Palace of Devotion (2021) 大宋宫词: C-Drama Series Review

A historical series, loosely based on Emperor Zhenzong Zhao Heng’s rule, tracing his early years as a prince to his period as the ruler of Song Dynasty. The series focuses on the Emperor’s rule of his dynasty especially challenges from the various Northern and Southern warring states and managing a cabinet filled with differing personalities with agenda of their own. The series does cross over to the royal harem, and how the backing of each concubine’s family affected the Emperor’s path. And finally not to leave out the implied great love story between the Emperor and his beloved concubine Liu Er (subsequently Empress). Vic Chou and Liu Tao portray the titular main roles of Zhao Heng and Liu E respectively.

Main Poster

The series introduces a lot of real historical figures – both emperor and empress are actual historical figure, the previous Empresses Guo and Pan are also real life figures, so are most of the officials including Kou Zhun, Ding Wei, Wang Qian Ruo, Su Yi Jian, Yan Shu etc.

First 10 episodes 1 – 10 : Almost Dropping Off

The first few episodes of the series are actually great disappointments. The focus is on the previous Emperor Taizong and his succession, leading to his son Zhao Heng as the Crown Prince.

Muse #1 : I am quite amazed I actually got through the very disjointed and terrible introduction to the main leads of the series. I am not sure whether the producers are under pressure to reduce the number of episodes, resulting in significant edits at the beginning of the series, but the series does not do itself justice in the beginning.

The plot to introduce Liu E into Zhao Heng’s life is quite badly written, almost impossible. Their brief encounter supposedly leads them to be madly in love with each other, with Zhao Heng totally smitten with Liu E, who is recently widowed and had a miscarriage too. And the many challenges the two had to bear in order to even be together as husband and wife. Main wife Empress Guo and concubine Pan are also introduced early on, who are not favoured but have significant family backing to the court.

Muse #2 : In historical records, it is generally thought that Liu E is actually an entertainer who has been sold by his husband’s family, and ended up in the royal home of the Crown Prince when both were very young. That leads to their early romance and Liu E being a favoured concubine.  

The series follow through Emperor Taizong, who is painted as an extremely scheming and suspicious emperor even to his own family members. Based on the flow of the series, I have zero empathy for the emperor who sees benefits only to himself. The arc on how he pits his sons against each other, and his treatment of Zhao Heng is hard to stomach.

Muse #3 : During his younger years, Zhao Heng is portrayed as a kind-hearted prince who has the citizen’s welfare at heart. But he wears his emotions and heart on his sleeve, often making irrational decisions. Not so smart 😀 This situation changes quite significantly when he takes over as the emperor, which unfortunately does not endear him at all.

Episodes 11 – 20 : Growing As A Ruler & Warfare with Liao Dynasty

Upon Zhao Heng taking over as Emperor, he makes haste to manage the court and the challenges that comes with it – internal bickering and external threats from warfare & rebellion.

Zhao Heng

Muse #4 : As time goes by Zhao Heng takes on more concubines. Although outwardly still dedicated towards Liu E, he spends more time with other concubines. Very conflicting if it is meant to show the love story of both. Although the depiction is probably nearer to the truth whereby time does dull the love story. 

When Empress Xiao of Liao Dynasty proposes for an exchange of princes with Song Dynasty, Liu E’s son Zhao Ji is exchanged with Yelu Kang of Liao. War still commences upon the kidnapping and death of Yelu Kang under the care of the Song palace. That leads to a long-drawn war between the 2 countries, whereby Liu E joins her son as prisoner of war in Liao.

Muse #5 : The interesting parts on these episodes are the introduction of key historical figures of Liao Dynasty including Empress Xiao Yan Yan and their prime minister Han De Rang. Legend of Xiao Chuo provides the backdrop to the rise of Empress Xiao in Liao Dynasty. In this series, the encounter between Zhao Heng and Empress Xiao is in her later years. The implied history especially in regards to the 3 Xiao sisters are very similar to The Legend of Xiao Chuo.

