During the 4th century, war broke out between the feudal Northern Wei dynasty and Southern Liang dynasties, leading Liang’s General Lin Xie to take his only child, the 19 year old Lin Shu, to battle. Unexpectedly, Lin Xie was framed by a political rival, causing the unjust deaths of seventy thousand Chiyan army soldiers, just after they drove off the hostile Wei forces.
After barely escaping with his life, Lin Shu establishes the Jiangzuo Alliance with the help of Langya Hall and makes a name for himself as Mei Changsu, chief of the pugilist world. Under the alias of Su Zhe, he returns to the capital of Liang 12 years on to overturn the injustices imposed on the Chiyan Army and secretly assist his friend the unfavoured Prince Xiao Jingyan in his battle for the throne. (source dramawiki)
Hu Ge as Mei Changsu/ Su Zhe/ Lin Shu***
***I will be alternating between these names where I see appropriate
Liu Tao as Princess Nihuang of Yunnan
Wang Kai as Xiao Jingyan, Prince of Jing
Victor Huang as Xiao Jinghuan, Prince of Yu
Chen Long as Meng Zhi, Commander General of the Imperial Guard
Liu Min Tao as Consort Jing
Ding Yong Dai as Emperor of Liang
If you haven’t been living under a rock, then you’ve probably heard of a little commercially and critically successful C-drama called Nirvana in Fire (Lang Ya Bang). This is a show that has taken China and international viewers by storm—and for good reasons. An adaptation of a popular online novel by the same name, Nirvana in Fire is a complete and utter masterpiece. The show has an engaging story, is beautifully shot, wonderfully acted, and smartly written. Words cannot possibly do this piece of artwork any justice, but I will give it my best shot. I hope this review will bring back some fond memories for those who have watched it and possibly convince those who haven’t to pick it up. This is undeniably my favorite drama of 2015 and I unequivocally recommend that everyone watch it!
“There’s a balance in everyone’s hearts. People will know what is right and wrong.”
Although a grand, epic story centering on the notions of rebirth, revenge, and succession politics, the true heart of Nirvana in Fire is in the importance it places on the ties of friendship, especially highlighting a kind of intense brotherhood that transcends heaven and earth. In this world, there exists a camaraderie so strong, that one would rather die than abandon it. It is a brotherhood that is unwavering and unconditional. It is constant, and once given, lasts an entire lifetime.
“Right and wrong can only be justified in one’s heart. You think I am wrong, but since when did I think that you were right? Xia Jiang, you may not believe in the ties of friendship, but you best not look down on times of friendship. Else, you will fail because of it.”–Marquise Yan
This is a story about true loyalty, true friendship; true love in all of its different forms that is honestly indescribable and really moves a person’s heart. Our main protagonists’ willingness to put their brothers and loved ones above and beyond their own lives might appear foolish to those who lack loyalty or are suspicious by nature, but that’s because they would never experience such devotion themselves. As such, there’s no way they could possibly understand such eternal commitment. However, Nirvana in Fire makes it a point that to look down on such ties is foolish in and of itself. It is this crucial factor that gives our good guys an advantage over their adversaries.
Some examples of the bonds of friendship, brotherhood, love, and family, between the characters that are so strong, it is shocking.
Prince Jing: “Then do you intend to choose the crown prince or the Prince of Yu?”
Mei Changsu: “I wish to choose you. Prince Jing.”
My ship! These two are more than friends, more than brothers. Their relationship is one that just is and cannot be reduced down to words. Jingyan’s firm belief in the innocence of Prince Qi and Lin Manor, and his unwillingness to forget the past really sets him apart from the other princes. It makes him deserving of Lin Shu’s complete loyalty. Jingyan has always held on to any shred of hope that Xiao Shu would return so it is painful to watch that when Xiao Shu does return as Mei Changsu, the two are reunited, but still so far apart. Everything Mei Changsu does, he does for Jingyan, and this is something Jingyan can’t fully grasp and understand until he realizes that the changed man before him is his Xiao Shu.
