Available on: Viki, YouTube
Total episode #: 48
Dumpling-rating scale: 3/5
I had been avoiding watching The King’s Woman (秦时丽人明月心) for sometime despite it constantly popping up on my recommended shows on Viki. I had reservations because I knew:
- it was based on the life of China’s ‘First Emperor’ (Qin Shi Huang 秦始皇);
- Qin Shi Huang was reputedly a ruthless man; and
- a happy ending was highly unlikely (confirmed by other reviews).
Nevertheless, I succumbed to Viki marketing and began watching The King’s Woman. Based on the trailer, I knew the drama would follow the fictional Gongsun Li (portrayed by Dilraba Dilmurat 迪丽热巴), who would capture the heart of tyrannical Qin Shi Huang born Ying Zheng (portrayed by Vin Zhang 張彬彬).
What I found quite striking was the effort The King’s Woman made to historically contextualize the characters and their stories. Although I didn’t love this drama — it moved too slowly and Gong Sun Li didn’t have a clear story line at all — I was impressed by it’s faithfulness to real historical events. Accordingly, instead of providing my usual episode guide (which frankly wouldn’t really work for this drama) I will discuss the drama in its historical context. Please note that there will be spoilers.
The Story and Comments
The King’s Woman is a fictional story based on Ying Zheng, who would become Qin Shi Huang. As a child, Ying Zheng served as a hostage Prince in the State of Wey. During an assassination attempt, Ying Zheng encounters Gong Sun Li (Li-er) and Jing Ke who save him. The three of them together climb up a mountain peak to see the big blue moon and declared their wishes.
Gong Sun Li wishes for peace and health, Jing Ke wishes to be skilled in martial arts like Li-er’s grandfather and Ying Zheng wishes to be feared so that he can protect his loved ones (foreboding).
Meeting Li-er had a lasting impact on Ying Zheng, who years later is still in love with her. As Ying Zheng ascends to the throne, Li-er’s state is defeated and she harbours a deep resentment of the Qin after witnessing her grandfather’s death while protecting her city, Puyang. Following her grandfather’s death, Li-er accompanies her senior disciple Jing Ke who on her grandfather’s orders is looking for Warrior Lu Gou Jian.
As fate would have it, Ying Zheng meets Li-er once again in Luoyang. After recognising her and being pressured by the Dowager Empress to name an Empress, he orders Li-er’s arrest. Ultimately, Li-er gives herself up to Ying Zheng in return for an antidote to save Jing Ke after he is attacked by mercenaries acting on Ying Zheng’s orders.
Before Li-er enters the palace, she spends one night with Jing Ke and becomes pregnant, much to the chagrin of Ying Zheng. At this point we are at episode 8 of the drama and the story line starts to get a bit fuzzy.
The King’s Woman continues with Ying Zheng winning the love and trust of Li-er in the midst of Palace intrigue and continued conquests by the Qin. However, Ying Zheng becomes more and more ruthless resulting in a tragic ending (see ending below).
I thought the first ten episodes were strong. However, as the story moves forward very little happens in terms of progressing Li-er’s story line. I acknowledge that she saves Ying Zheng’s life a couple more times and further demonstrates her kindness, loyalty and skill as a warrior but her story in a lot ways is stagnate.
We are locked in a perpetual cycle where Ying Zheng professes his undying love and affection for Li-er, something goes wrong (not Li-er’s fault), Ying Zheng punishes her, she redeems herself and Ying Zheng again professes his undying love for her (rinse and repeat)…
I found this to be repetitive and the sub-plots didn’t help either. We had Jing Ke, who became somewhat of a drunk, and Han Shen — Li-er’s oldest senior disciple who followed her into the Palace — just love and protect her (to no avail).
I always enjoy Dilraba and Vin Zhang’s chemistry but I became frustrated by this drama — I mean it was already touted as a fictional drama, why not go full fictional and give us some real romance?
Yes Dilraba – I know the answer. The answer is that this drama tries too hard to remain true to history. The result is a somewhat unsatisfying drama to watch. While the set and cinematography were incredible, nothing can quite compete with a traditional love story.
