I have a confession to make－I love Hua Qiangu (花千骨). And I am not alone. Not by a long shot. Why? Read on.
The “Best” Success in TV History
Hua Qiangu (花千骨), aka The Journey of Flower is arguably the best success in Chinese TV history. According to local news source, the show－adapted from the published novel of the same title by Fresh Guoguo(Fresh果果)－ has not only done well in traditional TV reception, but was reportedly played (watched) online with over 20 billion clicks. It has become a phenomenon in China: an mobile MMORPG of the same franchise was made and reportedly has a monthly revenue of millions; the female actress Zanillia Zhao Liying (趙麗穎) playing the female lead Hua Qiangu (nicknamed Xiaogu or Little Gu )has a latest smartphone named after her－小骨pro (Xiaogu pro) which also reportedly sells very well.
Xiaogu pro, named after the story’s protagonist Hua Qiangu
The story of Hua Qiangu follows the tragicomedy of the female protagonist Hua Qiangu, whose mother died at her birth. She was born with the blood that poisons and kills flowers (Gu means bone in Chinese and derives a meaning of corpse in classical Chinese, thus the name Hua Qiangu literally means death of a thousand flowers). She was haunted by ghosts and spirits since childhood. When her father died, she seeked to learn magic and become enlightened－ to protect herself from ghosts. She met Dongfang Yuqing (東方彧卿) on the way to Chang Liu(長留), a dominant sect devoted to the Taoist way of practicing and meditating to become an enlightened person (修道), or Xian (仙) in Chinese. Dongfang gives her an amulet to protect her from being haunted on the way. The amulet, blessed with magic with a drop of her own blood, later transforms into a caterpillar spirit (靈虫) that protects her and she named the spirit Sugar (糖寶).
Qiangu is accepted as the only disciple of Bai Zihua (白子畫), the sect leader and the most powerful Xian in the universe, after striving very hard for the championship in the annual Sword Contest (仙劍大會) held in Chang Liu, one that resembles The Voice of China (a popular singing contest reality show in China, modelled after America’s got Talent) in which the masters choose disciples they favour after the latter perform. It is revealed later that Qiangu is born as the Fatal Challenge/Karma (生死劫) of Bai, which means her existence would eventually harm Bai, or even kills or maddens him. Having that knowledge in advance, Bai tried to kill Qiangu in her sleep but was stopped by his conscience as Qiangu is innocent. There begins the ill-fated love between Bai and Qiangu, with the latter falling in love with her master and teacher soon and hiding the forbidden feelings.
The plot comes to its turning point and climax when Bai is poisoned in a battle for protecting Qiangu, gradually losing his power and dying. In desperation to save her beloved master, Qiangu accidentally discovers that her blood, albeit poisonous to flowers and other living things, can curb the poison in Bai’s system and prolong his endangered life. To Bai’s reluctance and anguish, she begins to feed Bai her own blood to save him. However, the ultimate cure can only be acquired by collecting and reuniting the Ten Ancient Artefacts (上古神器), the ultimate prize chased after by every Xin master and disciple, as well as all demons and dark cultists－as the reunion will allegedly unleash the Ultimate Ancient Unharnessed Power (洪荒之力) which will grant the one in procession of all the Artefacts the literal power of God.
With the help of ShuoFeng (朔風), a fellow disciple in Chang Liu and good friend, Qiangu collected nine of the ten Artefacts, only to find that ShuoFeng is the reincarnation of one of the pieces of the last Artefact－The Flame and Water Jade (炎水玉)－which is the key to saving Bai’s life. ShuoFeng turns himself back into his original form to fulfill Qiangu’s wish and love. Qiangu finally saves Bai, but is then hunted by Chang Liu and the sects akin, as one of the sect leaders of the “righteous” (正道) is assassinated and Qiangu becomes the suspect by collecting the Artefacts, guarded by various sects and their leaders.
