The Rebel Princess (2021) 上阳赋 : C Drama Series Review

Wang Xuan (Zhang Zhi Yi) is the beloved daughter of the Right Chancellor & Royal Princess, who is in love with Ma Zi Tan (Tony Yang), 3rd prince of the Cheng Kingdom. Wang Xuan is sacrificed as the bride to Xiao Qi (Zhou Yi Wei), a commoner turned general bestowed as Prince Yu Zhang. When Wang Xuan’s innocence is shattered with betrayals, lies & sacrifices requested of her from her Wang clan, she goes through life & death journeys with Xiao Qi. Wang Xuan falls in love with him, pledging her loyalty towards his fights. Often pulled into different directions, Wang Xuan has to deal with her scheming father, the defensive emperor, love-stricken Zi Tan and many more brick-bats thrown at her. 

Main Poster

Key events depicted in the series are identified as follows:

  • Kidnapping of Wang Xuan by Helan Zhen, and her subsequent rescue by Xiao Qi sealed their trust with each other
  • Imprisonment of Wang Xuan at Huizhou, her battle with the local governor & delay tactic towards King of Jianning, while waiting for reinforcement from Xiao Qi
  • Return to capital to face dual rebellions
    • 1st by 2nd prince Ma Zi Lu and King of Jianning. Rebellion is thwarted with the rebels’ death & subjugation of their armies
    • 2nd by Wang Lin. A plot within a plot whereby the Empress murdered the Emperor to gain the throne for the Crown Prince Ma Zhi Long, only to be snubbed by her life-long supporter brother, Wang Lin. The Crown Prince won, with the biggest impact to Wang Xuan’s family as her father Wang Lin is exiled, her mother dies and she miscarries her baby. 
  • Upon Zhi Long’s ascend as the Emperor, further plots are unveiled to harm Xiao Qi and Wang Xuan to weaken their power
    • Sending Wang Su to the southern Jiangnan to mitigate the flooding
    • Helan Zhen coming back to seek revenge
    • Ending with Zhi Long’s death & accusation of Xiao Qi as the mastermind of the assassination
  • Xiao Qi & Wang Xuan on their own journeys to find each other
    • Xiao Qi, heavily wounded, finds his way towards Wang Xuan in Khulan
    • Wang Xuan, betrayed by her maid Su Jin, is kidnapped by Helan Zhen
    • Zhi Tan on the other hand ascends the throne, but does not manage the country well and remains a love-sick puppy
  • Proving their innocence & striving for peace
Princess Shangyang/ Princess Yu Zhang/ Wang Xuan with handmaid Su Jin

General Muses

I had great reservations before commencing to watch the series.

  • The series generated a lot of buzz as the cast is spectacular, with many big names in the industry. Many a times, the bigger the names & buzz, the series/ movies disappoint more.
  • Zhang Zhi Yi portrays the titular role of Wang Xuan/ Ah-Wu/ Princess Shang Yang/ Yu Zhang Wang Fei. Although I thought she did a great job in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, she did not receive many good commentaries for subsequent movies and has not been active in series at all.
  • The series spans 68 episodes! A very big investment of time.

The pace of the series is indeed slow, I think intentionally to provide perspectives, emphasize the gravity of the plots & displays the beautiful cinematography. The series is obviously a big-budget production with telling signs in the intricacies of costumes & jewelleries, and the battle scenes. Most of the battle scenes are really grand, as there are many extra casts used. I really like their battle scenes.

Happier days

One main grouse I had with the costume is the very over-the-top flowing robes of the noblewomen. It is so impractical! How can the noblewoman be going into a prison or helping the injured at a battlefield with such flowing robes?

The sceneries especially when Xiao Qi brings Wang Xuan for a spin at the tribal villages were beautiful, although the snow-capped mountains look slightly fake. CGIs can be improved, as there were many scenes which does not look real.

I especially like the contrasting way the series portray scenes at the capital city and the outskirt cities. The grandeur & resplendent displays of the wealth in the capital are in direct contrast to the rotting characters, virtues & morality of the aristocrats. The plainness outside the capital city is a fresh breath of air depicting the simplicity & austerity of the commoners.

Originally not paying much attention to the soundtrack, found one which is sung by Charlie Zhou & Hu Xia – At the End of the World 天涯尽处. Loving it.  

