Available on: Viki, YouTube
Total episode #: 58 (Uncut)
Dumpling-rating scale: 3.75/5
Princess Agents (特工皇妃楚乔传) is a semi-historical (semi-fantasy) Chinese drama set during the Warring States Period. It follows the story of Chu Qiao (portrayed by Zhao Li Ying 赵丽颖) who starts out as a slave but transitions into a warrior!
Her journey from slave to warrior includes multiple name changes and ‘discovering her true self.’ The drama starts with a bang — Chu Qiao following a flashback finds herself trapped with a number of maidservants in a hunting game for the princes living in Chang-an. One of those princes is Yan Xun (portrayed by Shawn Dou 窦骁), the heir to Yan Bei and our second lead male.
During the hunting game, Chu Qiao (with apparently no martial arts training) shows incredible skill and a fierce desire to live. This is noticed by all the princes. Before the Yu Wen Huai (an antagonistic character with no redeeming qualities) attempts kills her, both Yan Xun and Yu Wen Yue (Lin Geng Xin 林更新) come to her rescue (this exact scenario is repeated countless times in the drama). As Yu Wen Yue is our first male lead, it is he that saves her.
Although her life is saved, Chu Qiao’s journey has just begun and a great deal more suffering is to come (spoilers below at the Episode Guide). Integral to Chu Qiao’s story are the two males lead. Yu Wen Yu is your classic hero – a skilled fighter, forward-thinking and very honorable. While he is constantly supporting Chu Qiao (sometimes in a stalkerish manner), he doesn’t have the best communication skills and is often misunderstood.
In competition for Chu Qiao’s affection is Yu Wen Yue’s best friend turned rival, Yan Xun. Yan Xun is an infinitely more complicated character. He starts out the drama as a fun-loving guy but as the drama progresses he takes a dark turn.
Princess Agents has received criticism for excessively focusing on Yan Xun’s story. I agree and would have like to see more development of Chu Qiao’s character and story.
Our last lead is Yuan Chun, Princess of the Western Wei (portrayed by Li Qin 李沁). Her story much like that of Yan Xun (who she obsessively loves) is one of change and loss. She starts out a kind but self-centered princess but becomes cold and vengeful after an unfortunate series of events.
There were aspects of this drama which I absolutely loved and there were other aspects which bothered me. I loved….
- the strong female leads;
- the martial arts scenes;
- the real sense of loyalty between the characters; and
- the growth/change stories.
I was bothered by…
- how each episode would abruptly end;
- how just as soon as I thought a character would stick around, they would be killed off (sometimes also quite abruptly);
- the pacing (how does it take 2 one hour episodes to charge someone with treason?);
- the main couple… I thought the male lead, Yuwen Yue (portrayed by Lin Gengxin 林更新) was too “ice block like” (which is his nickname) particularly at the beginning; and
- the number of unfinished story lines.
Despite my reservations, I thought that there was a good overall takeaway message which is that no matter how dark a situation is, things always change and it is important to live for the opportunities yet to come. This is best said by Chu Qiao’s birth mother in episode 17:
You must live, no matter how small your life is reduced to, only the living can have unlimited opportunities.
This is obviously with the caveat that should you chose to live, you should do so honorably and not vengefully (which can only result in bitter endings). Generally, I enjoyed this drama and if you can get over the choppy editing, it will keep you on your toes. I’ve put together the Episode Guide below (and a 🌟 next to my favorites) to assist with navigating this drama but beware there are ‼️spoilers‼️:
- Arc 1 | Episodes 1 -3| Survival 🌟
- Arc 2 | Episodes 4 -19 | Under Yu Wen Yue’s pupillage 🌟
- Arc 3 | Episodes 20 -27 | New allegiances and Bloodshed
- Arc 4 | Episodes 28 – 41 | Rising from the Ashes 🌟
- Arc 4 | Episodes 42 – 55 | Yan Xun goes Dark
- Arc 6 | Episodes 56 – 58 | Miss Independent
Arc 1 | Episodes 1-3 | Survival 🌟
Following the events Episode 1, Xiao Liu is dragged into Yuwen Manor where cousins Yu Wen Yue and Yu Wen Huai are fighting to be head of Yuwen Manor.
Living under the tyrannical rule Yu Wen Huai, Xiao Liu meets her 4 adopted siblings. They were captured by Yu Wen Huai and forced into servitude after their parents were killed. As Xiao Liu recovers from her injuries she suffers more losses:
- the first is the loss of her older sister at the hands of the sadistic Yuwen Xi (Yuwen Huai’s grandfather); and
- the second is the loss of her older brother who is apparently killed by Yuwen Yu after an assassination attempt on his grandfather, Yuwen Zhuo, life.