With the fading strong emotions linking Liu E and Zhao Heng, Liu E also starts to shine in her own right. Perceptive towards various people’s talents and agendas, she is able to connect the dots and identify the right person for the right tasks. Although the inner court is not allowed to get involved with political discussions, Liu E has enough ears to gather information and decide what is the right path.

Muse #6 : Liu E’s responses are actually more realistic in real historical life – taking a low-profile with measured feedback to the Emperor to influence rather than providing direct confrontations.

Episodes 21 – 30 : Entering Palace

In the negotiations between Song and Liao Dynasties, Liu E’s son Zhao Ji is used as a pawn and perished. The series traces the actual historical incidents including the death of Liao’s great warrior Xiao Da Lin and the signing of Chanyuan Peace Treaty between Song and Liao Dynasties.

Back in Song, even then, the court officials refuse to allow Liu E to enter the palace nor to allow Zhao Ji’s remains to be entombed into the royal mausoleum. Henceforth, Liu E promises to guard for 3 years at the Royal Mausoleum. During the period, smallpox infection hits the region including the capital. Empress Guo and his son Zhao You perishes, further putting anguish to Zhao Heng.

Empress Guo is portrayed as a devout Buddhist who is kind-hearted but passes on early. During her final days, Empress Guo accepts her fate and recommends for Liu E as the leader of the royal harem. Upon her return after 3 years of mourning, she is finally accepted into the palace as an official concubine to Zhao Heng. As Liu E goes through the hardships, she is accepting but builds up resiliency in managing further challenges upon her return. 

Muse #7 : Liu Tao is very regal in her portrayal be it in simple wardrobe or her full resplendent costume. As the episodes flow through the timeline, she builds her own confidence in managing situations and people. Using humility and later using pressure to manage people and situations.

Muse #8 : Zhao Heng is portrayed as an emotional person, but seems to be indecisive during critical times and even worse, move from woman to woman.

Episodes 31 – 40 : Managing The Harem & Sickly Emperor

As Liu E finally enters the harem officially, she is thrown into further challenges – managing an emperor who goes into coma often, the harem of concubines eager to please the emperor and the court officials who are even more eager to grab power.

As Liu E is exposed to more official conflicts, she assists Emperor Zhao Heng to manage conflicts behind the scenes. At the same time, she gets her maid to serve Zhao Heng in the hope of providing a male heir for the emperor. The surprises when both the maid (Liu Wan Er) and Liu E are pregnant finally provides opportunity for Emperor to elevate Liu E as his Empress.

Muse #9 : Zhao Heng in the series is quite annoying especially when he goes into one of his depressive mood that he could not father a son (as if this is not his fault!). And whenever he finds out that he has impregnated his concubine, he shows special favours. The whole fiasco just emphasizes how the royal sees women as birthing machine and pawns in the royal family.

With more plots from the Pan family who wishes Concubine Pan to be the head of the imperial harem, Liu E had a miscarriage. When the maid Liu Wan Er (Concubine Chen) gives birth to a baby boy, he is taken as Liu E’s birth son. A misunderstanding arising from the Pan family’s plot ensues whereby Concubine Chen is thought to give birth to a small cat, driving her to insanity.

Although saddened with all the events, Zhao Heng and Liu E move forward to ensure his son is set as the Crown Prince and heir to his dynasty. Subsequently, Zhao Heng takes the opportunity to also execute the Pan family upon finding out Concubine Pan’s infidelity and the many plots of the family, unable to forgive them for inducing the miscarriage in Liu E.

Muse #10 : Concubine Pan is painted as a scheming but slightly not so smart schemer. 😀 And when she is finally ordered to die by drinking poison, I was half expecting her to have some guts. Over the time that she marries Zhao Heng, she flips flops on many situations to satisfy her own desires. Living under such situation and backed by such powerful military family, I would have thought the character should have been better expanded to provide colours. Unfortunately, the series just does not pull through on this character as it is a really difficult character to empathise with.

