Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Li Hou Zhu yu Zhao Kuang Yin: the life of Li Yu the Poet

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What happens when your heart desires to do one thing, but your role gives you absolute responsibility to do another thing altogether? Could you accommodate your heart’s desire while at the same time fulfil your celestial duties? This is, I find, a hard question to answer. Naturally in many circumstances, we have to choose our duties, while at the same time stealing some precious moments for our heart’s passion, if we’re wise and lucky enough. But living the duties that are not your true nature is hard. Such was the situation with Li Yu, a born poet who was dragged to become the last king of the Southern Tang Dynasty, whose kingdom was annexed by the Song Dynasty in 976 AD.

I found out about Li Yu, a.k.a. Li Hou Zhu (literally ‘The Latter Lord Li’) when I watched a wuxia (traditional Chinese martial arts series/movie) last week. The title itself was in Mandarin, and almost put me off merely because of its length. The original title is Li Hou Zhu yu Zhao Kuang Yin’. I did not know what it meant; let alone thinking of the nature of the series. To tell you the truth, I originally watched it because I wanted to see another performance of Nicky Wu Qi Long, a talented Taiwanese actor & singer (plus black belt holder of Taekwondo), and because some reviews said that ‘Li Hou Zhu’ was a good TV series, I took the DVD set home. I did not regret it, despite my reduced sleeping hours.

This lengthy title of a lengthy series (40 episodes) actually means ‘Li Hou Zhu and Zhao Kuang Yin’, produced by CCTV-8 (China Central Television, channel 8 drama). The English title (at least for the Indonesian DVDs) is 'The Real Warrior'.

Li Hou Zhu, or Li Yu or Li Congjia, was the last Emperor of the Southern Tang (Nan Tang) Dynasty. Zhao Kuang Yin or Emperor Taizu was the first Emperor of the Song Dynasty who conquered Nan Tang in 976 AD. So, this story is about the last Emperor of Tang versus the first Song Emperor. But it is more than that. For the two rulers were tied into one by a woman: Princess Zhu Er Huang, the Empress and wife of Li Hou Zhu. And so the story goes.

The Story of Li Hou Zhu and Zhao Kuang Yin
I’m not sure about the historical accuracies of this series, for English information about Li Hou Zhu is very limited. Like many historical series are, there are dramatised facts in the series to attract more emotions from the spectators. It was true that Zhu Er Huang was Li Yu’s first wife, and she died a few years before Nan Tang was obliterated by the Song Dynasty. But, I do not know if Emperor Taizu truly had an unresolved passion towards Er Huang, which was the main red line in the 2006 CCTV series. Hence, this is my summary and review of the series.
They met as friends

In the Li Hou Zhu series, Zhao Kuang Yin (played well by Huang Wen Hao) was born into the family of a loyal minister in the Han Kingdom, but then as he disliked the conditions of his kingdom, he ran away and wandered around, using his martial arts to feed himself and help the poor. One day, as he tried to break into the warehouse of a minister to steal some staples for the poor, he met a naïve young boy who disagreed with his methods. That young boy was none other than Li Congjia or Li Yu, the 6th offspring of Li Jing, the then Tang Emperor. Li Yu ran away from the Palace because he disliked his brother the Crown Prince who loved to go to war and kill people in the name of expanding and prospering the country.

Anyway, persuaded by Li Yu, Zhao Kuang Yin agreed to ask the local minister nicely to distribute the rice and food for the people free of charge. Afterwards, Zhao and Li Yu became friends. They drank wine together, tell stories, and Li Yu even went further as to call his new friend ‘Zhao da-ge’ or Brother Zhao.

However, their friendship was cut short as some goons attacked them, under the order of the minister they had persuaded to open the rice warehouse. To protect himself and his young friend, Zhao killed all the goons (as a fighter, he was used to kill people to defend himself). Li Yu was appalled. He ran away from the Palace to avoid violence, and now his new friend killed some goons in front of him, despite to save their lives. So, when Zhao invited Li Yu to go with him, the latter refused. Li Yu returned to the Palace, and Zhao kept wandering around.

As the story goes, one day Zhao met a lovely dancing girl named Zhu Er Huang (played excellently by actress Liu Tao), who turned out to be the daughter of a minister of the Southern Tang Dynasty. Easy to guess, Zhao and Er Huang fell in love andthey wanted to get married and live together as man and wife. Not easy though, for Zhao was not a suitor in the eyes of Er Huang’s family. One day, as Zhao prepared for a date with Er Huang, he was attacked by the goons who had attacked him and Li Yu before. Shot and hurt, Zhao was forced to retreat and heal himself for a few months. Meanwhile, his girlfriend waited and waited… and finally was summoned to the Palace to be one of the ‘contestants’ to be selected as the 6th Prince’s wife.

