What ‘Chang An’ Gets Right — and Wrong — About China’s Greatest Dynasty
It may not star a secret agent, renegade archaeologist, or one of the world’s most famous toys, but “Chang An,” the latest film from Light Chaser Animation Studios, does have one thing going for it: the power of poetry.
In keeping with the country’s ongoing craze for traditional culture- and mythology-themed animated features, “Chang An” tells the story of two of China’s best-known poets: Gao Shi and Li Bai. Although the film was marketed at parents looking for a fun but educational flick to watch with their kids, good word of mouth has made it one of the summer’s biggest hits, with over 800 million yuan ($111 million) earned at the box office in two weeks of release and a sterling 8.2 score on ratings platform Douban. (The film’s rating has actually risen in the weeks since its premiere, an almost unheard-of development on the platform.)
The hero of “Chang An” is ostensibly Gao, who, in addition to his career as a poet, was also a leading general and bureaucrat in the Tang dynasty (618-907). The highlight of the film, however, is Li. Discriminated against for coming from a merchant family, he must find alternative — and usually riskier — means of entering the upper classes.
The very different personalities of these two men help drive the film, just as their poems provide both its structure and its best moments. Yet, for all his misgivings, Gao clearly admires the upstart Li, who embodies the glory and ultimate dissolution of the High Tang period (713-755), when the city of Chang’an — modern-day Xi’an in northwest China — was one of the world’s economic and cultural centers.
Light Chaser’s choice to set the film during the High Tang was a smart one. The era produced some of China’s greatest literary works, including many poems that all Chinese learn in school. More recently, the dynasty’s cosmopolitanism and relatively more relaxed attitudes toward women — or at least noblewomen — have fueled interest in the Tang as being ahead of its time.
It’s odd, then, that so many of the films and dramas to come out of the current wave of Tang nostalgia have gotten the dynasty wrong. Admittedly, their creators did not always have access to the latest scholarship or historical documents, but as a writer who has studied Tang history and culture for more than 20 years, I’ve sat through more bad Shakespearean dialogue, royals dressed as geishas, and anachronistic props than I care to recall.
So it was a relief to see that the creative team behind “Chang An” had clearly done their homework. The city gates, buildings, and weaponry in the film were all based on murals preserved in the Silk Road gateway of Dunhuang. The characters’ attire is likewise patterned off Tang tomb murals and unearthed pottery figurines from the era. Even the dialogue and lifestyles shown in the film broadly correspond to the historical record.
Of course, that’s not to say it’s a flawless recreation. The biggest shortcoming of the film is its unwillingness to engage with the full arc of the Tang, from prosperity to decline. The An Lushan Rebellion, which tore the dynasty apart and set the stage for its eventual collapse, is portrayed as an accident of history, with the result that Gao’s motivations and emotions can feel unconvincing. In reality, under the then-emperor, Xuanzong, the Tang’s political system did not adapt to social realities, and the gaudy life of singing and dancing enjoyed by nobles teetered over a mass of corruption that oppressed much of society. The rebellion, led by one of Xuanzong’s most trusted generals, quickly shattered this bubble, and the Tang would never fully recover. A hundred years later, it was gone.
The true legacy of the High Tang lies not only in its cultural diversity, but also in the tension between its overwhelming wealth and sudden decline. The poems of Li and Gao, which have transcended their era and resonate even today, gained much from their authors’ reflections on the rapidly collapsing world around them. Presenting that decline as merely incidental to their story prevents “Chang An” from fully portraying the complexity of the two men and their era, to say nothing of their poetry.
Perhaps the filmmakers didn’t want to dwell on such heavy material, instead preferring to praise the dreamier and more poetic qualities of the High Tang. It’s a good thing, then, that poets like Li make it hard to hide from the truth. The film’s climax is Li’s recitation of his classic poem “Bring the Wine.” As he reaches the line “Heaven made me, I must have purpose” the animation springs into a dreamscape: The Yellow River and the Milky Way meet at the horizon as Li and his friends ride cranes into the clouds and drink with immortals.
But this flight of fantasy ends almost as quickly as it begins, with a white-haired Li reading out the final words of the poem: “a thousand ages of worry.”
It’s a glorious moment — and one that marks “Chang An” as a worthy heir to the classics of Chinese animation.
Translator: Matt Turner; editor: Wu Haiyun.
(Header image: A promotional image for the film “Chang An.”From @电影长安三万里 on Weibo)