Skip to the final section for a quick, spoiler-free rating.
The Legend of Mi Yue (Chinese title: 芈月传) is a 2015 drama spanning eighty-one episodes. It stars acclaimed actress Sun Li in the titular role of Mi Yue, a fictionalized depiction of Queen Dowager Xuan of Qin State during the Warring States Period of China. As was the case with The Story of Minglan, The Legend of Mi Yue is a drama that I’ve found myself revisiting frequently in the last few years.
Harem and Politics: The Best Intrigues of Both Worlds
The story starts with the birth of Mi Yue, a concubine-born princess of Chu State, who is prophesied at birth to change the direction of the world. At a young age, her life takes a turn for the worse thanks to Queen Wei of Chu, her King father’s legal wife and consort. She subsequently enters the harem of the King of Qin State around marrying age as a dowry maid to her sister, eventually becoming the most favored concubine of the same King herself and bearing him a son.
That’s as vague a description of the “harem” part of the storyline as I could write, but make no mistake, The Legend of Mi Yue does the trope well. The drama handles harem intrigue and angst in a way that feels grounded instead of melodramatic. Yes, there are only so many ways you can write squabbling concubines, but every character act with clear agency and agenda. Each backstabbing and betrayal come off as natural, even inevitable in some cases.
Given the Warring States Period setting, you get some sprinkles of politics here and there early on as well. But it’s not until Mi Yue seizes power that the drama truly goes all out in terms of political intrigues.
To go off on a tangent a little, I was elated when The Empress of China came out in 2014. I thought I was going to get 80-something episodes of a powerful, ruthless, calculating woman scheme her way all the way to the top. I thought I was going to see the causes and effects of Wu Zetian wielding power and subordinating an entire government for thirty years, beat by beat. And while I wasn’t dumb enough to think it was going to be a “down with the patriarchy” kind of tale, I was hoping for at least an “outsmart the patriarchy” kind of story. I got none of what I wanted with The Empress of China, but I got all of it with The Legend of Mi Yue.
To be honest, after I got to the episodes where Mi Yue took power, I…. sort of forgot the harem stuff even took place because Queen Dowager Xuan is such a badass and a joy to witness. I loved watching her wrangle the court into place, root out traitors, turn enemies into allies, and give political speeches. The scene where she rallies an entire, potentially mutinous army to her side? One of the sexiest things to ever be shot for television.
For non-Chinese history buffs, this drama is also a superficial but fascinating look into the general political climate of the Warring States Period of China before the formation of the Qin Dynasty, in particular the emergence of Chinese legalism. I’m not an expert so I can’t/won’t get into how accurate the background details are, but I’ve had a great time researching the context behind the show. The Legend of Mi Yue provided a perfect jumping off point into the history of Shang Yang, the three generations of Qin kings, and how everything culminated into Qin’s dominance over the other states and the rise of Qin Shi Huang.
The Loves of Mi Yue’s Life Pale in the Face of Her Destiny
The Legend of Mi Yue is a historical drama through and through. Yes, Mi Yue has love interests—three, in fact. Yes, she poured her heart and soul into every one of those romantic relationships. But the story made damn sure to not elevate any of her romances above the bigger plan of her securing the power behind the Qin throne, whether she intended it herself or not. If any of these men aren’t helping her on her fated path, they’re gone.
In fact, this turns out to be a recurring theme throughout this drama. The more Mi Yue chooses duty over her own happiness, the more people dear to her she loses. As a viewer, I felt saddened by the totality of her loss in the end, but it was also satisfying to see everything she built from those sacrifices.
(Side note. While there is no “soul mate” situation going on, thankfully, I think the King of Qin is best suited for Mi Yue. In my opinion, he respects, appreciates, and understands her as a person the most. Too bad she’s the least interested in him romantically.)
The Soundtrack is *Chef’s Kiss*
The Legend of Mi Yue has the same music problem as every long-running Chinese drama in that there are a few select songs and soundtracks that are reused over and over again. This wouldn’t be an issue if The Legend of Mi Yue was a shorter drama. But it’s 81 episodes, and you notice after a while.
That being said, aside from one weird battle sequence soundtrack that sounds like it belongs in a Lord of the Ring knockoff movie, the OST for this drama is one of the loveliest I’ve listened to.
My personal favorites are the two renditions of Mi Yue’s piece on her pan flute, Waning Moon (残月). One is a full, uninterrupted version on the same pan flute with background accompaniments. The other is played on a cello (I think?). You can find them and the rest of the tracks here on YouTube.
Final Rating and Recommendations
I cannot say enough good things about The Legend of Mi Yue. If you love harem dramas, watch it. If you love political intrigues, watch it. If you love seeing badass women whip failing governments into shape and run entire countries, watch it.
There’s not a lot of downsides I can nitpick about. The aforementioned weird battle OST aside, this drama is long at eighty-one episodes. If you watch it, and I hope you do, prepare to invest a lot of time and emotional bandwidth.
Overall, it’s one of the best Chinese period dramas I’ve ever seen, and that’s my final word.
My rating: 9/10