Some time ago, I encountered a one-of-a-kind drama I had never seen before. It was an adventurous tomb raiding drama keeping me on the edge of my seat and giving me an unforgettable viewing experience. It was Tomb Of The Sea.
You should know Tomb Of The Sea is not the first installment of its drama series. Thus I was very confused about watching it. But since I have watched all installments now (I'm in the middle of watching the last one), I decided to write a guide for other first time viewers who might shy away from this tomb raiding gem because they don't understand some things or because it includes so much content and they don't know where to start. Welcome to the world of Chinese adventure!
Please note the spoiler tag! Do NOT casually go over it if you do not want any spoilers! I tried keeping it as spoiler-free as possible, though.
The Lost Tomb is a 2015 Chinese drama that got quite the popularity back when it premiered. It started the drama adaptation of the internet novel Daomu Biji or Grave Robbers Chronicles by Xu Lei. The producers are planning to make 8 seasons of it, but it is complicated to get exact information on this, so we have to take it as we get it. The whole Grave Robbers Chronicles world is currently built from the dramas The Lost Tomb, The Mystic Nine, The Lost Tomb 2, Tomb Of The Sea, the upcoming The Lost Tomb 3 and the movie Time Raiders. Note here that the movie does tell a story set in the same world but is not part of the official drama series (it's like a remake), so I will not include it in this guide. The series also includes a lot of web movies which I admit, I did not watch (yet).
The goal of this guide is for one, you can enjoy the tomb raiding without being confused about everything, and two, for you to start with any installment you want.
Note: This guide will be for the series adaptation and not for the novel itself. Unfortunately, I have not gotten the pleasure of reading the novel.
Why are the Grave Robbers Chronicles so complicated?
One reason is the fact that the release order is different from the chronological order of the dramas. Here a short overview of the difference:
The Lost Tomb (2015)
The Mystic Nine (2016)
Tomb Of The Sea (2018)
The Lost Tomb 2 (2019)
The Lost Tomb 3 (upcoming)
The Mystic Nine
The Lost Tomb
The Lost Tomb 2
Tomb Of The Sea
The Lost Tomb 3
Confused yet? For all our sanity's sake, this guide will use the chronological order. While I do recommend sticking to one of the sequences above, you can start with any installment. In general, the show does play of its other dramas, but flashback scenes are always re-shot with the new actors so you can keep up. It's really fun picking out hints and Easter eggs though. I actually found myself screaming joyfully at a few of them.
I do not recommend starting with Tomb Of The Sea though since it is full of references to The Mystic Nine making it complicated to understand if you have not watched The Mystic Nine.
What is the other reason why this series is so complicated? Because the whole series follows the principle of reappearing characters but re-casting actors. This means you will often re-encounter characters, but they will be played by different actors. This has the advantage of giving the characters an actual feeling of character development, as well as showing different aspects with each actor/actress. While at first, I was on edge about it, I really think it's an interesting set up for a series. It just gives something to the characters you don't normally see: the feeling of someone growing older and more experienced over time.
They did re-cast a lot of supporting characters for the upcoming The Lost Tomb 3, so let's see how it goes.
(Zhang Ming En is one of just two actors re-cast for the same main character)
What is the whole Grave Robbers Chronicles about? It starts with the set up of the Old Nine clans in the 1930s. Nine prestigious families of traders, businessmen, thieves, and explorers. They (not so) secretly reign over the region of Changsha and combine not only their individual strength but also money, military, mystic arts, and pretty much unlimited resources. After this is explored in The Mystic Nine, we jump to modern times and the descendants of the Old Nine clans, namely Wu Xie. He is the last descendant of the Wu family and grew up very treasured (not spoiled though). One day, he follows his third uncle to a tomb-raiding adventure and meets Zhang Qi Ling of the Zhang clan and Wang Pang Zi, an easy-going but experienced tomb raider. The Grave Robbers Chronicles show Wu Xie growing into an experienced tomb raider with his friends and solving the secrets behind mysterious tombs and the Old Nine clans themselves. Important topics in the series include loyalty, betrayal, sacrifice, patriotism, and life and death.
After clearing up the general information, let me give you a short overview of the drama summaries (spoiler-free).
The Mystic Nine tells the story of the Old Nine clans with a focus on the reigning Zhang clan and their leader Zhang Qi Shan (William Chan) and his fight against a threat endangering all of Changsha as well as the survival of the nine families. Even though it aired after The Lost Tomb, it explains a lot of the back story of the clans and in all the shows after you will see a lot of hints to this drama and its main character.
