The 56-episode series is based on the story of Cheng Shao Shang (nickname Niao Niao and portrayed by Zhao Lu Si), a young girl of marriageable age. Born in a family of military general, she is taken care by her grandmother and aunt since young as both parents are out on military expeditions. Unfortunately, Shao Shang has been mistreated since young and never given proper education, moulding her to be cautious to survive through her own perseverance and a little scheming along the way.
When her parents return from battle, the story focuses on the development of the relationship of the family members. Although she gets along & well-loved by her simple-minded father, she often gets disciplined by her mother for her scheming ways. As she goes through the days with her 2 elder brothers and parents, she realises that they are loving towards her with no ulterior motives.
1st Engagement – Lou Yao
When her 3rd uncle journeys to Hua County as the new governor, Shao Shang follows suit to be trained by her doting 3rd aunt. In their journey, they encountered rebels who attack the Hua city. In the chaotic situation, Shao Shang experiences the disastrous impact of the war and witnessed first-hand deaths, wounded citizens and betrayals. General Ling Bu-yi (portrayed by Wu Lei) rescues her in the nick of time. Although grateful to General Ling, in assisting the Hua city towards recovery, another beau Lou Yao (who is smitten with Shao Shang’s mischief and righteousness) accompanies Shao Shang through the days. When Lou Yao proposes, she accepts.
Unfortunately, their engagement is short-lived as another tragedy strikes with General He and his family are annihilated, leaving behind only the daughter He Zhou Jun and youngest son. He Zhao Jun was previously betrothed to Lou Yao, whereby the dying General He requests for their union to protect the He family. Originally reluctant, Shao Shang relents when she realises that He Zhou Jun has no other choice and her marriage to Lou Yao will at least preserve her own family’s survival until her brother is able to take over.
2nd Engagement – Ling Bu Yi/ Huo Wu Shang
Hardly coming out from her broken heart, General Ling proposes to Shao Shang with the Emperor’s blessing and backing in tow. Although extremely confused, Shao Shang has no choice but to accept especially with the pressure from the royalty. Thereon, Shao Shang enters into the palace to be trained under the Empress. As she goes through various challenges, she learns to read people better and understands fiancé Ling Bu Yi @ Ling Zi Seng better.
Historical Titbits #1 – The background of the story is apparently based on Emperor Guangwu (personal name Liu Xiu) of Han Dynasty. The Empress is Guo Shen Tong while Concubine Yue is the childhood sweetheart of the Emperor, Yin Li Hua, a renowned beauty.
Historical Titbits #2 – Empress Guo Shen Tong is abolished in her later years, while the Crown Prince also resigns (probably from pressure).
Muse #1 – Ling Bu Yi is portrayed by young actor Wu Lei, whom I first watched as Fei Liu (the very young boy) in Nirvana in Fire. He has grown, although too thin for my liking. His acting has improved and I like his crying scene – one drop of tears flowing down the face. However, I must say his performance here is better than The Long Ballad. His chemistry with Zhao Lu Si is better than with Dilraba, perhaps due to the actual age difference. Dilraba looks (and is) a little older than Wu Lei.
In the palace, Shao Shang encounters various challenges – from being bullied by the various princess & consorts and managing misunderstandings including:
- Bullying by the 5th Princess, almost resulting in Shao Shang’s drowning
- Investigation of Qu Ling Jun (ex-lover of Crown Prince) in the suspected death of her husband, with an deeper internal sabotage to frame and bring down Crown Prince
The series refocus the story towards the investigation of the destruction of Gu City nearly 2 decades earlier, which destroyed General Ling’s maternal family – the Huo family. Huo Jun Hua (Ling Bu Yi’s mother) survived the massacre in the Gu City, but returned with a young Ling Bu Yi to find her husband re-married. She suffers mental breakdown while Ling Bu Yi is taken care by the Emperor and Empress, becoming their favourite adopted child as he grows up in the palace with the other princes and princesses. However, he chooses military to service the Emperor and the public, while investigating the real reason for the destruction of Gu City of the past.