Disliking the idea so much and still having Zhao’s images in her mind, Er Huang slipped out of the meeting room (where the ladies were supposed to display their arts and skills to impress the Prince) and then chose to play by the pond. Unexpectedly (hah!), she met a young boy who liked her carefree attitude and who can sing, play guzheng (traditional Chinese zither) well and sing together with her. She liked him, until she realised that he was Li Yu, the 6th Prince she should have impressed earlier. She retreated and grew cold, despite Li Yu’s apparent interest to her. Er Huang sticked with Zhao (who had been missing in action for a few months). However, as Zhao did not reveal himself, Er Huang was forced to accept Li Yu’s offer in the end.

Zhao did return though, the night before Er Huang was scheduled to go to the Palace. The two love birds cried and hugged…and Zhao begged her to go with him instead. Yet, Er Huang used her logics and fear instead. She is worried that her running away with Zhao will cause trouble to her family. Well, decapitation or head-chopping was very much a common practice back then, particularly when you are against the Emperor’s wish. Hence, I can understand Er Huang’s stance – she wanted to protect her family from destruction, though in retrospective, I don’t think that this Li Yu would let his father chop the head of his love interest, had Er Huang dare to refuse. But anyway, Er Huang left Zhao; she married Li Yu instead. Broken hearted, Zhao left Nan Tang and served the King of Zhu Dynasty instead (don’t confuse this Zhu with Er Huang’s family. Chinese names are often multiple used).

Years went by. Slowly but sure, Er Huang’s love towards her husband Li Yu grew. Li Yu was indeed a good and loyal husband, very romantic and fond of poetry and other forms of art. He also liked reading; he had a myriad of books in his possession. Soon, they had a son, and Er Huang seemed to have forgotten her love towards Zhao. Not.

For when Nan Tang heard of the fast moves of the Zhu Kingdom lead by at the general was a Zhao Kuang Yin, Er Huang’s mind started to play past memories with Zhao. Talking about attachments. Meanwhile, husband Li Yu was also surprised to learn that his once friend had become the Zhu General. Riding a horse together, husband and wife did not realise that they were thinking of the same person who would change the course of their life and country. Later, Zhao would overthrow the young Zhu Emperor from his throne and resume the reign as the first Emperor of the Song Dynasty. Very very impressive.

Understandably, the pretty Er Huang was tempted to play ‘what ifs’. Luckily, her loyal servant Qing Er always reminded her to be loyal to Li Yu, who had been very nice not only to Er Huang but also to others. Er Huang then realised that it was not fair to compare Li Yu to the fighter Zhao. A poet vs a fighter; like orange vs apple. When later she accidentally met Zhao in Jiang Nan (Nan Tang’s capital), she refused to see him instead. Good girl. Not for Zhao, for he could not understand why Er Huang refused to meet him, though he was now officially the Song Emperor, after finally overtaking the Zhu throne.
Li Yu’s plight and affairs

Around that time, Nan Tang experienced vast changes. Driven by suspicion and jealousy, Li Yu’s brother the Crown Prince had killed his uncle, inviting Emperor Li Jing’s wrath. The Crown Prince was stripped of his title; the title was given to Li Yu instead. Li Yu disliked the idea, for he really had no desire to be an Emperor. He kept supporting his brother, even though the brother was driven into madness and ‘started to see ghosts’. The former Crown Prince committed suicide in the end, driven by his remorse. Emperor Li Jing, Li Yu’s father, was later defeated by the Song army, and had to let go of the title. He was then referred to as Gou Zhu or ‘head of state’ instead of Huang Shang or Emperor. Later, Li Jing decided to give the reign to his poetry-addict son Li Yu. Li Jing died in 961, and Li Yu ascended the throne immediately, albeit half-heartedly.

Despite his aficionado towards poetry and arts, Li Yu actually tried to manage his country, at least in the series. Li Yu introduced a new currency, but the Song Kingdom twisted it so that the currency was a failure. Surrounded with spies and dishonest ministers and councillors, Li Yu was not wise enough to discriminate friends and traitors. He decapitated his most loyal general under the suspicion that the general was a Song spy. He regretted it though, particularly because he changed his mind in the last minutes, but was too late to stop the decapitation. Poor Li Yu, he should have mobile phones at that time… or better: a much wiser judgement. Li Yu’s kingdom also suffered from some other plots from the Song Kingdom. Nan Tang had to send gifts and money regularly to the Song Kingdom, but Taizu a.k.a. Zhao Kuang Yin still did not let his claws go. It really made me crazy sometimes; such a potentially good ruler like Zhao was dragged into greed because of his unattained love. True, Zhao tried to be fair to his people. He forbade his army of hurting the people of the newly annexed cities or kingdoms. He set some good systems in his kingdom. But he still had not let go of his broken hearted, and that was the main reason for his eagle eyes and claws to closely monitor Nan Tang.

