Recently, the historical biography cdrama "Ding Bao Zhen" concluded its airing. As a rare genre on the screen in recent years, "Ding Bao Zhen" has garnered attention from viewers since its premiere. Although historical biography dramas do not have the advantage in online popularity and topicality, viewers have a strong demand for dramas depicting upright officials. Especially for dramas like "Ding Bao Zhen," which solidly portrays the protagonist's life experiences, focuses on significant political governance, and delves deep into events affecting people's livelihoods.
01 The pristine style of the drama Ding Bao Zhen
After watching all 27 episodes, the greatest impression that "Ding Bao Zhen" leaves is its simplicity. It does not casually incorporate other elements in pursuit of novelty and internet aesthetics, but rather adheres to the most genuine mindset of a biography drama, closely following the protagonist.
In terms of time, the drama focuses on the life trajectory of the protagonist Ding Bao Zhen (played by Ma Shaohua) from middle age to old age. The story begins with his appointment as the governor of Shandong and continues until his final term as the governor of Sichuan, spanning nearly twenty years.
The plot of the series unfolds in a sequential manner, narrating key events one after another, akin to threading beads on a golden thread. It depicts his efforts to eliminate the eunuch Ande Hai (played by Yu Ze), manage the Yellow River flood, combat corruption, establish the Shandong Machinery Bureau, reform salt administration in Sichuan, rectify local governance, repair the Dujiangyan irrigation system, and establish the Sichuan Machinery Bureau.
Each of these events portrayed is a significant matter concerning the well-being of the people, and Ding Bao Zhen must swim against the tide and navigate through various forces. "Ding Bao Zhen" adopts a unit-like structure, unfolding in distinct segments, and is filmed with clarity and coherence.
In terms of space, "Ding Bao Zhen" follows the protagonist's reassignments, showcasing the officialdom, local customs, and folk traditions of various regions. In Shandong, he confronts corruption, trains a navy, and addresses the Yellow River's flooding issues, due to the geographical landscape of Shandong being surrounded by the sea on three sides and the Yellow River passing through the province, as well as the prevalent misconduct of officials in the province. Then Ding Bao Zhen receives orders to go to Beijing and awaits a new appointment.
The series also takes the opportunity to showcase the officialdom culture in the capital, meticulously depicting the delicate maneuverings between the Prince Gong (played by Wang Haidi) and the Empress Dowager (played by Ma Rui), as well as the formidable influence of the high-ranking official En Cheng (played by Hou Tianlai) in Beijing.
When Ding Bao Zhen assumes the position of the governor of Sichuan, he must first balance the power of the Chengdu General, suppress the mountain bandits, and then focus on water conservancy projects and the establishment of machinery bureaus. These events are closely related to the stationed generals' governance system in Sichuan, the region's abundant mountains and rivers, and the challenges posed by the difficult Sichuan roads.
In the drama, Ding Bao Zhen admonishes his student Qiao Songru (played by Qi Hang) by saying, "Do not underestimate the importance of a single official; the fate of a locality relies on a single official." This is one of his guiding principles in his official career. "Ding Bao Zhen" faithfully portrays his dedication to practical matters, his concern for the people, and his ability to adapt to local conditions and benefit the community wherever he goes.
It is worth mentioning that the creators cleverly integrate Ding Bao Zhen's culinary skills and his reassignments along geographical routes. As he hails from Guizhou, Ding Bao Zhen originally loved to cook authentic spicy diced chicken. When he serves as an official in Shandong, he accidentally replaces Guizhou chili sauce with Shandong soybean paste, creating a dish called "chicken with yellow soybean paste." Then, in Sichuan, he adds even more spice to the dish, inventing a new culinary creation called "Kung Pao chicken."
The uniqueness of local cuisine is often intertwined with the characteristics of the region. Ding Bao Zhen's ability to develop new dishes using local ingredients wherever he serves is based on his deep understanding of the local customs and culture.
