Initiating Prosperity 开创盛世 A Televisual Tale from the Tang dynasty
Nadia Sartoretti Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies
On the crowded streets of Luoyang 洛阳 during the Lantern Festival, Li Shimin 李世民, the emperor Taizong 太宗 of the Tang dynasty, meets Yue Rong 月容, the former princess of the Sui dynasty that he had recently overthrown. Lanterns and fireworks fill the background. He asks her: 'You seem to think the dynasty is not prosperous enough; my people are not rich enough. Isn't that so?' She answers: 'Do you remember the Lantern Festival sixteen years ago?' 'I do', he replies. 'The lanterns were bright and covered in silk. Music and drums resounded and hundreds of acrobats performed. It was magnificent! Today, although the wealth on display is no comparison, I see smiles everywhere. These smiles make me feel relieved'. She acknowledges that splendor and wealth are not as meaningful as people's happiness and he solemnly adds: 'Sixteen years from now, my people will still be smiling and the country will be wealthy and prosperous'. And so ends the costume drama Initiating Prosperity (Kaichuang Shengshi 开创盛世).
The forty-four episode TV production Initiating Prosperity (Kaichuang Shengshi 开创盛世) relates the fall of the Sui and the rise of the Tang dynasty. It was produced by two companies from Shandong in 2005, timing that neatly corresponds with the decision by the Chinese Communist Party to make the 'construction of a harmonious society' (jianshe hexie shehui 建设和谐社会) a national priority. First broadcasted in Shandong in 2006, the TV series was aired repeatedly in 2008, 2010 and 2011, including on Beijing TV. It attracted a not inconsiderable audience, as well as the attention of journalists and critics.
Initiating Prosperity appeared around the same time as two other dramas set in the Tang period: Zhenguan Prosperity Psalm (Zhenguan Changge 贞观长歌 ) and The Good Rule of the Zhenguan Reign (Zhenguan zhi Zhi 贞观之治). However, Initiating Prosperity distinguishes itself by the fact that it does not feature the acknowledged glories of the Tang dynasty but focuses rather on its origins: the drama begins in the last years of the Sui dynasty and takes the year 630CE, the eve of the establishment of the Tang 'prosperous age' (shengshi 盛世), as its epilogue.
Initiating Prosperity is thus not a tale of established glory, but rather of its foundation and creation. Celebrated by journalists and critics for its purported historical accuracy—space does not allow me to go into the details here—the TV series is a didactic tale built around the Confucian ideal of moral government. Indeed, the drama shows that prosperity is achieved through virtuous governance, that is to say that it is achieved in the realm of the political and by way of the moral. However, such prosperous good rule is realized through from the top down and not via individual effort or as a result of mobilizing people's collective energies.
The story of Initiating Prosperity revolves almost entirely around the figure of Li Shimin, the future Taizong Emperor of the Tang. Li is represented as the perfect ruler: his sense of morality and righteous conduct are unsullied. He is courageous and, when occasion demands, he fearlessly risks his life for the sake of the empire. He masters the art of martial stratagems, increases his knowledge of all things relevant to rulership, evinces interest in the classics and calligraphy, and not only does he show perseverance but he displays respect and reverence for his father as well as empathy for the people at large. Li Shimin thus honours the Confucian notions of virtue (de 德), filial piety (xiao 孝), as well as honesty and trust (chengxin 诚信). In this sense, he conforms with a traditional image of the ideal or sage ruler. Indeed, the TV show depicts an ideal of rulership and a set of political values that are interestingly also endorsed by China's present rulers through what has been labelled by some international academics as 'Confu-talk'.
In this TV drama, Li Shimin's character places particular emphasis on the well-being of the people. As evident from the closing lines of the production quoted above, the well-being and happiness of the population should come before mere wealth and splendour. Considered within the context in which Initiating Prosperity emerged, the happy synchronicity of its core message with that of the official push to 'build a harmonious society', in which there has been a shift of focus from economic growth to achieving an overall balance in society, seems obvious. As one writer for the People's Daily put it:
What are the main characteristics of a harmonious society? It puts the people first and ensures that all social activities benefit the people's subsistence, their enjoyment and their development. In a harmonious society, the political environment is stable, the economy is prosperous, people live in peace and work in comfort and social welfare improves.
Indeed, these lines taken from the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party could well stand as a précis of the values promoted in Initiating Prosperity.
In fact, there is little new here: Initiating Prosperity is another Chinese period drama that offers a narrative that chimes with the predominant political line of the day. At the same time it embraces the increasing trend in government propaganda: the promotion of values that reflect modern-day conceptions of 'Chinese tradition' (in particular 'Confucian values'). There is also nothing new in the didactical nature of the show, its use of history as a model for today or for providing lessons for its audience. Historical or costume drama is a well established genre of contemporary TV drama. Current from the Republican era in stage productions, TV costume and historical dramas developed first in Hong Kong and Taiwan, gaining popularity (following a lifting of a ban on the 'feudal' past) in the 1990s. Subsequently, there was a flurry of productions in the 90s that were set in the Qing dynasty, but their appeal slackened during the first years of the new millennium. Academics assert that much of the appeal of Qing-era dramas came from the fact that they acted as a vehicle to critique contemporary politics, in particular corruption.