During this time, Er Huang finally let go of her past. Queen Zhu dedicated her love to Li Yu, and gave him the second child. Li Hou Zhu was happy, despite the turmoils in his kingdom. That would not last long.

Driven by jealousy after learning of Li Yu’s second child, Emperor Taizu (Zhao Kuang Yin) sent some gifts to the Tang Queen. Still naïve, Li Yu thought that the gifts were a nice gesture from the Song Emperor. Among the gifts was a silk handkerchief that used to be Er Huang’s before she gave it to Zhao for keep sake. For fear that Li Yu found out about her past love with Zhao, the Queen hid the handkerchief. Yet, she later decided to tell Li Yu the truth. A wise decision done in the wrong time. She should have told him years ago before the gifts arrived. In addition, she told Li Yu her story with Zhao when Li Yu suffered another state management set back. Expectedly, Li Yu was upset and could not accept the fact that Er Huang had overcome her attachment with Zhao, and she merely told the story as a part of letting go and to attain his trust. Li Yu was very angry, and as the result started to drink with Yao Niang, his palace dancer who was also Er Huang’s friend, hence they did not commit any affairs. However, Li Yu also found another outlet. It was Zhu Jia Min, Er Huang’s little sister.

Li Yu met Jia Min years ago when she was still a little girl then. Jia Min liked Li Yu instantly and always thought of having a husband like her sister’s husband. When they met again, initially they did not know who was who. But all was done, and Li Yu hurt his loyal wife twice; by dating another woman, and that woman was Er Huang’s own sister. I wanted to slap him and Jia Min then, and still now. It was almost unforgivable, and I feel for Er Huang’s heartache.
Li Hou Zhu versus Taizu
The love triangle of Er Huang – Li Yu – Jia Min was solved when Er Huang and her second son fell terribly ill almost at the same time. Li Yu got a slap on his face; he should have taken care of his wife and sons instead of running away with an immature girl (true, the actress who played Jia Min played her so well, I always wanted to slap that ungrateful girl). Li Hou Zhu cried and tried to amend his mistakes. He left Jia Min and returned to his family, staying by the child day and night. It was too late though. The child died without Er Huang’s knowing it, for she was too ill to get out of bed. Li Yu wanted to reconcile with his wife, but he was too afraid to make moves.
Unexpectedly, help came from Zhao. Unable to suppress his desire anymore, he went incognito to a temple in Jiang Nan to see Er Huang. The Queen of Tang did come, but with only one mission: to appeal to the Song Emperor not to attack or manipulate Nan Tang any longer. Of course Zhao was terribly disappointed. All his efforts were useless; Zhu Er Huang still chose the weak King Li Yu over Emperor Taizu. Yet, Zhao still promised that he would not attack Jiang Nan. With that promise, Queen Zhu left after returning the handkerchief that had split her from her husband.
However, learning that his ill wife went to a temple for a prayer, Li Yu grew weary. Plus, his minister reported the presence of the Song Emperor in the city. Enraged, Li Yu went out with a sword to face Zhao. It was their second meeting after those youthful days when they drank wine, and the story had gone so far that they were now enemies. Both rulers launched accusations, all which were right and also wrong. Zhao accused Li Yu as an unfaithful lover who had caused Er Huang misery. Li Yu acknowledged it, but he also accused Zhao as the cold-blooded killer who used any justifications to absorb other kingdoms into his own. Replaying the wonderful scene, I could not help thinking how both rulers were potential good friends, and how they could achieve prosperity together, had it not because of Zhao’s attachment to his unattained love.

Despite his zilch ability in martial arts, Li Yu pulled out his sword (actually, his brother’s) and threatened Zhao. Zhao of course fought back and defeated Li Yu easily. Yet, the poet-king remained still. In a very well-played scene, Li Yu was not deterred by the sword on his neck. He stepped forward and said that he would rather die now at the hand of the Song Emperor. It was his pride, and he would do that rather than being manipulated into mistrusting his wife and forget their love. Zhao barked back that Li Yu never loved Er Huang; for if Li Yu loved her, he would still trust her despite all the gifts Zhao sent her, and he would not made an affair with Er Huang’s own sister. Adamantly, Li Yu shouted back that he was sorry and he loved and loved and loved Er Huang.