Of course, there is no precise historical record of when Ding Bao Zhen invented and popularized Kung Pao chicken. "Ding Bao Zhen" adheres to the principle of not being bound by minor details, blending this anecdote with Ding Bao Zhen's career as an official, and providing assistance in portraying a multi-dimensional image of an upright official.
02 Upright Official in Ding Bao Zhen
"Ding Bao Zhen" is a quintessential drama about an upright official. What do viewers want to see when they watch a drama about an upright official? At its most basic level, they want to witness the emotions and values of a just official who prioritizes the well-being of the people and pleads their cases. It requires the presence of basic human emotions and desires, as well as the spiral ascent of worldly wisdom while maintaining a sense of innocence.
It also necessitates a driving force that compels the official to act even when faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges. Such an upright official convinces people that he can rise above the mire of the bureaucratic world, navigate multiple obstacles, and achieve tangible results.
In shaping the protagonist of "Ding Bao Zhen," the creators have particularly emphasized depth and complexity. Ding Bao Zhen adheres to the fundamental principle of "serving the people and the country." Recognizing that the welfare of the people is paramount, he is willing to take risks and assume responsibility for implementing policies that benefit the people, even if it means risking his position.
For instance, during his tenure as the governor of Shandong, he dared to use his own resources to start repairing the embankments for flood control, even when the funds allocated by the court had not arrived. He also risked going against imperial orders by executing the corrupt eunuch An Dehai, who had been causing harm to the court.
However, his approach of serving the people and fulfilling his official duties did not arise out of thin air. It can be traced back to the ancestral teachings passed down through three generations of the Ding family who served as officials. In Ding Bao Zhen's own practice, he believed that this was the only way to maintain a clean and virtuous territory amidst the extreme corruption and rampant bribery of the late Qing dynasty officialdom. In order to serve the people, he also had to contend with corrupt officials, mediocre officials, and incompetent officials, requiring both moral principles and strategic means.
When faced with someone who could be reasoned with, he would speak frankly. For example, when investigating the accounts of the flood control project in Shandong, the provincial governor Wen Bin (played by Guan Jiahui) advocated for a lenient approach, fearing that excessive scrutiny could cause a chain reaction and disrupt the stability. Ding Bao Zhen, on the other hand, responded passionately, "Is this compromising approach truly suitable for the officialdom? Is a lifelong career in the bureaucracy solely for the sake of self-preservation and personal advancement? What about the people? What about the country?"
In the face of En Cheng, a corrupt official seeking to win him over and save An Dehai's life, Ding Bao Zhen employed the tactic of feigned agreement and deliberate delay. On one hand, he made excuses about attending to the needs of the victims' families, while on the other hand, he subtly hinted at being swayed by the offer. In the end, he used magic to defeat magic, leaving En Cheng empty-handed.
At the same time, an upright official cannot simply be virtuous and serve the people; they must also possess the ability to govern and have a long-term vision. In shaping the protagonist of Ding Bao Zhen, nearly a quarter of the narrative is dedicated to showcasing his competence in promoting modernization.
In both Shandong and Sichuan, he established machinery bureaus in challenging circumstances where resources were scarce. He not only manufactured ammunition and firearms but also improved upon and surpassed foreign-made weapons, ensuring that he was not dependent on others for technology and talent. It is through this far-sighted vision that subsequent episodes of the drama depict the firearms produced by the Shandong Machinery Bureau outperforming those of Germany, as well as Ding Bao Zhen's further promotion of modernization during his tenure in Sichuan.
Finally, in family life, Ding Bao Zhen is also a vibrant individual. As an honest official with a clear family style, he embodies the principles of integrity and a harmonious family atmosphere. Although there are not many scenes depicting family life in "Ding Bao Zhen", they are all strategically placed. It portrays Ding Bao Zhen and his wife standing by each other through thick and thin, imparting wisdom and guidance to their eldest son Ding Ti Chang (played by Zhang Ruicheng), treating their subordinates as their own, showing care and concern, and cherishing moments of gathering with family while rejecting socialize.
