The Portrayal of Chinese Traditional Music and Clothes in Chén Qíng Lìng and why its Success Matters

Young girl wearing a traditional Chinese hànfú © fransteddy / public domain / Pixabay

China is a country with several years of history and cultural practices on its back. A recent (2020) example of the international stage recognizing Chinese culture as rich and multifaceted is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) decision to add Tai Chi (tàijíquán, 太极拳, a traditional form of physical exercise or relaxation) and the Wangchuan ceremony (wángchuán, 王船, a traditional practice that China shares with Malaysia to honour the harmony between man and the ocean by worshipping the deity Ong Yah) to be part of the World’s Intangible Cultural Heritages. China now leads all countries, with a total of 42 elements officially recognized by the Cultural Organization (Wang, 2020). This means that everything that has been rooted in ancient Chinese tradition, and which today is a source of pride for the Chinese people, is also recognized as something that the whole world should understand and protect.

Many people, even very young ones from all over the world, are becoming passionate about some elements of Chinese cultural traditions, a trend which also allows young Chinese people to rediscover their own culture. Globalization and the development of new media have made it possible for certain elements of Chinese culture to be filtered and enhanced in movies, TV, or web series. One of the most significant examples of this trend is the success that the Web series Chén Qíng Lìng (陈情令, The Untamed, 2019) achieved not only in the People’s Republic of China but also internationally. The warm welcome of said series on Netflix contributed to the increased presence and popularity of Asian content on western streaming sites, and also helped to promote Chinese style and traditional culture to the world. It truly is a global phenomenon. Why so, and why does it matter?

Long story short (the series is made up of 50 episodes, with a running time of 45 minutes each), Chén Qíng Lìng is a fantasy show with the themes of wŭxiá (武侠, martial arts chivalry), heavily influenced by Taoism and Buddhism, thus defined as xiānxiá (仙侠, made up by the characters: “celestial being” and “martial arts”). It features magic-wielders known as cultivators, each belonging to a different clan among the five portrayed. The story revolves around two cultivators that find themselves entangled between a censored romantic relationship (way more explicit in the novel from which the series is based), clashing clans, the struggle for power, and cumbersome intrigues.

Quoting the article on Digital Journal (2020), the show: “boasts its traditional elements which are exquisitely instilled into each detail of its music, costume, makeup, props and so on”. As stated by Guo and Jiang (2019), the main usage of the traditional Han Chinese dress hànfú (汉服) in the show implies the inseparability of it from Han Chinese etiquette. The term hànfú refers to the historical dress of the Han people: a long flowing robe composed of an upper garment with long and loose sleeves, a skirt-like lower garment, collars, and a belt to close and secure the garments around the waist. Throughout the time and the succession of different dynasties, the features of the hànfú changed since its alleged beginnings in the Shāng dynasty (1600-1046 BC), as well as the variety of colors in which it was produced. In China, the re-discovery of this traditional dress by younger generations already speaks for itself: trends in the culture of fashion also identify the youngest people’s desire for innovation while sticking to their own traditions, thus manifesting a strong national and cultural identity. As a result, the hànfú is now frequently revisited and worn by models on the most established catwalks of the fashion world, but never leaves its “Chineseness”. Chén Qíng Lìng fuels this fervent interest in Chinese traditional fashion adding elements that appeal to popular culture. Although many other Chinese historical dramas are praised for their attention to detail in costume designs, the impact this recent Web series had is quite unprecedented on a marketization level, bringing huge market chances for the fashion industry. These xiānxiá-styled-hànfú were sold on different e-commerce websites and apps, and people from different countries would buy and wear them, contributing to creating a vivid cosplay culture related to the show.

