Last June, Henan TV produced and aired a special 45-minute program in honor of the Dragon Boat Festival. The show featured traditional arts associated with Luoyang and Kaifeng — both ancient capitals located in what is now Henan province — including pipa music and classical dance, puppet shows, and dragon-boat races. But it was a non-traditional performance that stole the show: “Prayer,” a dance routine filmed entirely in water, has since amassed a jaw-dropping 8 billion plays on Chinese social media.

“Prayer” tells the story of a Luo River nymph. In her previous life, she was known as Zhen Mi, a beautiful woman at the center of a feud waged between the ruthless warlord Cao Cao (155-220 AD) and his sons, Cao Pi and Cao Zhi. According to legend, Zhen preferred Cao Zhi, but the young duke was sent into exile after a failed palace coup that cost him both his rank and his lady. In 221 AD, Cao Zhi journeyed to Luoyang to see his older brother Cao Pi, then the new emperor of the state of Wei, only to learn that Zhen Mi had died while he was in exile.

Details from “Nymph of the Luo River” showing Cao Zhi’s reunion with Zhen Mi, by Gu Kaizhi. Courtesy of The Palace Museum

Details from “Nymph of the Luo River” showing Cao Zhi’s reunion with Zhen Mi, by Gu Kaizhi. Courtesy of The Palace Museum

Devastated, Cao Zhi left Luoyang. Stopping along the Luo River for a nap, he dreamed that Zhen Mi had transformed into a river goddess. She came to him gliding across the surface, surrounded by water animals and fish flying in the air. As the gods of wind and the Yellow River floated in the air and beat their drums, Cao Zhi and the nymph gazed at each other tenderly and fell into an embrace, reuniting after their long separation.

Waking from his reverie, Cao Zhi immediately penned his magnum opus, “Ode to the Nymph of Luo River.” His piece was later copied by the Eastern Jin dynasty calligrapher Wang Xizhi (303-361 AD) and turned into the painting “Nymph of the Luo River” by Gu Kaizhi (c. 348-409 AD). Together, the three works are known as the “Three Perfections” of Chinese culture.

Unsurprisingly, the tale of these star-crossed lovers has been adapted many times over the years, including as traditional Chinese operas, dances, stage plays, and movies. But Henan TV’s choice to film the river nymph in her natural habitat is admittedly a first. Chen Jia, the director of Henan TV, told me that her goal was to use high-tech film methods to reproduce the ancient capital city of Luoyang at the heyday of the Tang Dynasty (618-906 AD).

The resulting 115-second long video features a blend of traditional cultural elements. The movement of the water calls to mind a line from “The Book of Songs”: “He whom I love remains beyond my reach / Tracing him upstream brings me back to river’s bank.” The nymph’s ribbons evoke the “orchid leaf” art style pioneered by the Tang artist Wu Daozi. Her flight, meanwhile, calls to mind both Cao Zhi’s poem — “[She] flutters like an ascending swan goose, glides like a roaming dragon” — and the vibrant ethereal deities depicted in Tang-era paintings found in cave grottoes near the Silk Road hub of Dunhuang.

The vivid hues of the show’s costumes borrow from color schemes popular during the Tang, with special reference to the era’s three-colored glazed pottery and its mix of citrus orange, burgundy, and midnight blue, as well as colors used in the Dunhuang grottoes. It’s a very different look and feel from the achromatic Chinese art with which the West is more familiar, whether that’s the reserved ink landscapes of the later Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties, or the “literati paintings” produced by the Southern School of Chinese artists.

Left: A mural from Cave 220 of the Dunhuang grottoes. Dunhuang Academy China; Right: A rubbing of a Wu Daozi painting. Courtesy of Mao Ming

Left: A mural from Cave 220 of the Dunhuang grottoes. Dunhuang Academy China; Right: A rubbing of a Wu Daozi painting. Courtesy of Mao Ming

Even within China, “Prayer” represents a challenge to orthodox understandings of Chinese history and culture — provided you know what to look for. In particular, the show carries a whiff of competition with the neighboring province of Shaanxi, which has long vied with Henan for historical and cultural preeminence.

Shaanxi’s capital, Xi’an, was once the seat of the Western Zhou, Qin, Western Han, and Tang dynasties. The grandeur of the city’s archaeological finds, including bronzeware, the terra cotta warriors, and the mausoleums of Qin, Han, and Tang Dynasty emperors, has cemented Shaanxi’s status as “the heart of China,” even as Luoyang gives Henan its own claim to the title. Located in one of the cradles of Chinese civilization, the city was the capital of nine dynasties and was once the eastern starting point of the Silk Road. So widespread was its fame that the Japanese term for an official trip to the capital uses the character for “Luo.”

The show carries a whiff of competition with the neighboring province of Shaanxi, which has long vied with Henan for historical and cultural preeminence.

– Mao Ming, archaeologist

This year’s Dragon Boat Festival show was clearly designed to remind viewers of that history. For my part, I was more intrigued by another aspect of the show’s messaging. The program, and “Prayer” in particular, had a distinctly “feminine” feel. So too did another viral Henan TV performance, from the channel’s Lunar New Year program: a comedic dance based on the lives of Tang Dynasty court ladies. And in addition to “Prayer,” this year’s Dragon Boat gala also featured “A Glimpse of Beauty,” about Tang Dynasty ladies on a spring excursion.

All three performances center on women, a reflection of Henan’s unique cultural legacy. After all, while many Chinese people associate Xi’an with the masculine might and grandeur of the Qin Emperor’s terra cotta warriors, Luoyang is more associated with femininity and beauty, a fact “Prayer” and its companion pieces sought to highlight. The statue of the Vairocana Buddha in the nearby Longmen grottoes was built and sponsored by the Tang dynasty empress Wu Zetian — the only woman in imperial Chinese history who reigned in her own name. The Tang concubine Yang Guifei, famed for her beauty, also grew up in Luoyang. Then there’s the Luoyang peony — a broad, short, and stunning flower that is a symbol of the city and in the running to become China’s national flower.

Henan TV’s programming is about more than just a surprisingly effective local rebrand. It is a reminder that Chinese history is far more complex and diverse than the dour, formal, masculine atmosphere of Xi’an: it contains delicate beauty, grace, and femininity, too. Take that away, and we lose much of what has always made our culture so rich, varied, and complementary.

Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.

(Header image: Details of the painting “Nymph of the Luo River” by Gu Kaizhi. Courtesy of The Palace Museum)

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