Of the beginning of an era, the historical costume fad: Scarlet Heart

Name: Dong-Lien Lin
Date: 04/2016
Instructor: Professor Emily Wilcox

Of the beginning of an era, the historical costume fad: Scarlet Heart Speaking of forming common mentality and shared experience among generations

of people, entertainment industry has demonstrated to be one of the leading forces that conveniently mold people’s mindset. Jay Chou, for example, created a wave of “cool fashion” in the wake of his rising into fame; it is clearly that individual entertainment star, or even performance, could “shape the scene of popular culture”. In viewing the Chinese film industry in the past decade, after the pervasion of Hong Kong commercial movies in the 1990s, people started to pursue Hollywood-like blockbusters that generate a sense of epic.

Historical costume drama (古裝劇) rose in the new millennium under such zealous pursuit of epic blockbusters and various films and TV shows follow this formula to draw attention. From the Zhang Yimou directed Hero(2002), Chen Kaige
directed The Promise(2005), to the Zhang Yimou directed, Jay Zhou starred Curse of

the Golden Flower, the fancy for historical costume drama has risen to the center of public appeal and controversy. Critics’ criticizing on these films center on misunderstandings about the historical background and confusing narrative style.

Scarlet Heart, a television series that also based on historical facts during early Qing dynasty, started filming on 6 December 2010, outperformed other cinemas, TV shows, and dramas with similar topic. The success of Scarlet Heart represented the advent of historical costume drama fad. While the historical Kangxi(康熙) court is a household name and people are familiar with Emperor Kangxi’s achievements, the series, on the other hand, script-writes unofficial history so that audiences could see the freshness in this already well-taught plots.

步步驚心, Scarlet Heart, is a Chinese television series that first aired on the Hunan Broadcasting System(湖南衛視, HBS) in 2011. Adapted from web novelist Tong Hua’s (桐華) novel originally, it features in its distinctive “time traveling(穿越)” story and well-elaborated historical costume, Scarlet Heart soon became a household

hit, only second to another HBS TV series, The Glamorous Imperial Concubine, in September 2011. In fact, the Scarlet Heart mania is way beyond numbers. Before airing on the HBS channel, people could gain access to the latest episode on the Net, which indicates that the actual audience base would be larger than that has been statistically recognized.

It is a true challenge to examine of which elements in the series are the most appealing to its audience, especially to high school students and to the white-collars. Generally speaking, the brilliant manipulation of the sense of “liminality” in its story as well as the delicate historical costume must have to do with Scarlet Heart’s unusual success.

Derived from the Latin “limen,” which means “threshold,” liminality is a term describing an ambiguous status of or pertaining to the threshold of two states, the status of in-between, mostly used in psychology and art history. I found it fruitful to

cash in on this expression of liminality to explain the appeals of Scarlet Heart. The whole TV series stand in the middle of modernity and tradition because it dramatizes history and re-interpret the famous Qing dynasty history in order to cater to the taste
of target audiences, students and the white-collars. Li Yan (李豔), in his research
paper In Search of the underling patterns and cultural Implications in “time-traveling” novels (穿越小說的創作模式與文化意藴研究), probed into the psychological complex that makes Scarlet Heart a splash. Li concluded that it is the mixture of

fancy for fantasy and the fond for history, and in a sense in between both emotions, an ambiguity that generates beauty, that makes the TV series appealing. Another aspect of the liminality in this television shows lies in the fact that our main character, Ruo Xi (若曦) is actually a 21st century person dressed in traditional costumes. With perfect information, Ruo Xi knows exactly how history would be written and could therefore foresee the results of historical events. She then becomes a fairly ambiguous being that is a blend with the identity of being a maid in Qing court and the inner knowledge of a modern person that has her own life experience.


The video clips shown above is one of the most drastic turning points in the television series that Ruo Xi finds out that she is the one to blame on a tragedy. According to the official history, children of Emperor Kangxi fought severely for sovereignty after the death of Kangxi and many related people were slaughtered once the new emperor inaugurated. To escape from the tragedy, Ruo Xi actively participates in the competition and wishes to lead people to a peaceful solution. However, her action leads to unexpected results since she is the beloved mistress simultaneously to two future emperor candidates. With the double intertwined love affair, she is fluctuating between the two parties and has no idea who she wants to help become emperor. Hatred grows as both sides regard their opponent to be deceptive on Ruo Xi, and more extreme actions such as slaughter follows. Ruo Xi then becomes the person who prompts the tragedy. The fact that the good-minded person with perfect information actually caused the tragedy is one big issue brought up in the television series. With the knowledge of history, Ruo Xi should be able to prevent tragedy from taking place. Bound by history and her identity of being a maid in Qing court, she not only couldn’t stop historical events from occurring, moreover, she effectively makes it happen. The

idea of liminality emerges here again. Ruo Xi’s identity could not be easily defined and she has double identity and characters. The complicated psychological complex and ambiguity is also an appeal to the audience.

Historical costumes also play a big role in Scarlet Heart that it would be an entire different television series without these costumes. In the video clip shown above, it is the classic segment where Ruo Xi confesses to the Emperor about her previous love affair as well as her conspiracy of preventing him from seizing the sovereign power. Costumes define movements, and traditional loose sleeve costume, especially, restricts actress’ movements into certain formulas. In overall, this builds up a more restrained image that no low-end quarrel and cliché expressions are shown in this episode. Instead, the director made good use of costumes and the elegance that costumes bring forth, resulting that the emotions are sufficient but well controlled. Imagine this specific segment being adapted into a soap opera style television series such as Romance in the Rain (情

深深雨濛濛), the restrained underlying beauty in the story plots could lose very easily.

With this said, the adaptation of the original novel version Scarlet Heart to the now well-known television series version is definitely positive. As the Yue opera version Hedda Gabler adapted by William Sun and Faye Fei is a good adaptation that contains the elaborated and well-organized story in the original Ibsen play, the television version Scarlet Heart also visualizes this very climax of the entire story. While the director and actors must have to do with bridging over tv shows to the original novel, costumes are certainly integral to the process. As Li Yan stated, it is not just about time traveling, instead, it is about the entire historical setting; it has to” reconstruct the correct image with great details, ranging from the seemingly exotic mindset to even daily language usage.”

After the release of Scarlet Heart, historical costume drama with time traveling plots becomes a norm in television industry. Several famed series followed this formula, including the all-time most popular Korean television series that filmed in 2013, My Love From The Star (來自星星的你). The influence of Scarlet Heart is comparable to that of Jay Chou’s in that they both creates distinctive style in their fields. Moreover, the unique style that Scarlet Heart brings forth has now become a fad and that all time-traveling series follow suit, even though Scarlet Heart is not the first television series that make use of this topic. Clearly, Scarlet Heart molds the Chinese entertainment industry in the past decade and it is one of the most representative television series of all times; as time goes by, we could expect more historical costume drama with more elaborated variances. When we look back to trace such trend in the future, we could definitely see Scarlet Heart in many of the similar films.