Skip to the final section for a quick, spoiler-free rating.
Go Princess Go (Chinese title: 太子妃升职记) made news back in early 2016 after a ban and subsequent censorship by the Chinese government. Reportedly, over a third of the drama got cut before the powers that be allowed it back into the world. After reading about why it fell under so much scrutiny, I was naturally intrigued.
The drama follows a twenty-first century playboy, Zhang Peng, who accidentally transmigrates back in time as the crown princess consort of an unspecified dynasty, named Zhang Pengpeng. Trapped in a woman’s body, he spends his days flirting with his husband’s harem and in denial of his new biological sex, all the while navigating the rocky terrains of his marriage. As he slowly embraces his new gender, he comes to know his husband, and eventually falls in love with him.
With the Chinese media as devoid of LGBTQ+ shows as it was, how could I resist?
A Campy and Delightful Experience
Go Princess Go was supposedly shot in 70 days on a budget of 20 million yuan (3 million USD), which is not a lot of money for a drama series. The quality of costumes and set designs were abysmal as a result.
I cannot stress how awful this drama looks visually: The dresses female characters wear look suspiciously Greco-Roman. The shade of gold they painted the few furniture in the drama will make you want to claw your eyes out. Windows and doors are missing in favor of sheer curtains, which are kept moving by inexplicable wind at all times. The imperial decree scrolls are purple.
I counted no less than three instances of product placements for a Chinese brand of sildenafil (Viagra), which was apparently the only sponsorship they got for the drama.
What makes Go Princess Go great is how the production team leaned into the budgetary shortcomings in a Monty Python and the Holy Grail kind of way, making what should’ve been flaws look intentional. What came out of these limitations is a hilarious, campy work of art full of modern-day pop culture references and memes. I only wish I was more fluent in Chinese and China’s pop culture to understand some of the jokes and puns I likely missed.
Go Princess Go on a Story-Level
A part of me wonders how much of the parodying of period dramas was by necessity, and how much of it was deliberate. As much as Go Princess Go pokes fun at various genres and tropes, it also delivers a solid story and took itself seriously on that front. None of the dramatic aspects are played for jokes. All of the characters’ personal developments, and the emotion states that drive their choices and actions, are as grounded and real as they get.
Watching this drama oscillate between the two extremes, especially later on, is jarring. But it works. And because it’s actually a serious story, I’m treating it as such.
I get why Zhang Peng would collude with the Ninth Prince in the first place. He’s suddenly married to a(nother) man who found the woman who previously inhabited his new body despicable, and tried to have her killed. But a drawback of having a story so loaded with jokes and gag scenes is that a lot of the conflict tension gets lost. In the later episodes (right after they had sex a second time, I believe?) I had to keep reminding myself why our main character started this conspiracy plot in the first place and why it still makes sense for him to be committed to it—the whimsicality was not helping.
The drama does a great job bringing it back to seriousness towards the end, though, with the now female-identifying Zhang Pengpeng articulating her lack of trust in Qi Sheng and how that puts a damper on their relationship.
I feel so bad for the Ninth Prince, by the way. Zhang Peng plays with his feelings so hard, and Qi Sheng screws him up so much, it’s upsetting.
Go Princess Go Ending Explained
The endings? A confusing mess as, apparently, there are three of them.
The first one is the official ending as seen in episode 35. Qi Sheng gives up the throne to their six(?) year old son to travel the world with Pengpeng—first of all, what the hell? Why would you leave a child in charge? What kind of shit parents are these people?!—and live in carefree, domestic bliss. One day, a group of assassins, supposedly led by Yang Yan avenging the Ninth Prince, descend on their private paradise and slaughter them both. In the modern world, Zhang Peng is seen in a coma as he relives moments of his life as Zhang Pengpeng, in both her shoes and Qi Sheng’s. Sort of implying that he’s both of them and the whole drama was a deep, intense dream.
The same thing happens in the second ending, officially episode 36, except there are no assassins. Instead, the dream world/life of domestic bliss ends on a happy note. Zhang Peng wakes up from his coma in a hospital in a panic, looking for Qi Sheng. He finds a Qi Sheng doppelganger who is a doctor (maybe his doctor?). Their eyes meet and the drama ends.
I could only find the third ending with Vietnamese subtitles for some reason. In it, they’re killed by assassins. Zhang Pengpeng wakes up in a dream-like place under a cherry blossom tree. She sees Qi Zheng and reunites with him. Just as they’re about to kiss, the fourth wall gets broken by the director yelling at them for kissing too slow and taking up too much film time. The two actors get kicked off set for a commercial shoot, but later kiss out of character on a busy street in front of their fellow actors.
I like the second ending the best. Would love to see a sequel of Zhang Peng dealing with his newfound sense of self, and a possible relationship between him and the Qi Sheng lookalike.
A Word on the Gender Identity Stuff
I don’t know how to feel about this drama’s portrayal of gender identity.
On one hand, there are a number of on-point characteristics of gender dysphoria throughout; Zhang Peng correcting everyone on gendered languages, him getting angry when they refer to him otherwise, his initial aversion to pregnancy, his instances of dissociation, etc.
But then the drama did a one-eighty on all the good work they layered and had Zhang Peng accepting and embracing the body’s biological sex towards the end, which left me stumped.
Maybe I’m limited by my own queer experiences and western upbringing, but that’s… not… how trans people work? It’s the body that has to reconcile with the mind, not the other way around. Even for non-cisgender people who don’t experience physical dysphoria, whether they’re trans and just don’t, or are non-binary/genderqueer, their personal sense of identity is still independent of their body. And people’s gender identities are certainly not dictated by the gender of the person they fall in love with, which this drama strongly implies to be the case; feeling feminine is not the same thing as “feeling like I should be a woman.” There’s just a lot to unpack here, even more so given the unconventional and impossible premise.
That being said, I still love that Go Princess Go tackles it with as much fun as it does. And considering China’s stance on LGBTQ+ issues (and, weirdly, time travel?), kudos to this drama’s ballsiness.
Final Rating and Recommendations
Go Princess Go is an entertaining spectacle that should not be as good as it is. I recommend it to anyone who wants to watch something on zero brain power. If you can look past the atrocious quality of the costumes and set designs, and don’t mind not taking the drama too seriously, you’re going to have a great time. Know that for all the jokes and gags in this drama, there is a good story waiting for you once you’re invested. The twists and turns of the plot, the schemes and betrayals between characters are amazing, considering the time and budget constraints the production team faced.
Otherwise, there’s a Korean adaptation made with a much bigger budget and better quality writing waiting for you, which is what I’m watching next. I have high hopes, Mr. Queen, don’t disappoint me! (Update: Spoiler, it didn’t!)
My Rating: 7/10