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Crafting Tragic Tragedies

Last month I watched The Miles of Peach Blossoms, an epic and very expensive xianxia drama.

While the story of the main couple was interesting, in my mind the Best Couple Award goes to two side characters: Bai Fengjiu and Donghua Dijun*.

* Dijun is an honorific title for an imperial lord.

Promotional photo of Vengo Gao as Donghua Dijun and Dilrama Dilmurat as Bai Fengjiu

Fengjiu is the young princess of the kingdom of Qing Qiu, a mischievous nine-tailed fox merely 30,000 years old. Donghua Dijun is the former emperor of the heavens, one of the ancient deities born from nothingness when the world was chaos. Heartless and unfathomable, Donghua fought for hundreds of thousands of years to bring peace to the Nine Kingdoms under the rule of the Celestial Tribe.

One day, Donghua rescues Fengjiu from a rampaging tiger demon.

Donghua rescues Fengjiu
Donghua rescues Fengjiu 2

Lovestruck, Fengjiu chases him back to the Celestial Kingdom. She does all sorts of crazy things to catch his attention, from sneaking into his palace disguised as a maid to shapeshifting into a baby fox to become his literal pet. Amused, Donghua eventually thaws and learns how to express his emotions.

Screenshot of Fengjiu hugging Donghua and saying, 'I like you.'
Screenshot of Fengjiu nuzzling Donghua and saying, 'I like you so much.'
Screenshot of Donghua pushing Fengjiu away and saying, 'Even if you didn't tell me...'
Screenshot of Donghua telling Fengjiu, '...I would still know that.'

Their relationship is adorable and, in many ways, stronger than the convoluted one between the main couple.

But though the main couple gets a happy ending, Fengjiu and Donghua do not. Their melancholy ending, and the heartbreaking events leading up to it, were responsible for at least one dozen of the sopping wet Kleenex tissues that ended up in my trash can during that show.

In the comments on DramaFever, I read that Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms is based on a series of novels by Tang Qi, and that Fengjiu and Donghua star in one of them! The commenters hinted that the conclusion of story in the drama is very different from the ending of the novel.

I tracked this book down and read it within a couple of days. To my surprise, at the end Donghua and Fengjiu get married and live happily ever after! I've seen many Hollywood adaptations turn tragic endings into pat ones, but never before had I seen a movie or show trade an original happy ending for a sad one.

However, though you'd think I'd squeal with delight to see my favorite couple in blissful matrimony, I didn't feel much of anything. In fact, I preferred the tragic ending in the drama.

Though the ending of the book was technically happy, it didn't make me happy because the story leading up to it was a mess. While the drama versions of Donghua and Fengjiu made me giggle and bawl, the book versions were bodice-ripper stock characters who spent all two volumes misunderstanding and hurting each other. The ending wasn't truly happy because the "tragic" romance leading up to it wasn't tragic at all.

1. For a story to be tragic, the protagonists must lose something precious.

I didn't root for Book Fengjiu and Book Donghua because they weren't very happy together. Fengjiu spent most of her time crying that Donghua hurt her so much and she should give up on him. Donghua spent most of his time lying to Fengjiu and feeling guilty about it. I didn't care much whether they could save their relationship because it really wasn't worth saving.

But the drama successfully showed the happiness these two characters lost when they were forced to separate. Both demonstrate how much they care for each other through their actions. Fengjiu works earnestly to make Donghua comfortable (though she usually makes a comic mess of it), and Donghua breaks his stone-cold character to help Fengjiu when she's in trouble.

When Donghua descends to the mortal realm to experience the trials of human life, Fengjiu follows. Then we get a taste of the sweet and simple life they could have had if they were normal people.

Screenshot of Fengjiu and Donghua as a married couple in the mortal realm

But they're not normal people, they're royalty. Immortal royalty at that. And so they must make heartbreaking choices.

2. The protagonists' choices should cause the tragedy, and these choices should be understandable and preferably unavoidable.

In tearjerker movies, brooding heartthrobs fall in love with delicate beauties, and then one of them dies unexpectedly from a fatal disease or a sudden encounter with the hypnotic Truck of Doom.

Meme of a Korean drama heroine staring at an approaching semi and waiting to get hit

While these movies are sad, I personally don't consider them "tragic." They're just stories in which Bad Things Happen. To be properly tragic, the Bad Things should be caused directly or indirectly by the protagonists' choices. E.g., if the hero must die from a fatal disease, it should be because he chose to delay treatment to live happily instead of simply longer, as in the YA novel The Fault in Our Stars. If the heroine must succumb to the Truck of Doom, it should be because she plowed into it on purpose to save a group of preschoolers, as in the Korean fantasy Goblin.