This practice of depicting historical figures in everyday life is also a reflection of Ding Bao Zhen's belief that "one should not deceive the people, as one is also a commoner".
03 Only Biographical Drama in 2023
In "Ding Bao Zhen", the camera focuses closely on the protagonist without distracting subplots or exaggerated action scenes, which sets high demands for the actor playing Ding Bao Zhen. Ma Shaohua, being a native of Guizhou like the historical figure Ding Bao Zhen, has a deep emotional connection to this well-known character in the region. Before this, Ma Shaohua had played mostly common people and revolutionary heroes in his previous roles, including some historical dramas. However, "Ding Bao Zhen" is the first historical biography drama in which he has such a significant role.
Due to the genre of historical drama and the existence of a real-life prototype, the character of Ding Bao Zhen does not have much room for interpretation. However, Ma Shaohua grasps several emotionally intense segments and portrays the character with abundant emotional tension, allowing the audience to connect with him.
For instance, the scene where Ding Bao Zhen is sent off by the elderly folks from Shandong when he is assigned to Sichuan represents a highly emotional moment. Ma Shaohua portrays the pain of being separated from loved ones with the line "I feel a mix of emotions and tears when parting with old friends".
Ding Bao Zhen is a selfless public servant who does not seek personal gain. He believes that his actions are simply his duty as a public servant. Therefore, when he sees the elderly folks personally seeing him off and presenting him with a piece of his hometown, he feels a sense of guilt and is motivated by this gesture. Ma Shaohua externalizes this emotion through tearful release, which resonates with Ding Bao Zhen's recent return from the capital and his mixed feelings of promotion and demotion.
In another scene, when Ding Bao Zhen specially brings food to his colleague Wen Bin, who is wrongly accused, Ma Shaohua uses meaningful details to portray how Ding Bao Zhen conquers his colleague with integrity and personal charm.
From the lunch box, he takes out carefully prepared dishes to reassure Wen Bin that it is not a farewell meal. When Wen Bin confesses his regrets about his past deceitful actions and expresses remorse, Ma Shaohua deliberately pauses at certain points in his dialogue: "In the future... you have to think about... how to repay me." Until the last few words, both Wen Bin and the audience are kept in suspense. These well-placed pauses create tension and anticipation. Ma Shaohua's precise rhythm in delivering his lines speaks for itself.
Of course, in addition to the upright official Ding Bao Zhen, "Ding Bao Zhen" also portrays a rich array of late Qing Dynasty officials. Among them are cunning and scheming corrupt officials, insatiable and incompetent officials, and self-preserving mediocre officials. It is worth mentioning that "Ding Bao Zhen" also portrays some unique images of officials that were only found in the late Qing Dynasty bureaucracy, leaving a deep impression on the audience.
For example, there is Xu Jianyin (played by Yang Zhuomeng), a technical official entrusted by Empress Dowager Cixi to oversee the establishment of Shandong Machinery Bureau under Ding Bao Zhen. He is highly skilled and practical, yet simple-minded and straightforward in his thinking and actions. He stands in stark contrast to other late Qing conservative bureaucrats who are solely driven by fame and fortune, making him a rare breath of fresh air.
There is also Qiao Songru, a student who has a connection with Ding Bao Zhen, who portrays the struggles and eventual redemption of a scholar who enters the bureaucracy. Similar images of technical officials and young officials are not commonly seen in similar historical dramas, and "Ding Bao Zhen" introduces several refreshing character portrayals to the genre of historical biography drama.
In recent years, historical biographical dramas have been in a creative and broadcasting slump. "Ding Bao Zhen" is the only biographical drama that has aired this year. Its positive reception indicates that there is an audience base for this genre. As long as it truly portrays the individual within the context of history, even if it follows the simplest biographical drama approach, it can still touch people's hearts.