Ying Zheng (Qin Shi Huang Di)
Ying Zheng at the beginning of the drama ascends to the throne and is constantly trying to quash rebellions and strengthen his power as the Emperor of a united China.
Faithful to history, the first 5 episodes surround Lao Ai’s attempted coup. Lü Buwei fearing that Ying Zheng would discover his liason with his mother decided to look for a replacement for the queen. He found Lao Ai who disguised as a eunuch and got along so well with Ying Zheng’s mother that they secretly had two sons together.
Lao Ai’s plot was to replace Ying Zheng with one of the hidden sons. But his plan was exposed which caused him to seize the queen mother’s seal and mobilize an army to start a coup.
When Ying Zheng found out he ordered Lü Buwei to attack Lao Ai, killing hundreds of the rebels at the capital, although Lao Ai succeeded in fleeing from this battle. Lao Ai was eventually captured and killed, his sons (Ying Zheng’s half-brothers) were also killed and his mother placed under house arrest. Lü Buwei subsequently drinks a cup of poisoned wine and commits suicide, cementing Ying Zheng’s power as Qin Shi Huang Di (“First Sovereign Emperor of Qin”).
Stepping back a bit — as a bit of background — Qin originally was one of the many feudal states of China, however between the middle of the 3rd and end of the 2nd century BCE, the rulers of Qin began to centralize power. It was during this time — with the assistance of Lü Buwei — that Ying Zheng as a boy came to the throne in 246 BCE . Ying Zheng, together with minister Li Si (who replaced Lü Buwei) carried out the ‘Qin conquests’ and in 221 created the Qin Empire.
Ying Zheng — portrayed quite well in the drama — was known for being highly suspicious, ambitious and a tyrant. This is best exemplified in the drama by his constant desire to control and possess Li-er — whether it was her movements, her thoughts or her heart.
A constant feature of The King’s Woman are the number of battles/conquests Ying Zheng is involved in. This was significant because even thought the Qin dynasty only lasted from 221 to 207 BCE, it established the boundaries and basic administrative system that all the subsequent Chinese dynasties would follow for the next two millennia. Qin is also the name from which ‘China’ is derived.
[Side Note: in Farsi, China is still called Qin (چین) — Further Side Note: I only know this because I am half Persian (and half Chinese)]
Gong Sun Li
Gong Sun Li by all accounts is a fictional character. She is loved by two men — based on real historical figures — Ying Zheng and Jing Ke.
Historically, Ying Zheng had about 50 children and had numerous concubines but appeared to have never named an empress. The King’s Woman takes advantage of this fact and portrays Li-er as never wanting to be Empress given her distaste for power and Palace intrigue.
Jing Ke in the drama is Li-er’s senior disciple and true love. He is also the father of her son, Tian Ming. Historically (and portrayed in the drama), Jing Ke was sent by the Crown Prince Dan of Yan to assassinate Ying Zhen. Jing Ke’s plan failed and the State of Yan was conquered by the Qin five years later. I have not been able to source records of Jing Ke’s family or wife so it is unlikely that Li-er is based on her.
In Episode 4, after the Dowager Empress asks Ying Zheng about naming an Empress, he responds by saying that he wants someone like Fu Hao, the favoured consort of Wu Ding of the Shang.
It is most likely that Li-er is loosely based on Fu Hao (1250 – 1192 BCE). Fu Hao, known for her military acumen, was one of the most powerful military generals of the Shang Dynasty. Commanding an army of 13,000 soldiers, she was responsible for conquering enemies and neighbours of the Shang Dynasty.
Li-er, presumably like Fu Hao, is both intelligent and a highly skilled martial artist. The drama also portrays Li-er as a virtuous and loving woman. Unlike all the men in the King’s Woman, Li-er is faultless. All her actions are governed by her strong moral compass. And that is what makes her life and death all the more tragic.
While the ending of the King’s Woman was truly tragic, it was the only plausible way it could end — with Ying Zheng killing Li-er.
