I really enjoyed Tientsin Mystic back in 2018 and wanted to wait for a suitable occasion to write about it. Now that we’re in Novel Coronavirus lockdown, I am, as usual, working my hours in publishing, as well as being in the middle of a Chinese culture project, in this case, my new book. However, apart from staying in and social distancing, looking after your mental welfare, is something that I can use my particular skills to contribute to. It’s been a while since I’ve seen the series, but this means I can write about the salient themes that have stood the test of time, without spoiling much of the plot.
Based on the novel Heshen (River God) by best-selling web novelist Tianxia Bachang, the series, directed by Li Tian, is set in the major north-eastern port city of Tianjin (Tientsin) during China’s Republican era, where the rivers are frequently flooded and a series of unexplained deaths occur in these waters. Only Guo Deyou (Li Xian), captain of the corpse recovery team of the Tientsin Police, nicknamed “Little River God”, could solve these murders using a technique derived from his mystic powers of finding clues in a smoke-induced trance. However, when the chairman of the Chamber of Commerce becomes one of these victims, Guo is suspected of his murder. Eventually, Guo teams up with Ding Mao (Zhang Mingyin), the deceased chairman’s son, his childhood sweetheart “little Shamaness” Gu Ying (Cici Wang) and Xiao Lanlan (Chen Yumi) daughter of the general secretary of the Tientsin Council. As the string of clues and treachery they uncover leads them down the city’s history and to the Mogu cult that took hold over the Hebei region twenty years ago, they realize they must stop its revival in order to save their city.
The fascinating Republican period in Chinese history is also one of China’s most popular period drama settings. However, from its pop-rock, Sherlock-inspired opening sequence, to the unique costume designs of Guo and Gu, Tientsin Mystic seeks to be more than just another republican historical drama. Combining traditional outfits with punk and modern ethnic tribal looks, the series presents the characters who hold the traditional societal roles (the mystic detective and the shamaness), in a different light. It’s also refreshing to see a Republican series that isn’t set in Shanghai.
One thing I’ve always loved in Tianxia Bachang’s work, is that albeit genre fiction, so much Chinese culture is woven into the narratives. And the TV series has successfully reflected this element from the novel. It’s a fascinating insight into the traditional beliefs and rituals that were still present and practiced in early twentieth century everyday life alongside Western suits, telephones and motor cars. The cultural details extend beyond the set pieces of formal ceremonies, and are woven into the narrative and dialogue, romance develops at the street stall over bowls of wontons, clues lead the characters into the city’s underworld and investigations are carried out over delicious-sounding Tientsin fish pots.
There are reasons why the Republican Era makes for such great material for Chinese stories, and Tientsin Mystic gives full exploration of the wonderful dramatic tension created by these societal elements. You have the interactions between foreigners and Chinese, the complexities to trade and commerce that this brings. You have gang conflicts that are linked to certain clans and businesses; and the popularity of cults during a time of chaos and uncertainty. The breakdown of traditional society is captured by the experiences of main characters such as Ding Mao, the young intellectual who is influenced by Western sciences and struggling to reconcile his dreams of becoming a doctor with his filial obligation to head the family business, and Xiao Lanlan, a modern young woman who pursues a career as an investigative journalist in defiance of the arranged marriage her father has planned for her.
The clash between Old and New is epitomized in the relationship between our two young heroes, the mystic detective and the forensic scientist, who hate each other to begin with, then come to form an uneasy alliance, and ultimate to trust each other. Elements of genre fiction also make the series infinitely watchable, with the unruly anti-hero who disrespects authority and convention that is at the centre so many of Tianxia Bachang’s novels, atmospheric mystical dreamscapes, and nothing less than a big, zombie-style chase in the middle of the series.
Tientsin Mystic is one of the series that have really demonstrated to me the kind of standards of production and conception that 21stcentury Chinese TV has reached, after a phase of very fast development over the last few decades, I hope you enjoy it too.
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