‘The Rebel Princess’ Review: No Expense Is Spared and It Shows

The Rebel Princess / Monarch Industries

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

I sat on my thoughts about The Rebel Princess (Chinese title: 上阳赋) for over two months, fearing that I couldn’t write an analysis that does this drama justice. Yes, The Rebel Princess is, by far, one of the best the world of Chinese costume dramas has to offer. It’s also a treasure trove for metas and dissections.

The Rebel Princess Synopsis

In the fictitious Cheng dynasty, the women of the Wang clan have always been Empresses Consort. As such, young Wang Xuan, daughter of the Prime Minister Wang Lin, is raised to be the legal wife of the Crown Prince, although she herself is defiant towards her fate and wishes to marry the Third Prince, Zitan. 

In an unexpected turn of events, her ambitious father marries her to Xiao Qi, a lowborn general recently conferred the title Prince of Yuzhang thanks to his merits on the battlefield. Those same events see the downfall and eventual deaths of Zitan’s mother and maternal clan by Wang Lin’s hands. 

Wang Xuan falls in love with Xiao Qi despite an initial rocky start to their marriage, finding him to be a caring and considerate husband. However, the aristocratic imperial court sees Xiao Qi’s princely title, his military power, and his common birth as a threat to their status quo. The couple becomes embroiled in political struggles they want no part of, from Second Prince Zilü’s failed rebellion, to the poisoning and eventual death of the old Emperor, to the short-lived reign of the Crown Prince and new Emperor, to Zitan’s even shorter and more ineffectual reign… all culminating in Wang Lin’s attempt to usurp the throne for himself. 

Serious Production Value

The Rebel Princess is the definition of a “spare no expense” project. That much is evident from the opening shot—an intricate map of the Cheng dynasty territories carved in gold—and this attention to detail remained consistent for all sixty-eight episodes. Everything, from Wang Xuan’s wardrobe to the combat cinematography of Xiao Qi’s battles down to the trinkets in the backdrop, is perfect.

What stood out most to me about The Rebel Princess as an end product is how “natural” everything looks. Wang Xuan’s hair, for instance, is not needlessly flawless all the time, but is allowed to be free and somewhat unkempt whenever it makes sense. Zhou Yiwei’s portrayal of Xiao Qi is, at its root, one of a well-loved general and hardened warrior, rather than a male love interest. Even the lighting is well executed; nights and dark rooms are lit enough to see what’s going on, but not too much that it’s unrealistically bright and monotonous with the days.

The little things in the background should never distract you from the story, and to that end, this drama delivered flawlessly.

The Oddities of The Rebel Princess Characters

First of all, I want to establish that there are no horrible characters in The Rebel Princess. There are horrible people, but each individual character has their own quirks, drives, and motives, which the story executes to varying degrees of success. 

That being said, some of the big players in this drama feel criminally under explored. Oddly enough, this isn’t a flaw because, most of the time, the narrative doesn’t need certain secret backstories or big reveals to move forward. Rather, it leaves a lot of room for fans to wonder and fill in the blank ourselves.

Wang Xuan

Wang Xuan holds the unique position of being the one character the audience can safely trust. She has no hidden agenda and does not lie to you. What you see with her is what you get. The way she functions within the story automatically makes her the de facto main character, which is… interesting when you look at the drama’s world as a whole.

Wang Xuan grew up privileged, sheltered, and beloved, but has the wisdom to steer herself through a time of chaos and come out of the other side intacted mentally and morally. She’s an amazing assessor of situations, a good judge of people (once she has all the information), and quick to adapt in dire circumstances, all the while never losing who she fundamentally is—a good person. As a character, she’s dynamic, well-rounded, and lovable. Basically everything you can ask for.

The fascinating thing about her is how she affects everything else. Unlike a traditional main character, she’s not an active driver of the main conflicts. Her status as the daughter of the most distinguished clan in the world has more weight and direct consequences on the narrative than the choices she makes. Her existence is a hub to the story, and yet, her roles in the major conflicts are traditional to side characters, passing messages, taking actions only when asked, etc. 

Case in point, her father would’ve made her marry Xiao Qi regardless of her winning that game of chess in episode one. It also never even occurs to her to kidnap the baby prince until Zilong begs her to, and the speed at which she passes him off to her brother and subsequently loses track of the baby’s whereabouts shows just how little she is in control of anything. (Her efforts during the siege of Huizhou is perhaps where she is the most main character-like, but even then, I question how much of an impact that arc has on the story as a whole.)