As the drama progressed, Ying Zheng’s ruthlessness and disregard for human life (including his loved ones) becomes more and more apparent. After a series of events including:
- Ying Zheng’s planned suicide for Madam Chu (for a crime she did not commit),
- Li-er overhearing Ying Zheng’s plan to use Tian Ming as a pawn to strengthen his biological son Fusu; and
- ultimately Jing Ke’s death, after his assassination attempt on Ying Zheng,
it finally dawns on Li-er, the only way out for her is death. Having sent Tian Ming away with Han Shen and walking in to a dying Jing Ke with Ying Zheng towering over him. Li-er tells Ying Zheng that she plans on avenging Jing Ke’s death resulting in both Li-er and Ying Zheng rushing towards each other (swords out).
Li-er — who at her core is a kind, thoughtful, self-sacrificing lady — at the last minute turns her blade so that the hilt hits Ying Zheng instead of the blade. Ying Zheng after putting a sword through her, realizes that Li-er had no intention of hurting him. Breaking down, Ying Zheng asks why?
Li-er responds with the most beautiful answer: that she finally thought of a way for Ying Zheng to change his ruthless ways — through understanding how it feels to lose someone you love dearly.
With that, we see a grieving Ying Zheng with the world at his feet yet pitifully weak.
This drama ends the same way it begins — Ying Zheng sacrificing his beloved for a firmer grip on power. At the beginning of the drama, we witnessed Ying Zheng punishing his father, mother and brother and at the end we see him killing Li-er.
Although, I wished for a different ending — one where Ying Zheng would find some humanity, spare Jing Ke and live a long, happy and prosperous life with Li-er — this would not have been faithful to history.
Ying Zheng was known not only for being a tyrant but also for his paranoia. Given the Palace intrigue and assassination attempts he’s survived, it is hard to blame him.
As it is difficult to pass judgement on Ying Zheng, it is understandable that The King’s Woman chose to play out the fictional story of Li-er as it would most likely have played out in reality.
Ying Zheng’s legacy
As portrayed in the drama, Ying Zheng was subjected to multiple assassination attempts. The result was Ying Zheng’s obsession with death and his desire to attain immortality. Ying Zheng died on his fourth tour of China of poisoning. It has been reported that his tour was in fact a guise for his search for immorality and his poisoning was his consuming of mercury Elixir tablets.
A further example of Ying Zheng’s paranoia are the famous Terracotta Warriors. During his 35 year reign, Ying Zheng ordered an army of over 7500 life size clay soldiers to be made to guard him in the afterlife. When he died, he was buried in a mausoleum surrounded by the Terracotta Warriors near modern day Xi’an (known as Chang-an during Qin Dynasty).
Following his death, Fusu’s youngest brother and two other officials forged Ying Zheng’s decree and named Huhai the successor and ordered Fusu to commit suicide. Fusu (again portrayed in the drama as being kind and good-natured) could not believe someone would forge his father’s decree. Fusu, believing he would be killed anyway, committed suicide.
Huhai — not as capable as his father — could not contend with nationwide rebellion and his reign (only lasting three years) was cut short making way for the Han Dynasty ( 汉朝). The Han dynasty is considered the golden age in Chinese History. Those familiar with China will know that to today the majority ethnic group in China, refer to themselves as Han (汉人) and Chinese characters are called Hanzi (汉子).
Despite Ying Zheng’s short reign, the Qin’s dynasty’s influence and mark on modern China is undeniable. Two contributions of the Qin dynasty of monumental significance are the Great Wall of China and the standardization of Chinese Script.
Ying Zheng began the the long project of connecting, fortifying and expanding a number of existing short walls which would become later become known as The Great Wall of China.
The Qin dynasty is also known for its mass destruction of literature and ultimate simplification and standardization of the emerging written Chinese language. As a result of Ying Zheng’s purge, today China only has one written script despite its many dialects.
For most of Chinese history, Ying Zheng had been regarded as a brutal and superstitious tyrant. However with the fall of the Qing Dynasty, the outbreak of the Second World War and deepening dissatisfaction with China’s weakness and disunity, there has emerged a new appreciation for Ying Zheng – the man who unified and strengthened China.
Today much of Ying Zheng peculiarities are glossed over and he is widely considered a visionary for destroying forces of division and strengthening China through unification. The King Woman’s exploration of this significant leader’s life is to be welcomed, even if I would have preferred a bit more romance.
What did you think of The King’s Woman and Ying Zheng the First Emperor of China?