All the clues that Ling Bu Yi finds are cut off in the midst. His suspicion targets are vast too – from the Yue family leading to the Marque of Yue to be punished, to Shouchun city’s rebellion leading to the annihilation of General Yan Chong’s family, the accusation of Cheng Shi’s rebellion and even Lou Ben’s (Lou Yao’s elder brother) betrayal and death.
In his desperation to avenge his family upon Huo Jun Hua’s death, voila! the big secret is finally revealed – Ling Bu Yi is actually Huo Chong’s son – Huo Wu Shang! As all his clues are snuffed out one by one, he takes the final desperate measure by using the Crown Prince’s army token to annihilate Ling family, including Ling Yi.
At the last minute, he decides to abandon Shao Shang in an attempt to leave a survival chance for her. This became the thorn in Shao Shang’s heart, and her doubt whether Ling Bu Yi/ Huo Wu Shang is sincere as he is not willing to share his woes & difficulties with her. Her persistent and inability to forgive his abandonment spells the end to their engagement.
A broken-hearted but stubborn Shao Shang locks herself with the recently-deposed Empress, determined to be loyal and accompany her during the difficult times. Meanwhile, Huo Wu Shang is banished to serve in the northern region to protect the kingdom, deeply regretful with no chance of being forgiven by Shao Shang.
Fast-forward 5 years later, the Empress is gravely ill when Huo Wu Shang is asked to return. Their romance is rekindled upon Huo Wu Shang’s return. It also spells more trouble with Shao Shang being kidnapped, and their attack by rebels of the previous kingdom. After going through more challenges (and chances for Huo Wu Shang to prove his endless love), both are finally united.
Learning to Love – Romance with Beaus
As Shao Shang goes through the challenges in life, she also learns a thing or two (or more) about love. Her relationship with Lou Yao is innocent & straight forward, she is happy to be married off to Lou Yao simply because Lou Yao is affable & obviously will give in to her every whim. When the engagement is broken, she is dejected but not totally paralysed from emotional breakdown. I also like the fact that she accepts fate, and views the relationship forward as kinship, not willing to give up the friendship that they have cemented.
Shao Shang’s relationship with Ling Bu Yi/ Huo Wu Shang is a lot more intense. General Ling is resolute and firm in his decisions, but often thoughtful to Shao Shang’s needs & requirements. The main issue with the relationship is their doubt, especially Shao Shang’s doubt on Ling Bu Yi’s sincerity. She is unable to accept his love whereby he is not forthcoming of his intentions.
Muse #2 – In the original book, there are more conversations between Cheng Shao Shang and Ling Bu Yi on mundane stuff. The interactions often come across as one-sided with Shao Shang being a little bit uncompromising & often misunderstanding Ling Bu Yi’s intention, reflective of her suspicious nature. Fortunately, in the series, the slight tweaks and focuses redirected such flaw of Shao Shang’s personality.
Another beau is in the very unlikely scholarly but sarcastic Yuan Shen. I thought the character is quite confused himself, often contradicting his own principles. He emphasizes duties to the family, but deep down is rebellious and would probably like to follow his heart’s desire. He is always a little arrogant, thinking of himself as righteous. The character is actually likeable, but his (almost) pairing with Shao Shang is just not right!
There also seems to be another message – that marriage (especially arranged ones) requires both parties to work on the relationship. I love the depiction of the love of Cheng Shi and Xiao Yuan Yi, Shao Shang’s parents. It is almost like yin and yang – but lovely how they fought alongside each other in battles and support each other in their parenting.
The love triangle of the Emperor – Empress – the Concubine Yue is also an interesting perspective of marriage of duties & benefits vs marriage for love. I love the depiction of the character of the Emperor. A simpleton at heart, who had to rise to the occasion in the chaotic world. Balancing his consideration for his own family and the citizens. Not wanting to give up the love for his childhood sweetheart, Concubine Yue but equally torn over his arranged marriage of benefits with Empress.
