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A modern take on ancient detective tales

By WANG XINGWEI | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2024-02-28 07:43

Above: Zhong Chuxi (left) portrays Empress Wu Zetian and Zhou Yiwei (right) portrays Judge Dee in the new TV series Judge Dee's Mystery. Below and right: The key elements in eight mystery cases in the series. Bottom: The streets of ancient Chang'an generated by AI.

A new TV series explores the ancient Chinese detective tales of Judge Dee, blending historical mysteries, AI visuals, and universal values.

When it comes to ancient Chinese detectives, the name Di Renjie, a renowned judge and administrator of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), often springs to mind.

For centuries, Di has been portrayed as a heroic investigator in popular novels and stories throughout ancient China.

Today, this tradition lives on in Chinese entertainment, with numerous TV and film adaptations of Di's detective stories, firmly etching the judge into the public consciousness.

However, what may be lesser-known is Di's growing recognition in the Western world, earning him the moniker of "China's Sherlock Holmes".

Drawing inspiration from Di and the genre of Chinese detective fiction, Dutch Sinologist and diplomat Robert Hans van Gulik crafted his own original historical mystery tales featuring Judge Dee, collectively known as Judge Dee's Mystery in the West.

Since their English introduction in the 1950s, according to CGTN, Van Gulik's works have captured the imagination of audiences across Europe and the Americas, with translations available in over a dozen languages.

Now, the popular collection is experiencing a resurgence on television screens.

The new TV series Judge Dee's Mystery chronicles the life of esteemed Judge Dee. While solving various criminal cases in different places where he serves during the early stages of his career, Dee also uncovers the mystery surrounding his own birth.

Premiering on China's Central Television and streaming giant Youku on Feb 6, the drama is set to reach audiences worldwide in over 190 countries and regions. Notably, Netflix has acquired the rights to broadcast the series on its platforms, marking its first purchase of an ancient Chinese mystery drama.

The series presents a total of 17 mystery cases, including "The Phoenix Seal", "The Lacquer Screen", and "The Chinese Gold Murders", evoking the suspenseful atmosphere of Van Gulik's detective stories.

Unlike traditional Chinese detective fiction, which often incorporates supernatural elements, the new series emphasizes logic, reason, and realism. Facing a tangled web of cases, Judge Dee and his assistants employ deductive reasoning akin to Sherlock Holmes to crack mysteries.

For instance, in the case of "The Chinese Gold Murders", a ghost ship adrift at sea with no survivors conceals a "Golden Mystery". As Judge Dee delves into the intricacies of the situation, additional mysteries emerge, intertwining with one another.

"I was most impressed by the plot design of this case, taking pleasure in peeling back the layers to find the truth," said actor Zhou Yiwei, who portrays Judge Dee in the series.

However, Judge Dee's Mystery is more than a mere detective drama.

"Compared to other adaptations of Di Renjie's stories, our drama stands out for its diversity and inclusivity," said Li Yunliang, the director of the series.

Exploring various landscapes of the Tang Dynasty empire, from the bustling capital Chang'an to the country's remote western regions, the series explores a wide range of topics, including judiciary, politics, diplomacy, commerce, religion, customs, and social life, while also shedding light on the darker aspects of ancient society.

However, beneath the veneer of Chang'an's vibrant festivities, a hidden undercurrent persists. For example, Empress Wu Zetian challenges aristocratic interests when she fervently promotes comprehensive reform measures.

Despite her progressive vision, Wu faces familial opposition. The disappearance of the "Phoenix Seal", a symbol of the empress' authority, plunges the court into turmoil, jeopardizing her position. Accidentally embroiled in the case, Judge Dee unveils the truth and ascends the ranks of officialdom.

"The dynamic between Wu and Judge Dee is complicated. Sharing similar political philosophy and reformist ideals, they are more like confidants rather than a ruler and a subject. But tensions sometimes arise between the two due to their different positions," explained actress Zhong Chuxi, who portrays Empress Wu in the series.

In addition to broader contexts, the series also explores various stages of Judge Dee's life. "From his early career to retirement in old age, audiences can witness the chronicles of this legendary figure's life, which is rarely seen in other adaptations," Li said.

However, the series never intends to pursue a faithful recreation of the Tang Dynasty but offers a modern interpretation of the classical stories that still resonate with contemporary audiences.

This modern sensibility permeates various aspects of the series, including its visual aesthetics. The busy streets of ancient Chang'an, for example, are brought to life using AI-generated imagery, according to Li, achieving unparalleled visual authenticity.

Reflecting on the recent global fascination with AI-powered video generation models, Li said he believes that embracing AI technology is an inevitable trend in the film and television industries. "Without leveraging AI, it would be impossible to present grand scenes like a ghost ship at sea in our series," he said.

The technical prowess is just one example of the drama's modernity. Through the narrative of Empress Wu Zetian, China's sole female emperor, audiences can also engage with contemporary themes, such as gender equality.

Zhong views Wu as an independent woman with ambitions, political talent, and lofty ideals, which was very unconventional for her time. Her forward-thinking approach to governance, rooted in the rule of law, aligns with Judge Dee's beliefs, leading him to join Wu's ranks and become a pivotal figure in her administration.

"The series weaves the principles of the rule of law throughout its narrative," Zhou said, emphasizing its goal to prompt contemporary audiences to reflect on the essence of law and justice. For him, the spirit of the rule of law lies in developing a better environment for the vulnerable, a universal ideal that resonates across cultures.

Li believes that Western audiences can gain insight into Judge Dee's character and the cultural roots of Chinese civilization.

"Judge Dee exemplifies traditional Chinese virtues and serves as a hero admired by the Chinese people."

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