Liu Che was commonly known as Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty, and is one of the most important rulers in China's more than 2,000-year-long history of feudal dynasties. His name "wu" means "martial achievements" and he lived in 156-87 BC.
Although Liu was described as "lacking in literary grace" by Mao Zedong (1893-1976) in his poem "Snow," the sixth emperor of Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) secured an important place in Chinese history.
But partly due to the fact that the Han Dynasty was of the remote past, today people are not very familiar with Liu.
While there have been many historical TV dramas, many deal with stories of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and only a few were about the Han Dynasty.
This has been changed with "Great Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty" (Han Wu Da Di), a 58-part serial which has just finished airing on China Central Television (CCTV), making a hit among soap opera fans across the country.
Cast and rating
With an investment of 50 million yuan (US$6.02 million), the drama claims to be "the most expensive historical drama" in China.
The star-studded big-budget production directed by female director Hu Mei, deals with the life of the emperor and his 54-year reign.
The part of Liu Che is shared by four actors, with Chen Baoguo, one of the country's hottest TV actors, acting as the emperor in his middle age till the last few years of life.
All other major roles are also played by famous actors and actresses.
Jiao Huang, also famous for acting ancient emperors in historical dramas like Chen, acts as Liu Che's father, Emperor Jing of Han Dynasty.
Kuei Ya-Lei, famous actress from Taiwan Province, plays the role of Empress Dou, the grandmother of Liu.
Besides that, the drama uses more than 1,700 characters in narrating the royal and social lives in the Han Dynasty as well as that of Han's chief enemy - the nomadic Xiongnu people (the Huns).
Well-known household historical figures like Zhang Qian, Wei Qing, Wei Zifu, Sima Qian, Dongfang Shuo, Li Guang and Su Wu all made their appearance.
The drama was premiered on January 2. The first week its view rating already hit 4.49 per cent, and continued to rise after then, making it become talk of town in many cities.
CCTV said it is optimistic about the rise of the drama's viewer ratings in the following weeks, hoping it could break the historical drama record of 19.8 per cent, which was made by "Yongzheng Court" (Yongzheng Wangchao), also directed by Hu in 1997.
The TV station, the largest in China, has already reaped a record 120 million yuan (US$14.5 million) by airing TV commercials before and in the middle of "Emperor Wu."
The VCD/DVD copyright was also sold at an "extremely high" price, CCTV has revealed.
The director distinguishes "Emperor Wu" with other historical dramas, which in recent years have mushroomed and been flooding screen.
Since the end of 1990s, there occurred a new genre of historical dramas. Instead of basing the storyline on history, the series is a comic recreation of historical themes, which is called "xi shuo" in Chinese.
Although the substance of these works is historical characterization and historical events, they make use of popular narrative and comedy genre formats.
The themes these dramas chose have no direct relationship with historical facts. History is invented on an assumed unfamiliar stage.
They not only recall history, but also simulate history.
Representatives of this genre are "Joking Stories about Emperor Qianlong" (Xishuo Qianlong), "Princess Huanzhu" (Huanzhu Gege)" "Prime Minister Liu Luoguo" (Zaixiang Liu Luoguo) and "The Eloquent Ji Shaolan" (Tiechi Tongya Ji Shaolan).
Hu Mei claims that her latest work is 10,000 miles away from these "xi shuo" dramas.
She said the screenplay is based on "Historical Records" (Shi Ji) and "History of Han" (Han Shu), works of two renowned Han Dynasty historians Sima Qian and Ban Gu.
The intention of the television drama is not only entertaining people, but also "inspiring people's pride in Chinese history and Chinese nationality by telling stories strictly based on the respect for history," she said.
According to Hu, in order to reproduce history more like what it was, the crew employed many experts on customs.
Mao Huaiqing, the drama's art director, said he designed costumes for characters according to photos of pottery figurines from the Han Dynasty.
Hu and her colleagues' efforts have been praised by historians.
"The drama makes a good combination of art and history," said Professor Huang Pumin with the Department of History of Renmin University of China.
While people agree that the basic storyline of the drama strictly accords with history, they point out that it is not flawless.
On the contrary, it makes many small mistakes, some of which even ordinary television viewers who might know a little about history will notice.
For example, paper had not been invented in the Han Dynasty; people scratched characters onto slips of bamboo. But in one scene, a box is sealed with paper.
The drama also "arranges" Han people to use chairs and saddle iron, which they did not.
And in some scenes actors and actresses use words, phrases and idioms like "strategy," "heart-broken" and "policy" that would only appear many centuries later.
The most surprising and entertaining error is about Sima Qian, a castrated man because of a punishment from the imperial court.
The great ancient historian was sentenced to castration because he offended the emperor.
But in the drama, he wears mustache.
Hu admitted that it was her neglect. She said the crew did not realize the problem until shooting the scenes of castration before other scenes which in the drama would be shown much later.
They did ask the actor to shave, but it was already too late to correct the scenes shot before that.
But such mistakes did not see people lose interest in the drama. Instead, people appear to be more interested in it.
More and more people join in to look for faults and it gradually developed into a big discussion.
At the same time, people's attention was shifted from minor details to the more essential conception of history.
Some claimed the portrayal of Emperor Wu as perfect and flawless.
Historians said like other emperors in Chinese history, Liu Che also made many mistakes, some of which were serious.
But Hu's drama simply chooses to portray him as a great emperor.
Hu said she welcomed such kind of criticism. The discussion itself showed people were watching the drama.
According to Hu, many people read "Historical Records" and "History of Han" while watching the series. Comparing the differences between history records and the television drama is fun for them.
"For me, ratings are not the most important thing. 'Emperor Wu' has incurred so much attention, that is already a big success," she said.
Change of focus
Some other critics watch the drama from the perspective of popular culture of contemporary China.
"'Emperor Wu' shows that the imagination of emperors, which prevails in recent years, has not dried up. It is still an important part of contemporary culture that can not be parried," Zhang Yiwu, a professor at Peking University, wrote in a local newspaper in Beijing.
Zhang said although "Yongzheng Court" and "Emperor Wu" were directed by the same director, they refract completely different social psychology from a different time.
Emperor Yongzheng of the Qing Dynasty was a controversial figure in history and difficult to evaluate. "Yongzheng Court" tried to depict him as a reformist who showed great fortitude under heavy pressure.
Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty, on the other hand, was a universally recognized victor. "Emperor Wu" speaks highly of his great feats, especially in driving away the menacing Xiongnu tribes, in a big way. This is very rare in China where individualism and heroism were absent for thousands of years.
Zhang said this is the result of the fact that China is thriving and powerful.
"Over past years, we Chinese tended to glorify those tragic heroes who showed great fortitude under great pressure, such as Yue Fei, Wen Tianxiang and Lin Zexu. The other genre of heroes, like Emperor Wu, who did not suffer many setbacks and frustrations before success, were never given enough attention," he said.
The condition, as Zhang analyzed, was the result of China's miserable destiny over the past century, and the symbol of the past misery and humiliation of the Chinese nation.
Today with rapid social and economic development, China has bidden farewell to yesterday and is arriving at an age of modernization.
People's enthrallment with Emperor Wu, Zhang said, is actually their desire for a brand new century.
"The new development of Chinese history requires new collective imagination. This is the key issue that the television drama has highlighted," Zhang said.
Source: China Daily