Episodes 41 – 50 : Moulding A Young Crown Prince

10 years passes quickly for Zhao Shou Yi the crown prince to grow up, very young still and oblivious to all the events from yesteryears and further plots from an always changing court officials. As Zhao Heng gets sick even more frequently, he is eager to ensure his son Shou Yi ascends the throne with assistance from Liu E. In Zhao Heng’s attempt to obtain the heaven’s mandate, he journeys to Mount Tai for a blessing ceremony despite his ill health. He passes away and throws the palace into turmoil, pushing Liu E to go on offensive to ensure the throne is passed to their son Shou Yi.

Muse #11 : The brief introduction to Princess Shou Kang, Crown Prince’s elder sister is a breath of fresh air. This provides a short interlude to showcase the close sibling relationship, and the ultimate duty of the princess as a marriage alliance with the Liao Dynasty’s prince.

Muse #12 : The jewelry of the Song Dynasty is quite eye-catching as the focus on the pearls and beads as part of the facial ornaments are actually distracting! Although lovely, I am thinking how in the world did the ancient people wear them continuously. 😀

Episodes 51 – 62 : The Era of Managing a Country & the Ultimate Truth for the Young Emperor

The subsequent episodes focus more on the journey of young crown prince Shou Yi especially how he manages his own emotions and challenges in the palace. Historical characters are also introduced especially in the form of his future spouses. Guo Qing Wu & Cao Ru, daughters of noble family who enters the palace at a young age as playmates to Shou Yi.

Muse #13 : In his imperial harem, Shou Yi has 3 main spouses. Empress Guo who is his mother’s protégé, Empress Cao who is depicted here as the soft-spoken Cao Ru and Empress Zhang, who is post-humously given the title.

The series also subsequently explores the development of Shou Yi’s characters especially as he grows up slightly rebellious, challenging his own mother Liu E, his emotions as a teenager and further challenges & schemes taken by the officials and other royal family.

As he grows older, conflicts arises as he has independent thoughts. His love interest in Cao Ru is portrayed as soft-spoken, sweet & docile while Guo Qing Wu is portrayed as strong-willed, active and outspoken. His preference for Cao Ru is evident even in his earlier teenage years and grows throughout. Unfortunately for the young emperor, the choice of his love interest is also part of the noble families setting up relationship to obtain interest within the court. When he runs off to Suzhou to “experience” the real life, the immaturity of a young boy is shown whereby he falls prey to all the schemes of the officials. Quite frustrating when he acts in such childish manner just to rebel against his mother. Ultimately, the end comes for Liu E, setting the platform for the young emperor to govern independently.

Muse #14 : Poor Su Yi Jian had to sacrifice himself in order to set things right for both Liu E and Shou Yi.

Liu Tao as Empress Liu E, always regal-looking

Conclusion 6/10

Production and storyline wise, the series seem to be more conservative, very much the old-style with focus on straight conversations. Good and bad. Good as it breeds familiarity with how most historical epics are drawn up plot-wise, with structured time chronology to drive the storyline. Bad as it is less innovative, and can come across as boring.

Acting-wise, Vic Zhou is touch and go as he doesn’t seem convincing as Zhao Heng. I would have preferred for a younger set of actors and actresses to portray the younger Zhao Heng and Liu E (similar to how The Imperial Age has done whereby Cheng Yi portrays the younger Zhu Di as opposed to Feng Shao Feng as the elder Zhu Di in his ascend to be the emperor). I am slightly biased towards Liu Tao as I have always liked her acting. She is better at portraying the perceptive and independent Liu E vs the docile and madly in love younger version.

I find the musical backdrop totally out of tune with the mood of the series. The same traditional tunes are repeated again and against in almost all the official banquets. If this is really the case, the royal family would really be bored to death! They definitely need better soundtrack and musical scores!
BUT, the series really drag on too much. I have persevered to complete the series mainly because I am interested in the historical events of the characters. They have loosely incorporated many of the historical personnel and use imaginations to include them in the story. If you are not patient nor a history buff, give this a miss. Otherwise, the series do provide quite a good historical portrayal of part of the Song Dynasty.

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