The Longest Day in Chang'An
[Image: longest-day-chang-an.jpg]

This is a Chinese television show that was filmed from November 2017 through June 2018. It is based on a novel by the same name by Ma Beyong, considered one of China's best modern novelist. His science fiction book The City of Silence was translated into English by Ken Liu. I haven't read either book.

The Longest Day in Chang'An is a historical novel / TV drama but it should appeal to anyone who likes Steampunk. The TV show makes clever use of historical Chinese technology to create a realistic depiction of an ancient city that accomplishes many of the same things you'd expect in a modern city. There is near-instant communications across a large city, aerial surveillance, and lots of tiny little things that just make you sit up and say, "cool" or even "wow".

I don't know enough about Chinese history, culture, or technological history to even begin to identify anachronisms but the execution of the details in this production is amazing.

According to everyone's favorite sources of indisputable facts, Wikipedia, they spent 7 months building the set so they could film realistic city street scenes - and there are MANY of those.

Chang'An was a real city, rebuilt several times over, and the modern city of Xian is its most recent successor. People have lived in the region for over 8,000 years. It was a prominent city during the Zhou dynasty (lasting approximately from 1046 BCE to 256 BCE).

This story takes place in a much later era, set during the Tang Dynasty (618 CE - 907 CE). The novel dramatizes a real historical event but it's my understanding only a very small number of characters in the story are based on real historical figures.

For reasons the audience are not sure of, the historical character names were slightly changed for the TV show. Some people speculate that might have been done to avoid critical response from the current government, which has a protective attitude towards China's history and culture. So the inference makes sense but I don't believe there has been any official explanation for the name changes. It's probably an insignificant point to anyone who doesn't speak Chinese or who doesn't know who these historical figures are.

Another interesting point is that the actors all apparently spoke in the ancient dialect. I don't know if that is the dialect the characters used in the book but some Chinese speakers said they needed to read subtitles to understand some of the dialog. I am impressed with this point because it's similar to listening to Shakespeare in the original Klingon (more or less) for anyone in the audience. NOTE: This point about the dialect was made by a Chinese/English reviewer and experts in the languages may dispute it. My comments assume the reviewer was correct.

There are 42 episodes in the show. As I write this I've only seen 29 or so. Hence, I don't know how the story ends.

It was available on Netflix (with English subtitles) and may still be. I have been watching it on Amazon Prime. The subtitles were probably written by someone who speaks Chinese better than they speak English, so even though some of the grammar is incorrect you feel like you really understand what the characters are saying. At least, I do. I keep forgetting to turn on English subtitles when I launch the viewer and have to back up each episode to start over, because I expect to understand the characters when they start speaking. It's a weird experience but a positive one in my opinion.


Chang'An is the capital of the Tang Dynasty's empire. The empire has been fighting a series of wars with tribes on its borders. There may have been an uprising at one point. It's not clear to me. Some of the episodes explain certain historical points via flashback scenes so the wars are important to the plot and character development.

The emperor has recently taken a new young wife and is secretly planning to retire, handing control of the empire over to one of his advisors. The imperial court is a hotbed of intrigue and factions, some of whom play prominent roles in the early part of the story. I don't know if they all come in but one of them shows up in the middle episodes.

Think of Frank Herbert's Dune and you'll have a very clear idea of just how intricate and complicated the court intrigues are. The audience can never be sure of who is the "good" guy and who is the "bad" guy.

The main factions are:
  • The Crown Prince Li Yu (mistakenly game Yong before - he is a different prince)
  • The Right Counsellor, Lin Jiu Lang (In my original post I mistook Li Xiang Xiang, the name of a courtesan, for the Right Councellor)
  • The Left Counsellor
  • other court groups
  • Wolven Squad (a barbarian tribe)
  • The "terrorists" (based on historical central Asians)
The greatest rivalry is between the Crown Prince and the Right Counsellor. The Crown Prince is a reformist. The Right Counsellor is ambitious. Both men have scenes where they speak their thoughts for the audience's benefit. It's easy to form an impression that one is good and the other is not, but then you find yourself doubting their motivations along the way.