Their dispute was cut short when Queen Zhu ran towards them, separating them and – in a very touchy way – hugged her husband and cried. Zhao was shocked to see such a public display of affection. Zhu Er Huang truly had let go of her past love with him, and now chose the weak Li Yu instead. Li Yu also hugged his wife and declared his trust on her. Once again broken hearted, Emperor Taizu left the place. The love between Li Yu and Er Huang was restored.

Queen Zhu’s death and Li Yu’s set back

However, at that stage Er Huang’s sickness was already too advanced. She eventually learned of her son’s death. The news deteriorated her health tremendously. Yet, she still shared some moments with husband Li Yu. She also forgave Sister Jia Min and invited her back to the Palace. In a very well-played scene, the two Zhu sisters were walking around when Er Huang heard a faint melody from the Imperial music chamber.

The Queen entered the room to find Li Yu solemnly played guzheng with the melody he first played years ago when he met his wife for the first time. Touched, she directed her sister to sit next to Li Yu. Then, Er Huang took a pipa (pear-shaped lute) and played it accompanying her husband. It was her last performance, for she coughed blood and had to be taken back home by Li Yu. Zhu Er Huang died later the night after kissing her husband; asking him to live the life she could not live.

Hundred of miles away, Emperor Taizu was writing a letter when Er Huang’s handkerchief he set next to him was flown by the wind into the heavy rain. He chased the handkerchief… and instantly knew that Er Huang was no more.
Li Yu suffered a serious set back over Er Huang’s death. Despite his mother’s objection, he declared that from now on, husbands were allowed to take wives into their final resting place (beforehand, it was not a custom to do so!). He buried Er Huang in sorrow, and a piece of his heart ended that moment. In the background, actor Nicky Wu recited one of Li Yu’s true poems as he walked towards Er Huang’s grave (In fact, though the translator of the Indonesian DVDs did not translate many things, I bet that most of the poems cited in the series were Li Yu’s original poems).

For a few years, Li Yu lived alone with the memories of his wife. He trusted Jia Min to take care of his first son, but he did not maintain their relationship, despite their apparent love. Jia Min was then already a mature and responsible woman who treasured the memory of Queen Zhu. She and Li Yu still felt guilty to bring sufferings to Er Huang that eventually led to her death, hence understandably refrained from further commitments. Yet, when the Court asked Li Yu to choose another queen, Li Yu decided to take Jia Min as the second queen. Emperor Zhao was enraged, for he thought that Li Yu was such a heartless bastard who could forget his wife that soon. He demanded that Li Yu married one of the Song princesses instead. Concerned about his kingdom’s safety, Li Yu obeyed and left for the Song Kingdom to meet his new bride.
Actually, it was a trap. Zhao’s own brother, Taizong, was an evil bastard who always fancied Er Huang when he secretly saw her dating Li Yu. Taizong also hated Li Yu and planned to capture him, instead of marrying him with the Song princess. Taizong accommodated Li Yu in a house, but never allowed to leave. At the same time, the Song princess avoided the wedding by cutting her hair and became a nun. The only one knowing this was a Buddhist monk who used to be the Song spy, but later became Li Yu’s supporter. He asked Jia Min to help him pleading to the Song Emperor. Though initially was disgusted by what Jia Min and Li Yu did to Er Huang in the past, Zhao was also touched by Jia Min’s bravery. He finally let go of Jia Min. Li Yu, on the other hand, managed to free himself with some chemical tricks (there you go, those days of book-reading finally paid off!), and met Jia Min on the way. They got married later; Jia Min was then known as Empress Zhu the Lesser. Although already married, Li Yu and Jia Min treasured the memories of Zhu Er Huang in their heart. Er Huang was not only their first Queen. She was also Li Yu's first wife and Jia Min's sister. Er Huang would always live in their hearts.

Li Yu – Zhao’s third meeting and Tang’s defeat

Li Yu actually met Emperor Zhao once again secretly when Zhao was retreating to a mountain temple. He begged Zhao to leave Jiang Nan alone. Zhao, despite Li Yu’s humbleness, refused it blatantly. Suppressing his anger, Li Yu left his enemy and slept in the temple for the night. Unexpectedly, a woman who resembled Er Huang visited him that night. She was actually Lady Hua Rei, Zhao’s concubine who was also the former concubine of another king who was defeated by Zhao. Hua Rei was told to test Li Yu’s love towards Er Huang. She was touched to find out that Li Yu truly loved Er Huang, despite all the years that had gone by. Feeling unhappy with Song’s treatment towards her, Hua Rei then agreed to run away with Li Yu. A short adventure, for they were captured immediately. Hua Rei pleaded that she went with Li Yu with her own volition. Though jealous, Zhao had to admit that Li Yu’s love towards Er Huang was true; for Li Yu admitted that it was a mixture of longing towards Er Huang and the desire to make Hua Rei happy that made him snatched Lady Hua Rei. Grudgingly, Zhao let Li Yu go. Li Yu’s final free word was, ‘Love between Er Huang and I is sacred. You do not need to test it!’

