Another Chinese drama of almost epic proportions (well if anyone can consider 41 episodes epic) set in the Qing Dynasty or to pinpoint it exactly, in the era of Kangxi’s reign. This is basically a love triangle drama but which palace drama hasn’t involved some sort of love triangle? I thought it was known as “Princess Mei Li” which is the name of the main protagonist, a Mongolian princess but it’s also known as “Desperate Love” which sums up what this drama is all about.
Princess Mei Li comes to Beijing to be reunited with her father, a court official. In the beginning, she is untamed, free-spirited and unaware of court etiquette which leads to blunders aplenty. However despite her awkwardness, she finds favour with Kangxi’s grandmother, the Dowager Empress who takes an instant liking to her and treats her like her own flesh and blood The Dowager Empress is ever protective and watchful of her which leads to some enviousness among the other princesses.
Mei Li is vivacious and says whatever she damn well pleases, she doesn’t realise that she offends people by saying whatever she pleases and of course, you can’t do that in the palace with its many complicated rules and protocols. Her good friend who happens to be her cousin’s fiancee guides her and teaches her how to walk and what to say/not say. This good friend also happens to be the elder sister of one of the chief villains, Concubine Jing who hates Mei Li with a passion because Mei Li spied on her unintentionally and told the Dowager Empress what she saw and heard leading to Concubine Jing being thrown into the Cold Palace for a time but not long enough evidently. Concubine Jing has this permanent villainous look on her face which makes me wonder how anyone especially the Emperor can think that she has turned over a new leaf. The Emperor of China is that gullible?
Why are people so suspectible to inferences? Just a suggestion from the villain and everyone who previously believed Mei Li was a heroine for jumping into the lake to save the Dowager Empress’ lady-in-waiting even though she didn’t know how to swim and everyone suddenly believes that Mei Li was doing it to gain favour with the Dowager Empress.
Mei Li’s fortunes start to turn against her when her father is killed and because everyone who knew kept this from her ostensibly to protect her and she only heard about it from Concubine Jing (no thanks to Mei Li’s good intentions of visiting the Concubine in the Cold Palace which proves that being a goody-goody two shoes will only bring you unnecessary grief), she rode her horse helter-skelter in her extreme grief. Concubine Jing’s eunuch threw firecrackers in her horse’s path and she rode her horse straight into Concubine Jing’s sister’s sedan chair and kills her but not instantly. Amazing that the woman still has the energy to talk so much on her deathbed from Mei Li to her fiance to even the Emperor who has always had affection for her because she resembles his late Empress but he knows he can’t have her because her heart was with her fiance. Most people would have been killed instantly as a result of the collision with a horse that huge but no, this woman still has the strength to plead for Concubine Jing from her deathbed among other things.
Now we come to the hero, Jing Xuan who is in love with Mei Li and she with him. It was love at first sight from their first meeting in the first episode. However, there’s always an obstacle in their path to happiness. His mother wants him to marry Su Ying whose parents are schemers and social climbers. Su Ying desperately wants to marry Jing Xuan yet she knows that he is in love with Mei Li. Jing Xuan pleads for Mei Li’s life to the Emperor. Her “crime” of causing the death of Concubine Jing’s sister was punishable by death but because Jing Xuan pleads for leniency, the Emperor agrees to exile Mei Li to hard labour like washing laundry for 3 years on condition that Jing Xuan not see her during that time and marry Su Ying.
I guess that’s when the misunderstandings begin between Jing Xuan and Mei Li. Why couldn’t someone communicate to Mei Li that Jing Xuan has struck a bargain with the Emperor in exchange for her life? Why couldn’t Jing Xuan have confided in his best friend, Cheng Yi (Mei Li’s cousin). After all, the Emperor never said to keep it hush-hush. During her time in hard labour, Mei Li keeps pining for Jing Xuan and wonders why he doesn’t check up on her which gives the window of opportunity for her next suitor, Yong He to step in and win her affections.