Set during the Sui and Tang dynasties Initiating Prosperity reflects a different ethos. The Tang is a more remote historical period that is almost unanimously celebrated as one of the most, if not the most, glorious in the Chinese past. It seems to work in another modality too: it promises a happy ending (whereas the Qing ended far from well). The successes of the Tang dynasty in terms of its booming prosperity, its territorial expansion, as well as its benign cultural and political influence on neighbouring countries and territories is often considered unparalleled. The Tang of the distant past then offers in all respects a positive contrast to the political turmoil, social turpitude and economic decay of the late Qing. Moreover, in the same way that Zhenguan Prosperity Psalm, The Administration of the Zhenguan Era, or other dramas set during the Tang, Initiating Prosperity lauds the role and figure of the emperor. This tendency in recent TV series produced in the People's Republic is so evident that some regard such 'emperor worship' as something of a 'common affliction' (tongbing 通病) of recent historical dramas.
At a time when even official discourse evokes a capacious conceptualization of 'democracy' within the context of 'building a harmonious society', and when some publicly agitate for substantive democratic change, popular TV dramas such as Initiating Prosperity continue to extol the virtues of despotic government, albeit an enlightened despotism. While this is not particularly new, what is striking in Initiating Prosperity is the intricate relationship depicted between the ruler and the people. The drama portrays the ruler as being an individual who has received the mandate of heaven, a man exceptional due to his unique personal virtues. Yet this exceptional man is shown as being close to the people and as sharing their preoccupations. Images of Li Shimin praying for rain during a severe drought, for example, are intercut with images of the people praying for the same goal. The exceptional man is almost equated to the people, but through his very exceptionality and the fact that he is the chosen one, the line between the ruler and the ruled remains absolute.
In the same vein, there is no attempt in the TV show to create an identification between viewer and the hero. This is particularly striking when we consider other contemporary dramas, such as the well-known series Struggle (Fendou 奋斗), which tells the story of young professionals in Beijing, or Cramped Quarters (Woju 蜗居), which narrates the life of two sisters. Both shows depict common people and invite audiences to identify directly with the characters.
However, while it is hard for the viewer to identify with any of the characters in this Tang drama, the relationship between the ruler and commoners deserves further examination. In addition to being close to the people and to receiving their support, the emperor goes so far as to acknowledge their inherent power. In the final episode in the series, while lecturing his ministers on how important it is to make the population's well-being a priority, the emperor reminds them of something he was once told by one of them (in fact Wei Zheng 魏征, the most famous minister of the Zhenguan reign period): 'The people are like water and the prince like a boat. Water can guide the boat, and it can also overturn it' (shui ke zai zhou, yi ke fu zhou 水可载舟，亦可覆舟). This is perhaps the most famous traditional quotation about the abiding power of the popular will—it is still frequently evoked in the Chinese media and political discourse today. In other words, in a TV drama produced in 2005, at the moment of a shift in government policy towards the well-being of the people and in a period of relative anxiety about the future of the country, a ruler, in this case an emperor, acknowledges not only the relevance of the people's welfare, but also their power to overturn his rule. While this could sound like a subversive message (despite the fact that it is a Chinese political truism-cum-cliché), the way the message is delivered apparently argues the opposite. The exceptionality of the ruler, and the way power functions in such a hierarchical system is reaffirmed: an emperor can be overthrown by the people, but as the mandate of heaven is infallible, he will inevitably be replaced by another worthy emperor, which is, incidentally, exactly the path that Li Shimin followed to take the throne in the first place in Initiating Prosperity.
This TV series remains a tale of glory and celebration. If self-glorification does not come through the adulation of past prosperity and wealth, it comes through the recognition of the abiding potential for prosperity: in (ancient) China some people have been able to achieve prosperity. China thus has, within itself, the ability to thrive. But, this ability can only be realized by means of an enlightened ruler. From this perspective, the contemporary official discourse evoking changes in the political realm seems indeed (slightly) more innovative than the traditional picture featured in this popular TV drama.
Related material from China Heritage Quarterly:
 I would like to thank CSM Media Research for providing me with the audience ratings of Initiating Prosperity as well as Basile Zimmermann (University of Geneva) and Pierre-Etienne Bourneuf (Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies) for their comments on this essay. My thanks also to the editor of China Heritage Quarterly for his work on the final draft.
 Initiating Prosperity (Kaichuang Shengshi 开创盛世), Episode 44, 38:15-40:05. The English translations are mine.
