Skip to the final section for a quick, spoiler-free rating.
Oh My General (Chinese title: 将军在上) holds a special place in my heart. Amongst the sea of heteronormativity that is the Chinese period drama world, this drama is a rare breath of fresh air that dances on the thin line between the traditional and the unconventional.
Oh My General Synopsis
Born female, Ye Zhao has presented as a boy since young. After the deaths of their father and brothers, they take up leading the Song Dynasty army in a critical war against a neighboring enemy for eight years to stunning victories. They subsequently reveal the truth of their birth gender to the Emperor, who bestows upon them marriage to Zhao Yujin, the infamously useless Prince of Nanping and a frequenter of brothels.
Zhao Yujin, a pretty boy who’s initially not taken with his new spouse, enters an agreement with Ye Zhao to divorce after three years. Through a number of events, he comes to care and develop feelings for Ye Zhao. The two help each other grow to be better people in both purposeful and inadvertent ways; Ye Zhao gets in touch with their feminine sides, and Zhao Yujin overcomes his circumstantially ordained fate as a hedonistic do-nothing.
Meanwhile, trouble brews in the horizon as the Emperor’s half-brother plots to usurp the throne, and the nation of Western Xia looks to conquer the Song Dynasty.
How Gender Plays Into the Main Relationship
I would first like to clarify that using they/them pronouns for Ye Zhao is entirely of my own volition. While I believe the narrative and subtext of Oh My General back me up, it’s important to note that mine is a personal interpretation of Ye Zhao’s gender fluidity; however, it’s also the only way I feel comfortable referring to the character, as I think using the female pronouns exclusively invalidates much of what makes Ye Zhao who they are.
There are major subversions of gender tropes going on, from Zhao Yujininadvertently being the one to study the Three Obediences and Four Virtues, to, well, Ye Zhao’s entire existence. This drama is unapologetic about embracing not just Ye Zhao’s masculinity, but how genuine they are about it.
Usually, in stories where the female lead has to become a man, she does so out of necessity. It’s always a disguise for her, a mask she can later take off when she slips back into woman’s clothes.
Here—and the very reason why I’m hesitant to use the female pronouns for Ye Zhao—is how performative and unnatural it seems for them to play their role as the “woman” of the relationship. Ye Zhao’s masculine-presenting self is their true self. There is no hidden lady waiting to be exposed, as much as Ye Zhao’s sister-in-law tries.
This would’ve put any other male lead in an awkward position of having to either embrace their “wife’s” abnormality and risk social mockery himself (Hu Qing), or reinforce social standards and become a villain in the narrative (Prince Yinuo). Zhao Yujin as the love interest strikes a perfect balance in that he tries to do the latter, but is insanely ineffective about it thanks to his own grappling with performing to the expectations of his gender, and thus ends up being amusing and forgivable.
Consequently, you have two people trying their best to be what their patriarchal society expects from them, only neither truly understands or cares to, outside of pleasing their significant other. In the end, when Zhao Yujin volunteers his own “wife” for war, admitting his failures and thereby proving to be a better man than most, and Ye Zhao returns to their rightful place as the commander of the army,they learn about themselves what they already know about each other—that what’s best for everyone is being who they always are.
Other Character Highlights
The Consort Dowager
Consort Dowager Zhao is so cute. It’s hilarious how hard she tries to be the austere and abrasive mother-in-law early on, only to have everything she does blow up in her face in the most ridiculous ways possible. Although she crosses the line occasionally, you can tell that she’s a kind, harmless woman at heart who loves and cares for all her children.
Plus, Zhao Yujin using his mother’s propensity for crying as a threat is never not funny.
The Emperor-Zhao Yujin Dynamic
Oh My General’s amazing portrayals of family dynamics continue with Zhao Yujin and his uncle the Emperor. From Zhao Yujin’s improper nickname for the Emperor (黄鼠狼 lit. “weasel”), to the Emperor having to trick and butter up his own nephew into doing anything of significance (he’s the Emperor, hello??), there’s never a scene between them that’s not laugh-out-loud worthy.
