Welcome to Part 2 of my exploration of the mythology behind the Chinese drama Ice Fantasy! In Part 1, I focused entirely on the original show with only a brief mention of its sequel series, Ice Fantasy Destiny. This time, I’d like to touch on a couple points connected to the sequel as well as more from the original series. After all, this is my last post for 2020 and that was the year Ice Fantasy Destiny supposedly took place. Let’s start with a bit about Destiny.
Ice Fantasy Upgraded
Ice Fantasy Destiny feels like a complete genre change compared to Ice Fantasy. The sequel series aired in 2017 and is the last season of the show unless this petition for a third one succeeds. Instead of a seemingly ancient mystical land, we get sci-fi tech clashing with elemental magic. Several characters who died in Ice Fantasy return reincarnated as mortals. Confusingly, so do a couple characters who were alive and immortal at the end of the show. I can’t go into too much detail because unlike the original, Destiny has not been licensed for viewing in my country. Pretty much everything I know about it comes from this blog post and the trailer below.
I’m not sure if I would enjoy Ice Fantasy Destiny. It looks like the relationship between Ying Kong Shi and Yan Da gets developed more and the awesome Ice Grandma Feng Tian is back. However, the main plot seems to revolve around Shi trying to prevent Ka Suo and Li Luo—reincarnated as Feng Suo and Luo Luo—from falling in love and retroactively erasing their relationship from history. I find this disappointing since originally Shi and Li Luo had their disagreements but never forced Ka Suo to choose between them. And with only 16 episodes instead of the 62 of the original, I worry the show might skip some of the nuances it could explore. Even so, I wish I could see it. If you happen to have watched Destiny, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it!
Just in case you’re reading this before Part 1, I want to reiterate that these are my interpretations based on research, but I am not a native Mandarin speaker or culturally Chinese. This combined with keeping a reasonable word count has limited the topics I can cover well. For instance, I had initially wanted to delve into the “spiritual power” that underlies the “spells” in this world, but just a quick check of the subtitles revealed at least three different Mandarin words being translated as “spiritual power.” Perhaps one day I’ll be able to go back and do a proper investigation of these terms, but for now I had to let them go.
Fire and Ice in Space
One rather interesting element caught my eye reading through the Ice Fantasy Destiny summary: the planets. A quote from the show tells how in the aftermath of the original story, the Immortal Kingdom separates from Earth to become the planets Mars and Pluto.1 The Fire Clan gets Mars while the Ice Clan and possibly their allies get Pluto. It’s hard to see the Ice Clan being associated with Pluto except in literal physical characteristics. I can see some possible parallels with the Ice-Fire Clan, especially the Western astrological interpretation of Pluto representing death, rebirth, transformation, and secrets. The Ice-Fire Clan is the only one capable of transforming into a perfect physical copy of another person,2 and the two Ice-Fire immortals shown both experience death and rebirth.
Mars. NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Mars is an obvious choice for the Fire Clan only through a mythological lens. Otherwise scoring Venus would fit better. Though now known by the name of the Roman god of war, Mars was also known as Ares to the Greeks and “the fire star” to the Chinese.3 Mars and Ares were both gods of war, fire, and aggression, though Mars was imagined as bringing peace through war while Ares brought only destruction.4 Despite being by some accounts born without male participation, Mars is such an uber-masculine symbol that his glyph (♂) is used to represent the male gender.
The Fire Clan is represented as ruthless and war-oriented, with many traits of a martial culture. Weakness is despised, mistakes and even apologizing are sneer-worthy, and sentiment is scorned. Unlike the all-female Mermaid Clan, the clan isn’t entirely male. However, most Fire women shown are meek servants who literally keep their eyes down and do as they’re told. Yan Da, the lone Fire Princess and only “female solider,”5 has to endure constant taunts about her gender from her ten brothers. Yet she holds on to her dream of becoming the “first female King.” Such a term only seems to show how automatic the equation of male and power is within her clan.
A Unicorn (Not Qilin) Named Snow Goose
Li Luo’s unicorn Snow Goose (originally Turnip) is one of the few entirely Western borrowings. I had initially wondered if the Mandarin subtitles would use “qilin” for “unicorn,” but happily they label it “horned beast (擉角獸)” instead. The qilin is a mythical creature often referred to as the “Chinese unicorn,” though honestly that feels like calling a swan and a dove the same thing because both are associated with weddings. The European unicorn and the qilin are associated with peace and royalty, but there are slight differences even there. One of the oldest elements in the unicorn legend is it being captured and brought before the king.6 The qilin, on the other hand, is a divine omen, its appearance signaling a ruler favored by the heavens had taken the throne or that a person of great virtue was near.7 Snow Goose is no unwilling captive, and the “unicorns of the Kingdom Guardians” don’t serve kings directly.8 However, their riders report to the Ice King, so they are closer to the traditional unicorn than the ethereal qilin.