The costume design exploits details such as differences in color, shape, and ornaments to make a distinction between the various clans and their moral values. The three most virtuous clans are also represented by positive patterns: the clouds of the Gūsū Lán Clan, the lotus pattern representing the Yúnmèng Jiāng Clan, and the peony pattern representing the Lánlíng Jīn Clan are all ancient Chinese traditional art motifs. The clouds are linked to vital energy, immortality, and luck (Lu and Lin, 2013). The lotus is a symbol of purity, perfection, and offspring. Finally, the peony represents the yáng (阳) principle of brightness and masculinity (Williams, 2006). Contrarily, the phoenix’s pattern of the Qíshān Wēn Clan and the dragon of the Qīnghé Niè Clan imply their fighting and aggressive spirit.

The show also distinguishes itself thanks to its music. Traditional Chinese music has been represented in countless productions, but in Chén Qíng Lìng its power resonates deeply with the audience. The Digital Journal article (2020) also points out that the atmosphere created by the auditory experience of Chén Qíng Lìng combines both contemporary and popular elements, thus appealing to viewers of every age and nationality. Zhu (2020) refers to the composer of its Original Sound Track (OST) as capable of: “[integrating] the national musical instruments such as the pipa, the bamboo flute, the zither into the music, and [publicizing] the important value and confidence of national culture through the dissemination of works”. Two instruments that stand out the most in Chén Qíng Lìng are the dízi (笛子) and the gŭqín (古琴), because of their connection with the two protagonists and the magical powers they release by playing these two instruments. As mentioned China’s record in the number of officially recognized World’s Intangible Cultural Heritages earlier, it is pertinent here to note that the gŭqín also had been listed by UNESCO as such, back in 2008 (UNESCO Intangible cultural heritage). With such recognition, China’s desire to protect and promote its traditional music roots increases year after year, along with related law implementations.

The dízi, or bamboo flute, is a Chinese transverse flute and one of the most popular instruments in traditional Chinese music. The dízi as we know it today roughly dates back to the V century BC, although a form of the transverse flute has existed as early as the IX century BC. Traditional dízi are built with a membrane of bamboo or reed tissue covering the hole that is located between the mouth hole and the six finger holes. It is widely used in many genres of Chinese folk music, Chinese opera, and the modern Chinese orchestra, but it is also a popular instrument among Chinese people because it is easy to make and carry. The association of such a popular instrument with the all-rounded character of Wèi Wúxiàn is apt: born after an illegitimate relationship, he is playful, mischievous and careless (the name of his sword is suíbiàn, 随便, which means: “casual”, “random”, “informal”), but also inventive, kind-hearted, optimistic and loyal. He always adheres to his family motto: “Do it, if you know that you can’t do it” (míngzhī bùkě wéi ér wéi zhī, 明知不可为而为之), taken from The Analects of Confucius (Lúnyŭ, 论语); no matter the result, he will always fight with courage for his clan, his family, his friends and for whatever he believes right. According to this, People’s Daily (2019) defined Wèi Wúxiàn’s attitude as: “the vigor and responsibilities that young people need as well […] (which) closely link everyone’s growth with family and national conditions''.

The gŭqín has always been considered a symbol of high culture by Chinese intellectuals and Confucianists, and it was the favored instrument of the elite class. In ancient times, the well-educated ones and the gentleman were expected to be skilled in four arts: (chess), shū (calligraphy), huà (brush painting), and tánqín (the playing of the qín). The character associated with this instrument is Lán Wàngjī. He belongs to a powerful family and he’s difficult to get along with, since he always shows coldness and strictness, in a way set by his high rank and inflexible family regulations. His elder brother is well-versed in music as well, being an excellent player of xiāo (箫, a Chinese vertical end-blown flute). The origin of the gŭqín, a seven-stringed-zither, dates back to ancient times: it was mentioned in oracle-bone inscriptions and the Classic of Poetry (Shījīng, 诗经, ), the first anthology of Chinese poetry. The top and the bottom of the instrument represent heaven and earth respectively (Encyclopaedia Britannica) so that, when played, its sound is believed to merge heaven, earth, and humankind into each other, in a timeless melody; here again, the show got the association with Lán Wàngjī just right, since he has a good heart and a strong sense of justice.