Following Madam Song accidental death (the evil madam who sent her sister to Yuwen Xi to be killed), Xiao Liu intends to get even with Yuwen Manor.
During all this time, Yan Xun has taken a keen interest in Xiao Liu — saving her life three time: during the hunting games, at his birthday and after she avenged her older sister.
Arc 2 | Episodes 4 – 20 | Under Yu Wen Yue’s pupillage 🌟
Xiao Liu gets her chance to avenge her brother when at Yuwen Xi’s bidding, Yuwen Yue announces a competition. The winner gets to become his bedchamber maidservant. Xiao Liu’s plan is two fold – to get her two sisters away from Yuwen Huai and also get close enough to Yuwen Yue to kill him.
As an iron bell (the lowest rank) she outperforms the copper and silver bells to become Yu Wen Yue’s personal maidservant. Yuwen Yue has other plans for Xiao Liu and on advice from his grandfather is to teach her martial arts and use her as a spy. Upon taking her on as a student, Yuwen Yue renames her Xing-er (meaning ‘star’ to match his name which is ‘moon’).
This arc essentially sets up an explanation for the actions of the Emperor in coming episodes, namely with respect to the Yan Bei. The Emperor — obviously very insecure about his power — also wishes to see the powerful houses and kingdoms fight amongst themselves to ensure that his power is maintained.
Xing-er’s begins to train under Yu Wen Yue as a spy for the Heavenly Spy Network which is controlled by the Yu Wen family (this training includes being pit against other maidservants in the manor). During this time Yu Wen Yue starts falling in love with her. However, Xing-er believing he murdered her older brother (and also because he is particularly harsh on her) does not reciprocate his feelings. Instead, Xing-er starts to become more receptive to charming Yan Xun.
Yan Xun during this arc is somewhat oblivious of the political climate around him and does not realise the extent to what the Emperor has planned for his family in a bid to quash Yan Bei.
Also in competition for Xing-er affections is the Thirteenth Prince of Wei, Yuan Song. Like his sister, he is somewhat childish but is honest and always well-intentioned.
Although this was one of my favourite arcs, the number of times Xing-er was captured by Yu Wen Huai (and subsequently rescued by Yan Xun, Yuan Song…) got a bit old after about the third time. The plot lines which I thought were really good was the parts where Xing-er got even with Jin Xhu and finally Yu Wen Xi.
Ultimately set up what is to come in the next dramatic arc and ends with Xing-er realizing that her brother’s death was in vain (Yan Xun’s grandfather is still alive) and that she was actually being trained to become a spy who is to be sent on a suicide mission.
Arc 3 | Episodes 21 – 27| New allegiances and Bloodshed
This arc is a turning point for our leads. There have been hints that something big would happen for a while now and that something big is the kangaroo (retrospective) trial of Yan Xun’s family for treason.
While I didn’t think we needed so many episodes for this moment, some important things happen:
- Xing-er becomes Chu Qiao, leaves after killing Yu Wen Xi, the evil Zhu housekeeper and confronting both Yu Wen Yue and Yu Wen Huai. Yu Wen Yue tries to explain to Chu Qiao that he didn’t kill her brother and that he was already terminally poisoned by Yu Wen Huai.
- Yan Xun entire family (including his mother who is the Emperor’s sister) has been put to death. Yan Xun after this experience is changed. His only source of solace is Chu Qiao.
- Yu Wen Huai destroys the Heavenly Spy Network after having fought with Yu Wen Yue for so long for it and Yu Wen Yue is sent away by the Emperor (believing Chu Qiao is dead – he happily does so).
Yan Xun after the death of his family is placed under house arrest for 3 years. Secretly, Chu Qiao (who is believed to be dead) and Zhong Yu (Yu Wen Yu’s skilled body guard).
Arc 4 | Episodes 28 – 41| Rising from the Ashes 🌟
Following the heart-breaking events of Arc 3, Yan Xun (with Chu Qiao by his side) start planning and executing their comeback (and revenge).
Before they can begin exacting their revenge they must first survive as it would seem that everyone wants to kill Yan Xun. In surviving, we see a different side to Chu Qiao: she is loving and even at time quite affectionate towards Yan Xun. Yan Xun however has become cold and callous (a sign of what is yet to come).
Finishing his three years of house arrest, Yan Xun returns to Chang-an high society with Chu Qiao by his side. Although, Yan Xun has been in affect exonerated from treason, his former friends still want him dead.
What immediately follows is a number of missions exacting revenge (usually leading in death) on multiple people including Xi Feng, Shu You and Wei Shu You.