Li Yu’s troubles did not stop there. Eventually, Emperor Zhao could not suppress his desire to annex Nan Tang. He invaded Nan Tang and trapped the inhabitants of Jiang Nan. Food shortage soon happened. To save his people, Li Yu ordered the Palace to distribute the imperial food stock. He also ordered the simplification of imperial menu and helped distributing the food himself. Here, I am proud of Li Yu. He had made mistakes, he was stupid in the past. But he amended himself and went to the grass root to protect his people. Jia Min also helped him, and with that, gained the trust of her people, including a lady-in-waiting that used to hate her for what she did in the past.

Southern Tang was eventually defeated in 975 AD. It was an impressive scene when Li Yu acknowledged his defeat and ordered his books to be burned. He set his servants free and planned to burn himself together with Jia Min. Only when his men beseeched him to live and take care of his people despite their defeat then he cancelled his plan. He surrendered to the Song army (who treated them with respect), packed his things, and set to sail to Bianjing, the capital of Song. On board, he effused his feelings and despair in a new poem, solemnly calligraphed on top of a beautiful painting.

Friends again… and their death

In Bianjing, Li Yu and his family were taken into house arrest. He had to face Zhao’s arrogance for Song’s victory. In an impressive scene, Zhao threatened to decapitate Li Yu while the desperate Li Yu continued pouring himself wine. Zhao then recited old vengeance, how Li Yu hurt Er Huang and essentially sent her to her grave. Li Yu riposted by saying that Zhao was a greedy emperor. Nan Tang had always been a pacifier, always sent gifts and tried to please Song. But those were never enough. Zhao always tried to find Li Yu’s mistakes and could not forget the past. Enraged by his words, Zhao slashed Li Yu’s crown and left him with dishevelled hair (that to me, was sexier than when Li Yu was with a crown). Li Yu bitterly laughed and kept drinking his wine.

Li Yu resumed his life in a much more simplified manner. He swept his own yard, despite Pei Houde (his most loyal servant)’s protest. He poured his feelings in his poems. He became the real poet he always longed to be. During this time, he produced his best poems. Li Yu and Jia Min lived a comparatively happier life, despite their house arrest. Jia Min also conversed with Emperor Zhao, and realised that Zhao truly loved Er Huang. Finally understood that Jia Min was a good girl who made mistakes in her past, Zhao saw her as his own sister. He gave her Er Huang’s handkerchief and promised to take care of her.

A few months after his defeat, one day Li Yu received an unexpected guest: Emperor Zhao himself. Gloomily, Zhao lamented how he had achieved the pinnacles of his career. His kingdom stretched everywhere, he had a lovely concubine that resembled Er Huang, but he was not happy. Li Yu, on the other hand, lost his kingdom, was stripped of his title, and was put into house arrest. But Li Yu could transform his sorrow into his poems. The last king of Tang also had both Er Huang and Jia Min that he both loved. Now then… who was happier: Zhao or Li Yu?

Li Yu: ‘Easier for you to say, you did not have to suffer the lost of a country.’
Zhao: ‘If I had Er Huang with me, I did not need any country.’
Li Yu: ‘Now that you’ve defeated Tang, your words are the truth. Nothing that I say matters now.’ 

Li Yu knew that Lady Hua Rei had just died; ironically shot by Taizong, Zhao’s own brother, who pretended to be drunk when he shot her (Taizong was truly a bastard who raped Hua Rei several times). Li Yu also knew that although the mighty Song Emperor was deteriorated by Hua Rei’s death, he could not punish his own brother. The former king of Tang sighed.

Li Yu: ‘You come here just for idle talk with me?’
Zhao: ‘I came here to give you this.’

Then Zhao gave his old enemy a scroll. Curious, Li Yu opened it to find the painting of Zhu Er Huang looking at him. Answering Li Yu’s unexpressed question, Zhao said that he had kept the painting for years as a reminder for his love to Er Huang. Now, Li Yu was the only one besides himself who could miss and love Er Huang sincerely. Hence, Li Yu was the only appropriate person to take care of the precious painting.

Li Yu subtly nodded and took the painting. He cast a faint smile as he asked, ‘Care for some wine?’

Emperor Zhao smirked not unhappily. ‘I’ve been standing here for a while, and you only just offered me wine now?’

Li Yu shrugged while maintaining his faint smile. He finally called Zhao ‘Brother’ again and drank with him for the second time since they first met. After more than ten years of war, they finally found common ground together; their friendship was restored.

