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Series / The Empress of China

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The Empress of China is a 2015 Chinese series starring Fan Bingbing as Lady Wu and Zhang Fengyi (Cao Cao in Red Cliff) as Tang Taizong. The series was reputably the most expensive Chinese drama series ever made, and notable for its endless Costume Porn. Set in the 7th and early 8th centuries during the Tang Dynasty, it tells the story of Wu Zetian note , China's only female Emperor, from her days as a teenage concubine in the court of Emperor Taizong, to becoming the undisputed ruler of all China.

The Empress of China contains examples of:

  • Adaptation Expansion: Historically, Wu's time in Taizong's harem is relatively unknown and unremarkable (but long note ), but it takes up half the series by placing her at the center or near enough to the major events at the end of Taizong's reign.
  • Adapted Out: Since the series focuses on Wu Zetian's relationships with her husbands, and skips over her regency and rule, many important characters of that period, such as her daughter Princess Taiping note , her nephews Wu Sansi and Wu Chengsi, her secretary Shangguan Wan'er and her various lovers (her last two, the Zhang Brothers, show up only long enough to get killed), get no screen time.
  • Artistic License – History: The series heavily romanticized Wu's life to focus on the soap opera of the court intrigues and the love story between Wu and her love interests, which downplays how ruthless Wu really was in real life and pulled some inaccurate depictions of some of the other characters.
    • Historically, the name Taizong gave her was only "Mei". note 
    • Historically, Meiniang's heritage from her mother's side was nothing to be scoffed at. note 
      • On the topic of Taizong's harem, historical records did not indicate any major disturbances or upheavals. note 
    • Historically, there were no records of factions seeking to restore the Sui dynasty during Taizong's reign, partly because the Yangs and Lis were related matrilineally. note 
    • The historical Du Chuke (Li Tai's advisor) did not perish during Taizong's reign; he passed away in his mid-60s during Gaozong's reign. note 
    • It's highly unlikely that the historical Princess Gaoyang murdered Wu's infant daughter, given that she was executed the year before the child was even born. Historically, Fang Yi'ai rebelled because of his desire for his brother's title, which was inherited from their father. Li Ke was then accused by Fang to be part of the rebellion due to the latter's desire to avoid the death penalty. While Li Ke was innocent, Zhangsun Wuji took the opportunity to make the charges stick, and then killed Ke.
    • The series depicted Meiniang being Emperor Taizong's favorite consort and both of them being in love. However, it's the other way around in real life as the real Taizong was said to favor consort Xu Hui for her literary skills while Wu was the unfavorite presumably because of her aggressiveness and frightening intellectual antics at a young age. note  However, the series emphasizes Taizong's view that the state is his greatest concern; he left an order to Li Zhi imploring him to execute any child of Meiniang's whom can be attributed to Taizong.
    • The events surrounding Li You's (Prince of Qi) and Li Chengqian's rebellions have been greatly altered.note 
    • Historically, Gaozong's trip to Ganye Temple after Taizong's death was to commemorate Taizong's death anniversary, not Empress Wende's. In addition, due to Gaozong having to observe a mourning period for Taizong, Meiniang could not have been made zhao yi so quickly upon her return to the harem. note 
    • Historically, Lady Helan had a brother (named Minzhi) who was allegedly their grandmother's lover and more importantly was groomed by Meiniang to be her potential successor. note 
  • Broken Bird: Almost all the concubines eventually become this, along with their Face–Heel Turn. Xu Hui is a notable example, as she becomes broken after her realization that Taizong was using her as a replacement for Meiniang, along with her suspicion that Meinang had deliberately given her a poisoned fan.
  • Composite Character: For members of Taizong's harem, the series often combines two historical ladies of the same surname and lineage.
    • Consort Yang is an amalgamation of the historical consort Yang note , and Lady Yang note . History did not record down the titles bestowed upon the two consorts (if any).
    • Consort Wei is an amalgamation of the historical consort Wei note , and her cousin. note 
  • Cool Big Sis: This is how Meiniang initially acts towards a young Li Zhi, the future Emperor Gaozong, when they first meet. note 
  • Costume Porn: Famous for this, and with good reason. The full cast has some 3000 costumes between them, and Fan Bingbing alone has over 260 costumes over the course of the series, the most expensive being the Dragon Robe worn when Wu finally becomes Emperor in her own right.
  • Dark Horse Victory: For viewers not versed in the history of the period, it would surprise them that the son to succeed Taizong will be Li Zhi, who was just a kid when first introduced.
  • Decadent Court: Between the princes scrambling for the position of Crown Prince, the officials being split between those of aristocratic and lowly birth, and the consorts and women of the harem trying to win the Emperor's favor and the title of Empress, the court is consistently portrayed as a very dangerous place for all involved; not even the Emperor is safe from the intrigues. note 
  • Doppelgänger Replacement Love Interest: What draws Li Zhi to consort Xiao, is her supposed resemblance to Meiniang. He even paints her in a series of paintings that are clearly inspired by various events from Wu's time in the palace.
