The Tang Dynasty Mystery

A type of Cdrama and film that has been very popular over the last decade, is the Tang Dynasty mystery, tales of detection, court intrigue and crime solving adapted from novels by well-known writers of the 21st century, yet set in ancient China. One reason for the current focus on Tang Dynasty culture, is that China is once again at an economic and cultural peak, recalling its greatest gold age in history. One key figure that immortalised this perfect combination of the Tang setting and tale of mystery, is Di Renjie.

Di Renjie was a real person and one of the famous Tang statesmen (618-907), who worked his way up from regional judicial office and ended his career as the Minister of State during the reign of Empress Wu Zetian. His deeds as county magistrate of Changping was fictionalised in an anonymously-written 18th century Gong’An novel, The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee (Digong An). 公案 Gōng Àn, Public Court Case fiction was the prototype for China’s detective and crime fiction and has been around since the time of the rise of the novel during the Song Dynasty (10th to 13th century). Along with tales of the supernatural, romance and swashbuckling, a lot of Song Huaben (storytelling scripts) gave voice to unfair court trials.

Di Gong’An, a Qing Dynasty (17th to early 20th century) novel, came after hundreds of years of development of the genre. By this time the genre was increasingly focussing on honourable judges solving cases and finding justice for the poor, with the aid of wuxia characters, such as Shi Yukun’s Seven Heroes and Five Gallants (Qixia Wuyi).  Two of Di’s lieutenants in the novel, Ma Joong and Chiao Tai, were “brothers of the greenwood” he’d met trying to rob him at first, as they thought he was a corrupt official. After discovering the judge’s honourable character, they put themselves at his service.

It was the Dutch scholar and writer Robert Van Gulik who popularised the Tang Dynasty mystery fiction in Europe. Not only did Van Gulik translate the 18th century novel faithfully into English (published 1949), thus introducing a very different style of detective writing to the West, and one that precedes its own such traditions by centuries, he wrote 16 of his own Judge Dee novels, retaining, amongst many elements, the sense of eerie mystery and the supernatural characteristic of the original Chinese work.

Up until the 1980s, Di Renjie mainly appeared on Chinese screens in imperial court dramas. His popularity in the West however, eventually fed back domestically and in the 21st century, Di has very much become the star of his own shows, starting with CCTV’s Master Detective Di Renjie (2004, director Qian Yanqiu, Liang Guanhua as Di), which spawned another two seasons, a prequel and novel adaptations. Other works have focused on particular cases or on Di’s earlier life. His current popularity exceeds that of his counterpart Judge Bao Xiaosu in the Guzhuang Zhentan Jü (Dynastic Detective Drama) genre.

The artist who put the on-screen Tang Dynasty Mystery on the global stage was Tsui Hark, whose magic realist cinematic style was perfect for Detective Di and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010, Andy Lau as Di). There’s been another 18 internet movies, some adapted from the plethora of contemporary Detective Di novels by authors like Pang Xuan Er, Wang Ke and Tang Yin, as well as more TV series and other films since. Inspired by the setting of Tang Dynasty, contemporary writers took it beyond Di Renjie and made it a sub-genre.

The web novelist Tangxiu created a female protagonist for her mystery Lady Coroner of the Great Tang (2013). Qingxian Yatou followed suit in 2014, setting her crime mystery Lady Coroner, a reimagining of Song Ci, Song Dynasty physician and forefather of Chinese forensics, in the Tang Dynasty, combining forensics investigation with crime detection, court intrigue, and regional unrest. It’s also the era in which the stellar Ma Boyong set his 2016 detective thriller “The Longest Day in Chang’An”, where a convict has 24 hours to uncover a plot to destroy the great capital city. All of these were adapted successfully to screen (the first two as Miss Truth and Imperial Coroner), the latter even bought by Amazon Prime.

Longest Day was so successful that IQiyi contracted Ma to write the screen adaptation of his novel Luoyang, internationally releasing the TV show before the book. Although it’s a completely different story, the ghostly atmosphere, sense of deep mystery, dark secrecy, and depictions of the urban underworld are reminiscent of both the original 18th century Dee novel and recent films. Even Qiu Xiaolong, creator of the uniquely Chinese modern day Inspector Chen mysteries, has channelled the spirit of Di Renjie in English in his 2021 Tang Dynasty mystery Shadow of the Empire.

Chinese Dynastic Detective Drama is a unique genre. The imperial judicial system vested regional magistrates with the responsibility of investigating and solving criminal cases, giving the Gong’An narratives expansive scope to involve all levels of society, intrigues at Court, kungfu as well as detection. The Tang era provides the perfect setting for mysteries, especially Empress Wu’s reign. With early urbanisation and all that this entailed, and foreign cultural exchange via the Silk Road trade routes, came not only a wealth of great stories, also much crime.  Soon to air is the adaptation of Dafeng Guaguo’s Gong’An style novel League of Noblemen eagerly anticipated by danmei and mystery fans around the world. I’m fascinated to see where writers will take the Tang Dynasty Mystery next and how global fandom continues to develop.






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