Unexpectedly, a few months later in 976, Zhao Kuang Yin died mysteriously. The series showed strong suspicions that Zhao’s own brother was the culprit behind Zhao’s death. That brother would then be the second Song Emperor, Emperor Taizong.
Li Yu was sorry for Zhao Kuang Yin’s death. After all, after their understanding, Zhao never mistreated him and his family. Li Yu held a simple ceremony to honour Zhao. He lifted his wine cup and said, ‘Brother Zhao… I drink this wine for you.’ Then he poured the wine on the ground while composing another poem from the heart.

After Zhao Kuang Yin’s death, Li Yu’s life became more miserable. His second wife (Empress Zhu Jia Min the Lesser) was raped and taken as ‘the possession’ of Taizong, the second Song Emperor. Li Yu died alone as a broken hearted poet on 7 July 978 (his birthday), poisoned by Taizong for writing thinly veiled poems that lamented the destruction of his country and the rape of Empress Zhu ('How Can a Man Escape Life's Sorrow and Regrets?' and 'A Heavenly Woman's Imprisoned in the Palace' might be two of them). Li Yu was not a successful ruler at all. But he was a great poet who contributed significant works into the ancient Chinese literatures. He was, as the Indonesian translation goes, mis-born into the Tang Dynasty as their last Emperor, though his heart's desire was always arts and poetry.
Who was right and who was wrong?

No one in ‘Li Hou Zhu yu Zhao Kuang Yin’ was free of mistakes. Instead of being a strong king, Li Yu took more interest in love, poetry and arts. He even had an affair with his own sister-in-law. Zhu Er Huang was scared of her past affairs with Zhao, hence hid the story from her husband for a long time, until it was too late. Zhao could not let go of his passions to Er Huang, even after her blatantly telling him that she chose Li Yu over him. Zhao was also full of denial and justifications, he kept thinking that his way was holier than Li Yu’s, despite the bloodshed he had caused. Emperor Taizong, Zhao’s brother? Don’t even get me started. I hate that character. I also disliked Jia Min, though I admire her character development in the end. 

But one thing I admire from the main characters here: they amended themselves later. Er Huang stopped longing for Zhao. Li Yu realised that his affairs with Jia Min was a big mistake; he returned to his family and kingdom. Jia Min stopped being a spoiled brat and grew to be a better woman, in honour of her sister. Even Emperor Zhao regretted his revenge in the end and mended his friendship with Li Yu, now already his prisoner. Even the nasty lady-in-waiting stopped being nasty and served Queen Zhu Jia Min better, and the coward minister stayed with Li Yu until the end. The only guy who did not evolve into a better being was Zhao's brother who later became Emperor Taizong. He got nastier and nastier in the end.

I do not agree with Li Yu’s too pacified manners. I think when your country is invaded, you should defend her. Your country is your Motherland, anyway. But I understand that he placed his people’s safety over everything. He hated bloodshed. He regretted killing his general; I think it was the only killing he had done in the entire show. Li Yu chose to make peace with Zhao, though it caused him pride and his own kingdom. I do not concur, but at the same time, I understand that he was actually a poet by the heart who was forced to become the king, unwillingly. And what a poet can do under such a pressure? I understand why Li Yu chose what he chose, though I still wish that he fought back, that he strengthened his army instead of listening to traitors and killing his main general. I also wished that he protested when his wife was taken as Emperor Taizong’s possession, or at least they committed suicide together. That would be sweet. But perhaps as a poet, composing a protest poem was what a Li Yu could do, instead of doing what martial art fighters usually do. In a way, his protests last long, for we can still read his poems nowadays, even through the internet.

By the way, returning to the English title of this series: 'The Real Warrior'. Interesting title, for it triggers us to think which one is the real warrior: Zhao Kuang Yin or Li Yu? The first Song Emperor who unified China once more or the defeated King of Tang who chose to surrender for his people? Or... Er Huang, who despite everything, chose to be with her husband and stayed faithful till the end? Interesting to ponder.

Nicky Wu’s performance

‘Li Hou Zhu yu Zhao Kuang Yin’ was full of impressive actors and actresses. Though I did not like Ms. Liu Tao’s Zhao Er Huang at the first place, her character grew on me, and now I think her screen chemistry with Nicky’s Li Yu was impressive. Huang Wen Hao who played Zhao Kuang Yin delivered an excellent interpretation of the character, though I still longed for his carefree looks before he became the general. But the best performer in the CCTV series was Nicky Wu Qi Long.