Lin Shu—Meng Da Ge (大哥)
A classic example of where one is brawn and the other one is brains. When these two are together, it is just simply delightful to watch. The rare moments where Lin Shu is joking around is when he’s in the presence of the ever loyal and so endearing Meng Da Ge. I find it so cute that he’s always the first to defend Mei Chang Su’s actions and just cares so much about his overall wellbeing. Although sometimes he’s clueless in the face of the ever-calculating Mei Changsu, and doesn’t quite understand all of Changsu’s actions, he is not stupid and always comes through in getting the job done. His trust that Mei Changsu is still Xiao Shu deep down, regardless of what Changsu says, really acts as a pillar of support and comfort.
Mei Changsu—Lin Chen (portrayed by Jin Dong)
Lin Chen is the head of the esteemed Lang Ya Hall, which brought Lin Shu back from the brink of death and helped him establish a new identity as Mei Changsu, to plan his intricate revenge. Lin Chen appears to be frivolous, but his worry over Changsu’s health knows no bounds. They banter but when it comes down to it, Lin Chen in another person who’ll follow Changsu to the death, if need be.
Mei Changsu—His Subordinates
It speaks to his leadership abilities that he has such loyal and brave subordinates who are willing to die for him without a second thought.
Fei Liu—Mei Chang Su (portrayed by Wu Lei)
This is legitimately one of the cutest relationships on the show. Fei Liu is a child who was saved, cared for and loved by Mei Changsu. Although a child, in mind and spirit, his martial arts are in a league of its own. He’s extremely rambunctious, has an attitude, loves to play, and doesn’t listen to anybody EXCEPT for his Su gege. His Su gege’s safety is his chief concern and not something he takes lightly. Although technically a bodyguard, Changsu really treats him as a younger brother and his sincerity makes it so that Fei Liu treats him as an older brother, his only real family. It’s always so sweet to see that although Changsu tries to put on a strict demeanor when it comes to Fei Liu, Changsu really is so gentle with Fei Liu and honestly coddles him. Their relationship is just so freaking adorable!
“In fact in many people’s eyes, when he returned to the capital he had changed into a completely different person but in my heart he has always, and always will be the most radiant boy of Jinling City. With an unchanging pure heart that will never perish. I am willing to support him, to follow each and every single one of his words, let him do what he wants to do.”–Nihuang
Nirvana in Fire might not be a romance-centric show but romantic love still plays an important role in our story and is not any less admirable. The main love story is between Lin Shu and Princess Nihuang. Betrothed to each other while young, they grew up together and are both from martial families. After the events at Meiling Cliff, Princess Nihuang continually refuses to accept any other suitors and strongly refuses to believe that Lin Manor would conspire to revolt against the emperor. Her love for Lin Shu is so strong as to survive 12 years of separation, a separation that might have been forever.
“What did you experience in these years? What kind of cruel things, can wipe away all the traces of a person? Making you unrecognizable.”—Nihuang
It speaks volumes about her unyielding love and devotion that as soon as Nihuang runs into Mei Changsu, her instincts tell her that he is someone familiar. Something about him just draws her in and she just can’t help but to dig into his background to confirm something that she feels is true deep in her heart. All she needs is that sliver of hope to be realized. It is thus so momentous that Nihuang is the first person to find out that Mei Changsu is the same person as her Lin Shu gege (older ‘brother’/哥哥), the person she has never stopped loving and missing. Once reunited, Nihuang demands nothing and just supports her Lin Shu gege in everything he needs to do.
Although Mei Changsu cannot go back to simply being her Lin Shu gege, it is quite evident that he has never stopped loving Nihuang either. Throughout the entirety of the show, there are very few instances where Mei Changsu lets his emotions get the better of him and I was quite moved that one of those moments was when he thought Nihuang was in danger. They truly embody the essence of idealized love, a love that is deep, constant, and eternal.
