Winter Begonia is the latest entrant on the bandwagon of Chinese BL dramas, premiering on iQIYI, an innovative yet daring online entertainment portal in China. The show is adapted from Shui Ru Tian’s novel of the same name, set in 1930’s Beijing. Within weeks of its release, the iQIYI original romance drama has become an instant hit with audiences worldwide because of its poignant portrayal of the popular art form, the Peking Opera.
– Edited by TheFNGee
Editor’s Note: Beijing and Peking are just different atonal romanizations of the Mandarin Chinese characters 北京(běijīng). 北京 was Romanized as Peking by French missionaries in the early 17th century
Winter Begonia marks the beginning of a beautiful relationship between the two main leads Shang Xi Rui and Cheng Feng Tai, as they try to rebuild the famous Shui Yun Lou Opera House. We start with them on a journey of the struggles they face together and their blossoming relationship. The show focuses on their efforts to revive the contemporary art form in its original essence and also their continual sacrifices to protect China from the Japanese invasion. The drama series debuted on 20th March, with the first 12 episodes earning 7.3/10 on Chinese review site Douban.
History Of Peking Opera
A little history lesson is in order because of the considerable amount of curiosity this show has managed to raise.
The Peking Opera, also known as Beijing Opera, was first established in 1790 when several regional opera groups assembled for the Emperor’s birthday. As a result of the collaboration, a new opera style evolved, which had classic elements from each art form. Peking Opera is now centered in Beijing, Tianjin, and Shanghai and is invariably a national treasure.
The opera style generally has two types of plays. Civil plays display emotions and relationships and, as such, explore romance and love. However, Martial plays focus on action as Martial Arts is an integral part of Chinese history.
Peking Opera is considerably different from its Western contemporary. The basis of this opera style involves singing, recitation, and acting. The performers must be proficient in singing, dancing, acting, and even acrobatics. As such, the artists train for several years to perfect the specialty role they perform. Each part has different musical tones; some are low pitched, while others are high pitched and shrill.
Peking Opera is also characterized by different roles. The Sheng is usually the lead and the primary male role, and is considered brave and admirable. Female roles are called Dan. It is essential here to point out that women were not allowed to perform on stage because of societal restrictions. Instead, men acted as female impersonators. It was only around the 1930’s that women started to appear in these operas. Another point to note is that the main character Shang Xi Rui, as a Male Dan, predominantly portrayed only female characters in opera.
Shang Xi Rui
Shang Xi Rui’s character is being played by Yin Zheng. Xi Rui is essentially a character with a multi-layered personality. He is an excellent Opera Performer, which makes his stage shows quite popular. However, he is also often too rebellious and doesn’t care to adhere to societal niceties, like the time when he refrains from attending President Jiang Rong Shou’s birthday celebration and indirectly insults the President.
Xi Rui also doesn’t perform his stage shows in adherence to the usual ages-old methods. He plays the role of Consort Yang with a different conception, something that draws widespread criticism. Yet he sticks to his idea and wins the audiences over. Xi Rui is also well trained in martial arts. He is dedicated to his art form yet has a childlike exuberance that betrays his innocence.
Cheng Feng Tai
Huang Xiao Ming portrays the wealthy businessman Cheng Feng Tai. He is sophisticated and Westernized, and has never watched a Peking opera before, even though we learn later that his mother was a performer in the opera. He is portrayed mainly as a patriot who spends most of his time trying to build a defense against a possible invasion of China by the Empire of Japan. People mostly defer to him because his sister is married to Commander Cao.
That is until he watches Xi Rui perform. Xi Rui’s performance reminds Feng Tai of his mother. Feng Tai is deeply moved by Xi Rui and seeks him out to befriend him. With time, he not only learns more about the nuances of Peking Opera but also grows to admire Xi Rui, who becomes an integral part of his life.
Fan Xiang Er
So we have popular veteran actress Charmaine Sheh portraying Feng Tai’s wife, Fan Xiang Er. She is older than Feng Tai but has brought a considerable dowry to this marriage, which helps to lift up Feng Tai’s social status. Even though this character is a supporting character, the role is well written, and Xiang Er is a multi-faceted character and is quite well versed in societal norms.
The series is based in the 1930’s and focuses mainly on Xi Rui’s sudden rise to popularity because of his skills and talents, as well as his willingness to try out new concepts. These traits don’t go down well with the other local opera troupes who set out to sabotage his performances and try hard to drive him out of the city of Beijing.
It is during this time that Feng Tai happens to accept an invitation to a performance by Xi Rui. He is deeply impressed with Xi Rui’s skills and becomes obsessed with the revival of Peking Opera as he slowly grows closer to Xi Rui. Coupled with Xi Rui’s dedication to uplift Peking Opera while gaining a foothold in the city of Beijing, both overcome obstacles to rebuild Xi Rui’s family legacy “The Shui Yun House” and train their troupe to improve the art form’s popularity.
However, 1937 saw the unfortunate end of Imperial rule and the invasion of China by Japanese military forces. In the first act of aggression, the Japanese military captures the city of Beijing. This belligerent act sets the country into turmoil. Unable to tolerate the indiscriminate acts of plundering and violence wrought by the Japanese invaders, Chinese citizens start rebelling. Influenced by Feng Tai, Xi Rui joins the rebellion and sets aside their personal goals and ambitions, join forces together to help protect their country and heritage.
Chemistry Between The Main Leads
Winter Begonia might be dubbed as Bromance, but it is clearly a veiled romance between two men whose love transcends mutual respect and adoration. Right from the start, we are shown the contrast, where we first catch a glimpse of courageous Feng Tai fighting bandits to challenging traders in the Chamber of Commerce. Then we have the beautiful Xi Rui, who looks and feels like a dream come true.