 Shandong TV and Film Production Centre (Shandong yingshiju zhizuo zhongxin 山东影视剧制作中心) and the Shangdong Provincial Luminous Century TV and Film Culture Company (Shandong Sheng Huihuang Shiji Yingshi Wenhua Youxiangongsi 山东省辉煌世纪影视文化有限公司).
 First broadcasted by Shandong TV 山东电视台, the drama was then shown in Sichuan, in Shaanxi in 2007, and in Fujian in 2008. Initiating Prosperity was also shown on Beijing TV (BTV) in February and March 2008 and in August 2010 and on the Changsha TV News Channel (Changsha dianshi xinwen pindao 长沙电视新闻频道) in May 2011. Except for the May 2011 broadcast in Changsha, during which ratings put it as the eighth most-watched show, the drama has generally only achieved medium audience response elsewhere. Audience ratings have been kindly provided by CSM. Other data is available online, at: http://www.sanww.com/view.php?tid=1380&cid=13 ; http://ent.sina.com.cn/v/m/p/2008-02-21/11431919704.shtml; http://ent.sina.com.cn/v/2011-05-19/15333312319.shtml (last visited 27 May 2011).
 The show was sold to Taiwan where it reportedly enjoyed better ratings than Cramped Quarters (Woju, 蜗居). Initiating Prosperity was also exported in what was called an attempt to 'conquer' Japan. Statistics at hand show that it attracted a respectable audience in China and also Taiwan. Initiating Prosperity was also the focus of a conference in 2008 of academics and media professionals in Changsha and it took part in a national award competition (Di 24 jie Zhongguo Dianshi Jinying Jiang, 第24届中国电视金鹰奖 ). From the statistical data for 2005-2009 compiled by CSM Media Research and AGB Nielsen, it seems that historical dramas generally attract less viewer interest than romantic or family dramas. See: http://ent.sina.com.cn/v/m/2010-09-25/17313097258.shtml; http://ent.sina.com.cn/v/2011-05-19/15333312319.shtml; http://www.sanww.com/view.php?tid-8780-cid-13.html; and, http://www.sanww.com/view.php?tid-2970-cid-13.html (last visited 27 May 2011).
 An article on the historical accuracy of the drama is available online, at: http://www.sanww.com/view.php?tid=1378&cid=13 (last visited 27 May 2011).
 In Episode 22, Li Shimin does not hesitate to face the opposing armies alone. He criticizes the luxurious lifestyle of the Sui rulers (Episode 33). He forswears his own interest for the sake of the empire and his own family, going so far as to withdraw from power for the benefit of his elder brother, although later on he kills him, albeit reluctantly, on the grounds that he will not make a good and wise ruler (Episodes 24, 30 and 39). He masters the art of war stratagems (Episodes 9, 17 and 20) and evinces an interest in education and establishes a school (Episode 34).
 See Geremie R. Barmé, 'China's Flat Earth: History and 8 August 2008', The China Quarterly 197 (March 2009): 64-86; Anne-Marie Brady, 'Confucianism, Chinese Tradition, and the CCP's Modernized Propaganda', available at: http://www.sinologystudy.com/2010/0425/2.html (last visited 27 May 2011); A-M Brady, 'The role of the CCP Central Propaganda Department in the Current Era,' Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture, 2006, 3 (1): 58-77; A-M Brady and J. Wang, 'China's Strengthened New Order and the Role of Propaganda,' Journal of Contemporary China, 2009, 18 (62): 767-788
 Available at: http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/90002/92169/92211/6274603.html (last visited 27 May 2011).
 As scholars have shown, the government increasingly appeals to 'Confucian values'. See, in particular, Anne-Marie Brady, 'Confucianism, Chinese Tradition, and the CCP's Modernized Propaganda', available at: http://www.sinologystudy.com/2010/0425/2.html (last visited 27 May 2011).
 As explained by Barmé, this renewed interest in dynastic history can also be linked to the Jiang's era reappraisal of it. See his 'China's Flat Earth: History and 8 August 2008', pp.64-86. On historical dramas and the possibility they offer to overcome censorship and criticize the current government, see Y. Zhu, M. Keane, et al., eds, TV Drama in China, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2008; and, Zhu Ying, 'The Yongzheng Reign and Chinese Primetime TV Drama', Cinema Journal, 44:4 (Summer 2005):14.
 Beijing Yule Xinbao, 26 April 2007 quoted in Jinan Shibao: Meihua diwang de guzhuangju qishi dou shi 'dangdaiju' 济南时报：美化帝王的古装剧其实都是'当代剧', Renmin Ribao, 27 April 2007, available online at: http://opinion.people.com.cn/GB/5673088.html (last visited on 27 May 2011).
 Struggle was produced in 2007 by the Beijing Television Creation Center; Cramped Quarters first screened in 2009. Both series attracted large audiences.
 Initiating Prosperity, Episode 44, 03:13-03:25.