As I mentioned earlier, Nirvana in Fire is a smart show. Like seriously. All the characters that are touted as being smart are actually smart and act in rational ways that benefit them without any random bouts of stupidity which might plague other shows. Watching the political maneuvering by the various competing entities in the show is like watching a brilliant game of chess being played in front of you. The show is so smart that sometimes I feel like it moves faster than my brain can comprehend! Every scene, every action, every word has a purpose. The story keeps you on your feet, and because every little detail matters and might be introduced ahead many episodes before that bit of info comes in handy, I’m constantly holding my breath to see how a plot point will turn out or how our leads will turn a potential defeat into a win.
“You know, this pair of hands, used to bend bows and tame horses. But now it can only hide in the dark and stir the pot.”—Mei Changsu
Of course, the smartest character in the show is our lead, Mei Changsu. His brain definitely moves a lot faster than my brain or any other characters’ brain. Some might argue that he’s too smart but that’s just how I like my protagonists. It might be true that Mei Chang Su is constantly ahead of his competitors, but if you think about how he managed to survive after Meiling, the man can’t be ordinary. He “died” as Lin Shu, a person wronged and scorned by the world, but he managed to live through such a traumatic betrayal to become a phoenix, someone reborn from the ashes.
“In my heart, I know what I’m loyal to. I never thought to betray anyone”—Mei Changsu
He survived the bone-breaking torture that is the Poison of the Bitter Flame, and within 12 years, he was able to form and become the chief of the strongest sect in the pugilist (jianghu) world, the Jiangzuo Alliance, and has countless loyal followers. For 12 years, he thoroughly planned every detail to await his return to the capital to seek revenge and justice for the 70,000 fallen soldiers of the Chiyan army. In order to take that step back to the muddied capital, he must be confident that he will win and to do so, he must have everything planned in minute detail so as to ensure the events that unfold in the capital are within the palm of his hands, and most importantly, not lead to another bloodbath. This is no simple feat but he is an extraordinary man. It is therefore no surprise that Lang Ya Hall places him first on the Langya List of Gifted Scholars and deems him, the divine talent. As the prophecy predicted, “He who has the divine talent, rules the world”.
“I am someone who has crawled out of hell, poison has seeped deep into my bones, just let me be the one to do those insidious and vicious deeds. I must preserve Jingyan’s heart.”–Mei Changsu
On the topic of Mei Changsu/Lin Shu, I just have to say that this character is so utterly tragic and heartbreaking. The happiness of his youth was too fleeting, and at the young age of 19, he was already burdened with the weight of 70,000 souls on his shoulders. As the sole survivor of the Lin Manor it is inevitable that the quest for justice and revenge is his burden to bear, but the road there is dangerous and just so lonely. Even if he wanted to leave everything behind and live a peaceful life with Nihuang, it’s just not realistically possible. He can no longer live for himself. He owes his life to the blood and sacrifice of those men who died, and he cannot betray them for anything. His mere existence boils down to putting Jingyan on the throne and reversing the verdict of the Chiyan treason case.
“Right now, he is holding his breath for this aim, which is nothing to worry about. Yet, once he passes the last obstacle and suddenly lets go of this last breath, what will happen to him?”–Lin Chen
To do this, he has to keep his real identity a secret from his loved ones and keep his emotions close to the vest, so that even when people are sitting in front of him, they cannot read him and his motives. This means that he takes on everything on his own shoulders, and keeps all of his pain and suffering quietly to himself. Even though he is gravely ill and at most, has only two years left to live, he forces himself to take another labored breath, one after another, just holding out until the case is re-opened, re-tried so that he can see his family and his comrades without regrets. Outsiders would never understand how much bravery, resilience, and determination it took for him to stay alive.
Also, it’s such a shame that with his intelligence, Lin Shu could have done great things for the country, but because of the actions of a few coldblooded people, he instead had to apply that brilliance to a revenge plan instead. Imagine what he could have accomplished during those 12 years!