At the same time, like with certain characters in The Rebel Princess being under explored, Wang Xuan’s relative inactivity compared to your average protagonist works here. On a character level, it’s who she is: a peaceful, idle person who just wants her loved ones to stop fighting and be happy. On a narrative level, there’s really no room for her to do more, not when there’s her husband.

Xiao Qi

The whole time watching this drama, I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. Xiao Qi seems too good to be true: a loving husband, a kind and principled man of the people, a peerless tactician, a war-god, a rag-to-rich story. Well, the other shoe never did. There are no skeletons in his closet, no hidden lineage, dark secrets, or treacherous ambition. As far as we know, he’s just a well-meaning, hard-working, and talented individual who rose to the top on merits. 

If The Rebel Princess was framed like a conventional drama, Xiao Qi would be its undisputed main character. We would likely get a whole backstory of his childhood, the deaths of his village, his time in the army, and how he lost his brothers-in-arm, which is admittedly a lot of grounds to cover considering the drama as is runs for sixty-eight episodes. 

My point is, he is the woefully under-explored character of this drama. We know almost nothing about how he got to where he is, or how he’s shaped into the person he is. What drove him to serve his country in the first place? What’s holding him back from the temptation of power, especially when it’s right there for him to take? What makes him different from all the other soldiers that he was able to rise to be their leader from nothing? 

A part of me feels that the drama made the right choice to not dive deep into Xiao Qi’s past. It would’ve been a distraction; the political conflicts are complicated as is. Xiao Qi’s very essence would have invited a far more serious and dangerously relevant topic of social class conflicts. In that respect, Wang Xuan is needed as a buffer main character; she’s the only POV for whom the existing story plays out as a satisfying one.

I still wish we got more than “a lot of people in my village died and so did most of my close friends in the army” though.

Other under-explored characters: everyone else in the Ningshuo army. RIP to my girl Hu Yao, whoever you are. We never really knew ya.

Wang Lin

Where do I begin with this man? As far as motives go, Wang Lin is rather simple. He’s born into a life he has little control over, falls in love with a woman he isn’t supposed to, watches her die before his eyes, and decides from that moment on to do whatever it takes to never experience that lack of power again. He’s an understandable and straightforward antagonist, yet a complicated man. 

It would’ve been very easy to make Wang Lin an unloving husband and father, but it makes him that much richer of a character and the drama that much more heart wrenchingthat he does love his wife and children. I adore thethe way he looks at Princess Jinmin and the moments of affection he shows her when she’s not watching. There are so many feelings between them, suppressed by years of guilt, bad memories, and miscommunication, that despite their inevitable and foreseeable tragic end, you can’t help but root for him to pull his head out of his ass and reconcile with her.

The Three Princes

I started out hating Zilong, the Crown Prince. Thirty-five episodes later, he’s my favorite brother, simply because he went from this total dickwad to an actual human being. I really wish he didn’t attempt to rape Wang Xuan (and successfully raped his wife) because his character development is one of the best things about The Rebel Princess.

Zilü’s batshit insanity is very enjoyable, but his attempted coup does a disservice to the story in that it makes every other one coming after it seems kind of inconsequential. I love how much he loves Huan Mi though.

Then there’s Zitan, who is by far the most annoying second male lead you’ll find in any drama. If he’d turned evil for power or revenge, I would have at least respected him. Instead, his descent into incel-ry is downright pathetic. He uses one of Wang Xuan’s closest confidant against her, tries to kill her husband whom she loves, and still won’t let her go after she told him they’re beyond over. At least Su Jin’er makes her choices expecting nothing in return. At least she has the excuse of being enslaved all her life—she’s just taking what opportunities she’s offered to pursue something she wants for once. Meanwhile, this asshole’s trapped himself in an idyllic fantasy about the girl who told him multiple times she’s moved on. He has no aspiration beyond satisfying his own desires, as proven during his short reign as Emperor. He’s insufferable in his inability to grow the fuck up. What a sad sack of shit. He does not deserve further analysis beyond this.

Masterful Handling of the Plot

I complain a lot about clichés in Asian dramas, but there’s not a lot to complain about here. The only wrong move The Rebel Princess makes is trying to paint Wang Xuan and Xiao Qi as a “love at first sight” kind of romance, which doesn’t work. The actors have great chemistry together, but both their performances and characters would’ve been better served were they allowed to love devotedly over time than all at once. 