I have always admired Nicky Wu since I saw him paired up with Vicky Zhao Wei in ‘Treasure Venture’ or ‘The Adventure of a Swordgirl’ (2000). Well, I love that series so much that I once wrote a long review in Becky Tai's Snowblue.net ('Pearls of Wisdom from the Swordgirl'). Though I like watching Nicky with Liu Tao as Li Yu and Er Huang (they had great screen chemistry), I still think that Nicky Wu (as Shui Ruo Han) and Vicky Zhao (as Lu Jian Ping) created the best screen chemistry for modern-days wuxia. Nicky also had some other performances that I love, e.g. his San Bo in Butterfly Lovers and as Xiao Shi Yi Lang in Treasure Raiders (a.k.a. The Eleventh Son). If directed well and paired up with good casts, Nicky could do wonders you did not expect him to do. He is particularly excellent in developing a character from one extreme to the other polarity. Though Nicky’s performance as Liang San Bo (San Pek) in Butterfly Lovers (1994) was memorable, to me his Shui Ruo Han (Treasure Venture) was one of his pinnacles, for he could peel down the characters of an aloof killer who transformed himself into a life-caring hero.
Now in 'Li Hou Zhu', Nicky once again presented me with the wonder of peeling down a character, from a young boy who hated war and afraid of women, to a shy lover, to a responsible emperor, and finally an exiled poet who did not hesitate to sweep his own garden. Though his character met a tragic ending, Nicky Wu was truly the star there. He gave rainbows to the Li Yu character. Through his eyes, facial expressions and movements - subtle and not subtle - Nicky gave us the pleasure of knowing Li Yu's internal conflicts. Nicky Wu is an actor who can make you understand what his character feels with a mere glance of eyes or smirk or a very subtle movement. And now, I cannot see another actor playing Li Yu without comparing him with Nicky’s Li Yu.

One of Nicky’s best scenes in ‘Li Hou Zhu’ was when Li Yu stood idly in the middle of his room, thinking of the progress (or rather, defeat) of his army, his hands were locked on his back. Then, as Pei Houde stormed in to report that the Tang army was defeated, Li Yu’s stance changed for a second. In portraying a shocked king over his defeat, Nicky chose not to slap the table or get angry or similar things. Instead, he moved ever slightly and unlocked his hands accidentally. Then, almost stumbling over his own foot, he walked ever so slowly towards the entrance. He then tried to regain his calmness, of course to no avail…

I also love the interactions between Liu Tao (Zhu Er Huang) and Nicky Wu. I can still clearly recall Er Huang’s last hours of life as she approached the music chamber to find Li Yu playing the song they had played together on their first meeting. I admire Liu Tao’s performance there (also in many other scenes); she looked at Nicky in such a way, a mixture of love, longing and sorrow, for she knew that she had to leave him soon. As Liu Tao entered the chamber, Nicky looked up. While his fingers still ran through the silk strings of the guzheng, he gave her the same look; look of love, longing and remorse. He regretted what he had done to her, he wanted to spend more time with her… but he knew the time was almost up. 

Although I am very fond of all Li Yu – Zhao scenes (particularly when Li Yu took out his sword and their last scene together), I am also very impressed with a scene when Li Yu and his family were taken to the Song Kingdom. On board the ship, there was a beautiful piece of landscape painting. Li Yu suddenly approached the painting with a writing brush and started composing a long poem on top of the painting. Nicky Wu wrote Li Yu’s poem with his own calligraphy, and I have to say that Nicky’s calligraphy is very beautiful. More over, his expressions when writing the lines were incredible. He became the defeated king who poured out his feelings with the best outlet he knew: poetry. It was a trance moment when Nicky as Li Yu sketched the painting with his words. He did not only make the entire ship crew agape in wonder. He made me replay and freeze the scene several times. The scene also reminds me of the scene where San Bo wrote the farewell letter to Ying Tai, a moment before his death in Butterfly Lovers. Poetic and beautiful.

It is also interesting to note how Nicky’s character Shui Ruo Han finally befriended his rival (Prince Zhu Yu Long) in Treasure Venture. They were lucky though, they could avoid bloodshed as Yu Long realised that Jian Ping (Vicky Zhao) truly loved Ruo Han and vice versa. In the end Yu Long, Jian Ping and Ruo Han were best friends. It was a contrast in ‘Li Hou Zhu’, for Zhao needed so many wars and experiencing the loss of his loved ones before he realised that his revenge was empty and devoid of happiness. It was also interesting that Li Yu bore little anger towards Zhao, and he could almost easily accepted Zhao’s remorse and offered him the lost friendship. Despite his failures, Li Yu was still a hero here in his own right.
Appearance speaking, there’s something very sexy with Nicky Wu’s dishevelled hair and stubbles. Nicky is always charming, and I love his hair as Shui Ruo Han and Xiao Shi Yi Lang. Yet, I guess stubbles and dishevelled hair also suits him well. Much better than the cute boyish look he usually has. 