“Those evil, bloody deeds, I’ll do them. To defeat the evil, the innocent will be hurt. Sometimes we might have to be the ones to do it. This pain and crime, Prince Jing can’t take it, so I will bear this burden.”—Mei Changsu
The blame for this entire tragedy lay squarely at the feet of the Emperor of Da Liang, who with his suspicious nature, sent to death the lives of 70,000 loyal soldiers because of a flimsy accusation. In his mind, General Lin and Prince Qi were already guilty. The truth didn’t matter because he believed they were going to revolt, one way or another, so he might as well take them out when he had a chance. Thinking of those soldiers who fought to protect their homeland, dying at the hands of their own people, not even knowing what they were accused of, and unable to wrap their minds around what was happening in that moment is heart wrenching. Over the span of one night, all of their good names were tarnished and even in their death, those left behind weren’t allowed to defend them, mourn them, or erect a plaque in their name. The differences in his response to Prince Qi’s possible revolt and another prince’s actual revolt is shocking.
“I’m a cruel person. People can only be betrayed by friends, enemies would never have the chance to.”—Mei Changsu
The Emperor is honestly just a terrible leader, father, husband, and friend. He had the loyal house of Lin that helped him ascend the throne and protect the borders, he had a gifted and filial prince to handle state affairs, and he had friends and family that treated him with sincerity. However, once he reached the very top, he betrayed everyone and everything that helped him reach where he is without a shred of remorse. He betrayed Marquise Yan by stealing his sweetheart, Lin Yueyao (Consort Chen), he massacred the Chiyan army, and he sentenced to death his own son, and in effect Consort Chen. So by the start of our show, the Emperor has already consolidated a reputation of someone who is cruel, harsh and cold blooded.
Since he’s unwilling to completely trust or love anybody, he spends his life as a paranoid ruler just leading his country to ruin. After the fall of Prince Qi, within his own court, he fostered a type of environment that didn’t value the most talented, the most honest or kindhearted, but fostered infighting and weakened the foundations of his kingdom. Because the Emperor himself does not believe in the ties of brotherhood and loyalty, he fails to become the sage ruler General Lin and Marquise Yan hoped he would become when they chose him years ago, and thus the Emperor fails to bring about loyal and honest subjects to help him bring about prosperity for his citizens.
“Father does not know the son, son does not know the father”–Prince Qi
A liege and his subordinate, a father and a son, their relationship merely boils down to this.
The Emperor really is the epitome of a man who chooses to give up everything he had for everything he wanted. Sleepless nights and even death are too easy of a punishment in my eyes; his sins are too great. In the end, you really do reap what you sow, so it is therefore so satisfying that he becomes a pathetic old man; alone with no loving family and friends surrounding him because he eliminated them all.
“It is not that I was born heartless. As long as you sit on this throne people will change.”–Emperor of Da Liang
There is certainly some truth is this statement. To be the ruler of a vast empire requires one to be wary of those around them, but not all emperors have to let their suspicions control them. Not all emperors have to massacre loyal subjects and carry out such tremendous betrayals of trust.
“If you did things for others to see, then it’s a problem of your moral character, but if no one knew of your good deeds, then it’s a failure on my part as your adviser”–Mei Changsu
In this aspect, the show again does a great job at highlighting the stark contrast between Jingyan and his father. We see time and time again that Jingyan would never betray his own principles regardless of how difficult it is or how much Mei Changsu advises against it. As a result, I might be frustrated with how stubborn Jingyan is, but I respect him and trust that he will be a wise and compassionate ruler, unlike his father.
I have to give everyone in the cast a big round of applause for their wonderful performances. The whole cast is just so darn likeable and everyone portrayed their character so fantastically! From the very top to the very bottom, from the veterans to the younger actors, everyone did a great job and there was not a single weak link. On the honorable mention list is Wang Kai, who is clearly the breakout star. This really was a great year for him and I think he really deserves it. He’s talented and oh so adorable off-camera!
With that said, besides the intriguing plot, I was totally here for my man, Hu Ge. He has always been my favorite Chinese actor since his early days in Tian Wai Fei Xian, and I’ve always thought him to be talented and charismatic, but his portrayal as Lin Shu/Mei Changsu is perhaps his best performance yet. There’s a maturity in his acting now that I just really enjoy watching. Like a fine wine, he just gets better with age, both in talent and in looks.
