Princess Returning Pearl (original name: 还珠格格; also known by its pinyin title Huan Zhu Ge Ge, or Princess Pearl or My Fair Princess or The Return of Princess Pearl) is a Chinese series set in the Qing dynasty in the time of Emperor Qian Long. It tells the Mistaken Identity story of Xiao Yan Zi, an orphan living in Beijing and Zi Wei, the illegitimate daughter of the emperor.The screenplay was written by famous Taiwanese romance writer and TV producer, Qiong Yao, who afterwards also turned her screenplays into a series of novels consisting of eight volumes.The original show consisted of three series broadcast in China in 1998, 1999 and 2003 respectively. The series was extremely popular in Mainland China, Taiwan and South East Asia. The first two series helped three of its main actors, Zhao Wei, Ruby Lin and Alec Su, shoot to fame. Series 3 was significantly recast and thus suffered Critical Backlash.In 2011 the show was remade into a new TV series, retelling the story but with significant changes to character and storylines.You can watch the entire first series with English subtitles here. Fanfiction for this series can be found here.
Subverted with Zi Wei and Yong Qi, who have a cordial relationship but most of the time, it doesn’t seem particularly obvious that they are related at all. Understandable since they did not grow up together, and only meet in their late teens. Even if they did grow up together, as Yong Qi, being Genre Savvy, once told Xiao Yan Zi, that does not guarantee closeness.
Big Damn Heroes: Xiao Yan Zi of course. Also Yong Qi, Er Kang, Er Tai, Xiao Jian, Liu Qing, Liu Hong. Even Zi Wei gets her chance to rescue Er Kang in series 3 in a pretty epic way (for Zi Wei).
Blessed with Suck: Han Xiang's scent makes her desirable to powerful men, but keep her away from Meng Dan, makes it impossible for her to run away with him because her scent can be tracked.
Zi Wei gets slapped, beaten, tortured or hurt every other episode, it seems. Then in series 3, her husband dies leaving her suffering Heroic BSOD.
Xiao Yan Zi when she finds out about the truth about her family, to the point that in both the original series 3 and the remake she attempted to kill Qian Long but ultimately failing. In addition to that, she suffers two miscarriages and then the love of her life is forced to marry another woman, who then gives him the heir everyone so demanded from him.
Break the Haughty: The Empress and Rong Mou Mou, twice! Also Zhi Hua when Yong Qi leaves at the end of series 3.
The time when Yong Qi, acting under pressure, forces Xiao Yan Zi to learn poetry. She decides she’s had enough and runs away, only to be kidnapped by an evil couple and the hardship she is forced to endure at their hand makes her realises how good she had it in the palace, and how much Yong Qi really does care about her.
Their relationship comes to almost a breaking point once in series 2, all due to Yong Qi’s jealousy of Xiao Jian.
Bride and Switch: Xiao Yan Zi and Zi Wei have a double wedding, but ended up getting mixed up and for the first time, doing the ceremony with the wrong person, and only realised in the wedding chamber and the red veil is lifted. It’s a good thing Yong Qi really can’t marry Zi Wei. The ceremony has to be done all over again.
Brilliant, but Lazy: Xiao Yan Zi is implied to be intelligent but just unguided and extremely lazy.
Brother-Sister Incest: Subverted. Xiao Yan Zi was basically in name and title Yong Qi’s sister when they begin their relationship. They are not actually brother and sister though, and eventually the identity crisis is cleared up.
Calling the Old Man Out: Xiao Yan Zi to Qian Long when he neglects Ling Fei to go hang out with Han Xiang instead. It got her a slap on the face in the process.
Cannot Spit It Out: Yong Qi names practically all the female peers he and Xiao Yan Zi have in common (including her servants!!) and then say they are not the subject of his romantic interest in an attempt to tell Xiao Yan Zi that he was interested in her. See the conversation in Captain Oblivious below.
Yong Qi: Don’t you ever think I might have someone in my heart? …Someone who stands right in front of me but still seem so far away.