It is, just by the way, one of the most-watched dramas in China.
Wu Xie (Li Yi Feng) acquires a mysterious artifact and manages to tag along on one of his uncle's tomb raiding adventures for the first time. He meets the mysterious Zhang Qi Ling (Yang Yang), and the upbeat Wang Pang Zi (Liu Tian Zuo) and his life are about to change forever as they explore a mysterious tomb and the ancient Seven Stars Palace.
Wu Xie (Neo Hou) cannot escape his fate of adventure, and when his uncle goes missing, he reunites with his friends Zhang Qi Ling (Cheng Yi) and Wang Pang Zi (Zhang Bo Yu) to find him. They work together to solve the mystery of the underwater tomb, which seems strangely connected to their exploration of the Seven Stars Palace. Together they face off against dangerous creatures and businessmen alike.
Set years after the previous stories, we change the point of view to Li Cu (Leo Wu), an ordinary high school student who one day gets a mysterious carving on his back and meets Wu Xie (Qin Hao) who takes him into the desert to find the forbidden city of Gutong Jing.
This series does feature a grown-up Wu Xie as the main character but switches the leading point of view to Li Cu.
The Lost Tomb 3 (upcoming)
After settling down and wanting to live a normal life, the adventure comes back to search for Wu Xie (Zhu Yi Long) and his friends and may conclude a mystery that started in their original exploration of the Seven Stars Palace. This is set to be a continuation as well as a reboot to the series at the same time.
THE MYSTERY OF THE NINE CLANS
The Old Nine clans only appear in full in The Mystic Nine but are repeatedly mentioned or reappearing in the other installments. During Mystic Nine times, the clans are Zhang, Er, Li, Chen, Wu, Hei, Huo, Qi, and Xie. In that order and yes, there is actually an order. :) All of the clans are known for different reasons and have different characteristics. I will only explain the most prominent and most important features.
The Zhang family: Their origin is unknown (for now). All members wear a tattoo of a Qilin creature on their body, only visible when their skin gets warm (it makes for a great body show off, believe me). They have mysterious powers in their blood as well as their hands. As revealed during the series, they are immortal and do not age. They can still die of other reasons, though.
The Wu family: Notably Wu Xie's family. The family is known for raising dogs and being able to make them follow all their commands (they do care well for them too, meaning - don't try to steal their dogs. Yes, someone tried). The old head Wu Lao Gou had three sons, but only one married and had a son, making Wu Xie the sole successor of the family.
The Huo family: Even in Mystic Nine times, they did not deal well with the reign of the Zhang family and wanted to take the lead. They are the Zhang family's most notable rival in the nine clans in the whole series and are also the only clan who has mostly female leaders.
Originally at their strongest before and during Mystic Nine times, they later changed their name to Nine Clans Association to fit modern standards.
Like I said, many main characters get re-cast with each drama, hence I am only introducing the names you should remember whatever face they might have.
He is the leader of the Zhang family as well as the Old Nine clans. He also has command over the military in Changsha. Some people call him Fo Ye, Zhang Da Fo Ye or Master Buddha because he managed to transport a multiple feet high buddha statue into his front yard over one night, giving himself a respected but also feared reputation. He worked his way up to the leader of the clans from scratch and is very good as an explorer but also has great combat and shooting skills. He ends up being somewhat of a household name even for later generations of the clans. (Image: The Mystic Nine)
Member of the Zhang clan, a loyal commander under Zhang Qi Shan and inherits the position as the leader of the Zhang family and the nine clans from him. He is skilled in combat, knows how to spot traps, solve riddles, and while in the Mystic Nine he is just a normal soldier, he turns colder and more mysterious in Tomb Of The Sea. He is one of just TWO actors who were re-cast as their character and appeared in multiple drama installments. (Images: The Mystic Nine / Tomb Of The Sea)
As the youngest descendant and sole "heir" of the Wu family, he is the hope of his clan. Originally an innocent and easy-going playboy, he changes over time and becomes a reliable tomb explorer. He becomes best friends with Zhang Qi Ling and Wang Pang Zi and continues exploring tombs with them throughout his life. After experiencing some hard times, he also develops a cunning side to himself that makes him more manipulative and sarcastic. More than once, his friends ask "Where did the innocent and naive little Wu Xie go?" He cares greatly for his friends and family and, in the earlier years, is mostly looked after by his more experienced comrades. He learns more combat skills in the later years but has always been the best at solving mysteries and inventive thinking. Different from his family, he always sends the found relics to museums and galleries instead of selling them. (Images: The Lost Tomb 1-2 / Tomb Of The Sea / The Lost Tomb 3)
The youngest descendant of the Zhang family. He was taken from his "normal" mother when he was a baby and is on a search to find out more about his family background. He shares the same mysterious powers in his blood and hands as normal with the Zhang clan. Although originally cold, he grows very fond of Wu Xie and Wang Pang Zi and continues exploring with them. Especially in the earlier years he often has to rescue Wu Xie from trouble but has a lot of respect for Wu Xie's protective side over his friends and family. He is skilled at combat and other physical activity, as well as finding hidden traps and mechanics. He tends to randomly dis- and reappear, making Wu Xie overly worried about him. (Images: Time Raiders / The Lost Tomb 1-3)
He is an easy-going and open-minded explorer and a loyal friend to Wu Xie and Zhang Qi Ling despite their differences in character. He is skilled in fighting and explosives. Wang Pang Zi often helps to keep Wu Xie grounded and stops him from reckless decisions. His character carries a big part of the comedy in the dramas without outright being a character solely for comic relief. He is refreshing as he is easy going but not plain stupid about everything. He does think rationally and often takes advice from the others.