That’s about the worst issue with this drama, as the rest of the story was fantastically crafted. from its epic war scenes, to its political factions and insurgencies, to how equalized its main characters are in terms of importance. (I loath comparing Asian dramas to Game of Thrones for various reasons, but The Rebel Princess honestly feels like a spiritual equal in terms of unpredictability and character screen time distribution.)

What’s more, this drama did a wonderful job at delivering just the right amount of context for any given conflict. Nothing’s over or under explained. Although, in the case of Xiao Qi and Hulan’s inner conflicts, I wish the story would go into more depth, it was ultimately the right choice to keep the pace going instead. 

Other Thoughts

  • Why is the other English title Monarch Industry? It sounds steampunkish
  • Wang Xuan’s voice-over monologues contribute nothing to the story. All the informational and emotional aspects of her “inner thoughts” could’ve been better communicated through action and/or dialogue
  • I wish the English subtitlers on YouTube translated Xiao Qi’s title as “King” or “Prince” instead of “Lord.” Not only are those options more accurate, but the indignation of the imperial court towards him being awarded the title of wang (王) would also make more sense to the English audience
  • I love this continuing trend of Chinese period dramas using the actors’ real voices

Final Rating and Recommendations

Watch The Rebel Princess. It doesn’t matter if you’re new to Asian dramas or a long-time fan. 

The production value is off the charts. The story is suspenseful, nuanced, original, and true to its world. The world-building is top-notch. Every character is fleshed out and refined, bolstered by a star-studded cast including Zhang Ziyi, one of the most internationally celebrated Chinese actresses in current times.

You literally could not want anything better from a Chinese TV show. The only downside is, if The Rebel Princess is your introduction to Chinese dramas, you’re almost guaranteed to be disappointed by the next one you pick up.

My Rating: 9/10

22 comments / Add your comment below

  1. The best series I’ve ever seen in a long time. I love Xiao Qi’s and the princess consort and all the characters bad and good. Great story and wonderful costumes. Love love love. Watched it over and over. I hope they make season 2 soon.

  2. What musical instrument is Xiao Qi playing in some of the scenes. It seems like a very small flute?

  3. I am not an avid movie or TV fan, but enjoy reading and watching Biographies History and epic dramas, like Gone With the wind, Scarlett, Pride and Prejudice and the like. I watch PBS a lot and the Rebel Princess caught my attention and started watching it nightly. ! went on vacation for 2 weeks in January and I know I will miss 10 episodes. I browsed thru U tube and found the English dubbed episodes. What a difference from the sub titles. I enjoyed it immensely , this way I was able to watch the actors act rather than read the sub titles. Over all this has been my best TV show.
    Enjoyed every bit of it, the hauntingly beautiful music, the romantic scene between Awu and Lord Yushang is beyond comparison. I am a widow and made me missed my husband who was as tender as he was.
    I have started watching it on U Tube English dubbed episodes, and realized how much I have missed the essence of their conversation.
    Congratulations to Zhou Yi Wei for getting the best actor award. Will try and watch some of his
    movies.

  4. I love this show so much, everything about it, except like what everyone else has mentioned , the subtitles, phrases are not fitting.. I am so hoping there is going to be a season 2, Please if anyone hears of this, post it. I am at episode 62 and getting depressed that it is almost over, going back to watch all the episodes again. Love, love, love Xiao Qi! and the costumes

  5. Zilong wasn’t a criminal offender to either woman. It was the drug. He was as much a victim. I wonder why the palace at the hometown was in a wasteland where they could not bath regularly yet the land of that area had green scenery. Why not build the fort/palace there?

  6. I LOVE this show!!! I watched the first 15 episodes which I recorded off my PBS station. After that I couldn’t watch so slowly, so I watched from YouTube where I could watch 3 a night. After I saw all 68 episodes, I started watching my recorded ones from the beginning again. The story is compelling, the costumes and settings are amazing, the characters are multi-dimensional, the themes thought-provoking. And I love following Xiao and Awu’s love story. But the subtitles are HORRIBLE! Please, somebody, go back and redo them! They need to be translated better and last longer on the screen. They really don’t match the quality of the rest of the production. This is definitely one of my top shows if all time. Fix the subtitles and air the whole thing on tv so that most people can watch it.

