Chinese TV series, 2006 – Highly Recommended.
45 Episodes (about 34 hours total viewing time).
Qiao’s Grand Courtyard is a TV series broadcast on Chinese state TV in 2006. Americans can watch it using Amazon.com’s Prime TV service (yes, it has subtitles in English). Like most Chinese stories, the TV series is based on a real person and real events, though some creative changes were made by the writer and director to make the story more entertaining.
Qiao Zhiyong, our hero, is the second son of a wealthy Chinese businessman from Shanxi Province. He lived in one of the largest family compounds near Pingyao (now called the Pingyao Ancient City). Qiao Zhiyong was born in 1818 and died in 1907. For much of his life he was one of the richest men in China and he is credited with creating one of the first real banks in China, Dadetong bank, which had branch offices throughout the provinces of Imperial China. Qiao Zhiyong was popular in his home town, and by all accounts a good man, kind, generous, and strict in his adherence to a personal code of honorable business dealings.
The Qiao family compound still survives to this day, it is considered one of the finest surviving examples of a northern Chinese “grand family compound”. The TV series was filmed on location in the Qiao family estate, though the Qiao family has not lived in the building since at least 1940, as they lost their vast fortune during the turmoil which followed the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911.
The TV series is a remarkable thing to watch for several reasons.
First, it tells the life of a fairly ordinary man. He was not a noteworthy scholar, he did not pass the imperial exam nor did he work for the government, he did not become a general nor did he do anything important, from a traditional Chinese perspective. In the Confucian society in which he lived, although wealthy, he was near the bottom of the theoretical hierarchy. According to the traditional view of society, scholar-officials who manage the state are at the top. Next are the farmers who feed everyone. Artisans who make useful goods follow, and last we have merchants (and soldiers) near the bottom. Below merchants, there were actors, prostitutes, and members of the criminal gangs.
To be sure, Mr. Qiao was born into a wealthy family and wealth was a source of status and pride in Chinese society, despite the Confucian disdain for merchants as men who simply bought goods made in one place and sold them in another place. For a thousand years, wealthy merchants married their daughters to young scholars and by doing so, they elevated their status.
The series starts out with Qiao Zhiyong going to take the provincial round of the Imperial Exam. However, after the first day of the exam, he is summoned home because his older brother has died. Our hero is given a hard choice: he can either continue with his dream of becoming a scholar or he can give up that dream and take over the family business.
To engage the audience’s attention, the family business is said to be in grave danger so if our hero does not work a business miracle, the family will forced to sell their grand house and live in poverty. Faced with this choice, Qiao Zhiyong gives up his dream of becoming a scholar-official and takes on the very difficult task of running a failing business empire.
For the next 20 episodes, we see how this would-be-poet, handles the task of making money. This is a story which should be familiar to many Americans. When I was growing up, we still celebrated American businessmen like Andrew Carnegie, and (more recently) Steve Jobs. But this is a TV series created for the Chinese State TV system and broadcast 15 years ago.
One might think the businessman would be portrayed in a somewhat negative light given the state official Communist/Marxist ideology. But, one would be mistaken.
No, in this TV series, Qiao Zhiyong is presented a heroic figure. To be sure he is a bit rash and impulsive in his youth, nor is he always successful in his business dealings, but from beginning to end, he is a good man with proper goals and methods. He is a shown as a Chinese hero. Let me be clear: a TV series from 2006 shows a rich Chinese businessman from the previous Dynasty as a completely honorable and worthy man, a role model of good behavior.
Here are some of the things our hero does. He increases the pay of his staff, to gain their loyalty and reward their hard work for his firm. He gives out shares of his business to many of the employees. He promotes men based on their talent and ability and he stress the idea that his business “Da De Xing” (The Great Loyal-Virtuous Shop) will prosper if it conducts operations in a fashion which generates respect and admiration from its customers. He is shown as being less interested in profits and more interested in gaining a great reputation.
Further, and perhaps even more surprising for a TV show from 2006, Qiao Zhiyong and his immediate family are shown as completely embedded within the traditional Chinese religion. He is clearly happy with his religion, as is his wife, and his sister-in-law and many other of the good people. The religion Qiao follows is shown as useful, comforting to him at times of stress, and a source of real power in his relations to other people.
One important scene shows him worshiping at another man’s family alter, for more than a day. This is exhausting work on his part, and it has the effect of earning the other man’s respect. Now, our hero wants something from this other man, and by worshiping at the man’s alter, he gets what he wants. But he never indicates that he is insincere in his devotions, nor is he in any way cynical about what he is doing, nor does anyone suggest he is only doing this for ulterior motives.
Later, he quotes from Confucian texts to make his arguments about the value of virtue, and fair dealings. We see his close friend, Sun Maoci also argue with him by using the Confucian texts with him, and these are seen as persuasive. All of this is done with complete respect for the words they are saying. In this TV series, the characters clearly believe in traditional religion of China.