Fei Liu: “Will you get better?”
Mei Changsu: “I will. You know why? Because a person’s heart will become harder and harder.”
Considering that his character is the emotional heart and center of the show, it is vital to the storyline that Hu Ge’s performance be no less than extraordinary and he did not disappoint. The character of Mei Changsu/Lin Shi is complex and requires someone with the deft ability to portray the character in a nuanced manner. Hu Ge managed to portray the varying components of his character from mischievousness to deviousness, cunning to kindness, unscrupulousness to tenderness, sorrow to longing, etc. etc. just wonderfully. I am most impressed by the way Hu Ge totally embodied the weariness of his character so well. From his body language, down to every little gesture; it all added another layer to the experience of watching Mei Changsu, a very weak and sick man, who has the specter of death looming behind him during his quest for revenge.
“Since I managed to survive. I will not waste my life”–Mei Changsu
There’s also something wonderfully poignant about Hu Ge portraying Mei ChangSu/Lin Shu. Both survived an inferno from the depths of hell and have become reborn. I don’t think there could be anyone who could encompass Lin Shu’s determination to achieve his goals after going through such a near death incident better than Hu Ge. He’s just fantastic and I’m seriously proud of him and happy for his ever-increasing success!
Prince Jing: “If there’s nothing sincere what’s the point in being owed so many favors? When befriending good people, you don’t need too many artifices. As long as I am sincere, they will return in kind”
Mei Changsu: “As the saying goes, you can bully a gentleman within reason. If there’s no sincerity without artifices, it would never work. In a fight for the crown, if we’re just competing with sincerity and good faith, then why are the historical records so bloody? You’ve only just shown some edge, it’s still easy to hide. But once the crown prince or Prince Yu notice you there would be no such thing as brotherly love.”
Prince Jing: “I understand what you mean. I’ve decided on this path, I would not be so naive. While it is my belief, things will vary from person to person. Perhaps the more you scheme, the less you’ll obtain.”
Mei Changsu: “There is no generalized way to work with people. You have your strategies, I have my methods. You judge on character, I measure on talent. Sometimes character will be considered, other times talent is key. This, my lord, will depend on when and where you want to use this person.”
Shandong Film and Television Group was the producer of Nirvana in Fire and this company is seriously now one of my favorite Chinese production companies. The high production value is immediately evident. Right off the bat, the intro is gorgeous, focusing on the motif of rebirth through a butterfly emerging from a cocoon.
I especially love the cinematography in this show, which is simply breathtaking. Both the set design and costume design in this drama are also exquisite. I literally wanted to take a screenshot of every single moment because every shot was so beautifully filmed, but obviously that is impossible so you have to watch the show to fully appreciate its splendor. The screencaps that you see in this post are nowhere close to capturing the elegance and beauty of the show.
Besides the casting, portrayals, writing and overall atmosphere being amazing, the attention to detail and the focus on the appropriate etiquette of the time period was greatly appreciated. Nirvana in Fire really is a drama watchers’ dream come true. It probably helps that the screenwriter,Hai Yan (海宴), is also the original author of the novel so having someone who cares about the source material really shows in the final product. The show has wuxia element inspired moments, and these fighting sequences were executed beautifully and so artistically. I even liked the CGI in this show, which is saying a lot, if you know anything about the reputation CGI has in C-dramas.
I personally loved the shots of the ‘walking back’ (if you haven’t noticed already).
However, word of warning, the show moves rather fast in certain places, so if you aren’t paying attention you might miss a crucial detail. Also, try not to be overwhelmed by the slew of characters introduced in the first episode. You’ll get to know them all very quickly. And for someone who usually thinks every show should be 16 episodes or less, I was quite impressed by how well paced the show is, and how intricately woven the plot is so as to run for 54 episodes without ever feeling lackluster. Honestly, 54 episodes felt too short, with each ~43 minutes passing by way too quickly. This is the only drama where I felt that if the show was longer than 54 episodes, I would gladly watch every single episode—twice!
