It’s that time of year again! In the northern hemisphere, winter has arrived, and in the southern, summer is in full swing. Contemplating these contrasting seasons existing simultaneously has me thinking of Ice Fantasy, the first Chinese drama I ever watched. At first glance, it’s easy to see it as a Chinese interpretation of Western fantasy tropes, with pointy-eared immortal princes and mystical swords. However, look deep enough and you’ll find it actually draws strongly on Chinese mythology with influences from a few other cultures. Since its sequel series is set in then-futuristic 2020, I thought it might be fun to close the year by delving into the mythology within the fantasy.
About the Show
The original season of Ice Fantasy was a massive production. Based on Guo Jingming’s novel Huànchéng (幻城, literally Fantasy City), the show aired on satellite and streaming stations in 2016. About 70% of the nearly 300 million yuan budget was spent on post-production special effects,1 which didn’t stop complaints from reviewers. Admittedly, there are some distracting errors, especially in make-up, but Ice Fantasy’s CGI actually remains among the best I’ve seen in C-dramas. Regardless of reviews, the show quickly became a hit, with an average 13 million viewers when the government blocked the remaining episodes .2 The same regulations (SARFT) had previously blocked many Korean dramas in China because they were considered dangerously distracting. Ice Fantasy concluded after producers agreed to edit.3 Whether this changed the story at all, I cannot say.
Many of the early negative reviews of Ice Fantasy dismissed it as a “knockoff” of Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings.4 But while the production hired Dan Hennah of Lord of the Rings fame for set design and lead actor Feng Shaofeng spoke of wanting to create “something like A Song of Ice and Fire,” the world of Ice Fantasy is very much its own thing. For instance, consider a scene where Kingdom Guardian Li Luo rides in on a unicorn to rescue a man and a sheep from a pterodactyl-like Sky Bird. After man and sheep fall to the ground, she pursues the Sky Birds and shoots at them with a gun.5 I have definitely not seen anything like that from Tolkien. Thronies, any matches on your end?
A quick note: This is not an exhaustive list. Going over every possible mythological reference in Ice Fantasy‘s 62 episodes would take a book, which is why I’m splitting this into two parts. Also, I am not fluent in Mandarin nor do I have lived experience of Chinese culture, so it’s likely many references passed me by unnoticed. I’ve tried to do my best with research and observation, but if you have better knowledge than me and spot errors or additional information that I missed, please let me know. I’ll try to keep larger spoilers under wraps, but if you’re like me and want spoilers, ask away and I’ll tell!
Inhabitants of the Three Kingdoms
The world of Ice Fantasy is called the Three Kingdoms, which are rendered in English as the Immortal Kingdom, the Mortal Kingdom, and the Spirit Lands. Each realm is dominated by a different type of being with further clan divisions within. The Ice, Fire, and Mermaid clans are definite immortals, while the Spirit, Eagle, and Bear clans are spirits. The Healer clan is implied to be mortal. The Dream clan is harder to place since they appear to live in the Mortal Kingdom yet have powers and lifespans similar to immortals. Most of the plot revolves around attempts by the Fire Clan to usurp the Ice Clan’s rule over the Three Kingdoms with other clans generally siding with Ice.
Artist’s rendition of magic styles from the Three Kingdoms, clockwise from corner left: Dream Clan, Spirit Clan, Mermaid Clan, Healer Clan, Fire Clan, Ice-Fire Clan, Ice Clan. Artwork by Bridget Sarsen.
The Ice and Fire immortals may look like they belong in Middle Earth, but they are not elves. The Mandarin subtitles actually label them as “shén (神),” meaning “god.” Another translation is “spirit,” but inhabitants of the Spirit Lands are “líng (靈),” which also translates as “spirit.” In mythology, shén are generally considered to be former human or animal souls appointed to heavenly positions.6 Líng are animal and plant spirits with enough spiritual power gathered to take human form. Both shén and líng are part of Taoist cosmology, along with xiān (仙), beings who become immortal through cultivation, and mó (魔), roughly “demons.” who are inherently “opposed to righteousness.” A couple mó appear in Ice Fantasy, though they don’t get their own kingdom and the Tiger Demon behaves more like a worried mother than an evil monster.
