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The Imperial Coroner: Bask in the glory of period CSI

Samseng Zhabor
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Given the popularity of all sorts of procedurals from CSI to Bones to Lucifer (more on my penchant for watching such shows in a later issue), we all know that cracking cases and solving mysteries makes for good television. So why not transpose that into Tang Dynasty China?
This is what the 2021 show 《御赐小仵作 The Imperial Coroner delivers, and exceptionally well, too. (I’ve linked to Viki there, but it’s also on YouTube.)
Chu Chu (played by Su Xiaotong) is a young woman brought up in a family of coroners. Her dream is to pass the official exam so she can be a certified coroner working for the government, just like her grandfather, father, and older brother. For this, she travels all the way from her little hometown to the capital, Chang'an (in today’s Xi'an, the capital of Shaanxi Province in China). Almost immediately after entering the capital, her skills catch the eye of the free-spirited Jing Yi (Yang Tingdong), who tells his BFF Xiao Jinyu (Wang Ziqi) to keep an eye out for her in the coroner exam.
Xiao Jinyu, whose title is Prince An, is in charge of the three judicial offices. A detail-oriented workaholic, he’s a brilliant detective and judge. Absolutely no face is given to anyone when he’s on the case—which is why he’s not exactly Mr Popular in the imperial court—but when he and Chu Chu meet, they find in each other kindred spirits dedicated to catching bad guy and upholding justice. *🚨 OTP alert 🚨*
It’s a good thing that the two are now working together, because there are a bunch of mysteries waiting for Xiao Jinyu to wrap his head around: deaths of government ministers, counterfeit coins, and questions surrounding past events that led to the disappearance and assumed death of his father. Backed up by Chu Chu and the rest of his Scooby gang—Jing Yi, the most hardworking 纨绔子弟 (think “dandy”, or a rich boy who just indulges himself all day long) I have ever seen, Leng Yue, their childhood friend who’s now a kickass woman roaming the jianghu, and Xiao Jinli, Jinyu’s over-protective big brother—Jinyu sets out to untangle all these cases… and gets much more than he’d bargained for.
Making history, and she doesn't even blink
What’s it like to shatter a glass ceiling in an ostracised field that everyone else sees as gross and unlucky? Throughout the story, Chu Chu is doing something extraordinary: being the first female coroner in official service, and straight to the top of the three judicial offices, no less. Another drama might make that the entire narrative’s core, playing up the challenges and prejudices that a woman has to overcome to rise in a patriarchal world. But not The Imperial Coroner.
In this show, Chu Chu is a professional through and through. She’s not fixated on the idea of going down in history as the first woman this-or-that; her main priority is to do a good job and play her part in catching villains. She knows that she’s being ostracised and looked down upon because of what she does, but doesn’t let it get to her. She doesn’t think it’s about her at all; in one scene, Leng Yue tries to comfort Chu Chu by saying that no one will dare to bully her once she proves herself and attains a higher position. Chu Chu’s response is that she hopes that one day she won’t be bullied, not because of her position, but because all coroners will no longer be treated as pariahs.
It’s this professionalism and calm sense of self that makes Chu Chu such a great character. She knows what she’s good at, she’s committed to it, and she does a great job no matter what. ✊🏼
Jing Yi, a cheapskate after my own heart.
Jing Yi, a cheapskate after my own heart.
Friends that investigate together, stay together
The other thing I loved about The Imperial Coroner is the squad. Xiao Jinyu, Xiao Jinli, Jing Yi, and Leng Yue grew up together in the capital. As adults, they’re all very different people: Jinyu is the brainy one, Jinli the jock, Jing Yi the suave schemer, and Leng Yue the independent woman who could probably kick all their butts. Yet, in no small part thanks to the chemistry between the actors, they act and look like long-time friends, with all the snark, the teasing, and the fights that you have with people who are as close as family (if not closer). All the best friends that I have today are friends I made in adulthood; I don’t have people with whom I go waaaaay back with… so I’ll admit to feeling a little envy about such friendships, even though I know these ones are fictional.
Also, Xiao Jinli is a really good big brother who really, really loves Jinyu and isn’t too shy to show it. Just look at that hug:
Brothers showing affection, it's so cute. 🥰
Brothers showing affection, it's so cute. 🥰
Makes me want a big brother too.
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Kirsten, the Samseng Zhabor
Kirsten, the Samseng Zhabor @kixes

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