TV series ‘To the Wonder’ captivates audiences with authentic portrayal of Altay’s nomadic life

<img id="673427" style="border-left-width: 0px; border-right-width: 0px; width: 100%; border-bottom-width: 0px; border-top-width: 0px" alt="Promotional material for TV series To the Wonder Photo: Courtesy of iQiyi” src=”” class=”aligncenter”>

Promotional material for TV series To the Wonder Photo: Courtesy of iQiyi

Altay in Northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region is no stranger to tourists, as the prefecture is home to vast landscapes, rich culture and diverse ethnic traditions. 

A recent popular TV series
To the Wonder, based on the adaptation of novel My Altay by author Li Juan and directed by Teng Congcong, has once again put the spotlight on the nomadic life in the region.

The eight-episode TV series, ­initially released by content platform iQiyi on May 7, has dominated social media discussions this week and now sitting at the top of Chinese view-­rating site Douban scoring 8.8 out of 10. The unexpected wide recognition, including being shortlisted with other seven TV series to compete at the Cannes International Series Festival, came as a pleasant surprise to Teng and her team. 

While they initially set out to create a small-scale web series, the positive reception reaffirmed their belief in the power of storytelling to bridge cultures and foster understanding.

“We weren’t thinking about going overseas at the very beginning. We didn’t think about going to Cannes or even being broadcasted on China Central Television [the national broadcaster],” Teng told the Global Times on Tuesday. “Originally, we just wanted it to be a costeffective web series.” 

Central to the series is its portrayal of the clash between tradition and modernity of the local people, a theme that also resonates deeply in other parts of the world. 

“I think one reason [for being shortlisted] must be our theme… The collisions between nomadic culture and urban lives may lead to the gradual disappearance of ancient cultural traditions,” Teng said. 

“The many surprises that came afterward, I think it’s really because we worked hard to create a good work.”

Teng’s decision to adapt Li’s collection of essays into a TV series was made before 2018 when she discovered the “rare gem” that was Li’s prose, resonating with its themes such as self-discovery and the beauty of Altay’s landscapes.

<img id="673426" style="border-left-width: 0px; border-right-width: 0px; width: 100%; border-bottom-width: 0px; border-top-width: 0px" alt="Promotional material for TV series To the Wonder Photo: Courtesy of iQiyi” src=”” class=”aligncenter”>

Promotional material for TV series To the Wonder Photo: Courtesy of iQiyi

Early groundwork

Reflecting on her first encounter with Li’s writings, Teng recalls being captivated by the evocative descriptions of Altay’s beauty and the profound insights into local life. This initial fascination planted the seed for what would later become a passion project spanning several years.

The groundwork of the series started in 2020 when Teng and her crew started local exploration in Altay and conducted interviews with local people. Shooting of the series started in April 2023 and lasted 56 days.

To ensure an authentic portrayal of local life, Teng and her team hired a consulting team of four experts from Beijing-based Minzu University of China to check on-site if the details, from costumes to dialogue, in the TV series are correct when filming the scenes. 

“We had a dedicated team of folk culture consultants. Whether it’s the preparation of props and costumes, the translation of the script or the pronunciation of the actors, there is a specialized team of folk culture consultants to help us oversee everything,” Teng revealed.

“There are some aspects of ethnic cultural elements during filming, and they also have to assist us in verification. For example, we had weddings and rituals, and we needed guidance on how to bind the sheep during a ceremony, and how people should dance and undress at the wedding.”

The male protagonist Yu Shi had spent half a year to learn the Kazak language rather than using a dubbing speaker to make his role more natural when filming.

“Since I couldn’t understand the Kazak language, I needed them to ensure the accuracy of the actors’ lines. I focus on performance, and they help ensure the accuracy of language interpretation,” Teng said. 

Passionate mentality

Despite facing time constraints and adverse weather conditions during the shooting, the director fostered a positive work atmosphere, fueled by the team’s shared enthusiasm for the project.

“The working atmosphere has always been very good because everyone is excited about this theme, although it’s very arduous, with continuous unexpected events, everyone’s mentality is very positive,” she said. “I think this excitement also comes from love and passion.” 

Whether it’s the universal themes of love and self-discovery or the authentic depiction of Altay’s culture, the series strikes a chord with viewers. Teng said she believes that the success of the series lies in its ability to connect with audiences on a human level. 

“I think what will attract people is that everyone communicates sincerely, even if I sincerely disagree with you, but I sincerely respect you,” she told the Global Times. “This should actually be a very important part of human nature, the yearning for truth, goodness, and beauty.”

A clip featuring female protagonist Li Wenxiu, who is played by actress Zhou Yiran, arguing with her mother Zhang Fengxia, played by actress Ma Yili, on whether the daughter is a “useful” person, was widely circulated on social media. Zhang won the argument as she told her daughter you were not born to serve others to be “useful.” 

Audiences hailed that the series healed their “spiritual exhaustion,” but Teng believed it is just a production of current time. 

“Many of the audiences, especially the young generation, have a mentality of rejecting the rat race, refusing to say how much money they have to earn, what kind of house they have to buy, or even getting married just to meet their parents’ expectations,” Teng said.

“Instead of being evaluated by others as whether you are a useful person to society, or how other people’s children are doing, I think the audience is gradually liberating themselves from these [social and psychological] burdens.”