Ice Fantasy’s shén are powerful but noticeably different from the general Western concept of deities. They aren’t worshiped. In fact, when Ice Prince Ka Suo shows up in a mortal village, they don’t know who or what he is and mainly wonder why his hair is white.7 And most shocking of all, these “immortals” age and die. The leader of the Mermaid Clan eagerly uses an anti-aging potion in hopes of looking like she did at age 100,8 and Ice King Lin Chao remembers his father wanting to live another 10, 000 years as his death drew near. As no healer could grant the dying king “eternal life((永生),”9 he commanded his son to marry a mermaid princess for her Tear Stone (more on that later).
With their long but still limited lifespans, the show’s immortals resemble a different type of god, the tiān rén (天人) of Chinese Buddhism. Buddhist cosmology recognizes six realms where souls can incarnate: heaven, humans, hungry ghosts, hell, demons, and animals.10 The tiān rén, derived from the devas of Indian Buddhism, inhabit the heavenly realm where they live about 100, 000 years before dying and reincarnating again.11 The same concept migrated to Japan as “ten.” All versions of these beings are “capable of great magical feats” and may not need to eat as well as being generally happier than humans.12 The “happier” part may not apply in Ice Fantasy since these immortals are pretty stressed out, but they don’t need to eat quite like mortals. Often, they can simply sniff flowers and call it good.
I’m uncertain why the show went with shén rather than tiān rén, but I suspect it’s simply the more well-known term. Ashes of Love, another high-profile fantasy C-drama, draws heavily on Taoist terminology even though it also imagines a world with several realms of incarnation. “Shén” is used for deities from the heavenly realm while “líng” refers to lower-level nature spirits. Incidentally, it’s the “líng” that are subtitled as “elves” and “fairies” in English.
Messengers of the Immortals
Ice Fantasy‘s Messenger Owls look very similar to the front owl. Photo by Jiu0159u00ed Mikolu00e1u0161 on Pexels.com
Messenger Owls are the cellular network of the Immortal Kingdom. Though most numerous near the Ice stronghold of Ren Xue City, they appear when summoned and in response to immortal magic. They record exactly what they hear in the voice of the sender with no editing, which is why one of Li Luo’s messages to Ka Suo ends with her yelling at her unicorn to stop biting the owl.13 Unlike the variable and sometimes owned mail owls of the Harry Potter series, these owls are as indistinguishable as they are impersonal. They will carry a Fire message as readily as an Ice one. Mermaids prefer more waterproof communication methods.
Why owls? Well, they are cute, but there’s also a mythological basis. Many cultures have stories in which owls serve as messengers for some higher power. Often it is death, as with the four “owl messengers” of Vucub-Kamé, a lord of the Mayan underworld Xibalba.14 Silvia Moreno-Garcia, who brings this god and more to the 1920s in Gods of Jade and Shadow, even describes one owl bringing its lord laughter “captured in a white seashell.”15 While more recent Chinese associations with owls focus on lightning and Yang energy,16 some have claimed that during the Shang Dynasty (1300-1046 B.C.E.) the owl was a “messenger between the human and the spirit world.”17 And the characters for the Immortal Kingdom can actually be read as “spirit world.”
A Little Mermaid’s Tears
The Mermaid Clan displays an interesting mix of traits from mythology, literature, and modern media. They are referred to as “rényú (人鱼),” meaning “human fish.” The earliest mention of mermaid-like beings in China, dating from the 4th century, does use both “rényú” and “língyú” for fish with human heads.18 The Ice Fantasy mermaids have a stronger resemblance to another version called “jiāorén (鲛人)” or “shark human” who can live among humans and whose tears become pearls.19 One story tells of a jiāorén thanking a human host family by crying a bowlful of pearls in payment. By contrast, Mermaid Princess Lan Shang is captured by a mortal man who harvests her tears by forcing her to watch him set a fire snake on two people she tried to free from slavery.20 A similar theme was later used in the Korean drama The Legend of the Blue Sea where a mermaid is beaten by humans greedy for the pearls she cries. Both shows also have mermaids whose legs revert to tails on contact with water, which likely originated in the 1984 U.S. film Splash!
Though Lan Shang’s pearl tears come from Chinese mythology, her story at times echoes The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Anderson. In the original story, the Little Mermaid learns about the human world from her grandmother. Lan Shang likewise draws on warnings from her grandmother, the matriarch of their clan, when visiting the Mortal Kingdom. Like all young mermaids, she uses a pair of temporary legs that are so weak, long walks are exhausting and painful. Anderson’s mermaid endures even more as every step with her false legs feels like “treading upon sharp knives.”21 And of course, she also falls for a prince who chooses a human instead, though Ka Suo is at least clear about letting her down.