Zhang Bo Yu did appear as the same character in Time Raiders and The Lost Tomb 2, but since I said I'm mostly counting the dramas, I do not count it as re-casting. Chen Ming Hao from Tomb Of The Sea is set to reappear as the same character in the upcoming The Lost Tomb 3 though. (Images: Time Raiders / The Lost Tomb 2-3)
He was a normal high school student before a mysterious man carved a strange pattern into his back. Afterward, he meets Wu Xie, who kidnaps him and takes him to a lost city in the desert. Despite his problems with Wu Xie in the beginning, they grow fond of each other, and Wu Xie becomes somewhat of a mentor for him. Multiple characters note that Li Cu reminds them of a younger Wu Xie, even Wu Xie's grandmother thinking he might be the guy's hidden son (one of the best scenes ever). While pretty naive and somewhat dumb in the beginning, he learns to use his experience with Wu Xie and to think before he acts. (Image: Tomb Of The Sea)
Other characters you should remember are Wu San Xing, Wu Xie's third uncle and also a tomb raider, Ning, a tomb-raiding mercenary who sometimes works with Wu Xie, and Hei Yan Jing, a skilled fighter and (supposedly - I still cannot believe it) blind man always donning black glasses.
A lot of people are criticizing the series, and I do understand why. There is so much story in each of these dramas that sometimes there are plot holes as big as China. Although keep in mind, some of them are solved in other installments showing that they are interconnected in some way. Also, it features the usual unreasonable behaviour for all our non-experienced tomb raiders (let's jump straight into danger, why not?). Additionally, the story pace is all over the place in some episodes of The Mystic Nine and Tomb Of The Sea. Sounds awful? Don't worry, I'm getting to the good stuff now. :)
While it has its bad sides, it also features many great things. It shows a suspenseful, adventurous exploring we only know from movies such as Indiana Jones or Pirates of the Caribbean. It features some Chinese history background, detailed sets and costumes, interesting and noticeable character development, sometimes good CGI, enthralling and stable acting, mystery and riddles, and a world full of stories to discover. In general, you will feel like you are watching a Chinese drama version of Indiana Jones with way more intriguing characters (which, of course, also means it's longer than your average movie, yay).
Oh, and the comedy. The comedy may not be the main feature of the series, but some of the glares and conversations these people have are just a gold mine for laughs.
The Grave Robbers Chronicles also offers dark tombs, intriguing traps, and hard to reach treasures and is supported by good visual images to show lost cities and forgotten graves, making it a pleasing journey into the unknown.
This series is definitely my favourite fictional universe since a specific wizard from the UK made his way into my heart. I love that it spans multiple years, includes hints and signs of the other installments all around, and builds a world for itself. And the soundtrack is just the cherry on top of it all.
I know this has been a lot of complicated information, but I tried making it as short as possible while also understandable. But here is the important question, is it worth it? Is it worth watching these dramas even though there is so much background information? For me, there is a simple answer: YES.
Grave Robbers Chronicles builds a world around the Old Nine clans and its descendants and makes you want to explore it more, see where the characters go and how they spend their life. So, if you need a break from the usual melodramas, tragedies, rom-coms, historical and political dramas, join me for a ride through the Grave Robbers Chronicles world and enjoy some tomb raiding!
The series is available online with official links and English subs. You can find all of them on Viki, or also on Youtube and WeTV. For Tomb Of The Sea, I do recommend the WeTV one since that is the only one fully subbed.