Life of the Series – Zhao Lu Si as Niao Niao
Zhao Lu Si is really a young and talented actress, and she is able to pull the audience to like and root for Cheng Shao Shang’s character. Instead of playing the victim (like her cousin Cheng Yang), she is resourceful, lively, mischievous and a little wayward. Her unconventional ways arose out of necessity to survive, but her sense of righteousness attracts people to her.
Muse #3 – In the original book, Cheng Shao Shang comes across as a lot pettier and scheming, although Zhao Lu Si injected a lot more innocence to the character in the series, which I really like. The depiction of Cheng Shao Shang in the novel is also a lot more narrow-minded and selfish. I didn’t like the tit-for-tat mentality she practises nor her indecisiveness in relation to her feelings towards Ling Bu Yi. The good thing about the series, Zhao Lu Si is able to portray her in a much lighter & kinder light, changing my perception of the character.
Her love of independence is apparent, and her love of design & buildings – be it architecture or weaponry, she finds her passion and pursues them. The conflict of the women of the past has always been the to live the life of their own without care and their duties to the family (including being married off to the right connections).
Muse #4 – The author of the book (Guan Xin Ze Le) in which the series is based on also authors The Story of Minglan. The writing style of the author focuses more on the “women’s quarrels”, with a lot of scheming and petty arguments. Very likely, author’s key message is do not look down on petty quarrels as these may lead to bigger disasters for noble family.
One of my grouse is also the author emphasizes the women’s obsession to look for their best marriage match, not unlike Jane Austen’s novels. Be it in the west or the east, it seems as if the main pre-occupation of the women of historic past is to get married. Although I have always been a Jane Austen’s fan, as I grow older, I find the notion a little dated. Without the freedom & independence accorded to most women of this century, very likely the women of the past are just trying to survive in a patriarchal society.
The Real Personality of Characters & Link to Historical Background
The Emperor in the series is based on Liu Xiu ie Emperor Guangwu of Han Dynasty. I love the depiction of Bao Jian Feng as the emperor. Liu Xiu is known as a capable and great strategist. In the series, he listens to his subject, often playing the role of mediator before making decisive decisions. He is also a loving father and husband, often balancing his responsibility towards his own family and his country.
The Crown Prince is depicted as a kind-hearted but indecisive in the series, whereby he prioritises feelings of those close to him rather than the bigger benefits of the country. This opens up many opportunities for others to make use of his kindness and benevolence. In the series, the Empress requested to be abolished to pave the way for a better future for her children, especially the Crown Prince who is not “emperor” material. With his personality, indeed it will be difficult for the original Crown Prince to maintain peace with all the different factions.
The 3rd prince in the series ultimately is crowned the new Crown Prince, and became Emperor Ming of Han. Although the character in the series has less focus, the personality is actually interesting. Would be lovely to have a follow-up series on his journey in love – especially taking into consideration his own introverted character but decisive, aggressive & dictatorial method in dealing with dissenters. To top it off, he has witnessed great love in his own parents (Liu Xiu & Yin Li Hua) and Huo Wu Shang & Cheng Shao Shang.
The plot is quite simple and direct, littered across the women’s quarrels. But the direction and focus of the series help to cover these weaknesses and bring up the tender love between the main couple. The series really milks out the romance of the main leads, perhaps a little too much. BUT their interaction is great and chemistry is really nice. It is also nice to finally see an ancient series whereby the female lead gets the opportunities to explore different relationship with different men. These beaus are also with different personalities too.
The story-telling is more interesting with the investigations & follow-up on clues for the Gu City destruction, ultimately leading to the big secrets on Ling Bu Yi’s real identity. There are quite a number of characters of the series, which I really like. The two assistants of General Ling Bu Yi are quite the comedians – one always serious, another always asking seemingly innocent question that pieces the heart of their general. 😀 Totally loving these two sidekicks. Generally, a romantic series that will have you rooting for the young couple. Happy ending, don’t worry. Lots of swoon-worthy scenes of the couple. And frankly, the adaptation from the novel is a lot better than what I anticipated.