Xiao Yan Zi (who is standing right in front of him): What? You know Zi Wei is already taken, you can’t just take other people’s sweetheart just because you’re a prince.
Yong Qi *facepalm*: How can it be Zi Wei. You know she is my sister.
Xiao Yan Zi: Oh right. Then is it Jin Suo?
Yong Qi: It’s not Zi Wei! It’s not Jin Suo! It’s not Ming Yue! It’s not Cai Xia! It’s the person who spends every waking moment with them, the person who I shot with an arrow once and ever since then can’t stop thinking about. Now do you understand?
Character Name Alias: Xiao Jian admits that this isn't his real name from his first meeting with the main cast.
Xiao Yan Zi isn't her real name either. It is unclear where she gets this name, as it is implied that when she was growing up in the convent, the nuns called her by her real name of Xiao Ci.
When wanting to cover up his princely status, Yong Qi uses the name Ai Qi, which is basically the first character in his full surname/clan name (Aisin Gioro) and the second character from his given name. Likewise, his father uses the surname Ai when going on his incognito trips.
Chastity Couple: The original series 1 and 2 more than the remake. This was feudal China. There were only very chaste kisses and hand-holding, and the couples were already being gossiped about as inappropriate.
The remake just goes “Screw it!” with this trope and basically has a lot of…kissing.
Chick Magnet: Er Kang. Let us count the women he attracts over the course of the three original series: Zi Wei, Sai Ya, Jin Suo, Qing Er, Mu Sha.
Compared to Yong Qi who only gets two (Xiao Yan Zi and Zhi Hua/Xin Rong).
If you don’t count Cai Lian.
Averted with Xiao Yan Zi who never was remotely interested in Er Kang ever, but more likely because she knew Zi Wei loved him before she even knew him.
Cock Fight: Played with between Xiao Jian and Yong Qi for Xiao Yan Zi. It turns out Xiao Jian is not interested in Xiao Yan Zi romantically at all because she is his sister.
Cold-Blooded Torture: Zi Wei suffers most from this, including the time when the Empress tortured her by pricking needles into her body to make her confess her true purpose in the palace (which was not the seduce the emperor), then there is the time where Lao Fo Ye crushed her fingers to make her confess that she was plotting the emperor’s death (she wasn’t). The last ordeal nearly kills her.
Han Xiang was also subject to the needle pricking torture.
Conflicting Loyalty: Xiao Yan Zi when she knows about the truth behind her family’s death: her birth father was executed for treason, but then years later, she is adopted by the emperor, who essentially is the man who caused her father to be executed for treason. Oh, and she also fell in love with the emperor’s son and married him, thus really “calling the enemy her father” as the Chinese saying goes.
Daddy's Girl: Both Xiao Yan Zi and Zi Wei are this to Qian Long.
Deadly Decadent Court: Subverted. The series is more a portrayal of a Standard Royal Court and nowhere reaches the decadence standards set by other series taking place in the same time period and in the imperial harem. Usually, series depicting life in the imperial palace would not lack Chronic Backstabbing Disorder that would succeed and result in deaths. While the empress in this series does scheme against the protagonists, she never really succeeds and The Good Guys Always Win in the end.
Drama Bomb: Xiao Yan Zi basically has one dropped on her in series 3 when in the space of one day she finds out that the reason her father and mother died is because of her adopted father, who is also the father of her husband, then she suffers a second miscarriage and then she is forced to allow her husband to marry another woman, to save her brother’s life. Also Disaster Dominoes.
Dress Code: The palace has a dress code, of course, which Han Xiang refuses to follow, despite attempts from Lao Fo Ye to make her.
The Emperor: Obviously, Qian Long is the emperor of China at the time, and he plays a significant role in the series - is one of the main characters. He is not perfect, makes many mistakes and has a huge temper that can end in ordering Off with His Head!, but is in no way the Evil Overlord that is typical of this trope. He is actually portrayed as a Good Parents (when not being provoked)
Establishing Character Moment: For Xiao Yan Zi it’s in the very first episode, where she was sneaking into a bride-to-be’s home to steal her wedding gifts, but then saw her attempting suicide because she didn’t want the marriage, ended up helping her instead by standing in for the bride. Hey, if she couldn’t steal from the bride’s family, she could steal from the groom’s, right?