The drama doesn’t drag out the apparent romance, as both Feng Tai and Xi Rui are drawn to each other from the first time they meet. The second meeting is even more intriguing, where Xi Rui offers his Red Begonia brooch to Feng Tai. Traditionally, the Red Begonia flower is perfect for someone you love and find to be attractive. This subtle play at romance cannot be missed. Also, Feng Tai asking Xi Rui to pick up a mahjong tile and then declaring him as his lucky charm is equally romantic.
Xi Rui intrigues Feng Tai and, and at certain levels, also reminds him of his mother. For someone who has never been interested in any kind of opera form, Feng Tai begins to take an interest in Peking Opera. Xi Rui might play female roles and seem delicate, but he surprises Feng Tai with his inherit masculinity and knowledge of Martial Arts. Also, at one of the events, when Jiang Rong Sho yet again sabotages a Xi Rui play, Feng Tai rushes to his rescue. But Xi Rui is unfazed and assures Feng Tai that he can very well handle the situation on his own – Xi Rui is no damsel in distress.
Xi Rui is at odds with Commander Cao, and as such, the theatre’s owners refuse to let the troupe play. Feng Tai comes up with a solution and asks Xi Rui to perform at his son’s birthday party. However, Xi Rui misses the party, and Feng Tai is enraged. Feng Tai drags him out to scold him, but listening to Xi Rui makes him realize that while he might be a genius at heart, Xi Rui is still a child.
My personal favorite is watching Xi Rui’s role as “Consort Yang,” which reminds Feng Tai of his mother. Feng Tai finally understands and accepts his mother’s decision to follow her passion. He walks back home in a state of trance and wonder while experiencing the first snowfall of the season. It’s as if suddenly he’s been introduced to a whole new world – I love the melancholy. The cinematography is so beautiful, as is the OST (official soundtrack).
Feng Tai’s revelation is followed by days of mooning and swooning over Xi Rui. While Feng Tai’s wife is oblivious to what’s actually happening, she worries over his apparent lack of interest in life and social activities. It doesn’t just stop there – on the other side, Feng Tai spends an excessive amount of time waxing poetic about Xi Rui to his brother-in-law. I appreciate the fact that the show’s producers didn’t try to gloss over the developing feelings between the main leads as they get closer.
We’re shown that Xi Rui and Feng Tai have a very close relationship – they call themselves “Bosom Friends.” They are both unhinged and open with their interactions with each other. Xi Rui considers Feng Tai as his guide and intimate and respects him, while Feng Tai adores Xi Rui for his curiosity as well as his dedication to Peking Opera. Feng Tai is also surprised and moved by Xi Rui’s sympathetic nature.
Xi Rui’s ambition is to open his own theatre at the blessed site. However, Xi Rui is betrayed by his own troupe members who steal his inheritance. Despite his troupe members’ insistence to ask for help from Feng Tai, Xi Rui refuses and instead decides to leave Beiping. However, Feng Tai won’t let him run away and instead becomes a major shareholder in Shui Yun House.
Throughout, we can feel the budding romance that is, of course, disguised as Bromance. The companionship strongly reminds you of LanWanji & Wei Wuxian from “The Untamed,” although it is toned down a bit.
Design And Costumes
Winter Begonia is a period drama being directed by Hui Kai Dong who is hugely popular for “The Story Of Yanxi Palace.” With this prerequisite, viewers were excited to see the design and costumes. Huang Xiao Ming’s dramas are known for their grandeur and extravagance. Winter Begonia is no exception; the set and costume budgets seem without limit.
Feng Tai lives in a Palace previously owned by a Prince of the Imperial Family. You realize how lavish the set is when Feng Tai shows off the Palace in one of the scenes. Here, viewers are treated to fantastic cinematography. The camera slowly pans over the sumptuous set, revealing details and intricacies of the design and decoration. Efforts like this make watching this show a significantly enjoyable experience.
A Peking Opera is incomplete without the requisite costumes. They are called Xingtou or Xifu in Chinese. Costumes are categorized according to the social structures, where “Mang” and “Pei” are exclusively worn by the Imperial family members. Xi Rui plays the role of Consort Yang, and as such, his costumes are the most expensive with meticulously embroidered patterns and are lined with expensive crystals. The costumes for the rest of the cast are designed in keeping with the fashion that was prevalent in the 1930’s and the character’s social status.
Do We Recommend This
I must admit that the first time I started watching this show, I turned it off halfway through the first episode. But then my best friend, who is a major Chinese drama junkie, kept on harassing me to give the show another chance. Finally, I gave in, and I must say I was surprised and pleased.
For someone like me, who is not acquainted with Chinese history, this drama can be a little confusing. The 1930’s was a time characterized by the fall of the Imperial dynasty, major western imperialism influencing and wreaking havoc with tradition, and then the disastrous Japanese invasion. The story might seem a bit dry when faced with all these issues, yet you just have to be patient. What makes this drama worthwhile is the web of stories woven around our main leads, which ultimately lead to the romantic connection between Feng Tai and Xi Rui. However, I wouldn’t claim that this show is binge-worthy.
Also, Peking Opera in general is an acquired taste; there are times when I failed to understand aspects associated with it. (You may even find yourself wishing for a dose of Giacomo Puccini‘s “Un bel dì” as an antithesis.)
Watch this drama for its grandeur, rich history, and also two adorable main leads who are nevertheless soulmates. This show is streaming for free on YouTube in All-HD with Rakuten VIKI Plus.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars [See our Review Guide]