The Right Counsellor is an older man and very powerful. The Crown Prince is still very young but he has survived one or more purges (by his capricious father, the Emperor) of the imperial sons. He also has a growing number of followers among other high-ranking officers of the court.

There is a fair amount of double-dealing in the lower ranks. People are ambitious, often corrupt, and not above switching sides if they see advantages for themselves or their descendants in supporting one faction over the other.

In the historical context, the Tang Dynasty moved to help the Persian Crown Prince recover his kingdom after it was invaded by the Muslim Arab armies that were conquering large swathes of the world at the time. They failed and were driven back east, ceding central Asia to Islam.

Some of the commentators on the show say the terrorists are Turks. One Chinese history student says he doesn't think they are Turks. Either way, the Tang empire apparently tried to intervene in someone's war and failed - or they were asked to intervene and declined. The terrorists and the Wolven Square are remnants of tribes or kingdoms that were overrun, and their survivors fled to the Tang empire for protection.

Li Bi (also called Chang Yuan) is a young court officer - a member of well-respected noble family - who has been a close friend with the Crown Prince since childhood. Yao Runeng is a slightly older court officer - also of high blood, but from a disgraced family - who grew up with the Crown Prince and Li Bi. To maintain order in the capital - which is guarded by at least 3 armies that have to be kept separated to prevent them from clashing over minor incidents (to "claim merits"), the Emperor asks the Crown Prince to establish a police force, identified in the translations as Peacekeeper Corps.

Li Bi is chosen to head the Peacekeeper Corps because he is perceived to be relatively independent of the factions even though everyone knows he grew up with the Crown Prince. This dichotomy in respect and suspicion is explained in a flashback scene in the middle of the story. It's not that everyone actually trusts him to be completely impartial - it's complicated.

Even so, Li Bi does his best to execute his duties faithfully on behalf of the Emperor. If he has a flaw it is that he believes his job is to protect the people of Chang'An, so he is kind of naïve and receives a few lectures and eye-opening revelations throughout the story. Li Bi's awakening to the corruption that surrounds him is an amazing sub-plot on its own.

Peacekeeper Corps is responsible for guarding the Imperial Database. This is an archive of written records that contains everything. Xu Bin is the lead scholar who helps Li Bi by researching the database for clues to people's backgrounds. Peacekeeper Corps thus solves criminal cases very much as a modern police force would. The Peacekeeper Corps mans watchtowers throughout the city that pass along encoded signals to each other, so the entire Corps can be alerted to an emergency within minutes. This system of communication is critical to the early part of the story. It helps the audience understand how so many things can be happening at one time.

Also, Chang'An did have about 1 million people at the time this story was set. So the city's depiction as an immense metropolis in the show is completely realistic. Whether they had a police force like this, I don't know.

Lei Jiayin stars as Zhang Xiaojing (spelled Zhang Xiau Jing in my subtitles). The English spelling doesn't do the character's name justice, especially given how they are saying it in dialect. I don't know how much that differs from modern Chinese.

Zhang was a soldier on the border whose unit - Eighth Squad - was left to die under a wave of barbarian attacks by a corrupt provincial administrator. By the time relief forces were ordered by a higher-ranking general, only 9 men were left. Several of Zhang's friends from that time have important roles in the story, but as one would expect most of them don't go on to live happy lives. I don't know how the novel depicts them but they all appear to suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

After retiring from the army Zhang moves to Chang'An and becomes an office in the Sleuth-hounds. This is a shadowy government police force that infiltrates the underworld with spies and keeps order in the streets. So these are the "beat cops" and the "undercover cops". Zhang teaches his men wisdom and protects them like a mother hen. They become an effective force under his leadership and they are totally loyal to him.

Unfortunately, the administrator in charge of the Sleuth-hounds is corrupt. He participates in a plot with the Blaze Gang to drive local merchants out of their homes. When one of Zhang's friends is killed by the criminals he kills 34 members of the gang, earning the name King of Hell, and then he kills the corrupt administrator who prevented the Sleuth-hounds from protecting the merchants.

This story is revealed to have some twists during the various episodes and since I haven't finished watching all of them I don't know if it will change even more.