    1. Couldn’t agree more about the subtitles. Can only guess that the translator learned English by reading old comic books (maybe Batman?). Endless grammatical errors, ridiculous word choices (‘You jerk! ‘My bad!’ ‘I gotta go . . .’) I also suspect that a good deal of dialogue that would have made the plot easier to follow got lost along the way. The titles urgently need to be redone by a native English speaker.

      1. I totally agree and hope that the series can be redone with proper English translation. I did feel that the ending could have been a bit longer and Zhou Yi Wei’s character could have had more dialogue. It seemed that he was a bit of a third wheel at the scene with Awu’s brother and again at the very end with the children. Overall, I was impressed with the production, cast and storyline.

    2. Very well said! I am watching the rerun on my PBS station and have found exactly the same thing. In addition, I did further online research about on Zhou Yi Wei and am SO shocked his acting ability is not more appreciated! His ability to express the script with his eyes, full facial expressions and body posture is far beyond that of actors his age and some of those older. It appears that Chinese casting directors have missed the boat. I hope he is recognized by wider venues!
      I also found that those fans of entertainment news outlets haven’t a clue about his talent or his character. His wife, Zhu Dan, was trained for journalism and hosting. She did well in that but not when trying to switch to acting. He was educated through college level plus in acting. In addition he was brought by parents who were but professionals in entertainment; dad in music & mother in dance and they allowed him to find his direction and supported his choice. Sadly his wife did not have the same secure upbringing. Her early life was more unsettled. They met on a set and he helped her learn her required script fight scene. They built a relationship from there and married a few years later and have now been married over 4 years and have 2 children. It was Zhou’s mother that helped Zhu Dan learn HOW to be a mother and Zhou Yi Wei is an involved father who also helps with household tasks. The entertainment netizins are WAY off base.

      1. Thanks for all the background details of the actor and his family. This was my first C-drama and I started watching it on PBS without realizing that it was a series. I’m glad I was able to watch the series from the beginning on youtube but as most of the comments the English subtitles ruined it for me. I tried to watch the English dubbed version but was put off because it didn’t seem authentic enough for me. Zhou Yi Wei’s acting was incredible, he added so much depth to the character XQ. I did watch The Great Shoulin & found myself being swept away by Zhou’s performance. I hope to see him in other period dramas.

      2. I totally agree with you Ann. He is an incredible actor. I have watched the series 5 times on PBS Passpert and although the subtitles are not perfect you can feel the story come through. Zhou Yi Wei is very gifted and made the story for me. He is the Archetypical White Knight who slays the dark side and brings justice and light and saves the people. His face is beautiful and expresses a depth that often makes words unnecessary. I just love him.
        The whole movie is great and filled with symbolism. Many great actors.. The Princess and her father are exceptional actors as well. Fabulous viewing!

  7. I have LOVED watching this! I watched the first 15 episodes as I recorded them from my PBS station. Then I got tired of watching so slowly and switched to YouTube. After watching all 68 episodes I am starting over with my recorded ones. The story is compelling, the characters are multi-dimensional, I love watching Xiou Qi and Awu’s love story, the costumes and settings are amazing. The subtitles, however, are HORRIBLE! They need to be better translated, with more time on the screen. They do not match with the quality of the show. PLEASE redo the subtitles!!

  8. OMG! I discovered this show in November as my local PBS station is airing one episode every weeknight. I watched a couple episodes here and there. I finally watched the first 10 on Amazon and was completely hooked! I binged the series in less than a week on YouTube- many nights staying up until 4 am. I rewatched my favorite episodes many times (Hello, Eps 13 & 33!). I am happily rewatching the series at a slower pace on my PBS station. I absolutely LOVE the chemistry between the Xiao Qi and Wang Xuan. The costumes are fabulous and the battles have been epic! This is the first C-drama series I’ve watched. I’m afraid it’s ruined me for any other series.

  9. We are just 10 episodes into the story and we love it. The acting by all the players is wonderful, so very subtle. Costumes and sets are a dream. Music quite beautiful.
    Two gripes though. Both about the subtitles…… As mentioned by others, the subtitles are shown for so little time one is forced to focus your eyes on the bottom of the screen, thus missing all the action !!!!!!
    Then the translations sometimes make you cringe….. totally incorrect language used for the time depicted and modern slang sometimes used. Really ???? With all the money spent on this series and then crap subtitles….. Sad and totally unnecessary. If I were the director I would be totally enraged.

