The global media industry is receiving a face lift by giving strong, independent female characters more complexity and greater screen-time. In China, women hold a dual position in society: While they work with general gender equality, women are still encouraged to prioritize caring for their family. Despite this contradictory status, women in Chinese dramas are depicted as one would expect — female characters concern themselves with the family, and male characters push the plot. This is by no means unique to China, and is seen across global television screens.
One notable Chinese show has directly challenged this expectation. Nirvana in Fire, known in Chinese as Langya Bang (琅琊榜), is perhaps the country’s most popular TV show over the past five years and is often called the Chinese Game of Thrones. Produced by Daylight Entertainment, Nirvana in Fire is a period drama set in sixth century China. Known affectionately as a “C-drama,” or a Chinese drama, Nirvana in Fire drew a large audiences across the globe, similar to popular “K-dramas,” TV dramas based out of South Korea. The first season of Nirvana in Fire attracted millions of Chinese fans almost overnight, receiving over 10 million views following the premiere of the first episode. The first season’s 54 episodes received billions of views, with an international viewership across multiple platforms.
With much anticipation, the second season of Nirvana in Fire, The Wind Blows in Chang Lin (琅琊榜之风起长林) premiered last year in full force: two 45-minute episodes aired daily on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays throughout January and February 2017. Despite being successive seasons in a coherent historical timeline, The Wind Blows in Chang Lin has a completely separate storyline from season one. Langya Bang first came into the public eye as an online novel by Hai Yan. While the first season was adapted directly from the novel, The Wind Blows in Chang Lin preceded its respective section of the online publication, and thus breaks barriers that the novel would most likely not include.
One such example lies in one of the second season’s most dynamic and polarizing characters, a young, female doctor named Lin Xi. Lin Xi is a surprisingly complex character. While fiercely independent and committed to her calling in medicine, Lin Xi is also part of one of the strongest romances in the show. This tension between a woman’s traditional place in society and Lin Xi’s own professional goals revealed how Chinese viewers process this type of modern woman, especially in the traditional context of a period drama.
Lin Xi is played by 25-year old Chinese actress Zhang Huiwen, who first stepped onto the Chinese film scene in her breakout role in the internationally acclaimed Chinese film, Coming Home (归来). The Diplomat spoke with Zhang to better understand the character of Lin Xi and the character’s overall reception in China.
Although Zhang was already a fan of Nirvana in Fire when she was approached for the part of Lin Xi, what drew her to the role was her love and respect for the character. As Zhang describes, “Lin Xi is independent, professional, and confident. Unlike other characters in the show, she is the only character missing her family. She doesn’t rely on anyone. So her love is not confined to her family, but is for everyone.”
This lack of connection to family separates Lin Xi from other female characters in The Wind Blows in Chang Lin, and allows her considerable agency to pursue her own goals. Other female characters are often best described by their relationships with their family, despite being leading characters. For example, the Empress (played by Mei Ting) is subservient to her husband, the Emperor, and to her son, the Crown Prince. She is banned from political life and is confined to a specific section of the imperial palace. The other lead female, Meng Qianxue (played by Tong Liya), is better known as the wife of one of the male leads, Xiao Pingzhang. Her initial struggles at the beginning of the season concern her infertility, primarily her distress that she cannot bear her husband a son. Qianxue is given some complexity thanks to her status as the granddaughter of a great martial artist, and is seen engaging in dangerous battle scenes and threatening to duel military generals. Ultimately, however, her character is limited by family obligations and simplified into a largely traditional role.
In contrast, Lin Xi retains her agency throughout the entirety of the season, in ways unexpected and thus criticized by some viewers. When asked what were the most common misconceptions about Lin Xi, Zhang discussed the frequent impression that Lin Xi is cold and emotionally distant. “She is cool, not cold. Yes, she is stubborn and is not open to strangers. But she does have weaknesses, and she is sweet in small ways. You know she has a good heart because she dedicates her life to serving the ill, and saving people who need help.”
A more scathing critique of Lin Xi concerns her position as a woman within a romantic male-female relationship, shared with her leading male counterpart Xiao Pingjing, played by Liu Haoran. While this storyline appears traditional and romantic at first glance, Zhang described her approach as not strictly romantic, stating, “It is not just a love story. It is mainly a friendship.” Friendship as the basis of their relationship creates an unusual dynamic: Lin Xi and Xiao Pingjing consider each other equals and do not control each other or their decisions.
This freedom on both parts has divided Chinese audiences. While Pingjing’s decisions to pursue goals that cause him to leave Lin Xi are celebrated as noble and just, Lin Xi’s respective decisions to pursue her own interests are criticized as selfish. This further ties into Chinese traditional values of fate, which multiple characters acknowledge as the principal driver in Lin Xi and Pingjing’s unique relationship. This fate is unknown to Pingjing, and the resulting dramatic irony has led audiences to take out the brunt of their frustration on Lin Xi. In response, Zhang defends Lin Xi’s choices, characterizing them as “her rejection of fate and destiny.”
That Chinese audiences largely accepted — and loved — Lin Xi is a testament to Zhang’s strong performance, which allowed viewers to understand and respect Lin Xi as a woman and not solely as Pingjing’s romantic interest. Without spoiling the show’s finale, The Wind Blows in Chang Lin stays true to Lin Xi’s character in an uncommon feat, with fans and critics accepting both the traditional and more progressive aspects of Lin Xi. Although set in the past, The Wind Blows in Chang Lin challenges the expected subjugation of a woman’s goals to man’s, questioning whether women can be supportive while also prioritizing their own desires in modern Chinese society.