After Chu Qiao demonstrated archery skills before the Emperor, she is appointed as the archery instructor for the army. While instructing the army, she comes across the humiliated Yan Bei’s beauty troop. Forward thinking Chu Qiao begins to form a relationship with the Yan Bei’s beauty troop believing they would support Yan Xun in their planned escape and rebellion.
In this arc we get introduced to one of my favorite characters, the Prince of Da Liang Xiao Che (portrayed by Deng Lun). Xiao Che wants Yan Xun to fight it out with the Wei so that Da Liang can stand out. Xiao Che kind of reminds me of Arc 1 Yan Xun and is also attracted to Chu Qiao (whether serious or not) ultimately becomes one of her closest friends and supporters.
On Yan Xun’s planned wedding to Chun-er their well planned rebellion is executed. After a dramatic turn of events (including Yu Wen Huai’s death at the hands of Chu Qiao), Yan Xun and his supporters are out of Chang-an.
Arc 5 | Episodes 42 – 55 |Yan Xun goes Dark
After successfully breaking out of Chang-an, Yan Xun goes dark (very dark). From episode 42 onward, we see just how dark he goes… beginning with him cutting off Yuan Song’s arm (this was shocking) and effectively ordering the rape of Chun-er.
Chun-er (who has been in love with Yan Xun from time immemorial) is traumatized (understandably). Like almost everyone in this drama believes that revenge against Yan Xun, her father the Emperor (for using her) and Chu Qiao is the only path forward. Her thirst for revenge leads her down a dark path where which cost her both her mother and Wei Shu Ye (arguably the two people that love her most).
Thankfully, Yuan Song is different. He takes the higher moral ground, values his past relationships and is able to empathise with Yan Xun.
While Chun-er goes dark and Yan Xun plans and executes his revenge against Wei, Chu Qiao (having being separated from Yan Xun) gets to spend some time with Yu Wen Yue.
True to the general theme of this drama, Yu Wen Yue’s interaction with Chu Qiao is limited to Yu Wen Yue saving Chu Qiao. Chu Qiao is a walking target and is constantly being attacked by various assassins sent by Imperial Consort Lan — who blames Chu Qiao for the death of her son which was in fact caused by Yu Wen Huai — and Chun-er — who blames Chu Qiao for Yan Xun’s treatment of her — these ladies confuse me.
This is the arc where Chu Qiao’s mission to free the slaves and to revolt against the strict hierarchy in her society is suppose to come but we don’t get a real flavor of it. Instead we more closely follow Yan Xun showdown with the Wei.
Having killed a large of innocent people, Yan Xun avoids Chu Qiao but persists with his revenge. This culminates with Yan Xun abandoning the Yan Bei city of Hong Chuan which is about to be attacked by the Wei (lead by Chuner). While the Wei army is in Hong Chuan, Yan Xun intends to attack Chang-an.
Chu Qiao, unable to abandon innocent people, defends the city along with the Xiu Li army. Once Yan Xun finds out that she has refused to leave, he heads back for Hong Chuan. Although he returns, Hong Chuan is a devastated city and if it hadn’t been for Yu Wen Yue, Chu Qiao would be dead.
What follows is a series of convoluted events which leads to Chu Qiao separation from Yan Xun including his hatred for the Xiuli Army and desire for war and bloodshed. Somehow, Yan Xun believes that their separation can be remedied by killing Yue Wen Yue and if he can do that by eradicating the Wei army he will do that as well which takes us to the last part of the drama.
Arc 6 | Episodes 56 -58 | Miss Independent
The last part of this drama were quite anticlimactic and a disappointment but here we go — the war between Yan Bei and Wei continues and 7th Prince of Wei is heading Yan Xun’s way with an entire army based on a false pretense.
Although Yuan Song (who has become my favourite) warns his brother and tries to reason that it was their father that started it all and they must stop this endless killing, the 13th Prince persists.
Having failed to kill Yue Wen Yue, Yan Xun uses Chu Qiao as bait. Yu Wen Yue having become a hopeless romantic falls for it and ultimately dies (yep – he dies after being shot at by a multitude of arrows). Although Chu Qiao does try and save him (with the assistance of the XiuLi army, she is too late.
Yu Wen Yue dies as does Chu Qiao before she doesn’t… instead what we get is her eyes opening and her flower tattoo revealing itself.
After a long 58 episodes the drama ends. The ending has become the go-to example of a badly done Chinese drama finale (perhaps I Will Never Let You Go can now replace it). There were so many unanswered questions which will most probably be addressed in season 2.
Personally, I am hoping for a proper Yan Xun-Chu Qiao showdown (in the end I don’t think Yan Xun loved her that much) and for Chu Qiao to finally free the slaves (that mission got abandoned somewhere along the way).
What did you think of Princess Agents?