  10. My husband & I watched 5 Episodes on PBS. We wanted to learn more about Chinese history and culture but after 5 Episodes we’re very disappointed. Good things: sumptuousness, costumes, hairstyles, makeup, music, stage sets. Mediocre things: Plots seem shallow and predictable. No one seems to grieve someone who’s died, even if they’d known the person their whole lives. Everyone is willing to use everyone else as a pawn even if it’s a spouse or child. They “love” them but you find out their “love” doesn’t bring loyalty and doing whatever they can to prevent harm to their “loved ones.” Doesn’t the husband grieve his lifelong consort/ concubine? Doesn’t the father love his raped daughter? I know it’s cultural, but is rape not punishable? Does the victim always have to marry her perpetrator? How does this further a story about a rebel princess? There are no explanations for many of the things that happen. For example, they cut down the tree and then the princess uses that tree to escape the rapacious spoiled crown prince. All the royals are entitled, conniving and immature.
    The “rebel” princess is a spoiled brat who wants what she wants when she wants it. She shows no depth of character, good values, compassion or humanity. Her motto could be “It is what it is.” She’s willing to do whatever she has to to get what she wants: treachery, deceit, lying, stealing, cheating, etc which she has learned from the elders her entire life.
    After 5 episodes, my husband & I both decided it was boring and predictable. We couldn’t always read the subtitles because they were often fuzzy, were white letters on a white background or were shown and removed so fast, we didn’t have time to read them. The target audience is apparently young Chinese-speaking Asian women who understand the subtleties of the culture and history, and royal lineage, etc. Nothing is explained except how important it is to have royal blood and how the “low-born” are so far beneath them.
    The most uninteresting characters are the crown prince and his mother. The most interesting character are the spoiled princess and the general, but they’re SUPPOSED to be.
    Disappointed because we wanted to love it and we don’t even like it 🙁

    1. All very good points!

      It’s worth pointing out that dramas like The Rebel Princess predicate on the audience having an understanding of both what ancient China was like, as well as familiarity with the archetypes and tropes pervasive in Chinese period dramas about emperors and imperial cults. I’d say that some things, such as not showing the Emperor actively grieving Consort Xie’s death, were character and pacing choices. But yes, a lot of what you seem to dislike are products of the two things I mentioned. To answer your (rightful) outrage, rape is punishable, but in a world based on Imperial China, the heir to the throne is expected to be exempt from the worse punishments; his only right course of action should be taking responsibility for the woman he violated by marrying her. Yes, it’s disgusting, but part of a good story’s job is to show things as a matter-of-fact.

      I do think you gave up a little early—plots that actually matter long term don’t start hitting the ground until episode 7—but I also understand that it’s not your cup of tea. Sometimes, we’re simply the wrong audience for a thing, and that’s fine.

      I’d also like to point out that The Rebel Princess is entirely fictional, so you wouldn’t have gotten a lot of historical information out of it anyway. If you’d like a Chinese period drama closer to actual Chinese history, might I suggest The Story of Minglan, if you enjoy Jane Austen-adjacent period dramas, or The Legend of Mi Yue, a fictionalized series about Queen Dowager Xuan of Qin State (338–265 BC)?

    2. Kathleen, you gave up too soon. There are 68 episodes, and a lot happens. There is a lot of character development. And there is a lot to make you think. There are some very deep themes. Please give it another chance!

    3. You haven’t really learned and understood the reality of Male/female relationships either worldwide or China in the time period or the expected behaviors of Royalty & servants then either!

  11. Truer words have never been written! It’s hands down my favourite cdrama of 2021 (not that there is much competition… for obvious reasons) and the number one on my ‘Let’s Get You Into Cdramas, My Innocent Friend’ List.
    ‘Zitan’s descent into incel-ry’ is an amazing phrase and a very precise description of what happened with that guy. ♡
    Also, while I think that we can do without having Xiao Qi’s backstory, I would have totally watched another 60 eps of Ningshuo Crew Doing Things In Ningshuo, sitcom style. But then, who wouldn’t.

    1. Also, while I think that we can do without having Xiao Qi’s backstory, I would have totally watched another 60 eps of Ningshuo Crew Doing Things In Ningshuo, sitcom style. But then, who wouldn’t.

      Oh, most definitely! RIP the Ningshuo fam, they all deserve better and more screen time

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