Eunuchs Are Evil: Averted. All the eunuchs in the series are actually very nice.
Evil Is Hammy: Zhi Hua can have her hammy moments, especially when she calls Xiao Yan Zi “Sister” in a voice that is obviously used to annoy.
Rong Mou Mou and Gui Mou Mou both play up the hammy a lot.
Expository Hairstyle Change: When Zi Wei is acknowledged as Qian Long’s daughter, she changes from the headdress of a palace maid to that of a princess.
Face Palm: Er Kang is the master of this trope. Made even more hilarious by the fact that the men in the Qing dynasty shave half of their head, so that the “face palm” is more like a “forehead palm”.
Family Relationship Switcheroo: Xiao Jian is actually Xiao Yan Zi’s brother, and the person who basically caused their entire family’s death is Qian Long, who is not only Xiao Yan Zi’s adoptive father but also the father of her sworn sister and best friend, and of her fiancé.
Zi Wei when she saw Xiao Yan Zi in the parade, implying that Xiao Yan Zi had stolen her place as Qian Long’s daughter.
Also when Er Kang dies.
Xiao Yan Zi on Yong Qi’s wedding night to Zhi Hua.
Yong Qi in series 3 when Xiao Yan Zi says she does not love him anymore (she doesn’t mean it though).
Historical-Domain Character: Many, including the main ones like Emperor Qian Long, Yong Qi, Ling Fei, Lao Fo Ye and Han Xiang, but also minor characters like the officials Fu Heng, Er Min.
Honor Before Reason: Yong Qi, who would rather be thrown into jail rather than abandon his friends, though if he had kept his mouth shut, it is likely that Qian Long would have honoured Lao Fo Ye’s wishes and been guilted by Ling Fei into not imprisoning him. An Idiot Ball moment that causes both Ling Fei and Er Kang to obviously mentally Face Palm.
Sometimes also Zi Wei who is forgiving to a ridiculous degree, especially towards the Empress and Rong Mou Mou.
I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Played with. Yong Qi would have given up Xiao Yan Zi and allowed Er Tai to woo her, in order to both allow Er Tai – his best friend – to be happy and to get Xiao Yan Zi out of an unwanted engagement.
How happy Xiao Yan Zi would really have been with Er Tai is unclear as at the time Yong Qi has no idea how Xiao Yan Zi feels about him. But the fact that he gives her up so that his friend could be happy is pretty adorably heartwarming.
Just Friends: Xiao Jian and Xiao Yan Zi, though Yong Qi does not believe this at first.
Just Like Robin Hood: Xiao Yan Zi steals from the rich to give to the poor. She also comes up with ways to trick people into giving more money than they are willing to when watching her martial art performances.
Just The Way You Are: After receiving and succumbing to pressures from his grandmother to turn Xiao Yan Zi into a lady-like princess, to disastrous effects, Yong Qi realises that he loves Xiao Yan Zi for her unconventional ways and should not try to change her, because he loves her just the way she is.
King Bob the Nth: Averted. Chinese emperors do not name themselves after each other, each have a distinct, unique name. Having the same name, or even names that sound similar to the emperor’s personal or reign names is taboo.
King Incognito: Qian Long was an emperor famous for his incognito inspection trips around the country.
Yong Qi, Er Kang, Zi Wei and Xiao Yan Zi also try to keep their royal (and fugitive) status secret in series 2, not always to great success.
Kick the Dog: Lao Fo Ye when she tortured Zi Wei nearly to death. In her defense, she thought Zi Wei was plotting to kill her son. Another case of Cruel to Be Kind.
Knighting: Sort of. Er Tai is given a title before his marriage. Yong Qi is also eventually bestowed the title Prince Rong (Rong Qin Wang - the highest title possible for a Manchurian prince).