Zhang's friend is Wen Wu Ji, who was Captain of Eighth Squad and basically the only reason why any of them survived the battle on the border. So as amazing as Zhang proves to be during the course of the show, you have to wonder what kind of soldier Wen was at the height of HIS career. They only show you bits and pieces of their past relationship but the bond between the characters is strong.

Zhang swears to protect Wen's daughter, Wen Ran (played by Wang Harun). He is imprisoned and sentenced to die because he betrayed his commanding officer and murdered him. There is no appeal from this sentence.

Even so, when Wolven Squad infiltrates Chang'An, Li Bi (Jackson Yee) is persuaded by Xu Bin to parole Zhang for one day so that he can help track down Wolven Squad. Now, Li Bi has already sent others to do this. They didn't do so well.

One weak point in the show (in my opinion) is that all the soldiers guarding the capital city suck at their jobs. That may be because they lack real military experience. But the occasional real soldiers who show up are either criminals or so worn down by their experiences they are not very good at their jobs any more.

Peacekeeper Corps is guarded by the Royal Escort. These are ostensibly very good soldiers, especially since there aren't nearly as many of them as there are of the other forces (Golden Army, Right Cavalries, and Left Cavalries). The chief office of the Royal Escort has been killed by the Wolven Squad in battle and his brother, Cui Qi (Cai Lu), is absolutely devastated by the loss. Cui Qi is the only remaining captain of the Royal Escort and even though he offers to resign in atonement for his failure Li Bi needs him and keeps him on staff.

It is at this point that Li Bi makes the fateful decision to recruit Zhang. He sends Cui Qi and his (Li Bi's) personal slave, Tan Qi (Reyizha Alimjan) to parole Zhang and bring him to Peacekeeper Corps. They promise Zhang that if he helps Peacekeeper Corps his life will be spared.

All Is Not As It Seems

I hesitate to divulge more of the plot. Wolven Squad is not the main villain in this story. There are many villains, each with their own agendas. Zhang and Li Bi have to learn to trust each other (and that relationship takes a few interesting twists and turns).

As evidence of the seriousness of the threat mounts, the various court factions do their best to bury the truth. No one wants to let the real reasons for the attack on the city to surface because when that happens - they all assume - the balance of power will shift quickly and none of them are really sure how that will turn out.

Various generals and their sub-officers are gradually drawn into the plots, or they were already involved and the audience didn't know that before they start maneuvering around the facts and lies in the case.

The Emperor has so far remained off stage but I gather from the credits that he'll show up eventually. This is very much like watching a half-dozen Darth Vaders running around the stage reminding people that "the Emperor is not as forgiving as I".

No one wants to offend the Emperor even though he appears to only care about his impending retirement.

The story takes place during the Lantern Festival, an annual event (perhaps associated with the Chinese New Year - I haven't quite figured out the date yet) that draws everyone to the capital.

The show does an amazing job of portraying the city as it prepares for and celebrates the festival. There is a (so far) minor character working for Peacekeeper Corps who keeps the time. He works a 24-hour shift and his job is to watch water drip on a clock and count out the half-hours. Clearly there are others who are tasked to do this. These are eminent scholars who cannot eat, sleep, or relieve themselves for 24 hours while they watch the clock. You might think this is a very demeaning role and kind of stupid, but it's an intricate part of the story and I feel some sympathy for the guy (you get to learn a little bit about him, in an amusing way).

To give this show one more comparison with western movies, it reminds me a lot of the crazy antics from many 1940s comedy movies - or even The Radioland Murders, which paid homage to those older movies. The Longest Day in Chang'An is a complete drama, not a comedy, but there is humor. As you follow Zhang through the day you learn more about his life and character, and how even his enemies fear and respect him.

I should also mention that Djimon Hounsou appears in at least 2 episodes as Master Ge (although his lines are dubbed by Chen Jianbin). Master Ge is the leader of Chang'An's underworld, and even he fears the King of Hell. They deal with each other carefully because both knows just how dangerous the other really is.

As I am up to around episode 30 the nature of the threat to Chang'An - once clearly explained by the characters - is not so clear any more. There are more red herrings in this story than fish in the sea. But you can't be sure a red herring is a red herring. It could be that the characters are making bad guesses because they've had to change their minds about a few things along the way.

