The most boorish and mercenary character in Hong Kong drama War and Beauty is also its greatest romantic.
Eager to leave poverty behind and make a name for himself in the dog-eat-cat world of 19th-century Qing China, delivery agent Kong Wu has no qualms leaving a group of defenseless girls to the mercy of ruthless thugs so that he can complete his job. Yet when he discovers a silk handkerchief embroidered with a poem inside a second-hand battle garment possibly donated by the palace, he develops feelings for its creator even though he does not know her. Soon, he finds work as a laborer and later guard in the Forbidden City, where he falls in love with Guwalgiya Onn-sin, a kind palace maid he assumes has sewn the words. She, however, eventually refutes this and breaks up with him to become a royal concubine for the sake of exacting revenge on the empress on behalf of her grandmother. As he pines for his lost love while gazing at the handkerchief, the wind blows it away onto the path of the notoriously iron-fisted imperial consort Niuhuru Yu-yuet, whom some of the audience later suspects is its real creator, marking the beginning of their romantic friendship.
The poem reads:
It is not that I love the willows by the palace walls. I was only misled by fate.
There are times for flowers to wither and times for them to bloom. All depends on the Spring God.
There is no way to leave but also no means to stay!
If someone were to float a small boat down a river, I would gladly follow him.
It is not that I love life as a courtesan. Fate seems to have toyed with me.
There are times for flowers to wither and times for them to bloom. All depends on the Spring God.
There will be no choice but to leave in the end. How can I stay on!
If I were to get a headful of mountain flowers, ask not where my home would be.
Legend has it that Confucian politician Zhu Xi had accused Yan Rui of having an affair with a prefect he wanted to remove and thrown her into jail. In spite of the beatings he ordered, she refused to inform on the prefect. A sympathetic official who later replaced Zhu Xi commanded Yan Rui to compose a poem in defense of herself, and the above product won her parole. By borrowing her work, the drama suggests that, despite their elevated societal positions vis-à-vis those of courtesans, womenfolk in the palace were, in general, no less potential objects of lust whose fortunes could rise and fall at the whim of male “patrons” (alluded to by references to the Spring God).
Overall, Kong Wu’s encounters may have been based on an old story of a Tang dynasty soldier who found inside his coat a poem from the lonely court attendant who sewed it. In it, she wrote of lovingly adding more stitches and cotton for its unknown future wearer and hoping to marry him in their next lives (“沙場征戍客, 寒苦若為眠。戰袍經手作, 知落阿誰邊。蓄意多添線, 含情更著綿。今生已過也, 重結後生緣。”). Not daring to keep it, the solider passed the poem to his general, and the general presented it to the emperor, who magnanimously wedded her and the soldier to each other.
Yet this anecdote is only the tip of the iceberg in a long line of ancient Chinese poems describing the misery of palace women, most of whom received no romantic attention from emperors and led isolated lives. War and Beauty also made reference to tales of poetry on red leaves expressing their longing for love, which some of these women were said to float down canals leading to the outside world. One poem was as follows:
Once I stepped into the inner depths of the palace,
there was no longer any way to catch a glimpse of spring.
I am writing these lines on a leaf and sending them to the person the water flows to.
All these visions of the unbounded nature as a holding place for dreams (the bountiful mountain flowers and the waters leading to unknown destinations) are striking, given how the reverse—membership in exclusive circles—is often the goal of human endeavors. At one point or another in the drama, Kong Wu and most of the royal concubines headlining the drama regard the Forbidden City as the bearer of their dreams: Kong Wu wants to be rich, Onn-sin wants justice, Hougiya Yuk-ying wants to raise the status of her mother, Dongiya Yi-sun wants to save her adoptive father from execution for treason. Even Yu-yuet might have been motivated to join the royal harem for some ideal back when she was said to be a harmless ingénue. By the finale, however, all yearn to escape the oppressive place in search of themselves, and perhaps, a life of love. Those incapable of doing so urge those who can to fulfill this new dream on their behalf. When Yi-sun laments that she cannot remember where her hometown is, a dying Onn-sin recommends hers in Hangzhou—a beautiful place with hills covered with little yellow flowers.