All right, so she does get pregnant twice, and miscarried both times in what must be the first trimester, but that’s two short pregnancies in the space of something like three to four years. Considering they are in love, clearly trying and this is the time of no contraception, this trope definitely applies.
Yong Qi isn’t exactly trying to get Zhi Hua pregnant (he consummated the marriage because Xiao Yan Zi felt she “owed” Zhi Hua), but it takes only one time for them to have Mian Yi.
Subverted when Xiao Jian and Xiao Yan Zi turn out to be actual brother and sister.
Loveable Rogue: Xiao Yan Zi is essentially this. She steals and lies and basically does things that Zi Wei finds to be disturbing upon their first meeting, but it is all for her own survival and to help the survival of orphans and homeless old people who must depend on her for their livelihoods.
Love at First Sight: Han Xiang to Qian Long, though not reciprocated. Or it could be described as Lust at First Sight.
Love Makes You Evil: When we first meet Zhi Hua, she seems like an innocent enough girl (though anyone with Genre Savvy would see where we are heading). In the end, to gain Yong Qi’s attention, she slams herself against furniture while pregnant to induce a premature labour, then later rats out Xiao Yan Zi’s secret to Qian Long.
Love-Obstructing Parents: Lao Fo Ye as the grandparent to Yong Qi in the original series. Yu Fei to Yong Qi in the remake.
Subverted with Yong Qi/Xiao Yan Zi/Er Tai and Zi Wei/Er Kang/Sai Ya
Played straight with the double triangle of Jin Suo/Er Kang/Zi Wei and Qing Er/ Er Kang/Zi Wei and later Xiao Yan Zi/Yong Qi/Zhi Hua (or Xin Rong in the remake).
Malevolent Masked Men: Assassins sent by the Empress who ambushed the gang to kill them, resulting in Er Kang nearly losing his life.
Maligned Mixed Marriage: A subtle example of this. One of the reasons Lao Fo Ye opposes Yong Qi and Xiao Yan Zi’s marriage is because Xiao Yan Zi is presumably a Han, and therefore not worthy to marry a Manchurian prince (at least not as his principal wife, as opposed to his concubine).
Marry for Love: Er Kang and Yong Qi both want this, despite it being very unrealistic considering their social position and duties.
May-December Romance: Qian Long and Han Xiang, who could not be much older than Xiao Yan Zi and Zi Wei, in her mid-twenties at the oldest. Qian Long by that time was 50. Not much of a “romance” though.
Meaningful Name: Xiao Yan Zi’s name, which means Little Swallow (the bird) is a trope in itself.
Zhi Hua’s name literally means “knows painting”, and her most unique trait is that she is an extremely talented painter. Lampshaded by Zi Wei.
Missing Mom: Yong Qi’s mother. Averted in the remake where she lives.
Offing the Offspring: Played with. Provoked to anger enough and Qian Long would order the execution of Zi Wei and Xiao Yan Zi. Zi Wei is actually his daughter and Xiao Yan Zi is as good as.
Averted with Yong Qi, who, being a son, Qian Long would never kill, even without Lao Fo Ye’s protests.
Oh Crap: Anytime Yong Qi, Zi Wei and Er Kang have no choice but to stand back and watch Xiao Yan Zi unleash her latest shenanigan.
Ojou: Qing Er is not Qian Long’s daughter, but is implied to be closely related to him though never made clear how. Her late father is referred to as Prince of the First Rank, which would imply he was a brother of the current emperor.
Or her father could even be a brother of the previous emperor Yong Zheng as well. Being the fourth of over 20 sons of the emperor Kang Xi, Yong Zheng could well have been able to have a brother who was as young as his son, Qian Long.
She is the Proper Lady variety of this trope, and is greatly favoured by the Empress Dowager, who depends greatly on her counsel. Good thing, too, because without her persuasion, Lao Fo Ye would never let Xiao Yan Zi and Zi Wei get away with so many shenanigans.
Only a Flesh Wound: Er Kang tried to pass his wound from the Empress’s assassin off as this to a blind Zi Wei.