Chén Qíng Lìng takes music to a fantasy level, adding some magical power to it and employing it as a powerful weapon. The blue strokes generated from the gŭqín and the dark clouds originated from the dízi can harm people and control their minds. However, the show also hints at some interesting and practical characteristics of Chinese traditional music. Throughout the show, we witness the healing properties of music: when Wèi Wúxiàn gets injured or his mind gets controlled by evil entities, Lán Wàngjī plays the gŭqín for him to stimulate faster healing. This is a very deep-rooted belief in Chinese medicine: vital energy (, 气) flows through all the internal organs and, to be healthy, a person has to be in excellent spiritual and mental condition. As Zhang and Lai (2017) point out, the Five Phases Music Therapy (FPMT) is a branch of Chinese medicine that employs the five music scales (wŭyīn, 五音) to connect the human body and the universe and to analyze and treat illness. The five music scales, since the pre-Táng (618-907) period, roughly correspond to do, re, mi, sol, la, and also to the five organs. Respectively, they are gōng (earth and spleen), shāng (metal and lungs), jué (wood and liver), zhĭ (fire and heart) and (water and kidney). Emotions are closely related to organs, as well: thinking corresponds to the spleen, sorrow to the lungs, anger to the liver, joy to the heart, and fear to the kidneys. Music, with the parameters of pitch, frequency, timbre, and volume, affects the emotions and regulates the dynamics of movement (Zhang and Lai, 2017). According to the musical instruments played by the characters of Chén Qíng Lìng, and their notes and frequencies, music could heavily affect people and their wellbeing.

In conclusion, I argue that the international success of Chén Qíng Lìng is highly relevant for the dissemination of Chinese culture all over the world: hidden behind an engaging plot and common features of the xiānxiá genre, some relevant references to traditional Chinese music and clothing styles brought to the show vast popularity, and more and more people are getting interested in stories with traditional Chinese features. The portrayal of a modern style of hànfú related to the show allowed for a further boost to both young Chinese and internationals’ interest in this garment. As for the music, the thoroughly studied musical experience conveyed by the show also highlights some interesting features of traditional Chinese music, like the symbolism connected to instruments such as the dízi and the gŭqín, and the overall relationship between the music portrayal in the show and its healing properties in Chinese traditional medicine. To think that way, even the People's Daily (2019) rang with laudatory declarations:

“In the past, there was no shortage of movies and TV series based on traditional culture. Why did the Chinese national elements in "Chén Qíng Lìng" receive so much praise? Because "Chén Qíng Lìng" not only presents the entity of traditional culture but also presents the soul of the Chinese people […]. It demonstrates Chinese people’s confidence and love for their traditional culture. This kind of cultural self-confidence should take roots in the hearts of young people. When young people are full of confidence in their own culture, it can be continuously inherited and passed on”.

Veronica Zanon is a Chinese language, culture, and society (and food) enthusiast; heritage of her Bachelor degree in Interlinguistic and Intercultural Mediation Sciences from Università degli Studi dell’Insubria (Como). She was also a Chinese language and culture student at University of Jinan (Shandong, China), where she lived for a year. She is currently attending a Double Master Degree in International Sciences (Università degli Studi di Torino) and China Studies (Zhejiang University). She is also a European Guanxi member, and you can find her on LinkedIn:

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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Chén Qíng Lìng, based on Mó Dào Zǔ Shī by Mo Xiang and Tong Xiu, written by Yang Xia, Deng Yaoyu, Ma Jing and Guo Guangyun, directed by Zheng Weiwen and Chen Jialin, Tencent Penguin Pictures and New Style Media, 2019.

Chén Qíng Lìng, Episode 2, written by Yang Xia, directed by Cheng Wai Man, Chen Jia Lin, original air date 27 June 2019.

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