I’ve been binging the 68-episode Chinese epic drama “Rebel Princess” all through the holidays. Apart from the subtitles, clearly done by someone whose English is rudimentary, this is a classy production. Filmed largely in the Forbidden City and starring Zhang Zi Yi of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” it features amazing sets, costumes, and battle scenes. Plenty of the wire-work martial arts we expect from Chinese shows, incredibly intricate political scheming—fans of “Wolf Hall” will love it—and a love story to rival “Outlander.” Took me a good while to sort out who was who in the huge cast, and I mostly overcame the subtitle issue by reading recaps that explained a lot. Yes, it took some effort, but well worth it.
As someone who remembers the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China, which had as its goal the “purging” of old traditions, to be replaced solely with the thought of Mao Ze Dong, I was at first surprised by what seemed to be reverence and nostalgia for those traditions. But the drama is really about how greed and lust for power make people forget what really matters: the well-being of all the people. The rebel princess, Wang Xuan (Zhang), grand-daughter of the Emperor, is unique in her empathy and concern for the lower classes. In a political ploy by her father, the Prime Minister, she is married off to a rising young general, Xiao Qi (played by Zhou Yi Wei), who is himself lower-class; he controls a large army and the Prime Minister wants to co-opt that power for himself. But Xiao Qi has no intention of playing the PM’s game.
As I watched, I couldn’t help but be struck by the parallels to Greek myths. Xiao Qi, who is often referred to as “the God of War” in the series, is Ares to the life. No one can withstand him in battle; war is his element. Even when he is ennobled and raised to a high position in the court, he is always aware of who is maneuvering and has a plan to deal with them.
Wang Xuan is Aphrodite, Ares’ true love. At first resistant to being forced to marry someone other than her childhood love, Prince Zi Dan, she comes to admire and eventually falls in love with Xiao Qi. Being the Aphrodite avatar, she inspires love in many other men, and this drives the plot as much as politics does. Zi Dan’s older brother, the Crown Prince Zi Long, also loves her, as does the crown prince of a neighboring kingdom (who kidnaps her not once but twice). Xiao Qi’s second-in-command also falls in love with her. She inspires great loyalty in many other men. It is not just her beauty, however, that attracts them. She is beautiful in her soul; she sees the beauty in others’ souls as well and even when they betray her, she remains willing to believe the best of them. Several times in the story, she is given the chance to kill people who have betrayed her or harmed those close to her, but she never does—instead, she usually forgives and frees them.
She’s helped in this by Xiao Qi, who has a godlike ability to show up right at the critical moment and save the day through amazing feats of archery (at one point he shoots the crown off a would-be usurper of the throne), swordplay, and strength. (If you don’t watch any other episode, watch Episode 11 for one of his miraculous saves of Wang Xuan).
But Wang Xuan is no fainting flower. When Xiao Qi and his army are too far away to reach a town under siege in time. Wang Xuan rides out to meet the attacking force alone and convinces the general to give them one more day to evacuate the citizens—incidentally, giving Xiao Qi the time he needs to save the day once again. The general, of course, is as swayed by her beauty as he is her courage, and agrees.
Wang Xuan’s courage and moral sense lead her to stand as a shield between the people she loves and those who would harm them many times. She even stands between Xiao Qi and Zi Dan after Zi Dan usurps the throne from Zi Long, and then she stands up to her own father when he tries to topple Zi Dan and put himself in power. In the end she convinces Zi Dan to step down and let Zi Long’s son, the rightful heir, become Emperor. Ultimately, it is Wang Xuan’s boundless power of unconditional love, coupled with Xiao Qi’s warrior powers, that brings peace to the land.
I’ve written elsewhere about this power couple that keeps showing up in myths. Indra, the God of War in Hindu tradition, works with Sarasvati, goddess of inspiration, to restore the land to wholeness. Gawain, Knight of the Goddess, likewise helps the feminine power restore the land that has suffered drought—a drought inflicted as punishment after a greedy king permits and encourages his warriors to rape women.
Rape is the ultimate power grab. It does not engender; it destroys. In the world of the Rebel Princess, women are treated as pawns and objects. Two of the main female characters are raped, and Wang Xuan is threated with rape more than once. But the truly powerful man, Xiao Qi, is no rapist. He respects Wang Xuan’s reluctance to sleep with him at first and waits until she smiles and claims him instead; he also resists being raped himself when a scheming woman tricks him into drinking a powerful aphrodisiac to get power over him.
Like Indra, like Gawain, like Ares, the avatar of true masculine power respects the feminine as an ally. Working together, Xiao Qi and Wang Xuan restore their land.