Slowly but surely, Mei Li’s personality changes. She is more subdued and guarded after she is released from hard labour. Concubine Jing still harbours a grudge against her and vows to destroy her life while at the same time schemes to become Empress. Of course the Emperor is happily oblivious to her machinations. I wonder how in every portrayal of Kang Xi, he seems to be completely unaware of what goes on in his harem.
Jing Xuan is still very much in love with Mei Li but Mei Li is too hurt and angry when she learns about Jing Xuan’s bethrothal to even talk to him. Doesn’t she even want to know why he is betrothed to another when they’d more or less pledged undying and eternal love to each other before? I would but apparently not Mei Li who spurns Jing Xuan time and again whenever he tries to get near her and even when he jumps into a pool of water to save her (can’t remember whether it was a lake/river) and resuscitates her, they end up in some cave and she’s still suspicious and resentful of his true intentions. For goodness sake, the man has jumped in and saved her yet she looks at him as if he is her #1 enemy and would rather shiver to death than remove her outer clothing, It doesn’t make sense, this would have been the perfect opportunity for them to clear up any misunderstanding they had about each other yet they’d rather spend the time gazing somewhat balefully at each other.
Cut to a few more episodes and Mei Li decides to run away despite promising Yong He that she will go away with him. She becomes really irritating at this point. She doesn’t have the strength or presence of mind of Zhen Huan who is like a good girl gone bad. Get cornered and run away without her maid initially? Does she think she can survive? There’s absolutely no planning with whatever decision she makes. She’s still the impulsive Mongolian princess albeit a more subdued one. You’d think spending a few years in the hard labour department would have taught her a thing or two, straightened her out but evidently it didn’t do much for her. She could have confided in the Empress Dowager. Surely by now anyone with a brain in their head would have suspected Concubine Jing was out to get her and she should have been on her guard but no, Mei Li just doesn’t muddle her pretty head with sich trivialities.
So she gets kidnapped by this ragtag bunch of rebels, the head of which killed her father and to the rescue comes her suitors, Jing Xuan and Yong He. Charging towards her to be the first to bring her back to the palace. Okay, Yong He gets to her first and by doing so, her affection for him grows. However in the process of going after the rebel leader, Yong He and Jing Xuan end up in a skirmish and Yong He attacks Jing Xuan which is a big no-no as a mere guard can’t be attacking one of the Imperial Princes, right?
Thanks to this encounter, Jing Xuan uses it to blackmail Mei Li into agreeing to marry him. Either she marries him or Jing Xuan will mete out the appropriate punishment on Yong He and his family. What! They can do that in the Qing Dynasty? It was the norm to punish not only the criminal but his entire family as well. That’s Qing justice for you.
Right, Mei Li has no choice but to agree but more misunderstandings ahead and she doesn’t even bother to explain herself. On their wedding night, Jing Xuan holds up a white piece of cloth after they have consummated the marriage. No blood? Why? Mei Li just looks at him in silence leading Jing Xuan to slice his own palm so that blood can drip on to the white cloth to prove her virtue. He tells her not to get pregnant within the year otherwise he will assume the baby is Yong He’s. He leaves the room in anger and her maid walks in, asks her why she doesn’t explain herself and all Mei Li says is why bother when he won’t trust her anyway? That’s all very well but does she want to be trapped in a marriage where her husband never trusts her fully?
Despite the marital 1st night incident, things start to improve between the newly wedded couple as Jing Xuan looks like he is winning her affections again but his mistrust is too deep and he suspects her every time she and Yong He meet. This despite good boy turned bad Yong He marrying Jing Xuan’s cousin but only because her has an ulterior motive which is to use her father’s influence since her father is also an Imperial Prince. Yong He starts colluding and conspiring with Concubine Jing to topple Jing Xuan. You’d think that since he loves Mei Li so much, he’d wish she had a happy marriage and leave her husband alone, no? After all, does he think that by destroying her husband, Mei Li will marry him after he’s already married another?