    • A major arc early on focuses on a minor concubine's resemblance to the late Empress Wende (Lady Zhangsun), and her family exploiting the resemblance to gain Taizong's favour.
  • Downer Ending: The series end with Wu usurping the crown, becoming the first female emperor of China. However, Wu was left with a bitter and forlorn reign as she lost everyone who was precious to her since the day she entered the palace. Her close friends betrayed her, she lost her childhood friend (whom she looked up to as a brother), her sons betrayed her, and eventually she was estranged from Li Zhi. note 
    Wu Zhao: The 15 years I spent as Emperor, was the loneliest time of my life. Except for power, I have nothing.
  • Driven to Suicide: Given it's imperial China and how suicide was common back then, there's bound to be full of this.
  • Evil Chancellor: Li Yifu, one of Wu's allies, is openly regarded as corrupt, even by himself, but he makes himself useful to have around.
  • Face–Heel Turn: Many characters experience this. Meinang is notably one of them, after she had taken enough of the horrible shit from her enemies after her daughter's murder. She became a cunning, ruthless, power-hungry woman who will destroy those who dare to oppose her.
  • The Good Chancellor: Zhangsun Wuji, Taizong's brother-in-law and Gaozong's uncle, while antagonistic to Wu, is nevertheless absolutely committed to the Tang Dynasty. Wei Zheng is also well regarded because he's one of the few people who can point out when Taizong is being unfair and get away with it.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: Many of the more ruthless actions traditionally attributed to Wu are often done instead by other members of the court.Note 
    • The series portrayed Li Chengqian's circumstances as similar to his father's before the Xuanwu Gate Incident, and Chengqian himself as essentially a good (if overly prideful) person. Historically, Chengqian was devious enough to send assassins after his own teacher after he got tired of said teacher's advice.
    • The historical Zhangsun Wuji got drunk on power while on the post of Chancellor; one of the reasons why Gaozong wanted to remove his uncle from power (and enlisted Wu to help him) was that Zhangsun didn't allow Gaozong to exercise much power; at least, he did have some power after Zhangsun's removal, even after having Wu as co-ruler. note 
  • Historical In-Joke: Apart from the usual suspects of Empress Wende and Consort Yang, the crescent mark that appears on some Tang era coins was Wu's fault from accidentally pressing her nail into the mould.
    • Wu's names are full of in-jokes note 
    • The arc surrounding the "Song of the Prince of Lanling Entering Battle" is a subtle one to the historical Music of the Prince of Qin Breaking up the Enemy's Front note 
    • Wu's stabbing of Lion Stallion is a nod to the historical Wu's account of the last suggestion she made to Taizong on how she would have tamed the historical Lion Stallion.
    • The Ungrateful Bastard entry below is another one if one considers Zhang Jianzhi's historical fate. note 
  • I Just Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Li Mu, despite being given a prime opportunity to run away into exile with Wu by Emperor Taizong, allows her to follow the Emperor onto the battlefield.
  • Incest Subtext: A lot of Li Zhi's relationship with Meiniang is driven by wanting her to rely on and love him as she did his father. It actually concerns Zhangsun Wuji, his uncle and a leading official of the court, since the relationship is technically considered incestuous under Confucian morality. note 
  • Lonely at the Top: The series culminates in the coronation of Meiniang after she eliminated all of her rivals through war, intrigue and backstabbing over the course of the series, resulting in this exchange:
    Wu Meiniang: Where are my enemies?
    Rui An: Dead
    Wu: And my friends?
    Rui An: Dead as well.
    Wu: What about my husband and my children?
    Rui An: Your Majesty, other than the Prince of Luling and Prince of Xiang, the others are dead too.
  • The Lost Lenore: Throughout the series, no matter how in love with Wu he seems to be, Taizong is clearly still grieving for his late wife Empress Wende. Similarly, after his own death, Meiniang remains very much devoted to him for the rest of her life. note 
  • Love Father, Love Son: Wu Meiniang is imperial wife to Li Shimin and his son Li Zhi. Although it should be noted that, while tender and utterly devoted to Li Zhi, she says, in the penultimate episode (in a fit of rage) that his father is that one she always loved. They seemed to work it out off-screen.
  • Love Ruins the Realm: Since this has historical precedent in Chinese Imperial History, many members of the court are of course suspicious when Wu quickly becomes popular with both Emperors; the prophecy below only works to confirm their fears once it becomes widely known.
  • Naïve Newcomer: Wu Meiniang and Xu Hui. Consort Yang mentions that Consort Wei, of all people, was once this in the beginning.