Gacha Synopsis on The Rebel Princess & Theme Song

https://chengmusings.com/2021/03/17/the-rebel-princess-2021-the-end-of-the-world-%e5%a4%a9%e6%b6%af%e5%b0%bd%e5%a4%84-theme-song/

Main Leads – Wang Xuan and Xiao Qi

I have always loved a strong female lead. Many novels & series try to portray the strong female lead, but it is easier said than done. I am glad that Zhang Zhi Yi managed to bring out the naivete of a girl & the strength of a woman of Wang Xuan in this series. She has just proven that she can really act. I like her crying scenes, always a little subtle and not over-done. Such delicate beauty, and her features are so nice and plum rosy cheeks! She needs to share her beauty tips :D. I am looking forward to more from her in the future.  

Main 2 leads – Xiao Qi & Wang Xuan

I like the fact that when Wang Xuan’s young naivete is shattered, she does not transform into a revengeful noblewoman. She is able to retain her high-spirit in adversity, never wavering from the path of serving the people. Her maturity in dealing with the situations & trust in the good of people, is her main elegance.

An alliance forced upon them, her relationship with Xiao Qi does not start off in the most romantic manner. However, the subtle exchanges & down-to-earth courtship are a fresh way to all the lovey-dovey scenes.

Zhou Yi Wei as Xiao Qi looks great as the benevolent general, who serves the people and leads by example. Not wanting to be part of the power-grab, he continues to serve the country but remains transparent in his actions. Zhou Yi Wei is the gem in the series! This is how a real general should look like – not the pale, thin & beautiful-looking guys. How can a general serving in the battle for more than a decade still be delicate-looking?

Battle-weary Xiao Qi, with his subordinates

Xiao Qi’s relationships with his men are also explored, and I like the chemistry he has with his battle-weary comrades. I like the way he gives space & the benefit of doubt to his generals, especially General Song Huai En, even when he suspects him of going off-tangent from the honourable path.

Both Zhang Zhi Yi and Zhou Yi Wei look a little too old for the indicative ages of Xiao Qi ~ 30 years and Wang Xuan ~ 20 years. However, all of the actors & actresses of the series are matured & experienced, hence they did not look out of place. 

Stories within Stories

Best not to have expectations from Zi Tan’s character

Ma Zi Tan, the 3rd prince & Wang Xuan’s first love. The character is portrayed by Tony Yang (who looks really good in the modern series All Is Well, unfortunately he just doesn’t suit the ancient series). I hated this character, whom I felt is weak and having no back-bone. He is so immersed in his own romantic pursuit that he forgets his own responsibilities as the prince of the kingdom. He keeps pursuing his love-interest, without regards to his own safety and the current turmoil surrounding his family and friends.  Towards the end, I really hated this character. Get a life, man! He thinks of himself as a romantic person chasing his first love, while his first love has moved on. The worst is – even as the emperor, he has no regards for others but his own romantic self-interest. He even has the gall to blame Wang Xuan for turning into his current state, low-life prince!

The other love-sick character is Helan Zhen (portrayed by Yuan Hong) who is the villain, always kidnapping Xiao Qi’s loved ones. Character is not so lovable, but had an interesting background for the series to explore. A bastard prince, who is back to claim what is rightfully his, his character development could have been better. The character ends up sacrificing everything to “own” Wang Xuan. Another love-sick puppy! Yuan Hong was quite popular after Scarlett Heart. Very surprising that he takes on this role, and I felt that he could have definitely done a better job.

Wang Lin – the real devious schemer

The story of Wang Xuan’s father (Wang Lin) and mother (Ma Jin Ruo) is pitiful. Brought together as an alliance between the Ma and Wang clan to strengthen the grip on power, Wang Lin loses his first love to poisoning by the imperial Ma family and harbours grudge against his wife. Every step he takes are seemingly for the interest of his family. Scheming, secretive, bitter – but deep down he still cares for his family. Wang Lin is a good villain to hate, but there seems to be implied reasons for his actions. He is indeed far-sighted, but I still could not conclude whether his intention is noble or he is just doing this for his own gain. I can’t decide, indicating the acting of Yu He Wei as Wang Lin is good. Angie Chiu as Ma Jin Ruo can’t act, period. Doesn’t help that her face is so stiff (am suspecting that she has had cosmetic procedures).

Jia Yi Ping portrays Wang Su (Wang Xuan’s brother), and boy, does he look old! He looks as old as his father! But I digressed. Character-wise, this is also one weakling that I do not like. His saving grace – he is genuinely a nice person. His love-hate relationship with main wife Huan Mi, who loves Ma Zi Lu, is a big wake up call to Wang Su that life should not just be all about love. His second chance at romance with Gu Cai Wei ends up well, thank god! As the ending for the novel was a tragic one.  