Of course, the choices must be relateable to work. Characters who make nonsensical or purely selfish choices don't elicit sympathy from the audience. For maximum impact, the choices should also be inevitable. In the most enduring tragedies, the characters couldn't possibly make different choices to dodge cruel fate—either because every choice available to them would also end in tragedy, or because choosing the one path to a happy ending would compromise their morals.

Book Donghua and Book Fengjiu do make choices that cause tragedies, but those choices are neither understandable nor inevitable. For example, near the end Donghua fails to show up for their wedding feast. Fengjiu leaps to the conclusion that he ran off with a princess from the Demon Kingdom, decides their love was a lie, and descends to the mortal realm to hide for 300 years. Unbeknownst to her, Donghua missed the feast because he was saving the universe (again). Fengjiu comes back to the Celestial Kingdom to find him wasting away from a mystical poison, preparing to sacrifice his life for the greater good, etc. Oh, if only she'd known! If only they could have had those few short centuries of happiness together!

I was supposed to cry for them at this point, but instead I rolled my eyes. Book Fengjiu's decision to hide in the mortal realm was idiotic.

  • Donghua had an established track record of suddenly loping off to save the universe, and no track record of showing interest in any woman—any person, even—other than Fengjiu.
  • Fengjiu and Donghua were already officially married and living together, so they should have been long past the stage of petty jealousies and misunderstandings.
  • Fengjiu was pregnant. Why would she choose to raise her infant son in poverty and isolation, instead of staying in Qing Qiu with her doting parents and grandparents?

The only reason Book Fengjiu would make the choice she did is to manufacture last-minute "tragic" circumstances to squeeze out some tears from the readers.

In contrast, Drama Donghua's ultimate decision to break up with Fengjiu is completely understandable. After fighting for tens of thousands of years to bring the Nine Kingdoms to a fragile state of peace, Donghua believes his marriage to Fengjiu would cause political turmoil.

Screenshot of Donghua and Fengjiu during the final battle against the Demon Lord

"I've used my life to protect all lives. If I insist on my relationship with you, it would surely cause ceaseless wars within the four seas....Bai Fengjiu, you're not some common woman. You're the future queen of Qing Qiu! Don't be absurd!"

In the end, Drama Fengjiu must accept his decision and resign herself to a lonely life on the throne.

Screenshot of Fengjiu at her coronation ceremony

"Dijun, from this day forth, I will become the queen of Qing Qiu....I can no longer act willfully anymore. I can't enter Taichen Palace to make you tea and stay with you all night without considering my identity."

Disappointed fans complain the ending is "stupid," but to me it's painfully sensible. Though Donghua Dijun has unparalleled power, he doesn't have unlimited freedom, and it would have been grossly out of character for him to choose his personal feelings over the stability of the heavens.

3. The seeds of tragedy should be sewn at the beginning.

To be honest, the drama version of Fengjiu and Donghua's story had flaws, too. The biggest is that Donghua didn't explain why he couldn't be with Fengjiu until very late in the game. Very, very late in the game. We're talking episode 52 of 58.

Characters who refuse to explain themselves are very common in East Asian dramas, so I'm used to it. I've learned that when characters push their loved ones away, they usually have Noble Reasons that will be revealed eventually. So when Donghua looked at Fengjiu tenderly but treated her coldly, I trusted he too had Noble Reasons and rooted for the couple to the end.

But most Western viewers aren't that patient. Because Donghua spent most of the drama running hot and cold—one minute giving up half of his life force to heal Fengjiu's injuries, the next throwing her out of his palace and claiming he never wants to see her again—many fans of the show hated their romance line. They'd say Fengjiu is "so annoying" for chasing after Donghua when he obviously doesn't want her. Or they'd ask, "When is Donghua going to get over himself and admit he likes her?" I believe these viewers would have had a different reaction if they'd known from the start that Donghua could never marry Fengjiu, but he couldn't stop himself from acting on his feelings and giving her false hope.

The most effective tragedies set up the insurmountable obstacles at the beginning. The first lines of Romeo and Juliet tell the audience about the feud between the Capulets and the Montagues. The first paragraphs of The Fault in Our Stars establish that the seventeen-year-old heroine is dying from cancer. When she meets her first love at a support group, young readers know there can't possibly be a happy ending to the relationship, but they desperately hope for one anyway.

***

Tragedy is the essence of every genre. The efficacy of the central tragedy makes the difference between a shallow romance and a touching one, a boring mystery and a captivating one, or a cliché fantasy and a memorable one. Even in comedy, adding solid tragic elements can transform the work from a farce into a classic (like Annie Hall, Dr. Strangelove, and The Producers).

Speaking of comedy, here's a funny behind-the-scenes clip of Vengo Gau (Donghua) and Dilrama Dilmurat (Fengjiu) filming a "difficult" scene.

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