‘Court Lady’ Review: A Celebration of Tang Dynasty Fashion

Court Lady

Skip to the final section for a quick, spoiler-free rating.

Court Lady (Chinese title: 大唐女儿行) outdoes just about every other Tang dynasty drama out there in terms of costumes. When I say this, I mean that it seems as if this drama literally brought its characters’ wardrobes to life from the pages of antique paintings.

If I were a historian, I might go into a detailed analysis about how good of a job the production team did. Alas, I am merely a casual enjoyer of Chinese period dramas, so you’ll just have to trust me—or watch it for yourselves, because it’s a solid story too.

Court Lady Quick Synopsis

Set in a fictionalized Tang dynasty, a young playboy named Sheng Chumu falls in love with the beautiful and clever Fu Ruo, the daughter of a merchant. After faking and making his way to becoming a better man, she returns his affection, but their plan to marry is cut short when a series of events lead to her entering the imperial palace as a servant.

Sheng Chumu becomes a respected general and feared warrior, like his father before him. Fu Ruo quickly rises in the ranks of the palace’s female officers to occupy a role as a favorite of the Empress. She also attracts the affection of one of the princes and reconnects with her childhood fiancé, both of which lead to the eventual breakdown of her relationship with Chumu. 

Together, they find themselves involved in pivotal moments of the deadly political struggle between the Crown Prince and his brothers. But unbeknownst to the imperial family, an old enemy has taken root and is slowly rotting the Tang dynasty from the inside.

Fu Ruo’s Love Interests Are the Absolute Worst

Fu Ruo is your typical new-age female protagonist in the vein of leads like Yanxi Palace’s Wei Yingluo and The Story of Minglan’s titular Sheng Minglan. She’s quick-witted, compassionate, considerate, and a stickler for laws and principles. 

Her one failing, however, is her utter lack of conviction when it comes to her three love interests. She has no problem taking on and talking back to people in positions of authority—the Emperor, the Empress, Consort Yan—but against the drama’s male leads, she’s useless. I’ve lost count of the number of times I wish she would snap and rip into them, but the most she does is give them stern lectures, which doesn’t work because they don’t listen to her. It’s incredibly unsatisfying to watch her just endure their disrespect again and again.

(I secretly wish Court Lady was a lesbian drama about Fu Ruo and Li-baolin instead. That’s how much all of her existing romantic options suck.)

Sheng Chumu

Let’s start with Sheng Chumu, the primary male lead and a giant man-baby. To be fair to him, he’s an amazing character in every other aspect. He starts out as a womanizing liar who makes a shockingly quick turn for the better the moment he falls in love with Fu Ruo. The character growth he goes through, from a buffoon who can barely write, to a well-learned tactician and fighter, then to a respectable man devoted to his country, is nothing short of a miracle—even a little unbelievable if you choose to think too hard about it. That’s about where it ends.

Although Sheng Chumu claims he’ll stop lying to Fu Ruo, he has no qualms about manipulating her into situations she doesn’t want to be in. Case in point, him talking her into faking her death and eloping with him, despite her protest upfront and her continuous hints of unease throughout. After she’s coerced to return to the imperial palace by the Prince of Zhou (another dickhead), Chumu doesn’t even give her the chance to explain, choosing to believe that she’s chosen someone else over him despite her multiple attempts to tell him the truth. 

His lack of respect for what she wants and his lack of trust in her are mind-bogglingly frustrating. I could not find myself giving a fuck when she eventually reconciles with and marries him.

The Prince of Zhou

Although not by a wide margin, the Prince of Zhou is objectively a worse love interest. Like Sheng Chumu, he has no respect for Fu Ruo’s wishes. 

He also has no respect for her job, which I count as a graver offense considering she works in the fucking imperial palace where she’s undoubtedly subjected to long hours and stressful responsibilities, all with the threat of death hanging over her head should she screw up or offend the wrong person. His inconsiderate monopolization of her time and mental bandwidth caused me so much anxiety as a viewer. What’s more, despite saying he won’t use his position of power to make Fu Ruo marry him, he uses his power to pretty much force her to do everything else. 

This isn’t even getting into the underhanded ways he sows discord between Fu Ruo and the man she picks.

As a character, he’s just all right. He doesn’t go through any amazing character development, serving primarily as an adversary for the Crown Prince.

Yan Zifang

Where do I even begin with Yan Zifang? Do I talk about the fact that he kidnaps Fu Ruo twice or Lu Yingying twice? Or how he decides to hold Fu Ruo to a promise their parents made, and becomes an unreasonable jackass when she refuses to take responsibility for his preconceived notions of her? Or his sense of entitlement to think that Lu Yingying’s affection comes and goes at his beck and call?