My favorite moment of theirs has to be when the Emperor informs Zhao Yujin of Ye Zhao’s pregnancy in Episode 51. I cried from laughing so hard the first time I watched it, and have subsequently revisited relevant episodes just for that scene countless times.
Zhao Yujin’s Concubines
Lady Yang, Meiniang, and Xuan’er becoming more Ye Zhao’s concubines than Zhao Yujin’s is one of the funniest things to happen in this drama. Although Lady Yang’s characterization eventually backtracks to that of a jealous, scheming “other woman”, I love that we can always count on Meiniang and Xuan’er’s steadfast loyalty to the main couple.
Liu Xiyin and the Western Xia Crown Prince
In a conventional Asian drama, Liu Xiyin would’ve been the female character to hate. She’s spiteful, borderline delusional, and disrespectful to the person she claims to love. Here, she’s all of that, and a hopeless WLW. I don’t know why that makes her more tragic to me than other characters of her archetype—maybe it’s the fact that the edit the production went with has her genuinely wanting a better life partner for Ye Zhao—but it does.
Her relationship with the Western Xia Crown Prince is so bittersweet. Despite some… questionable actions on his part during their early days, he loves her, and they clearly would be happy together in a different world.
(No, their spin-off movie, Lovers Across Space, isn’t worth your time, unfortunately.)
The Qiu Sisters, and Hu Qing/Qiu Shui
The Qiu sisters are impeccable as a characters unit, but functionally indistinguishable from each other save for their romantic interests. We’re, of course, talking about Qiu Shui’s feelings for Hu Qing, one of the few things in Oh My General that doesn’t work.
With her sister, Qiu Shui is perfect comic relief material—quick witted, a smart mouth, and not afraid to offend. With Hu Qing, she becomes a completely different character, one whose emotional depths aren’t well established by the narrative, and therefore falls flat. I’ve watched Oh My General at least five times in full now, and every time I’ve had to skip Hu Qing and Qiu Shui’s wedding scene because it’s cringe as fuck. And just so we’re not laying the blame entirely on Qiu Shui’s characterization, at no point in time do we see Hu Qing’s romantic inclination shift from Ye Zhao to Qiu Shui in a way that their getting together makes sense either.
(No, Qiu Hua’s spin-off movie, Elysium, isn’t worth your time either.)
A “Good Enough” Political Story
It’s clear that Oh My General is a romantic comedy first and foremost. Although the Emperor in the drama is supposed to be Emperor Renzong of Song, the story only loosely follows the events of his reign. This is to say, the political storylines are a bit of a mess.
For instance, Empress Guo is supposed to be deposed following her act of violence against her husband, but a number of episodes later, she’s back again as the Empress and the drama does not address her reappearance whatsoever.
This kind of issue also extends to Prince Qi’s motive for colluding with foreign powers and rebelling. We know by the end of the drama that he’s been planning his usurpation for decades, his earliest known action being planting a traitor within the Ye army that eventually led to the deaths of Ye Zhao’s parents and brothers. However, he also admits that he only wants to take what he sees as rightfully his—he’s the eldest son, and the current Emperor is also not Empress Liu’s biological son, and therefore should not have a greater claim on the throne. But, the truth behind the Emperor’s birth mother isn’t revealed until the middle of the drama, which begs a few questions: Does everyone know the Emperor’s birth mother isn’t the Empress Dowager except for the Emperor himself? Given how serious of a secret that is, how is it that nothing got back to the Emperor before then? If it’s such a well-kept secret that the Emperor doesn’t know, how is it that Prince Qi, Zhao Yujin, and General Yang(?) do, of all people?
These inconsistencies aside, the beat-by-beat of the political plot is solid, even if some of it lacks nuance and forethought. It’s exciting, easy to follow, and just peripheral enough that even if you don’t get why something is happening, it won’t hamper your enjoyment of the overall story.
The drama’s ending is pretty self-explanatory: Prince Qi’s rebellion fails. Him and his wife get locked up. They find out that Little Sparrow, whom Prince Qi poisoned and made a mute, is actually their long-lost son.
