I spy … a lot of spies in 2016


To get an idea of the extent of communist infiltration at the time, the head of the KMT’s central intelligence agency was at one time a communist mole. The character whom Ming Lou was modeled after in The Disguiser? A five-sided agent.

As idol actors try to prove their worth, many of them are looking toward espionage dramas.   Li Yifeng, Zhao Liying,  Liu Shishi, Hawick Lau, Zhou DongyuZhang RuoyunChen Xuedong,  Lu Yi, Qiao Zhenyu,  and Ady An Yixuan are just some of the latest spies in the drama world.

Espionage dramas have long been turning points for many actors, most recently Jin Dong and Wang Kai in The Disguiser.   While usually more reserved for veteran actors, the specialty is now in vogue for the young and beautiful.   Set mostly during the Sino-Japanese war, a period is known for their classy outfits and intrigue-filled politics,  espionage dramas are perfect for multi-layered characters and acting if one can handle it.

A round-up of some upcoming espionage dramas, in historical chronological order.  Which ones are you looking forward to the most?

August 1937
Japan takes Beijing and Tianjing following the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, beginning the second Sino-Japanese War.


Dark times are ahead, just look at the blackness of everything in this photo.

The Hummingbird Attack 蜂鸟出击

Cast: Hawick Lau, Zhang Jianing, Li Xirui
Setting: 1937-, Tianjin

After her parents are both killed , our female lead (Zhang Jianing)becomes a vigilante and goes on a two-women killing spree with her best friend (Li Xirui).  She eventually realizes that her personal vendetta is misguided, and is on converted by a fellow physician  to work as a communist agent (Hawick Lau).





What I liked the most about the synopsis is that her best friend eventually joins the nationalists, and the two actually work together when they have the same goal, but also hate each other and try to ruin each other’s lives at other times.  This is probably one of the more complicated female-female relationships in a drama recently, so I hope it turns out to be well-developed.  If done well, it could be even a caricature of the communist-nationalist relationship at the time, but that would be getting my hopes up too much.

Trailer here, although a low-qualitied land channel version is already available on YouTube.


November 1937
Japanese forces take control of Shanghai following the Battle of Shanghai 


Photo unrelated to the drama.

Blood and Bodyguards 铁血保镖
Cast: Song Yi, Li Jiahang
Setting: 1932-1937, Shanghai/Dongbei (Japanese-controlled Manchuria)

The protagonist is kidnapped to join a nationalist training camp  (sounds familiar?).  He uncovers plans to fuel the then nationalist-communist war and helps to build the reunited front against the Japanese come the Battle of Shanghai.

December 1937
Japan takes Nanking following the Nanking Massacre.


Striking a selfie pose before the invention of cellphones.

Rookie Agent Rouge 胭脂
Cast: Zhao Liying, Lu Yi, Yuan Wenkang
Setting:  1937(?) Nanjing

Our klutzy but clever  protagonist spied on and killed her best friend’s father not because he’s evil (which he supposedly is), but to prove to her object of admiration (Yuan Wenkang) her loyalty. Eventually she joins to become an agent to follow her pursuit of this guy, then finally gets converted by some communist spy   (Lu Yi) in the nationalist government. Fun fact: The head of the Nanjing secret police and the intelligence team both at one time communists, as were the heads of the Tianjin secret police.

Based on the synopsis, the female lead actually sounds like a horrible person, so I’m just going to count on Zhao Liying’s cuteness to carry the drama.


Wang puppet government

A Nationalist puppet government (汪伪政府) is set up  under Japanese guidance in Nanjing.  Meanwhile, the real nationalists (who have retreated to Chongqing) and communists (who have retreated to Yan’an) have formed the second KMT-CCP alliance against the Japanese invasion.

In Shanghai, the then and now financial center of China, the situation is further complicated by powerful gangs and foreign claims on the Bond. Reflected in the fight to define and control modern China are in its fashions, where a woman might be dressed in a flapper dress, a qipao, a kimono, or even a suit.  Here is an espionage writer’s dream setting and a civilian’s nightmare.