The acting is - in my opinion - superb. And I've left out so many details because mentioning them would spoil plot points. I don't feel like they are dragging out the story at all. It's a virtual page-turner and it has earned rave reviews from western and Chinese reviewers.

Add my ravings to the reviews. I think this is an amazing story it's the kind of tale that is sadly missing from American TV. I know Game of Thrones was immensely popular but I didn't watch it and have no opinion on it. But even if these shows are comparable in quality, GOT was only 1 show.
I want to add a point about the "squads". I don't know what Chinese word is being translated into English "squad". These groups/units are not squads in the western sense. They are either full companies or battalion-strength units. I don't know how historically accurate they are.

So when you learn more about Wolven Squad and Eighth Squad, you'll quickly see they have a lot of soldiers - not the usual 8-12 that compose a modern squad in many armies.

Another point that confused me for a while. There are mercenaries who sell their services both inside and outside Chang'An. Sometimes the subtitles call them mercenaries sometimes the subtitles call them "Privates" (as in "private soldiers", not referring to ranks). The mercenaries (like so many other groups in the story) have a code that is woven into the plot.

Maybe a quarter of the conflicts between characters arise more from jurisdictional and contractual limits and obligations, even if they're not all legal. Everyone in this show is carefully moving within unseen boundaries (except Zhang - he really doesn't care about rules).
I have now watched the show all the way to its end. "Wow" is such an underwhelming response.

The Longest Day in Chang'An has all the plot twists and double-dealings of a James Bond movie and the other influences I mentioned above. Although I occasionally wondered if the true mastermind behind the plot was someone I had questioned early on in the story, I kind of let that thread go.

This is a morality play and so it might appeal to a lot of Star Trek fans. Might not because of its length (48 episodes on final count).

It will definitely break your heart. There is a lot of violence in the show but it's not gratuitous - not in the way that American shows can be. Everything happens for a multitude of purposes.

One of the fascinating elements of the show is how the various characters pursue their own agendas, sometimes making good decisions and often making bad ones. I found myself rooting for characters I didn't think were worth caring about when they were first introduced.

There are a lot of confusing relationships but it's all cleared up by the end. Most of the revelations take place in the last episode as one might expect, but this wouldn't be classic Chinese drama without characters stopping the action to share their thoughts and "explain" the situation as it is unfolding.

The show does a very good job of sticking to the "one day" format, but some time passes at the end as they wrap up loose ends.

I don't see any real hint of a sequel but you could say they left the possibility dangling.
Wow. Now I feel I have to look out for either the novel or the series. I just finished "The Three Body Problem", a hard science fiction novel by a Chinese author, Cixin Liu. It's really good. The Chinese are acquiring a taste for good science fiction.

Cixin Liu is sometimes known as Ken Liu. As an Asian myself, I feel a little sad that Asian authors feel it necessary to adopt a Western name to penetrate Western audiences.
"A Iluvatarinya! En na pelecco carinyesse!"
"Oh my God! There's an axe in my head!" :worry:
I have tried to watch a few other Chinese shows over the past month. None of them held my interest like this one did. This series is exceptional but it seems a lot of productions are coming out of China. Hopefully I'll find a few more to fall in love with.
I've been watching the show again over the past few days. It's even better the second time around. I'm catching things I didn't catch before. Now that I know how the story unfolds I understand a lot of things that confused me the first time through.

I also found a few videos on YouTube where a native Chinese viewer watched the show and shared her thoughts at several points during the season. She knows far more about Chinese history than I do and she noted that all the women wear anachronistic costumes.

While she did have a lot of positive things to say about the show she eventually concluded that it wasn't really for her, in part because she is so familiar with concepts that people living outside China don't really understand.

She lauded the production values and said that The Longest Day in Chang'An may spoil people who haven't developed a taste for Chinese drama, because each episode of this show was filmed like a big budget movie. You do notice the difference immediately when you try to watch other Chinese dramas.

One should not judge the genre by this show. But I don't think people should put off watching this show for fear it will ruin their enjoyment of less expensive productions.

MYCode Guide

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