Seriously, fuck this dude. He’s a terrible human being. His only redeeming qualities are his regards for his men and that he flip-flops enough to end up on the winning side. He deserves neither Fu Ruo nor Lu Yingying, and I’m pissed that his second kidnapping of Yingying gets played off as a happy ending.

A Great Take on Emperor Taizong’s Reign

Where the romances fall short, the political storylines thrive. 

Despite the different character names, it’s obvious that Court Lady modeled the reign of its fictional emperor after Emperor Taizong of Tang, who’s best known for the following: usurping the throne from his own father; his long and prosperous reign; the infighting between his three eldest sons; and being the origin story for Wu Zetian. All four we see in this drama to varying degrees of significance.

We see the threads of the Emperor’s past with his father, the Retired Emperor, carried into the present with the Prince of Liang and some of the Retired Emperor’s interactions with the Empress. The drama made excellent choices in making these forgone events matter in a way that doesn’t overshadow, but rather enhances, its current story.

I also love the little hints of Wu Zetian through both Fu Ruo, who serves as Wu Zetian’s infamous background as a daughter of a merchant, and Xiao Lu, whose budding friendship with the young Prince of Qin spells trouble for the future. The way Court Lady splits a historical figure into two is an interesting choice (and one that almost had me fearful that Fu Ruo might get taken as a concubine sometime down the line LOL).

But the lion’s share of the story lies in the rivalry between the older princes…

Like I said before, the Prince of Zhou functions more like a passive adversary to the sons of the Empress than an active rival for the throne. The majority of his time on screen is dedicated to annoying Fu Ruo, so much so that I find his participation in the political conflicts utterly forgettable.

The changing relationship between the Crown Prince and the Prince of Han is the one that still amazes me weeks after I finished the drama. To be honest, it took some ten episodes for me to catch on to the fact that Court Lady’s based on the events of Emperor Taizong’s reign precisely because the two brothers get on so well. The fact that they’d eventually come to hate each other seemed like an impossibility to me early on. The way they slowly turn on each other, and their outright enmity for one another after the Princess Consort of Han’s death are masterfully done.

A Rushed Ending

I have a million things I want to say about Chen Ji/Fu Shui and his whole… thing with the crown prince, but a lot of it doesn’t matter given how badly the drama botched the last ten episodes. I’ve seen some talks of constraints regarding the number of episodes the production had to work with, which explains why the editing is as horrendous as it is. It completely fucks up the pace of the plot, and at times, left me wondering if I’d skipped entire episodes.

Fu Shui, his cohorts, and Consort Yan’s whole machination also unravels quite nonsensically in the last handful of episodes. First, Consort Yan seems to be one of the masterminds behind the takeover of the palace. But then it turns out she’s being threatened by her personal eunuch of many years? Fu Shui is supposed to slowly kill the crown prince via poisoning, but gains a conscience at the eleventh hour and… chooses to give him the antidote instead? Meanwhile, the Lu father-and-son pair, whom I originally thought to be the main villains, are… rebelling? Not rebelling? Marching on the capital? But then they surrender the instant they have a heart-and-heart talk from Sheng Chumu’s father? What?

The actual wrap up is nice: The villains all get the fates they deserve. Fu Ruo and Sheng Chumu make up and get married. More excitingly, Princess Xinnan marries Sheng Chumu’s brother. Li-baolin moves up in rank. The Prince of Liang saves Lu Yingying from death before his own execution. The Prince of Qin gets crowned heir, as per his historical counterpart. It’s a decent conclusion with a lot of convoluted crap you have to sit through. 

Other Thoughts

  • Lu Yingying is a treasure. I wish the Prince of Liang isn’t such a gross and irredeemable bastard because she honestly deserves a man who loves her as much as he does near the end
  • While it’s stupid that Fu Ying falls in love with her mother’s murderer knowing that he’s somehow connected to her death, I can’t help but love her and Lu Qi together
  • The production made a mistake going with background music so similar to Yanxi Palace. It was not a good part of that drama and it still isn’t in this one

Final Rating and Recommendations

While Court Lady’s romantic plots leave much to be desired, the drama itself stands as an excellent interpretation of the events of Emperor Taizong’s reign, even though it skirts the responsibility of having to be an accurate historical retelling by changing people’s names. 

What’s more, it is a marvelous celebration of classic Tang dynasty fashion. It’s fifty-five episodes of beautiful costumes and adequate storytelling, and an interesting “knock-off” of one of the most fascinating times in Chinese history.

My Rating: 7.5/10

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