Left: Wooden unicorn from the chemist’s shop from Göteborgs stadsmuseum., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Right: Bronze Qilin statue in Summer Palace, photo by Zhangzhe0101, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
The confusion of the qilin with the unicorn is so pervasive that the classic qilin traits are sometimes overwritten. The European unicorn is defined by its single horn, a feature the classic qilin lacks. In a pair of Ming Dysnasty (1368–1644 C.E.) statues depicting a qilin and a similar creature called a xiezhi, it’s the xiezhi that has one horn while the qilin has two antlers, a scaly body, and jaws like a stylized lion.9 Its closest ordinary counterpart was the giraffe,10 both of which are called “kirin” in Japanese. After over a century of the qilin being labeled a “unicorn,” however, even Chinese sources often describe the creature as one-horned and horse-like. A similar process has converted the Chinese fenghuang into a near copy of the Greek Phoenix. Ashes of Love participates in making the fenghuang a Phoenix, so it’s gratifying to see Ice Fantasy keeping its horned-beast distinct from the qilin.
Butterfly Lovers and Demons
The quest for the Hidden Lotus storyline is full of mythological references, but I’ll focus on one of the most striking: the demon butterflies. Ka Suo and friends encounter these as they face off against Queen Die Che (蝶澈 meaning “butterfly”), one of four guardians blocking their path to the lotus. Die Che is an enchanting zither/qin (琴) player, but the colorful swarms surrounding her turn out to be mó dié (魔蝶), demon butterflies who feed on the flesh of captured humans and Die Che’s enemies.11 At first it may seem like just an unexpected twist, and I couldn’t find any direct references to such creatures in mythology. Yet behind the overall positive association with butterflies are some shadows that may explain these demon butterflies.
Don’t try this with mó dié. Photo by Ludmilla Diniz on Pexels.com
Die Che’s story has echoes of the famous Butterfly Lovers tale from China. In the story, Zhu and Liang meet when Zhu disguises herself as a boy to enter a university, yet her arranged marriage and Liang’s death from heartbreak separate them. Zhu then throws herself into Liang’s grave and the pair rise transformed into a pair of butterflies. Die Che likewise has lost her love, Chi Mo, to execution and preserves his spirit through a body sustained by the demon butterflies.12 In addition to romantic love,13 the butterfly frequently symbolized the soul—and by extension ghosts—in Chinese mythology.14 Interestingly, the Korean tale “Chach’ŏngbi Sŏrrhwa” may have been inspired by the Butterfly Lovers, but instead of joining her lover Mun in death, Chach’ŏngbi (also Jacheongbi) pulls him back to her world with a “the flowers of revival.”15 Die Che pursues a similar path at the cost of others’ lives, despite Chi Mo’s objections when he learns the truth.16 He finally leaves, transforming into a butterfly to say goodbye.
The whole “eating people” part of the mó dié isn’t from Chinese butterfly lore, but it also isn’t something that appears only in Ice Fantasy. The 2018 drama The Destiny of White Snake includes a butterfly demon, and the 2007 Japanese film Dororo has a carnivorous butterfly monster and her ravenous caterpillars threatening people. There are also several moth yokai who eat humans in the Inuyasha anime and movies, including one from “the mainland” (China) who grows to gargantuan size by feeding on human souls.17 It’s possible this is just coincidence, but it makes me think of the Japanese shinchū (神虫), a giant silk-moth yokai. Though they ate “evil spirits and demons” instead of humans, they still left “pools of blood” behind.18 And I can name at least one anime—Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan—that shows a shinchū killing humans. So I wonder if at some point the association between the shinchū or a similar creature changed from protecting humans by eating their enemies to eating humans themselves.
A Double-Edge Sword
The Soul-Devouring Sword (噬神劍, literally “devour god/spirit sword”) is a weapon that weaves its way through the entire plot of Ice Fantasy. For some reason, if you plug its name into Google Translate, it spits out Excalibur, but I’m pretty sure Excalibur never told King Arthur it would eat him! What makes the sword so formidable is the host of jian ling (劍靈) or sword spirits that possess it. They feed on the energy and blood of any the sword strikes, draining life without gore. Yet using this blade comes at a price, since the wielder must sacrifice their own energy to the spirits and hope they don’t take a fatal serving. The spirits may also possess the wielder. When the sword first makes Ying Kong Shi its owner, he fights with a trance-like blankness until the sword tries to kill Yan Da, and then he barely manages to wrestle it away from her.19 It’s not a weapon to be taken up lightly.