Probably the most famous element of The Little Mermaid is the loss of her voice. Lan Shang doesn’t have to exchange her voice for her legs, but she does sacrifice it for her prince. Representing Ka Suo in a competition to disarm a group of Ice warriors, she uses a melody to make them launch their weapons before transforming the spears into flowers.22 Yet the song’s power also robs her temporarily of her speaking voice and permanently damages her ability to sing. This melody is called the Siren’s Song (海妖之聲), referencing the creatures from Greek mythology whose songs hypnotized sailors into crashing on the rocks. The original sirens were birds with the heads of women,23 but at some point they became more or less another type of mermaid.
Even original elements like the Tear Stone bear traces of The Little Mermaid. Anderson’s mermaid wants the love of her prince not just for its own sake but for the immortal soul she will gain from it.24 Ice Fantasy mermaids, however, lose as much as they gain when they “make love” to a land-dwelling man. Their legs become permanent, allowing them to walk comfortably on land but making them vulnerable to drowning. And the final tear they cry as a mermaid becomes a Tear Stone, an artifact so powerful immortal men often seduce and coerce mermaids just to get it. When Lan Shang finds her Tear Stone stolen, she takes up a sword to kill the prince she believes responsible.25 It’s a dark echo of the Little Mermaid choosing whether to stab her fickle prince with a knife or die with the dawn.
The theme song of Lian Ji, the bitter mermaid, featuring her son Ying Kong Shi.
When nightmares come to visit, we often wish something would just take them away. It happens there’s a mythical creature that does just that. The mèngmò (梦貘), often shortened to just mò (貘), is based on the real-life tapir.26 Though once said to eat iron, its mythos gradually changed into a creature that warded off bad luck and nightmares. When the concept migrated to Japan, it may have merged with the dream-eating Chinese god Bóqí (伯奇) to become the baku, a chimera who eats nightmares. Both can be summoned by repeating their names seven (Bóqí) or three times (baku). The most popular way to invoke its power, however, was to place its image near the bed. In her novel The Night Tiger, Yangsze Choo suggests overuse of the mò image will cause it to consume “your hopes and ambitions” as well.27 Since I’ve also seen a similar claim about the baku in fiction, I’m inclined to believe this is based on actual mythology.
A creature resembling a mò serves as the symbol of the Dream Clan, who interpret the dreams of other clans while predicting the future through their own. Throughout their city stand statues of an animal with a short trunk and tapered ears. These features are the only ones that stay consistent between the mò and the chimerical baku. Neither name is used in the show. Xing Gui, the Head Dreamer’s younger sister, has a personal “dream beast” (夢獸) that can transform from a helpful spirit into a soft toy or pillow. Both toys and pillows shaped like baku are still given to children in Japan to ward off bad luck and nightmares.28 Likely the Ice Fantasy portrayal is drawn from a mix of baku and mò mythology, as the costumes and architecture of the Dream Clan often imitate Tang China.
A short video showing Xing Gui and her brother Xing Jiu. Look for the Dream Beast at the end.
Wow, there’s just so much to talk about with the mythology in Ice Fantasy! I’ve skipped a few possible topics that don’t play a big part in the show, but I’ll cover a few more major ones in Part 2. Next time I’ll also talk a little bit more about the sequel show. In the meantime, what are your thoughts so far? Have you encountered these mythological elements in other places? And if you’ve seen the show, did you spot any mythological aspects I missed? I’d love to hear from you!
- “Ice Fantasy,” Wikipedia, accessed Dec. 4, 2020, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ice_Fantasy.
- Omega, Jan, “‘Ice Fantasy’ C-Drama Not Airing New Episodes Because Of SARFT Regulations — Did Chinese Government Kill Off International Expansion Of Chinese Entertainment?,” Inquisitr, Oct. 20, 2016, https://www.inquisitr.com/3618839/ice-fantasy-cdrama-not-airing-new-episodes-because-of-sarft-regulations-did-chinese-government-kill-off-international-expansion-of-chinese-entertainment/.
- Victaorious, “Entertainment Update: Stats, News, and Dramas,” Cnewsdevotee, posted Oct. 22, 2016, accessed Dec. 13, 2020, https://cnewsdevotee.wordpress.com/2016/10/22/entertainment-update-news-and-dramas/comment-page-1/.