Thoughts About the Ending (*spoilers obviously*):
“Why? Why do only selfish people live, but those with a heart and the righteous die? The heaven have made such a cruel choice. Is there no fairness in this world?”–Wei Zheng
Get the tissues ready because it is just one bucket of tears. Like way to break a girl’s heart into a million pieces. The ending itself is foreshadowed right from the very first episode, but it doesn’t make reaching that point any less heartbreaking. For Lin Shu and those who love him, having to experience a second parting, a parting that is to be forever, so soon after being reunited is just cruel. I’m not saying I dislike the ending though because the ending itself is appropriate and fitting to the story. Any other outcome would make me feel cheated.
Lin Chen: “Changsu, the old case is resolved. All this burden you have taken upon yourself you can leave them behind now. At this time, is it too much to ask for you to think about yourself for once? There are too many issues in this world, and things keep happening. You cannot take all of them onto your shoulders! Why? Why do you always give up, just when you should give up the least!”
Mei Changsu: “This is not giving up. It is making a choice. I have lived as Mei Changsu for 13 longs years. If at the end, I return to Lin Shu, return to the Northern Borders, return to the battlefield, for me that is a true blessing.”
I also can’t say that the ending is completely sad. It’s more bittersweet than anything. In his decision to lead the army north to fight the invaders, he is in effect shedding his cover as Mei Changsu and is finally able to reclaim his true identity as Lin Shu.
“Mei Changsu’s mission has already been completed. But Lin Shu still has his duties to fulfill. The fires of war is raging on the Northern Borders, there is no one in the court to lead the army. As a descendant of the Lin Manor, how can I stand by and watch on…I am still Lin Shu. Even though 13 years have passed, I am still the young Marshal of the Chiyan Army, Lin Shu. I want to return, return to Chiyan army’s battlefield. I want to return! For that is the place where I belong!”–Lin Shu
Lin Shu comes from a martial family and their blood flows through his body. So it is rather comforting to know that he died on the battlefield, heroically protecting his homeland. The battlefield is where he has always belonged, and it is the place he has always longed to return. For him to return there after 13 years and die there as a general with his head held high, there really is no better ending for him.
“To be an honorable man in this world, he should place importance on home and country”–Jingrui
It just breaks my heart that even until the last moment, he places duty to country and people first. It doesn’t matter that both might have forsaken him before; it is just like his character to take on that burden of responsibility. The people he dies to protect would never understand just how deep his sacrifice is and has been. He has always put the greater good before his heart’s desires.
Lin Shu: “They all say that fate lasts for three lives. In the next life, I hope that we can be born into ordinary families, and spend the rest of our lives together in peace.”
Nihuang: “You must remember your own promise in the next life.”
Lin Shu: “I will definitely keep my promise in the next life.”
In this lifetime, he managed to put prince Jing on the throne so as to create the world that he believes the people deserve and those who died in vain wanted to bring about. It is with his solemn determination that brought that world to fruition and then he uses his last bit of life to protect that world. In the next life, let’s pray that all of our heroes and heroines aren’t burdened with such great responsibilities and can live carefree lives with the people they love, happily until their hair turns white.
“I think the things that happened here will all be hidden and disappear like the secret tunnel, when we are finished it will also disappear without a trace and I will also slowly disappear from the view of others.”—Mei Changsu
Finally, there were little beats that I would have loved to see play out in more detail like the reunion between Lin Shu and his devoted lover friend Prince Jing or Fei Liu’s response to his Su gege’s death, but in the end, what we were given was still very beautifully understated. We don’t have to see how all our characters handled his death because we know they were greatly affected by it. However, we also know that because he lived, because he existed, they are better for it. Lin Shu is a man who left his mark on the world and is a name to be remembered for the ages.
“Even if the wind and clouds change, in the end they will retain their essence.”–Ep. 1
“No, no, it’s not that the wind is rising. It is that within these palace walls, the wind has never stopped.”–Ep 54