Sparrow 麻雀

Cast: Li Yifeng,Zhou Dongyu, Zhang Luyi, Zhang Ruoyun, Kan Qingzi, Li Xiaoran, Yin Zheng
Time period: early 1940’s, Shanghai

Li Yifeng and Kan Qingzi are communist agents, Zhou Dongyu and Zhang Ruoyun nationalist agents. They’re all working for the puppet government. I almost feel bad for Wang Jingwei since everyone in his government is a spy both on TV and in real life, but then I remember what a horrible person he is.




And the most misleading English title goes to…

The Stalker 潜行者: 浮出水面
Cast: Zhai Tianlin, Jiang Kaitong, He Minghan
Setting: early 1940’s, Shanghai

An economics spy is charged with secretly ruining the puppet government’s economy.

The title, the subtitle, and the tagline are Daylight Entertainment / Shandong TV rip-offs (伪装者+浮出水面 + 前方的道路越是黑暗,我们就越渴望光明。).





1945 – ?
Civil War

With the surrender of the Japanese in 1945,  civil war ensues as the communists and nationalists battle it out.

Despite what’s been passing around the web after the JYP scandal, I can tell you that during the Civil War era, both Western and Chinese scholars agree that the nationalists were filled corruption and nepotism and widely hated.  All the opium smuggling in the Disguiser? True.  Many of the children of its leaders as well as many of its leaders themselves turned out to be either moles or defected. 



Battle at Dawn 黎明决战
Time: 1946, Harbin
Cast: Wang Qianyuan, Liu Shishi, Cao Bingkun

In April 1946, Harbin became the first major city to be controlled by the communists.   Liu Shishi and Wang Qianyuan try to snoop out nationalist agents still remaining in the now communist-controlled Harbin.

Starting from Yan’an, the communists first took Northeastern China after the Japanese surrender, then went South and Westward until finally proclaiming independence in October 1949.   The nationalist government retreated to the island of Taiwan in December of the same year.




Epiphyllum Dream昙花梦
Cast: Qiao Zhenyu, Ady An Yixuan, Guo Xiaoting
Setting: 1945, Shanghai

This is more of a detective drama, but it has moles and biological warfare and Qiao Zhenyu’s pretty face, so whatever.    Our two detective leads try to uncover the secrets behind Japanese biological weapons while discovering the mole in their own police force.  Trailer here.


Decoded 解密

Cast: Chen Xuedong, Ying’er, Guo Jingfei, Zhang Zhehan, Yin Xiaotian, Liu Tao.
Setting: 1959, place unknown

Decoded the book is available in English, buy it on Amazon here.

“Readers skate the line separating insanity from genius in Mai Jia’s riveting tale of cryptographic warfare. At the center of Mai Jia’s taut novel, the mathematical genius Rong Jinzhen is spirited away as a young man to China’s secretive Unit 701, an elite cadre of code masters. There Jinzhen encounters the hero who broke WWII Japanese ciphers, now a helpless, chess-playing lunatic. Such is the peril Jinzhen faces as he launches his own lonely assault on PURPLE, the fiendish brainchild of his own former professor. In a narrative challenging readers to do their own decoding of its ruptures and inversions, readers see the brilliant protagonist survive daunting psychological dangers as he unravels PURPLE, inspired by a dream about the Russian chemist Mendeleyev. But when PURPLE’s sinister sibling, BLACK, emerges as the new foe, Jinzhen ventures forth again, veering toward mental breakdown when he loses a research notebook. A denouement at once heartbreaking and thought-provoking leaves readers pondering the collective sanity of a world shrouding knowledge in enigmas. ”




Head Above Water 浮出水面
Cast: Jin Dong, Han Yuqin
Setting: Modern Qingdao

This rare modern espionage series follows the rebellious  Hong Shaoqiu (Jin Dong) as he heads an National Defense investigation into the repeated leak of research on a new new deep-sea submersible.