There’s no shortage of cursed, murderous, possessed swords in mythology and media, but none are a perfect model for the Soul-Devouring Sword. Its appetite for “energy from souls” is similar to Godsbane from the Forgotten Realms RPG.20 The possession element resonates with the legendary cursed Muramasa blades of Japan, said since Tokugawa times to possess their users and drive them to murderous acts.21 The Chinese sword Zhanlu judged its wielders and could move somewhat independently,22 but its basic value was kindness.23 And then there’s Skofnung, a Danish sword said to contain the spirits of 12 berserkers who apparently sacrificed themselves for the king who wielded the blade.24 Perhaps the biggest distinction is that the sword spirits in Ice Fantasy are not really good or bad, just focused on appetite. One character who dies by the sword later returns as a sword spirit who still helps his former loved ones, though because he doesn’t remember them he rationalizes it as protecting his future meal.
This video has a couple good shots of the Soul-Devouring Sword and Yue Shen spinning the coins on her Moonlight Sword.
Though the sword is powered by spirits, it may also help control them. When the sword spirits possess Ka Suo’s body, driving him to nearly kill a group of Ice Clan children, Shi waves the sword while commanding the spirits to behave and they shriek before subsiding.25 Swords were sometimes used to subdue spirits in Taoist exorcism rites, particularly the zhoujin discipline.26 Similarly, Healer Clan poisoner/warrior Yue Shen seems to use her Moonlight Sword (月光劍) to harness and direct the energy of the evil spirit (煞氣) within her. Her first appearance shows her spinning the coins within the blade to activate it,27 which resemble the numismatic or ritual coins used in Taoism. These coins are sometimes strung together over metal rods to create coin-swords used to frighten “maliciously-disposed spirits” and prevent fevers.28 Yue Shen’s blade somewhat reverses things by having a coin core and harnessing the spirit rather than repelling it. The spirits in the Soul-Devouring Sword may be more vocal and rebellious, but both swords seem to allow their wielders to bend the spirits’ power to their will.
The Soul-Devouring Sword also connects to a more metaphysical side of Ice Fantasy. Originally, the sword holds seven spirits who identify themselves as “joy, rage, sorrow, fear, love, evil, desire.”29 Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism all have a similar list of emotions said to cause illness in the body and block spiritual development.30 The closest match, “joy, anger, grief, fear, love, hatred, desire,” is attributed to Confucius, but Buddhist themes are stronger in Ice Fantasy, particularly that of “freedom.” One of the core tenants of Buddhism is that attachments bring suffering, and in the Chinese sect of Chan Buddhism “freedom is a primary ethical value,”31 meaning freedom from attachments. This is why the otherwise positive emotion of love is on the list, for it creates extremely strong attachments.
Ice Fantasy doesn’t exactly condemn attachment or love, but it often points out the paradox of how one person’s “freedom” to pursue or realize their desires limits another person’s ability to do the same. Lan Shang wants the freedom to love and marry Ka Suo while he wants the freedom to love and marry Li Luo. The plot of Ice Fantasy Destiny seems at first to vilify love, but then Shi is also acting out of a kind of love. It’s a difficult riddle to untangle. And in the midst of all is the Soul-Devouring Sword, its skeleton-theme décor hinting at the endless cycle of incarnation Buddhism seeks to escape through non-attachment. That plus the ravenous emotional spirits makes it a potential metaphor for the power of desire. Like the sword, desire can fill us with new strength so long as we do not let it consume us, so in a way it balances between the Buddhist rejection of desire and the heedless embrace of it.
Thank you for joining me on this journey through the mythology hidden in Ice Fantasy! I’ve enjoyed discovering new aspects of this show and sharing them with you. What were your favorite topics from the two posts? Which ones did you find most surprising? And do you think you’d prefer to watch Ice Fantasy or Ice Fantasy Destiny? I’d love to hear your thoughts! Also, whether you’re reading this at the end of 2020 or the dawn of 2021, I’d like to wish you a happy New Year! May fortune follow you!
- Julia and Tania, “Ice Fantasy Destiny (2017),” Julia and Tania Blog, posted Sep. 5, 2017, accessed Dec. 14, 2020, https://www.juliaandtania.com/blog/?p=4536.
- Ice Fantasy, “The Ice Throne 2,” episode 20, directed by Kok-Leung Kuk, written by Zhi-Ning Sheng, Shanghai Youhug Media, Aug. 20, 2016.
- “Mars Facts,” The Planets, accessed Dec. 26, 2020, https://theplanets.org/mars/.
- Apel, Thomas, “Mars,” Mythopedia, accessed Dec. 26, 2020, https://mythopedia.com/roman-mythology/gods/mars/.
