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 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 holds the unique position of being the one character the audience can safely trust. She has no hidden agenda and she 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 to 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 irregardless of whether she won 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.
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 or dark secret, no treacherous ambition. As far as we know, he’s just a well-meaning, hard-working, 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.
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 rape 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’ve 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 made 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.
- 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