In fact, the notion of palace walls forming a trap would have subverted the etymological meaning of the term “paradise”: a walled enclosure (from the ancient Iranian word pairadaeza). Perhaps, the traditional concept of paradise as an enclosed garden is itself problematic. We usually conceive of paradises as places offering complete bliss and no distress. While boundaries like walls can fulfill the latter function by giving a sense of protection, the spatial growth and human exploration they restrict may feel suffocating. Furthermore, bliss emanates from not only tangible sources like creature comforts, which the garden paradise is supposedly capable of providing, but also intangible sources like stimulating activities and relationships, which the garden paradise can only at best facilitate. Yet the erection of boundaries may reduce social diversity and, by corollary, the types of relationships possible (e.g. befriending someone from a different background). Not only that, by sheltering individuals from harsh geographical features such as deep oceans and arid deserts, boundaries hinder the derivation of pride and satisfaction through adventures.
In modern times, the image of paradise has switched in various parts of the world to the more open-concept one of a tropical island, which tantalizes dreamers with vast stretches of idyllic beaches and unobstructed views of the sea, tying in with the ideals of Chinese court poetry. If islands prove unsatisfactory as well, our imagination may yet take us to more versatile and radical structures of paradise. Maybe we can even accept that multiple kinds of paradises have to exist to serve the needs of different people, and envisage passageways between the paradises so that no one has to be forever confined to only one of them. Ultimately, such broad-minded and egalitarian visions may ameliorate our long-time blind worship of walls in regular life.
What physical reconfigurations cannot remove, though, is distress from social comparison. It is frequently parroted that wherever people exist, politics also exist. However amply stocked and well-connected each place is, dwellers in a multi-paradise universe would probably busy themselves contrasting their paradises with their neighbors’. Possibly, some would flit endlessly among the paradises, forever anxious that someone has a better paradise he does not know of out there. Even when there are no physical resources to fight over, an inhabitant of paradise would perhaps still concern himself with how wise and able he is in comparison to his peers, scanning for and tallying every perceived insult and successful retort. He might still resent control from others and relish psychological domination. One of the few flaws of the drama is arguably its failure to discuss how its characters will contend with the government corruption and power struggles among even commoners, which are responsible for their journey to the Forbidden City in the first place, in the countryside “paradise” they flee to.
Various thinkers have conceptualized paradisiacal characteristics that may address these aspects of the human condition. Oral poet Hesiod assured listeners that men “live untouched by sorrow” in the Elysian Fields, the winterless paradise in Greek mythology. Theologian Origen thought of the Christian paradise as a school for souls. Buddhists envision a “Western Paradise,” also called “Western Pure Land,” which offers tranquility and a state of enlightenment. Often, the only condition for access to such worlds is to live a pious and upright life.
Cynics, on the other hand, would attack the veracity of such accounts, along with that of the anecdotes above, questioning how one can trust that they are not, like escapist fiction, illusory stories we feeble creatures tell to one another to anesthetize the horrors of our existence and mortality. In spite of the alleged shortcomings in casting and tempo of the drama’s 2013 sequel, Beauty at War, credit should perhaps be given to the creative manner in which it connects the two productions and contemplative tone. This sequel takes a dig at its legacy by positing that the events in its predecessor are no more than vicious rumors. It then challenges viewers in the final episode with the alternate possibility that the events in the sequel are but a long dream Yu-yuet is having in the universe of the first series. Which narrative is “real” and which is “false”?
Its own answer seems to be that what truly matters is mental reality. That would be a piece of advice insensible to take to the extreme, since the physical can affect the mental, but a large part of happiness does come from letting go, which the sequel advocates. To that extent, inner peace may be our most accessible and believable paradise. In relation to such a goal, War and Beauty comforts us with its chief source of romanticism: the idea that even amidst an ugly and deceptive social reality, there are reasons for kindness and possibilities for genuine love and friendship.