DNA unveils likeness of emperor in 6th century

The computer-reconstructed image of Emperor Wu (lower left). Photo: Courtesy of Wen Shaoqing

The computer-reconstructed image of Emperor Wu (lower left). Photo: Courtesy of Wen Shaoqing

Wearing a royal crown, with black hair set against yellow skin and brown eyes, the figure embodies the typical appearance of a North or East Asia native. On March 28, the appearance of Emperor Wu of the Xianbei-led Northern Zhou Dynasty (557-581), a Chinese emperor from an ethnic minority group who lived in the sixth century, was unveiled. This marks the first time that the appearance of an ancient emperor has been reconstructed using technological and archaeological methods. 

Emperor Wu (543-578), also known as Yuwen Yong, belonged to the Xianbei nomadic group, which originated from the Mongolian Plateau. He was an ambitious leader who reformed the system of regional troops, pacified the Turks, and unified the northern part of the country before his death at the young age of 36. 

Recent achievements by a team of Chinese scientists have granted us a glimpse into the visage of the ruler from about 1,500 years ago, shedding light on both his physical appearance and the potential reasons for his death – a stoke or chronic arsenic poisoning due to long-term use of elixirs, which were believed by ancient people to bestow eternal life. 

The emperor’s reconstructed face shows that he had dark black hair, yellow skin, and brown eyes, in line with the phenotypes of present-day East or Northeast Asians. This is different from what some people had imagined the Xianbei people looked like.

More importantly, “this study found direct evidence of the integration between the Xianbei nomadic group and Han group among the nobility during the Northern and Southern Dynasties (386-589) period and the formation of a unified multi-ethnic country through ethnic integration in ancient China,” Wen Shaoqing, an associate professor at the Institute of Archaeological Science at Fudan University and leader of the research team, told the Global Times.

A member of Wen's team scans Emperor Wu's limb bones.  Photo: Courtesy of Wen Shaoqing

A member of Wen’s team scans Emperor Wu’s limb bones. Photo: Courtesy of Wen Shaoqing

From remains to profile

Obtaining intact skeletal remains and high-quality genomic data have proven to be the foremost challenges in reconstructing the appearance of ancient Chinese emperors in the past. Luckily, excavations from 1994 to 1995 in Northwest China’s Shaanxi Province unearthed skeletal remains including the skull and limb bones from the tomb of Emperor Wu.

However, the genetic material extracted from the skeletal samples was of poor quality due to environmental pollution, said Wen. In 2023, the research team extracted over one million single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) of his DNA after employing new research methods.

Over the course of six years, the research team has determined that Emperor Wu possessed a typical East or Northeast Asian appearance by analyzing pigmentation-relevant SNPs and conducting cranial CT-based facial reconstruction 

For a long time, the appearance of the Xianbei people had been a controversial topic, with some historical records indicating that the group had characteristic thick beards, yellow hair, and protuberant noses. Other historical records suggested that there was no difference in appearance between the Xianbei people and other people in Northeast Asia. “Our findings are more in line with the second viewpoint,” Wen stated.

The study has also brought to light the reasons behind the premature death of Yuwen Yong as pathogenic SNPs suggest he faced an increased susceptibility to certain diseases, such as stroke. 

Through the analysis of 33 trace elements in the remains of the emperor, the levels of arsenic, boron, and antimony in his body were significantly higher than the average levels among contemporary commoners and nobility. 

Additionally, on Wu’s femur bone, the research team discovered a spot of black discoloration, which “may have been caused by localized bone marrow necrosis from arsenic poisoning-inducing skin lesions,” according to Wen.

It is documented that during the period in which Yuwen Yong lived, the upper echelons of society revered the consumption of Daoist elixirs for spiritual enlightenment and longevity. These elixirs contained substantial amounts of arsenic, boron, antimony, and other trace elements.

Historical records indicate that between 575-578, Emperor Yuwen Yong fell ill multiple times, predominantly featuring skin diseases. The research team believes that the emperor’s death is consistent with the pathological manifestations of chronic arsenic poisoning.

Bring history to life

According to Wen, the research team analyzed Emperor Wu’s genome, revealing the ancestry of the Xianbei Emperor and his family from a genetic perspective. It was found that Emperor Wu not only shared the closest genetic relationship with ancient Khitan and Heishui Mohe samples as well as  modern Daur and Mongolian populations, but also showed additional affinity with Yellow River farmers.

“Our study has revealed genetic diversities among available ancient Xianbei individuals from different regions. The formation of the Xianbei group was probably a dynamic process influenced by admixture with surrounding populations,” Wen noted.

The latest research sheds light on what the research team has been engaged in, “systematically tracing the lineage and relationships between ancient populations by analyzing skeletal remains unearthed from archaeological cultures in different periods and regions to describe the dynamic process of ethnic fusion within the Chinese nation.”

For example, the Hexi Corridor has long served as a vital route for the exchange of populations between the East and the West. However, due to the scarcity of ancient DNA data, research into the region’s population history has been nearly nonexistent. Through the reconstruction of ancient genomes, the genetic history of populations in the Hexi Corridor has been illuminated, confirming the profound impact of major historical events on its people.

According to Wen, in modern times, molecular archaeology also plays an important role in the identification of martyrs’ DNA, family reunification efforts, and facial reconstructions.

Currently, the team has analyzed over 2,000 samples from prehistoric and historical periods, and more than 1,500 samples from martyrs. However, there is still a long way to go before reaching the final goal.

“Molecular archaeology can bring history back to life, with the only challenge now being the ability to obtain high-quality genomic data of ancient people,” said Wen.