16 thoughts on “I spy … a lot of spies in 2016

  1. What is the synopsis for Rookie Agent Rouge 胭脂? Why do you say Zhao Li Ying’s character sounds horrible??

  2. This is very off-topic, so I apologize in advance, but this has been bothering me for awhile — can I ask why this site always has Zhao Li Ying’s name spelled as “Zhao Liyin”? When you google “Zhao Liying” you get tons of pages, but when you google “Zhao Liyin,” all you get is Cfensi and one post on pinterest that are actually talking about the actress. It’s very odd to me because this site will use the correct “Ying” spelling for other actresses who have the same exact character in their names (i.e., the “Ying” in Angelababy’s Chinese name — https://cfensi.wordpress.com/2015/04/12/centertainment-chinglish-mini-quiz/, and Ying’er — who appears in this very same post — both use the same “Ying” (颖) as in Zhao Li Ying — yet Cfensi doesn’t call then Yang Yin and Yin’er).

    This can’t be some Taiwanese/Cantonese spelling, they would use “Ying” too — and it can’t be an English version thing because the actress has opted for the very random “Zanilia Zhao” there. It seems to just be an odd, unexplained, and yet very persistent misspelling — can someone help explain?

    • You’re right. I went through the tag and there were about ten instances were she’s spelled Zhao Liyin (including this one, which had the right tag but misspelled it twice in the article). I don’t have a good explanation why almost all of us misspelled her name at some point or other, especially since she’s been on the scene for so long and I think most of us really like her. I didn’t even notice it before. I fixed all the ones I found, and I’ll try to keep that in mind in the future and pay extra attention when I spell her name.

      • Yeah — when I first started noticing her around Shan Shan, I figured that you guys are normally so good about this sort of thing that you really had me wondering for a long time if I in fact had her name wrong. :)

  3. Ok not related to the espionage theme above, but it is also a 时代剧… are you watching 一把青?? Granted, it’s a taiwanese tv drama but it covers the period between 1945 post-war, through the civil war and retreat to taiwan and all the way to the 1980s. Directed by Cao Rui Yuan and based on a short story in Bai Xian Yong’s ‘Taibei Ren’ Would love to hear some thoughts on that drama cos it’s so hard to find english based sites covering that drama.

  4. Ooh, some look really interesting based on the synopses. I’m especially interested in the modern one as it’s taking place in current times and the subject is relevant.

  5. Im not a republican spy drama person, the disguiser was my first and I love it that I don’t think any other republican spy drama can live up to it… Made me love all shanying production too But Ill give the other a try…. Especially all quiet in Peking, heard good things about it even though it came out a while ago…

  6. Indeed, so many spy dramas! I don’t really watch them normally, but I am gonna give Battle at Dawn, Rookie Agent Rouge and Sparrow a chance! They look quiet promising (and have actors I enjoy watching ^^)

  7. I find this genre of dramas to be best with veteran actors and a more mature story line (e.g. All Quiet in Peking style). I just don’t believe that idol twists (and potential OTP fan servicing) does the seriousness of that era and piece of history justice. I can’t imagine the likes of Zhao Liying, Chen Xuedong etc giving the depth and truly embodying the urgency that is needed to be convincing (as opposed to acting cute/pretty etc as they so often do in dramas). Here’s to hoping that one of these will surprise me.

  8. Here we go….the floodgates have opened for those trying to copy the success of The Disguiser. I doubt anyone can duplicate the charisma of the Hu Ge/Wang Kai/Jin Dong trio.

    • But I had read about the production of Rookie Agent Rouge and Epiphyllum Dream before The Disguisers was broadcast, so I doubt that these spy dramas are trying to coattail on the success of The Disguiser. It’s just probably en vogue.

      I find it amusing that a number of them are about the leads converting to be a communist agent :)))

      • I’m not actually surprised at the leads converting to communist agents. Zhang Ruoyun isn’t new to war period dramas. In 2012’s, Black Fox, he (title role of code name Black Fox) started out as an agent of the National Party and converted to be a communist agent. Really love his role there. It was what made me pay attention to this upcoming actor.

      • Yeah, I think all of those but the Song Yi one was in progress before The Disguiser.

        The last one is kind of true, though. The nationalist party started out as idealist and hopeful, but during its brief rule, they went down the drains and people started defecting. This is especially since before the Second United Front, joining the CCP meant death or worse, so a lot of people joined the Nationalists, but later defected once the war begun.

        • Can’t help but wonder about the sad fate during the cultural revolution of those who converted from Nationalists to Communists . They did not escape persecution by revolutionary extremists.

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