Ye Zhao wins the war but loses Liu Xiyin. They kill Prince Yinuo, leaving the Western Xia throne to the son of Mozang Heiyun.Ye Zhao and Zhao Yujin return home victorious, and flirt in the open court much to General Yang’s disapproval.
Decades later, they’re old and enjoying life with grandchildren. Zhao Yujinexaggeratedly recounts his heroism on the battlefield to their grandkids (presumably, Ye Zhao had a successful pregnancy and the child grew into adulthood). Ye Zhao backs up their husband.
It’s really sweet. I just wish there was more. I wanted to see Ye Zhao being welcomed back with fanfare. I wanted to see Consort Dowager Zhao boasting to her friends about her accomplished “daughter”-in-law and her battle-minted son. Most of all, I wanted to see Ye Zhao juggling motherhood, and a few minutes of them and their husband settling into their lives post-war.
Oh well. We’ll just have to make do with the knowledge that they lead long and happy lives. It’s not the worst epilogue the production could’ve given the audience.
(I haven’t seen the third and last spin-off movie, Mysterious Case of Furong, but I bet it’s not worth watching either.)
A Questionable Aesthetic Choice
Oh My General clearly had the same set and costume people as Go Princess Go, for better and worse.
Oh one hand, the team really took advantage of the bigger budget they had to work with. The details are fantastically unique. The set designs don’t look off-putting. Ye Zhao’s clothes are well suited for the character. The colors, for the most part, are pronounced and pop onscreen.
On the other hand… holy hell, does that one shade of blue make my eyes bleed. You know which blue I’m talking about. Why???
It also seems kind of silly that the Song army is uniformed in light blue. It’s a very noticeable and trackable color. Isn’t that a disadvantage during battles?
Final Rating and Recommendations
Is Oh My General worth watching? Yes, five times over, yes. If you want to laugh at something fairly stress-free that require little energy to enjoy that’s also really, really good, this is the drama for you.
Ignore the certain questionable choice of blue. Know that you can half-pay attention to the political plot. The real gems in this drama are the unorthodox relationships between the two main leads and their families, the subversion of gender tropes, and the hilarious antics all of that brings.
My Rating: 7.5/10
3 comments / Add your comment below
This is the first and probably the last Chinese drama I’ve watched, not because I disliked it, but because I liked it so much. The gender-and genre-bending is just delightful, the costumes and sets are beautiful, and I love Ma Sichun’s “Ye Zhao”. [[SPOILER AHEAD:The scene that best represented her “Gender Fluidity” to me is the one in the military tribunal where the guilty royal mocks her for depending on her armor for courage. Then she strips off the armor and her uniform, and in her underwear (or whatever they call that inner robe) beheads him with the iron chain ).]]
To me this is the epitome of escape fiction, which I will return to more than once as a relief from these difficult times. This one example of Chinese historical drama is enough for me.
Addendum: I like that shade of blue. I even ordered some cashmere yarn from China in that color.
I love that Yujin dances. That scene where he’s in red and dancing with the other man could have gone on for way longer… I would have been cool with that… just saying. He and the General could have danced together. She could have fallen for him during that dance. Instead of kindof kissing him and dropping him on the floor….?
I’m only on episode 6 and I went looking for reviews because I was so confused about the love interest. I don’t understand the General’s motivation to win Yujin’s love. She was so pleased and hopeful to get married, and then they were so terrible to her. At her wedding her mother in law was sobbing and her groom not only had to be carried in by force but also said ‘I won’t marry her,’ even when threatened with beheading. Her new groom told her off and went to his concubine on their wedding night and then left home entirely for 7 days. Why would she decide to go all in, based on that? Like what about that made her think ‘Yes, I will fight for him’ instead of ‘Yes, I will fight to end this marriage’ or ‘Yes, I will leave this jerk behind and fight battles elsewhere.’
Also, it’s driving me nuts that there will be 10 musicians on stage holding zithers and drums but the only soundtrack is a little light violin music.
There is actually a deeper motivation as to why the General is so set on winning Yujin over that will be revealed in later episodes. I personally thought it’s because the General has an inherent weakness for pretty men before I watched the reveal, to be honest. Yujin does get progressively better as the drama goes on though, so don’t write him off yet!