Historical epic dramas are in vogue again

Chinese TV producers and filmmakers are betting big on epic historical productions following the success of series like "Military Alliance" and "The Qin Empire."

The first installment of "The Qin Empire" received the highest score of 9.1 out of 10 on the film and TV review website Douban.

There was a time when historical epic dramas in China would usually attract the middle-aged or the elderly audiences, while the youngsters were invariably hooked on to Western series such as "Rome," "Spartacus" and "Game of Thrones."

But that may now be changing with the emergence of home-grown dramas of high artistry, including "The Advisors Alliance" and "The Qin Empire" that have been pulling in the young Chinese intellectuals. With the renewed craze for dramas, the old productions are attracting fans on the Internet.

Till date, "The Advisors Alliance" received over 6.7 billion clicks on Youku (one of China's top online video and streaming service platforms) with more than 220,000 comments after it started airing in June this year. It has become the most-watched Chinese historical epic series. 

The second season will start airing on Youku from December 7. Set against the backdrop of the Three Kingdoms period (AD 220-280), the new season will focus on the battle of wits between Chinese military strategists Sima Yi and Zhuge Liang.

Among the existing three installments of "The Qin Empire," the first one directed by Huang Jianzhong in 2008 received the highest score of 9.1 out of 10 on the film and TV review website Douban from more than 17,000 viewers. The second (2013) and third (2017) installments were both directed by Ding Hei.

Now, the fiction series' author Sun Haohui is trying to turn the six-volume masterpiece, one of the most popular historical novels in China, into a film and TV franchise, collaborating with Ciwen Media. 

Sun, who will be the scriptwriter, says they will shoot a 100-episode drama about Yingzheng, the emperor who unified China. A film series is also planned on the legendary Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC) emperor who conquered the Warring States period (475-221 BC).

They are looking out for the best candidate for the role of Yingzheng. The casting will be done in the following months, and the TV series is expected to be finished by 2019.

Sun describes the TV series as the Chinese answer to "Game of Thrones," claiming the war scenes will surpass Mel Gibson's film "Braveheart."

"It will be a spectacular production about Chinese civilization," Sun says. "War and political tactics of the Warring States period will be depicted along with giant weapons and tactical deployment they used in wars. Also, we will have a systematic study of ancient Chinese aesthetics and culture, including costumes, accessories and living goods of that period."

The series' producer Yuan Xiangyang, vice president of Ciwen Media, says the franchise will cater to the tastes of young people.


"The Advisors Alliance" has become the most-watched Chinese historical epic series.

China's long history of around 5,000 years is considered a huge pool for great stories and scripts.

Wang Beibei, CEO of the data analytics company Guduo Media, says that the historical epic drama genre is being revived with a steady increase of fans from various age groups.

"With refined techniques and touching storylines, historical dramas are winning the hearts of a wider audience," says Wang. "The genre is very appropriate in portraying different kinds of emotions such as brotherhood, patriotism and love."

But not all productions with ancient Chinese costumes, characters and backdrop fall under the genre of historical epic drama. Some are actually soap operas.

"A historical epic drama should stay true to history and convey positive values to the audience," says Sun. "However, a historical soap drama often focuses on imperial palace intrigue that mainly attracts the female audience."

Previously, there were only a few outstanding historical epic dramas in China that were favored by the young viewers, and the rising popularity of this genre is mainly due to fatigue from soap dramas.

"Many historical soap dramas combine elements of romance, suspense, fantasy and time-travel," says Emma Zhu, a local post-graduate student. "They are just like a youth drama set in ancient times. Many have very similar storylines and settings, and the protagonists are all perfect and charming. For the viewers, they are fast-food productions."

Ai Lian, a film and TV critic from the Literature and Art Critics Association of Sichuan Province, says that a successful historical epic drama is always inspiring and thought-provoking. With the help of historical anecdotes, a lot of Chinese young people will learn to respect history and tackle real-life problems, and foreign viewers will be enlightened about China's cultural origin, heritage and philosophy.

However, shooting a good historical epic drama is very challenging especially in lines and sets. Actors should have deep understanding of the dialogue which is often condensed and hard to remember. It usually takes a scriptwriter a long time to conceive a story after spending months researching them. Details of the setting and costumes should also be exquisite and impressive.

Ti Gong

Professor Sun Haohui, author of "The Qin Empire" fiction series

Interview with author Sun Haohui

Professor Sun, a native of Shaanxi Province, is a scholar of Chinese history and law at the Northwest University. It took him about 16 years to complete "The Qin Empire" fiction series, which has more than 5 million words. 

The award-winning series romanticizes the rise of the Qin state in the Warring States period and the founding of the Qin Dynasty, the first dynasty of imperial China.

Q: Can you share some details about the planning of "The Qin Empire" film and TV franchise?

A: We have set up a new production enterprise to shoot and develop the franchise in collaboration with Ciwen Media. We will also build two film studios and theme parks in Hainan Province, particularly for the sets of China's early 3,000 years of history. 

The film franchise, with four installments about the story of Emperor Yingzheng, will be a mega-production. We hope that it will be among the highest-grossing movies in China. The TV series will have a new interpretation of the period, and we can learn a lot from its reforms and changes.

Q: What's the highlight of the new franchise?

A: It will highlight many facts about wars and politics in ancient China with astounding and spectacular scenes. People will be amazed by the wits of ancient Chinese people. The customs and lifestyles of people from that period will be rightly displayed.

Q: What are the criteria for selecting actors in the series?

A: There are over 140 characters in the 100-episode drama about Yingzheng, so casting is both difficult and important. Authenticity is the top priority. For instance, according to historical materials, Yingzheng was a very tall man. We will take a lot of things into consideration to select the best candidate who may just be an amateur actor.

Q: What is the major problem facing today's historical epic dramas?

A: Some directors don't show much respect for script and history. Some scriptwriters just write a story structure and leave behind lines and dialogues, so many of the lines are improvised while shooting. I think it is not a proper way to make a good historical epic drama.


The six-volume "The Qin Empire"

Special Reports