- Ice Fantasy, “The Endless Dreams 2,” episode 8, directed by Kok-Leung Kuk, written by Zhi-Ning Sheng, Shanghai Youhug Media, Aug. 1, 2016.
- Shephard, Odell, The Lore of the Unicorn (1930; reprint, New York: Dover, 1993), 36. Accessed through Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/loreofunicorn0000shep_odwi/page/n7/mode/2up.
- Jordan, Just B., “The Unicorn VS the Qilin,” Just B. Jordan, accessed Dec. 26, 2020, https://justbjordan.com/2015/01/unicorn-vs-qilin/.
- Ice Fantasy, “The Destined King 2,” episode 24, directed by Kok-Leung Kuk, written by Zhi-Ning Sheng, Shanghai Youhug Media, Aug. 29, 2016.
- “Qilin vs. Xiezhi,” Old Stones, accessed Dec. 26, 2020, http://www.art-and-archaeology.com/.
- “The Forest Spirit and the Kirin: Between Dragons, Unicorns, and Nature Itself,” Spirits, Gods, and Ghosts of East Asia, posted Jan. 13, 2017, accessed Dec. 26, 2020, https://sites.centre.edu/ghostsofasia/tag/qilin/.
- Ice Fantasy, “Mysterious Castles of Imprisoned Hearts 4,” episode 46, directed by Kok-Leung Kuk, written by Zhi-Ning Sheng, Shanghai Youhug Media, Oct. 7, 2016.
- Ice Fantasy, “Mysterious Castles of Imprisoned Hearts 4.”
- Cho, Sookja, “‘Transformation and Deification Butterflies, Souls, and Cross-Cultural Incarnations,” in Transforming Gender and Emotion: The Butterfly Lovers Story in China and Korea (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2018), 146. JSTOR. Open access Dec. 28, 2020, https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt22727dr.
- Cho, 150.
- Cho, 174.
- Ice Fantasy, unnamed episode 46, directed by Kok-Leung Kuk, written by Zhi-Ning Sheng, Shanghai Youhug Media, Oct. 12, 2016.47.
- Inuyasha the Movie: Affections Touching Across Time, directed by Toshiya Shinohara, Suginami: Sunrise, 2001.
- Meyer, Matthew, “Shinchū,” Yokai.com, accessed Dec. 26, 2020, http://yokai.com/shinchuu/.
- Ice Fantasy, “Game of Mirage 4,” episode 18, directed by Kok-Leung Kuk, written by Zhi-Ning Sheng, Shanghai Youhug Media, Aug. 16, 2016.
- “Godsbane,” Forgotten Realms Wiki, accessed Dec. 30, 2020, https://forgottenrealms.fandom.com/wiki/Godsbane.
- “Dispelling the Curse of Muramasa Swords,” Yamato Magazine, posted June 4, 2019, accessed Dec. 30, 2020, https://yamatomagazine.home.blog/2019/06/04/dispelling-the-curse-of-muramasa-swords/.
- Milburn, Olivia, “The Weapons of Kings: A New Perspective on Southern Sword Legends in Early China,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 128, no. 3 (Jul. – Sep., 2008): 423-437. JSTOR (25608404), 435.
- Yang, Ping, “Ten Famous Swords in China’s Ancient Times,” China Daily USA, Feb. 16, 2011, accessed Dec. 30, 2020, http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/culture/2011-02/16/content_12025392_2.htm.
- “Top 10 Most Famous Swords of the Middle Ages,” The Medievalists.net, accessed Dec. 31, 2020, https://www.medievalists.net/2014/10/top-10-famous-swords-middle-ages/.
- Ice Fantasy, “The Ice Throne 2.”
- Masuo, Shinʾichirō, Joseph P. Elacqua and 増尾伸一郎, “Chinese Religion and the Formation of Onmyōdō,” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 40 no. 1, (2013): 19-43. JSTOR (41955529), 27.
- Ice Fantasy, “Fall of the Snow Titans 5,” episode 5, directed by Kok-Leung Kuk, written by Zhi-Ning Sheng, Shanghai Youhug Media, July 26, 2016.
- “Coin-Sword,” The British Museum, accessed Dec. 30, 2020, https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/C_1974-0910-1.
- Ice Fantasy, “Game of Mirage 4.”
- Maciocia, Giovanni, “Chinese Medicine on Joy: An Emotional Cause of Disease?,” Giovanni Maciocia, accessed Dec. 14, 2020, https://giovanni-maciocia.com/joy-emotional-cause-of-disease/.
- Hershock, Peter, “Chan Buddhism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), last modified Mar 2, 2019, accessed Dec. 14, 2020, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/buddhism-chan/.