Ma Zi Lu and Huan Mi’s story arc is also very pitiful. Can we really blame Zi Lu, being the unfavoured son, when he rebels? He could not have the love of his life, and strives to be the emperor to achieve his own ambition & to get his love back. You have to give some credit to him for having the balls to do so.

In contrast, the Crown Princess Ma Zhi Long and Xie Wan Ru’s story arc develops very differently. At the beginning, Zhi Long is a spoilt-brat but he matures significantly upon reigning as emperor. I like his character development as he feels genuinely to be an aspiring person who wants the good of his kingdom. He also truly cares for his Empress Xie Wan Ru, although I do not think she harbours the same kind of feelings.

A good side-kick to the Prince & Princess Yu Zhang, General Song Huai En is a simpleton at heart. He marries Yu Xiu, the handmaiden to Princess Yu Zhang. Beneath the simple façade, there lies the desire for more – for the beauty, wealth & power. General Song’s greed spells the doom for him. Such a pity.  

The series really mainly focuses on the 2 leads. The other side characters do have their own stories & perspectives, but many are not well-developed which is a real pity. The male supporting actors are almost all weaklings – Zi Tan, Wang Su, Helan Zhen even General Song. The female supporting actors are a revengeful lot, always scheming and lacking a little bit of the brainy lot. Gives me a headache when I watch them :D.

Muses on Key Theme

The political & power struggles underlie every actions. Each family member is treated as a chess piece, to gain an alliance or to be sacrificed for the greater good. Both man and woman have no choice in the marriage, and burdened with the needs of their family’s wellbeing. With such a theme, each character almost has their own story to tell. Greed for power seems to be the root of all evil. Continuous betrayals from families & friends seem to be the norm at the capital as no one can be trusted.

Novel vs Series vs Actual History

The actual novel has ~ 63 chapters, and the series have 68! The original book is written from Wang Xuan’s perspectives, and the series emulates accordingly. There are differences, and obviously the series features the more interesting parts & embellishes part of the story to be able to make the series appear more glamorous & sentimental.

Frankly, I thought the depiction of the novel is more realistic. Wang Xuan is portrayed as less capable, very dependent on others & survived quite a bit on luck. The novel is not all rosy & hunky-dory as she does hide behind a veil without doing anything, and when pushed to a corner she reacts by murdering a lot of the characters. As my understanding of Chinese is very lacking, I am only able to read in between the lines. Based on what I have understood, the novel does not provide much character development to both Wang Xuan and Xiao Qi, nor any of the characters. It is disappointing, as I wanted to empathise with Wang Xuan’s actions by understanding her personality & reasons for her actions. 

On the other hand, the series has more time to develop these characters, of which they made use. The series also changes some part of the stories by providing more scene time for Wang Xuan and exaggerated a number of the events. If the series is too bland, who will it attract? The exaggeration of the series is for commercial purposes and it does work to a certain extent.

Wondering whether Xiao Qi is really reflective of Liu Yu in real history

History-wise, it was implied that the story spans over 2 different dynasties, whereby Cheng kingdom is in reference to the deteriorating Eastern Jin dynasty while Xiao Qi is the founder of Liu Song dynasty (Liu Yu or Emperor Wu). Wang Xuan is not specifically mentioned in the written history, and Liu Yu does have descendants with various wives. Again, series is probably heavily romanticised. However, history has it that Liu Yu has a great reputation as someone who repaid kindness shown to him & was generally benevolent in serving the people.

Conclusion 8/10

Series wise – the storyline is good, acting is great, worth it to watch. Watch it for the storyline & to really enjoy the acting of the experienced cast. Zhang Zhi Yi is heavily criticised for acting the younger version of Wang Xuan when she was 15 years old. Frankly, I have no issue with this as it is just acting. The expectations of actresses are indeed too high. For me, the gem in the story is Zhou Yi Wei’s Xiao Qi. He portrays the character with flair, and I love it. The novel unfortunately paints both male & female leads as a bit colder, while the series managed to bring out the sentimental part of the characters.

There are many weaknesses in the series. For one, it is too lengthy. The character development for some supporting actors is not so great. The later part of the series, post 40+ could be quite annoying, especially the characters. I am conflicted as I felt that it was in between 8 and 9, but decided to give it 8 for the poor development in later part of the series.


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