shi can accept it with delight.
In this state of mind, he wrote another famous poem with great popularity called "Barely, I hear the rains - to the tune “Pacify the Turmoil”. Su Shi transformed from the talented scholar into the philosopher as we know him today. Of course, besides caring about national affairs, Su Shi also had a fondness for local delicacies. In an era where gentlemen kept their distance from kitchen matters, Su Shi not only loved eating but also excelled in culinary arts.
In addition to Su Shi's story, "Eminent Figures Through the Ages" Season 3 also tells stories about Li Qingzhao, Ouyang Xiu, and others. Each episode lasts less than 30 minutes and leads viewers through time and space in search of traces left by these historical figures in concise yet powerful presentations.
It is worth mentioning that this documentary series was shot entirely in 4K resolution and incorporates various forms such as reenactments scenes, hand-drawn animations, and three-dimensional effects. With such dedicated production efforts, today's audience has the opportunity to observe the lives of these cultural icons as well as their influence on China and the world.
China possesses an ancient and splendid civilization, and historical cultural figures are as numerous as the hairs on a cow. However, as time passes, many individuals worth remembering have gradually been forgotten, and many significant historical stories worth commemorating are no longer mentioned. Through cultural documentaries like "Eminent Figures Through the Ages", not only can audiences understand major events in history but they can also enter into the inner world of these famous personalities to experience their vivid and authentic emotions.
As the chief director of this documentary series, Hai Jinxing said: "The positioning of our filming is not just biographies of individuals but rather leading viewers into the hearts of the protagonists, presenting them as ordinary people while interpreting their emotions and inner worlds." If you are also an audience member interested in traditional Chinese culture and passionate about studying history, I believe this conscientiously produced masterpiece will not disappoint you.