Kudos to Nicky, and here’s the hope that he will get other interesting roles like this one. I should also note that despite his black belt in Taekwondo and Judo, Nicky did no martial arts here. However, at least he once joined a traditional Chinese football as young Li Yu where he demonstrated his Taekwondo skills to kick the ball into the goal. A treat for fans like me who always want to see his martial art performance.

Li Hou Zhu pictures were taken from http://ent.sina.com.cn , self-screen captured, and screen captured from YouTube videos provided by http://www.liutao.org/ and http://www.nickywu-zone.net/. Treasure Venture and Xiao Shi Yi Lang were taken from www.snowblue.net.

Edit 6 December 2015:

It's been a while since I looked at this post; it's now the second-most viewed post (4630hits) in this blog after this post (5521 hits). Recently I realised that the end theme of the series was a poem by Li Yu titled Ji Duo Chou (How Much Sorrow). The following video is the version sung by the late Teresa Teng, which has the English subtitle containing a translated version of the poem.  Below the video is another translation of the lyrics in English. Click here for Ji Duo Chou rendition in Chor Lau Heung 1984 and here for a Chor Lau Heung 1984 MV with Du Shang Xi Lou, another famous Li Yu poem. 

Ji Duo Chou ("How Much Sorrow", by Li Yu)

Spring flowers, autumn moon, when will they cease existing?
How many past events am I aware of?

Last night, the eastern wind again blew over the little tower. 
It was unbearable to look at the old country in the bright moon light
Carved railing and jade layered stairs should still remain
Only the youth countenance changed

Should you ask how much sorrow I can bear
Just like the spring water of Yang Tze River flows to the east


Anonymous said...

wow that's an awesome review.
do you know if this series if out in vietnamese yet? what's the english title? && who makes this series? taiwanese.

Icha said...

Hi Kim!

Unfortunately, I'm not sure if the series is already translated into Vietnamese yet. But try roaming the SPCNET, lots of Vietnamese are there. Are you from SPCNET as well? And the English title (at least for the Indonesian DVDs) is 'The Real Warrior'. Interesting title, for it triggers us to think which one is the real warrior: Zhao Kuang Yin or Li Yu? Or... Er Huang?

By the way, I sneak peek into your profile, and though I'm certain that you're a girl, your profile said that you're a boy? :-D

Icha said...

Oh, and the series was made by CCTV
(China Central Television). Since 'Treasure Venture' or 'The Adventure of Swordgirl', Taiwanese Nicky Wu is pretty famous in the mainland. I'm glad that he's part of this movie. He should really take more roles like this, portraying complex characters. Showing up his talent.

goestaf said...

Well done! You already made one chapter of your Thesis.... ;-)

Icha said...

G, don't tease me! I'm lacking behind of my schedule so much, I really have to drop all other reviews now and concentrate on the real things to do as... you know who!

God speed, I'm into full speed now! And I mean, for my thesis!

draco_malfoy!!!! said...

There are plenty of rumours abound that Emperor Song Taizu Zhao Kuangyin was murdered by his younger brother Zhao Guangyi (who later became Emperor Song Taizong).

A classic rumour is the Shadow of the Axe in the Candlelight, which depicted the last evening of Taizu's life in November 976, where imperial guards witnessed the shadow of an axe wielding in Taizu's room while he was having a drinking session with Taizong.

Icha said...

Draco, thanks a lot for your input. That's a very interesting information. Unfortunately, history is full of people killing each other for meaningless power and lust...

bookworm <3er said...

Hi! I'm doing an english assignment about Li Yu and his poetry. I have tried locate this TV series on DVD but I haven't foudn anything. When you said that the actor Nicky Wu recited one of Li Yu's true poems, which one was it?

Icha said...

Bookworm, this is a bit hard to answer, cos I need to see the DVD, and it's back in Indonesia (I'm in Oz now). If you can understand Chinese, there are some YouTube links to last episodes of this series, and there's where Nicky Wu (Li Yu) recited the poems.

Sorry that I couldn't help you more? But I'm certain that it was one about the lake and the country.

bookworm <3er said...

Thanks for replying so promptly! sorry to bother you again, but I have already checked on youtube in hopes of being able to watch the movie, with zilch results (except for the opening theme song that is).

Icha said...

No worries, Bookworm. Anything for literature and Nicky! :-)

Can you speak or read Chinese? If you can, could you email me privately a list of Li Yu's poetry IN ENGLISH (so it should be translated first). I might be able to pick one from memory, cos I am certain it was about looking over the water or something. Email me at tara_parvati@yahoo.com.

There are some Li Yu poems on the web in English as well, but I have no time to compile them. If you can compile them and email it to me, I can help you further.