The Unique Universe and the Enticing Love and Suffering
Did you enjoy the story? I sure did. (and yes I deliberately leave out the ending for you to find out and enjoy for yourself.) And similarly millions of Chinese did. Because this is not just another story of love with struggles and contradictions and suffering－as all famous love story goes－but one with deliberate, sophisticated and mature construction of characters as well as the universe it is set in.
The universe of Hua Qiangu may look novel to the western audience (not sure if there is any at the moment) with its rich traditional Chinese culture such as 修道 (meditating to become enlightened) , 上古神器(Ancient Artefacts), 靈虫(animal spirit), 生死劫(Challenge and Fate), but these are all rooted in the Chinese audience－all descendents of traditional Chinese philosophies, notably Taoism and Buddhism. Loss in translation granted, I hope my so-so translation of the plot still suffices to retain and convey some of the charms of the story as well as its culture－I just cannot stand the outrageously wrong and over-simplified version of the story found on Wikipedia under the title The Journey of Flower , which literally deprives the story of its unique features and beauty.
Mediocre Plot Carried by Fantastic Characterization and Good Acting
All being said, and despite the popularity of the show, its plot was repeatedly criticized for the clichéd and cheesy love and conflicts easily found in its counterpart in the genre. Pacing is at times slow, almost unbearable; and the story seems to lack the profoundness “classics” process－and the lessons to the audience. To all that I will not deny as a fan, but I believe all these combined do not overweigh the overall charm of the story and the show, primarily due to the fantastic characterization(thanks to the original writer of the novel) and good acting(thanks to all main leads as well as supporting actors and actresses).
There are no flat main characters you can easily find in the story. Consider the protagonist Qiangu. Throughout the story she seems to be a sweetheart with all her innocence and kindness and right amount of righteousness. Every male character she meets fall under her charm－including an Emperor, the leader of the dominant dark cultist sect, and leader of a secret organisation which knows the secrets of everyone. Yet we learn from the events and her suffering that there is more underneath the pretty and innocent looks－something may even more enticing and attractive than what is perceived on the surface.
Then consider Bai. Made as the most powerful Xin and leader of the dominant righteous sect, he seems a rather flat character－even boring, one may say. Yet early on we are let on to glimpses of the richness of the character, when he accepts Qiangu as his disciple, knowing that harm is in the way, and everything he cares about－the fate of Chang Liu, his possibility to become enlightened (in the ultimate way), his own life－may be destroyed by this one single act. And there is one memorable scene which I believe marks the level of richness of this character:
In this scene, Bai just punished Qiangu in the public to justify for Qiangu stealing the Artefacts, crucifying her and swording her himself－one hundred and eight times－ with the sword DuanNian (斷念, literally forfeiting feelings) he gave her as a gift which she treasured. But the penalty is more－eighty one Xiao Hun Ding (銷魂釘, literally soul-destroying nails) are to be put to her. After and while she suffered seventeen of them, and lost consciousness, Bai announced he, as her master and teacher, will take the remainder of punishment－a total of sixty-four nails which would destroy almost all the power he had gathered over thousands of years. And he did. Wow, no matter so many fall for him.
I have not watched Zhao Liying before this, so there is no comparison. But her performance is undoubted a product of both talents and hard work. This I can grant you－from the sweet innocence to the ultimate determination and profound sadness (toward the end), there is one and only one Qiangu on screen and she is played by Zhao Liying. No one else.
Wallace Huo is equally brilliant in portraying Bai with his gait and aura of a sophisticated Xin, a sect Leader as well as the emotions and turmoil of a troubled teacher caught in the love for his only disciple and responsibilities of the most powerful man in the world. Huo has been an actor I like, with his appearance that best suit the roles set in classic China.
Universal Charm of Entangled Love
I do not believe the phenomenal success of Hua Qiangu is by any means a coincidence. Besides its unique elements I attempted to lay down above, the story’s main theme－entangled love－ resonates with the comparable success of contemporary stories such as Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey. And perhaps that would apply to the old stories too, if only they can be seen in such light, somehow.
p.s.: Am I the first one to write such a lengthy piece in English about Hua Qiangu?