  • The Needs of the Many: If a courtier isn't motivated by their own ambitions, they are motivated by the needs of the State. Zhangsun Wuji, a major chancellor under both Emperors, sabotages his own faction's plans and standing in court, when he realizes they are motivated by a need to preserve their own aristocratic positions and privileges, rather than the actual needs of the state.
  • Noblewoman's Laugh: Consort Wei's laugh. Though at some point, almost all the consorts manage to get one out.
  • Nouveau Riche: Court officials of humble origins, like Li Yifu and Xu Jingzong, were seen by the Guanlong faction as this. While Meiniang was portrayed as this, it's not entirely true historically. note 
  • Old Retainer: Wang De and Rui An. Wang served Taizong and later Gaozong. Rui An served Meiniang since her days as a cai ren in Taizong's court and was present when Meiniang finally crowned herself Emperor at the age of 67.
  • Overshadowed by Awesome: Li Zhi, for the early years of his reign, is always being reminded of how great an Emperor his father Taizong was by everyone, Meiniang included.
  • The Prophecy: The prophecy stating that after the third generation, the Tang will fall to a woman ruler named Wu, haunts Meiniang for most of the series since it gave her enemies a powerful tool to plot her downfall and enlist the aid of Tang loyalists, like Zhangsun Wuji.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Wu Meiniang is energic, outspoken and rash, while Xu Hui is gentle, kind and sensitive.
  • Roman à Clef: The "northern expedition" is a reference to Taizong's invasion of Goguryeo. While the names of places and persons have been changed, the part about a despot killing his predecessor is a rather clear reference to Yeon Gaesomun killing King Yeongnyu.
  • Romantic Runner-Up: While Xu Hui initially enjoys her rising favour with Emperor Taizong, it soon becomes clear to her that he's just using her as a replacement for Meiniang who is currently too caught up in a scandal to be safely near him.
    • In some ways, Li Zhi is this with regards to Meiniang, as he grows up and falls in love with Wu, he begins to notice how much she relies on his father, and confides in Li Mu.
  • Ruling Couple: Gaozong and Meiniang. note 
  • Secret Test of Character: Taizong often does this before making important decisions.
  • Sketchy Successor: Wu Zetian's third son, Li Xian (Emperor Zhongzong) does not nearly have half of her talent and intelligence, leading Wu Zetian to wonder why Zhang Jianzhi is so loyal to him. note 
  • The Stoic: Taizong, due to him having Seen It All. When he does raise his voice, someone's going to be in deep trouble.
  • Succession Crisis: One of the driving conflicts in the series under both Emperors surrounds the struggle for the title of Crown Prince. note 
  • Take a Third Option: Narratively, neither Meiniang nor Empress Wang was responsible for the death of Meiniang's daughter. Princess Gaoyang murdered the baby in order to set the two women against each other and destabilize Gaozong's rule in order to overthrow Zhangsun Wuji.
  • Time Skip: There are several over the course of the series to fit the nearly seventy years of Wu's life in the palace into 95 episodes. The largest time skip being the fifteen years between Wu's usurpation of the throne and her deposition.
  • Token Religious Teammate: Yin De Fei, Virtuous Consort to Emperor Taizong, is a devout Buddhist and pretty much the only character seen parttaking in religion.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: When Wu Zetian is about to abdicate, she tells Zhang Jianzhi this about her descendants:
    The descendants of the Li clan will wear fancy clothes and have feasts, ride gallant horses and own beautiful women, but they won’t remember who gave them their wealth and rank.
  • Viewers Are Geniuses: Hoo boy. The series assumes that the audience have at least a passing knowledge of Tang history from Taizong's reign to Wu's. While the Xuan Wu Gate Incident was at least explained, concepts like the 24 officials enshrined in Lingyan Pavilion note  and the northern expedition note  are just mentioned without further context. Also, good luck trying to know the time in-story, as the series uses the traditional Chinese system.
  • We Hardly Knew Ye: Because of the time skips, Wu Zetian's last two lovers Zhang Yizhi and Zhang Changzong, appear in the final episode only to be killed by supporters of her son, the former and soon-to-be again Emperor Zhongzong. In the edited version, they're instead Killed Offscreen.
  • We Used to Be Friends: Xu Hui and Meiniang. Xu's jealousy and suspicions of Meiniang eventually drove her to backstab Meiniang.
  • World of Badass: During the first half of the series, many characters who are merely mentioned in passing or only have bit roles in the story are actually important figures during Taizong's and his father's reign. One example is Xiao Yu, whose role in the story was merely to petition against Fang Xuanling in one episode, is actually enshrined in Lingyan Pavillon as well.
  • Worthy Opponent: When Zhangsun Wuji sabotages his own faction for the sake of the state, he and Meiniang confess their mutual respect and dedication to the Tang Dynasty, even if that same dedication made them oppose each other, before his exile.