Put on a Bus: Er Tai after his marriage to Sai Ya at the end of series 1. This becomes a Long Bus Trip when it is talked of him coming back for his brother and best friend’s wedding but ultimately didn’t, and didn’t even come back for his brother’s funeral in series 3.
Also Liu Qing, Liu Hong, Jin Suo are only mentioned by name in the original series 3 but never show up.
Royal Decree: Bonus for Yong Qi faking the decree to rescue Xiao Yan Zi, Zi Wei and Jin Suo out of jail.
Royal Harem: While the series does involve the emperor having one empress and many imperial concubines, series 1 subverts this trope as it deals far more with the antics of the emperor’s (adopted) daughter.
Series 2 contains more elements when the main plot is the elopement of an imperial concubine.
One of the major sub-plots running through all series is both Er Kang and Yong Qi’s struggle to Marry for Love, and not succumb to social pressures and expectations by having loads of concubines. It doesn’t work out so well for Yong Qi.
Royals Who Actually Do Something: Despite the fact that Yong Qi and Er Kang spend much of series 1 and 2 languishing in love and dealing with the problems that come with tortured love, in series 3 of the original they do get more responsibility and both go to war.
Smart People Play Chess: Or weiqi, as the case is. Explicitly shown with Qian Long and Zi Wei. We assume that Er Kang and Yong Qi are competent at the game too.
So Bad, It's Good: An in-universe example: Most characters probably agree that Xiao Yan Zi’s poetry and "edited idioms" are this. Yong Qi even thinks they should collect them and publish a book on it.
Spare To The Throne: The Fifteenth Prince Yong Yan – who did eventually succeed Qian Long to the throne – essentially becomes this after Qian Long’s preferred heir Yong Qi decides to give it all up for love.
Spirited Young Lady: Xiao Yan Zi sweeps into the palace, shouts in the Emperor’s face, calls him out on his bad treatment of his concubines and generally causes chaos everywhere she goes, capturing the heart of a Prince Charming in the process.
Zi Wei and her mother Yu He are both named after flowers (the crepe myrtle and the lotus respectively.)
Liu Qing and Liu Hong are named after colours (green/blue and red). Their surname also means “willow”.
Zhi Hua and her sisters are named after the four main accomplishments required of the Chinese scholar gentleman qin, qi, shu, hua: playing the musical instrument qin, playing weiqi (a form of chess), calligraphy and painting.
Chinese siblings’ name in general and Aisin-Gioro clan naming schemes in general also run with a theme. Yong Qi and all of his brothers, as well as cousins of the same generation, will have a name starting with the character Yong. Then Yong Qi and his brothers’ second name will contain the same radical: the character for Jade (玉).
By series 3, Zi Wei has a son named Dong Er (which means East) and Xiao Yan Zi has her heart set on naming her first child Nan Er (meaning South). Eventually she did.
Qian Long and Yong Qi’s relationship, leading to Yong Qi’s title of Prince Rong granted in series 3.
Qian Long’s incognito inspection trips.
Unwanted Harem: Yong Qi in regard to Zhi Hua (or Xin Rong in the remake). Er Kang in regard to…every other girl who happens to be interested in him in each series. Both because they interfere with their Official Couple status with Xiao Yan Zi and Zi Wei respectively.
The character of the emperor Qian Long is generally a lot nicer than historical records of him as an emperor, and also unlike any portrayal of him so far and since in other historical series or films.
It takes this trope to believe that Yong Qi and Xiao Yan Zi could overcome all the obstacles to their relationship and are allowed to marry at all. Yong Qi both in history (before his Untimely Death) and in the drama was written as an ideal candidate for the throne one day, and Xiao Yan Zi is…not consort material.
The fact that Xiao Yan Zi still gets to keep her head after wreaking havoc in the palace so much and lying to the emperor (which was a serious crime at the time) so many times invokes this trope.
Wuxia: Has certain elements of this, especially after with the addition of Xiao Jian, a classic wandering hero archetype of the genre, complete with a Cool Sword.