You would have thought this TV series had been made in Taiwan (which is still officially a Confucian state) or perhaps South Korea (where it won an award for “Best Foreign TV Series”). But no, this was written by a mainland Chinese writer, for the Chinese state TV. If further proof is needed in 2020 that China is no longer a communist government, this show is that proof. And, yes, this show was very popular in China. A decade later people still mention Qiao’s Grand Courtyard in conversations. The Qiao Family Compound is a major tourist attraction in Shanxi province (though only to Chinese tourists, as very few non-Chinese have ever heard of it).
As a drama, it has a number of enjoyable elements. The scenes with his wife are well done, as he starts out by treating her with heartless disdain. The reason for this is two-fold. First, he already had a different woman he intended to marry. Second, his brother’s widow decided he needed to marry a much wealthier woman and so she arranged the marriage to the daughter of one of the richest merchants in Shanxi province. Because his brother’s widow arranged this marriage without his knowledge or approval, he felt he was forced into this marriage unfairly. As it happens, the writer choose to make Qiao Zhiyong’s wife an ideal Chinese woman, who is kind, forgiving, loving, and works hard to convince her wealthy father to support her husband’s business ventures. The reality was, Qiao Zhiyong married six women in total, a slightly above-average number for a wealthy man at this time.
The woman who plays Qiao’s wife is a good actress, and she has some really wonderful scenes with her father – Lu Daka – who is quite a character – a famous miser who really does have a heart of gold. As it happens, the actress (Jiang Qinqin) and the man who played Qiao Zhiyong (Chen Jianbin) fell in love during the filming and married a year later. Note that both Qiao’s wife and her father Lu Daka are inventions of the script writer, but very good inventions in my opinion.
What about the history? The show starts in the year ~1852. The Tai-ping rebellion plays a significant role in the show. Our hero buys an old map of trade routes and is inspired to go south and buy tea from the tea-growing region south of the Yangtze River. This proves to be difficult and dangerous, both due to Tai-ping and, more importantly, evil government officials who have been bribed to arrest and kill Mr. Qiao. Our hero ends up being arrested and imprisoned by the Manchu government three times, yet he never gives up his loyalty to the Manchu government, despite the very clear corruption and ruthless nature of the top Manchu officials.
This is a fairly accurate portrayal of the Chinese government during this time. The Qing dynasty was falling apart from 1820 till 1911, when it did finally collapse. During the Qiao Zhiyong’s life, the government just became steadily worse. We see people who buy their way into government positions, and we see the infamous imperial eunuch Li Lianying working his middleman routine and collecting money from the other great men of the time.
What do we see of China’s social customs? The wedding between Qiao Zhiyong is shown over several episodes, starting with the match-making, then the exchange of gifts; the tearful farewell of the bride to her father, and the procession to her new house. There are several scenes in the wedding chamber as the bride waits while her new husband is outside drinking and eating with the many guests who have come. This all appears to be very accurate.
We see the preparations for the new year, the washing and cleaning, and a fascinating ceremony at dawn where everyone in the household assembles and offers prayers to the ancestors of the Qiao family. This dawn ceremony came as a surprise to me, I had never seen it nor read about it.
We see mourning the dead. By long tradition, when one of your parents dies, you must follow a year-long process of mourning. There are many steps to this process, what we see on screen is the house draped with white cloth and the we see people performing the rituals in front of a grave out in the countryside. A very serious mourner will erect a small hut near the new grave so he can can burn incense and offer prayers for weeks (or even months).
We see the first stage of the provincial imperial exam, the assembly of the candidates, the confinement of the scholars to the cells around the courtyard. Note that these scenes appear to have been filmed on location in the old exam yard of Shanxi province.
Small details which I found funny:
1) Qiao’s wife has a very valuable jade cabbage (a piece of jade which looks like a cabbage leaf and is colored correctly as well). A similar looking jade masterpiece can be seen at the National Palace Museum in Taipei. Did it ever belong to the Qiao family? No one knows, but then no one seems to know how exactly it came into the possession of Dowager Empress Cixi or who made it in the first place. So, this is fiction which might be true.
2) In the second to last episode, the Dowager Empress Cixi comes through Shanxi, fleeing from Beijing due to the Boxer Rebellion (its complicated). She spends a night at the Qiao family compound and while there, Qiao Zhiyong instructs the cooks to make her a traditional local food. She tries it and declares it delicious, saying “Well, at least something good has resulted from this journey”. A Shanxi province web site claimed that Cixi did love a local food from Pingyao (though whether it was this dish or Pingyao beef is unclear).
3) Around episode 10, Qiao Zhiyong makes use of a famous expression in Chinese, which translates as “Say Cao Cao’s name, and Cao Cao appears at your gates”. The reason why this is funny is because, four years later, the actor who playes Qiao Zhiyong portrayed Cao Cao in the massive 95-episode TV series Three Kingdoms.