Skip to the final section for a quick, spoiler-free rating.
If you’re an avid Asian drama viewer, you’re likely to have already seen Story of Yanxi Palace (Chinese title: 延禧攻略), if not heard of it in passing. This seventy-episode period drama made an incredible splash when it first premiered in 2018; it caught the attention of numerous western media outlets, and Netflix aired a spinoff miniseries the following year.
Story of Yanxi Palace follows Wei Yingluo, a fictionalized version of the Qing Dynasty’s Empress Xiaoyichun, consort to the Qianlong Emperor and mother to the Jiaqing Emperor. After the death of her older sister, a palace maid, she enters the Forbidden City to investigate its suspicious circumstances, and eventually finds out that her sister was raped and murdered. Along the way, Wei Yingluo comes into the favor of Empress Fuca, and becomes entangled in the struggles of the harem as she schemes to avenge her sister.
That is a very basic summary of the drama, with the actual story packing so much more substance and nuances. If you’re new to Asian dramas, or if you’ve simply been putting off watching Yanxi Palace, I highly encourage you to give it a go soon.
Wei Yingluo Is a One of a Kind Protagonist
Wei Yingluo in the Forbidden City is very much an “unstoppable force meet immovable object” kind of situation. She is a bulldozer of a protagonist against the rigid walls that are the rules and customs of the Qing dynasty imperial palace, and she gets the better of them as often as they get the better of her. She’s daring, stubborn, outspoken, intelligent, genuine, crafty, and takes no one’s shit. She gets her way one way or the other, and everyone who’s ever pissed her off always pays dearly. I love a protagonist who’s not afraid to be vicious, and she’s very much that.
She’s a constantly evolving character, growing with every new experience and making her personal setbacks and traumas work in her favor. You can see just how she changes in time to becoming subtler about her schemes, more careful with her words, and more in control of her emotions.
What sets her apart from every other harem drama protagonist is her love for herself. She doesn’t just know what she’s worth, she knows how to leverage that worth for more—even as she learns when to make concessions. Her self-love is such that outsiders would even describe her as arrogant, hubristic, and shameless. But the truth is, she’s just a woman who’s seen the pitfalls of being a woman in the world she was born into, which brings us to the unusual way Yanxi Palace decided to handle love…
Romantic Love Was Never the Most Important Love
The greatest love story in Yanxi Palace is between Wei Yingluo and Empress Fuca Rongyin, and the drama’s not shy about putting it front and center. In fact, every single one of Wei Yingluo’s female relationships outweighs her relationship with male characters in terms of sincerity and narrative reliability.
For instance, I never doubted that Wei Yingluo loved her sister, but I did wonder multiple times whether she loves, or even cares for, her own father. Likewise, her devotion towards the Empress becomes the unquestionable hub of the whole story early on, eclipsing both her relationships with Fuca Fuheng and the Emperor. It’s also her friendship with Mingyue that drives her to return to the Forbidden City against the explicit wish of her sworn brother, Yuan Chunwang.
On the flip side, this makes it hard to pin down her exact feelings for her two male love interests.
Fuca Fuheng vs. the Emperor
Wei Yingluo’s romance with Fuca Fuheng is the kind of pure and true love you know will never survive in a harem intrigue drama, especially one based on real history like Yanxi Palace. I knew that and very much braced myself emotionally for its end. Even so, watching how Fuheng slowly melts her cold and acidic exterior is really sweet. He is kind and is devoted to her. He respects, trusts, and understands her wholeheartedly. It’s just sad knowing that fate is not on his side.
The Qianlong Emperor, on the other hand, took a long while to grow on me. His love for Empress Fuca in the first half of the drama makes it both easier and harder to accept the fact that Wei Yingluo is going to be one of his consorts. Easier because we got to see that he’s capable of real, sincere love, and thus have no reasons to doubt his feelings for Wei Yingluo later on. Harder because, well, he’s the husband of the person Wei Yingluo loves and respects the most in the world, whom she swore to never betray.
The drama does a great job building up the relationship between the Emperor and Wei Yingluo so that when she eventually enters the harem and began climbing up the ranks, it makes sense. The Emperor’s sundry of emotions towards her never once feel forced.
I also think that, despite the general asshole-ry that comes with being an emperor character, this portrayal is one of the most likable. So many times, I’ve watched harem or political dramas get ruined because the emperor characters are utter fools. Not this time. Yanxi Palace’s Qianlong is intelligent, introspective, pragmatic, and every bit Wei Yingluo’s equal. He might not be the most emotionally self-aware individual, but you’d trust him to run a country.
Which Man Did Wei Yingluo Love, If Either?
I was a hundred percent with the Step-Empress during her final scene with Wei Yingluo when she asked her, “Between those two men, who do you truly love?” Because while I realize that things are never that cut-and-dry in real life, I had hoped we’d get some sort of an answer, what’s with Yanxi Palace being a fictional drama and all.
It’s not a matter of wanting Wei Yingluo to end up with one over the other either. I just want to know: Does she love them both? Did she have romantic feelings for Fuca Fuheng that passed once she became the Emperor’s consort? Or has she been holding a candle for her first love interest throughout all these years? Does she feel romantic love for the Emperor? Guilt? A combination of both? Does she love neither in the end?
A part of me recognizes that the ambiguity of Wei Yingluo’s true feelings is likely the point. Romantic love is never a priority for her. Whether or not she knows her feelings herself is moot. Even so, I’m disappointed that we never got to find out as the audience.
Other Flaws and Loose Ends
There’s not a lot to complain about with Yanxi Palace, but one major bone I have to pick with it involves the arc where it’s revealed that the Empress Dowager isn’t the Emperor’s birth mother. I wish we would’ve definitively known what happened to Concubine Chen, especially because the plot circles back to it again in the final episodes when Yuan Chunwang’s secret was revealed. The fact that we just don’t know the truth of what happened all those years ago bugs the hell out of me. I’m of the opinion that unreliable narrators aren’t satisfying if there’s no eventual reveal.
I also highly dislike the Concubine Shun arc. I get that the plot had to find some way of bringing Wei Yingluo back to the palace again, but I just find the whole ordeal out of place and overly convoluted.
Final Rating and Recommendations
Story of Yanxi Palace did not become the hottest Chinese drama in 2018 for no reason. It delivers a solid seventy episodes of mystery, intrigue, and revenge. Sometimes, the story gets convoluted and predictable, but it’s always, always dramatic and entertaining.
With Wei Yingluo helming the story as the protagonist, this drama was cathartic above all else. You want to watch liars and snakes exposed on the spot? She’s your gal. You want to see justice for cannon fodder characters? Done and done. You want villains to pay for their transgressions ten times over? You got it.
No, it’s not perfect, but it got pretty damn close. Harem drama lovers should not give this one a miss.
My Rating: 8.5/10