This is only the beginning of Mei Li’s troubles as Jing Xuan has to marry Su Ying, his mother’s favourite. Of course there is much resentment on Su Ying’s part because despite having senior wife status, she obviously doesn’t have Jing Xuan’s heart, he insisted on marrying Mei Li first. Su Ying does her best to undermine Mei Li but all her actions don’t being her satisfaction or happiness even when Mei Li leaves the household eventually because she knows that even with Mei Li gone, her husband will never show her the same kind of love.
Mei Li is just too subservient to everyone, she may not have any bad intentions ever but neither did Zhen Huan in the beginning. One should learn to adapt to the situation and act accordingly. Even if you don’t intend to harm anyone, that doesn’t mean people won’t see you as a threat and do everything in their power to make your life as miserable as they possibly can.
Su Ying may look gentle on the exterior but she is every bit as cunning and devious as any of the Emperor’s concubines in The Legend Of Zhen Huan. When Mei Li gets pregnant, she does her best to cause her to miscarry. When some incidents occur such as Mei Li slipping on an oily patch, Mei Li suspects her husband who had tried to make her drink a potion to miscarry. No DNA testing in those days but ever heard of asking a physician to confirm how many months she’s pregnant? Surely that would confirm whether she is pregnant with another man’s baby?
Instead of fighting back, Mei Li just lets things take their course. Sure she fights to keep her baby but I felt she could have done a lot more to make her life less torturous. If you can’t beat them, join them. She could have done a lot to improve her lot in life especially since she always had the Dowager Empress’ support. Everyone else in this drama “pulls strings” and makes use of their connections except Mei Li. I think Jing Xuan hit the nail on the head when he told Mei Li that he was worried leaving her before he headed off to war. He said that if she had the same daring as she had during the early stages of their relationship, he wouldn’t be so worried about her. Exactly! What happened to the could-have-been vixen from the earlier episodes? She’s now become a submissive little mouse who wouldn’t push back when someone shoved her. Even when it should have been so evident to her that someone was out to get her, she just sat back and took it.
When Su Ying attempts to cause Mei Li’s miscarriage by giving her non-poisoned berries (can cause miscarriage if eaten before meat dishes), the Dowager Empress finds out that it’s Su Ying’s doing yet what does Mei Li do? She not only defends Su Ying saying that she wasn’t aware these 2 foods clash with ill results but she also apologises to Su Ying for getting her a reprimand from their husband? Is anyone (especially a princess) that naive to the point of absurdity? How can anyone not be suspicious of their rival for their husband’s affections? It’s amazing that Mei Li makes excuses for everyone who wants to harm her. It’s just too unbelievable that anyone like this exists on earth. This woman must be a saint.
It’s a bit infuriating to watch Mei Li not want to explain things. Even her long-suffering maid seems more intelligent than her. Even if she didn’t want to do it for herself, she could at least have made life easier for her loyal maid who takes the blame for certain things. Instead of doing something positive, she takes her own life in the penultimate episode. How can a mother bear to leave her son forever not knowing if her son will be well taken care of? Being disowned by your mother-in-law is no good reason to take your own life, in fact there’s no good reason to commit suicide. She thought that committing suicide was the honorable thing to do to prove her innocence but what about thinking of her child’s welfare? There’s nothing sadder than watching a young child lose his mother. She may have proved her innocence but she made her child’s life a complete misery.
Was the ending satisfactory? I think it could have been better if the Mei Li character had been less passive and done something to thwart other’s evil intentions. I was hoping she’d faked her own death and somehow come back to life after all the villains were exposed. It’s a drama full of misunderstandings and mistrust. In this drama, it seems like the bad guys talk to each other more than the good guys who could have cleared up any misunderstandings just by talking to each other more instead of flying into fits of rage. After all a successful marriage is all about good communication. Why marry someone if you can’t trust them right at the outset?
Now if only I can get the theme song out of my head.