- Li, Jingjing, “Viewers Give Guo Jingming’s ‘Ice Fantasy’ the Cold Shoulder,” Global Times, July 28, 2016, https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/997072.shtml.
- Ice Fantasy, “Fall of Snow Titans 1,” episode 1, directed by Kok-Leung Kuk, written by Shen Zhining, Shanghai Youhug Media, July 24, 2016.
- Gan, Daofu, “Chinese Goblins, Monsters, Spirits, Demons, Ghosts, Immortals, and Gods,” trans. Eric Stone, Eric Stone Chinese Translations, posted Mar 6, 2019, accessed Dec. 4, 2020, https://estonechinesetranslations.wordpress.com/2019/03/06/chinesegoblins/.
- Ice Fantasy, “Fall of the Snow Titans 3,” episode 3, directed by Kok-Leung Kuk, written by Zhi-Ning Sheng, Shanghai Youhug Media, July 25, 2016.
- Ice Fantasy, “Game of Mirage 1,” episode 15, directed by Kok-Leung Kuk, written by Zhi-Ning Sheng, Shanghai Youhug Media, Aug. 15, 2016.
- Ice Fantasy, “The Ice Throne 1,” episode 19, directed by Kok-Leung Kuk, written by Zhi-Ning Sheng, Shanghai Youhug Media, Aug. 22, 2016.
- Ross, Kelly, “The Indian and Buddhist Elements, and the Guṇas,” The Proceedings of the Fresian School, accessed Dec. 16, 2020, https://www.friesian.com/elements.htm.
- A Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms, s.v. “天仙,” comp. William Edward Soothill and Lewis Hodus, accessed Dec. 10, 2020, https://mahajana.net/texts/soothill-hodous.html.
- Meyer, Matthew, “Ten,” Yokai.com, accessed Dec. 10, 2020, http://yokai.com/ten/.
- Ice Fantasy, “Fall of Snow Titans 1.”
- Moreno-Garcia, Silvia, Gods of Jade and Shadow (New York: Del Rey, 2019), 107.
- Moreno-Garcia, 104.
- Lewis, Deane, “World Owl Mythology,” The Owl Pages, last modified Oct. 6, 2012, accessed Dec. 12, 2020, https://www.owlpages.com/owls/articles.php?a=63.
- Wang, Tao, “The Owl in Early Chinese Art: Meaning and Representation,” Sotheby’s, accessed Dec. 12, 2020, http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/2014/sakamoto-n09124/sakamoto-goro/2014/02/the-owl-in-early-chi.html.
- Li, Hongrui, “Mermaids in Chinese Fairy Tales,” China Daily, Feb. 22, 2016, https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/culture/2016-02/22/content_23591906.htm.
- Sun, Jiahui, “The Chinese Mermaid,” The World of Chinese, Aug. 26, 2015, https://www.theworldofchinese.com/2015/08/the-chinese-mermaid/.
- Ice Fantasy, “Last Piece of the Puzzle 3,” episode 13, directed by Kok-Leung Kuk, written by Zhi-Ning Sheng, Shanghai Youhug Media, Aug. 9, 2016.
- Anderson, Hans Christian, The Little Mermaid, trans. H. P. Paull, HCA.Gilead.org.il, last modified Dec. 13, 2007, accessed Dec. 17, 2020, http://hca.gilead.org.il/li_merma.html.
- Ice Fantasy, “The Singing Princess 2,” episode 28, directed by Kok-Leung Kuk, written by Zhi-Ning Sheng, Shanghai Youhug Media, Sep. 6, 2016.
- “Sirens (Seirenes),” Theoi Greek Mythology, accessed Dec. 18, 2020, https://www.theoi.com/Pontios/Seirenes.html.
- Ice Fantasy, “The Revenge of the Princess 2,” episode 36, directed by Kok-Leung Kuk, written by Zhi-Ning Sheng, Shanghai Youhug Media, Sep. 21, 2016.
- “Episode 22: Dream Eater,” Chinese Mythology Podcast, posted Apr. 9, 2018, accessed Dec. 6, 2020, https://chinesemythologypodcast.com/2018/04/09/episode-22-dream-eater/.
- Choo, Yangsze, The Night Tiger (New York: Flatiron Books, 2019), 32.
- Schumacher, Mark, “BAKU 獏 or 貘Eater of Nightmares,” Onmark Productions, accessed Dec. 6, 2020, https://www.onmarkproductions.com/html/baku.html.