As a kid, I used to think the lives of emperors revolved around wearing big robes, having an intensely long beard, and wielding absolute power. (Who among us didn’t watch Mulan?) Now, as a young professional, those definitely still hold true — I’m just not too sure if every emperor had a long beard.
What I didn’t realize was that “absolute power” meant so much more than just sitting on a throne. These historical realities, in my opinion, were depicted in the Chinese drama, The Princess Weiyoung. The drama came out in 2016 and it starred actress Tiffany Tang as Li Weiyang and actor Luo Jin as Tuoba Jun/Prince Gaoyang.
Here’s what we can learn about ancient dynastic China through the drama:
1) Ceremonies and tradition played a very important role.
Even until now, ceremonies and tradition are still important. Of particular interest is the way in which filial piety and respect for those of higher authority was conducted. The first thing Weiyang did as she arrived in the Li household was to honor her “parents” with a greeting and bow. (If you watched the drama, you’ll know why there are quotation marks in the sentence before.)
People would greet the royals — the crown princess (Prince Gaoyang’s mother), the princes, and the like — with great respect. If any of them showed signs of anger, people would immediately get on their knees and kneel.
2) Emperors, empresses, empress dowagers, princes, and princesses.
The traditional royal roles of the emperor, empress, and the like definitely made an impression. The whole drama revolved around people who thirsted for power.
For most of the C-drama, Tuoba Tao/Emperor Taiwu (played by Hong Kong actor Canti Lau), who was Prince Gaoyang’s grandfather, served as emperor. As a human being, he did have his regrets. Yet, he can be characterized as unrelenting yet merciful — just as an emperor should be.
3) Nothing is what it seems.
This is the part we didn’t really know about as children watching the animated film, Mulan. Beyond the glamour and ceremonies and endless food in royal life lay much darker secrets and twisted plots against one’s enemies.
For Li Weiyang, almost every single one of the 54 episodes seemed to involve some plot against her life. Name it — from being framed as being the crown princess’ murderer to being hurt herself — Weiyang went through it all. All of this was driven by jealousy and utter hatred. Ancient dynastic China was absolutely no different, no matter what dynasty it was.
In one plotline, a piece of clothing with a poisoned needle was sent to the empress. At that time, Weiyang was a servant and she became a suspect. Fortunately, after a few days, she proved her innocence and found the real culprit.
Quite the story, indeed.
About the author of this article:
Aaron is currently a Junior Multimedia Producer for CHiNOY TV. He is a constituent of the Ateneo de Manila University Chinese Studies Program, a member of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies, and a Documentation and Publications Associate Vice President for Ateneo Celadon. He enjoys watching Chinese dramas and (occasionally) making TikTok videos!