Now and then, a Chinese drama comes along where you can not stop pushing play on the next episode. The Story of Kunning Palace was such a drama for me. While not everyone’s cup of tea, this show just spoke to me in a way I haven’t felt in a while. Come find out why I think this show was worth watching and why you should give it a try.
Jiang Xue Ning’s unrelenting desire to become empress eventually strains her bond with her childhood friend Yan Lin and leads to the arrest of the noble Official Zhang Zhe. Guilt and remorse begin to seep in when her short-lived reign as the empress comes to an end. With the help of Yan Lin as the general, rebels seize the capital and ruthlessly exterminate the entire royal family. In her last desperate act, Jiang Xue Ning pleads to exchange her life for the freedom of Zhang Zhe, a man who has always shown her kindness.
As fate takes an unexpected turn, Jiang Xue Ning awakens in the body of her 18-year-old self, who has yet to enter the palace. Given another chance at life, she vows to live differently beyond the palace walls. Yet fate would not let her escape. She becomes entangled in the palace intrigues once again as Princess Le Yang’s study companion and disciple of Xie Wei, the well-respected imperial teacher and emperor’s advisor, who also happens to be the mastermind behind the heinous rebellion that leads to her demise.
It has been so long since I have watched a Chinese drama focusing on palace intrigue (minus the fantasy element), so I was very excited to start The Story of Kunning Palace, which looked like the historical dramas that aired back when I started watching Chinese shows. Sadly, life got busy, and it was a couple of months before I could give it another try to catch my focus. I am so glad I did go back.
The story starts at Empress Xue Niang’s end. Her empire has been overthrown and she is forced to take her own life. As she dies, she reflects on everything she would change if she had another chance. Like so many other dramas lately, she awakes to find that she is 18 again and has a chance to change her fate. While this isn’t the most unique trope, it continues to work for me. I am a sucker for a do over, and there is the bonus of her being pretty much a villain in the original timeline, but this time she wants nothing to do with the power-hungry ways of her past. We rarely see redemption being the focus rather than revenge, so I am all in for this fresh take.
Xue Niang is especially focused on escaping the notice of her past nemesis, the man who ordered her original demise, Xie Wei. Of course, he is the first person who notices the changes in Xue Niang. Not only is she less angry and defiant, but she suddenly has knowledge and wisdom beyond her years. Paranoid that she is out to get him, Xie Wei starts to have her watched and they eventually become allies. As I mentioned before, I love that Xue Niang wants nothing to do with revenge against the man who dethroned her. Instead, she is focused on living an unremarkable life. Fate has other ideas and drags these two together as they both work the system to save their loved ones.
She manages to humanize Xie Wei and gives him something beyond his revenge and, with him, Xue Niang finds someone who will put her first and give her the loyalty she craves. They are the perfect couple. However, for 90% of the drama they are partners and not focused on romance. This is the epitome of a slow-burn romance, so you have to get through all the wonderful political maneuvering to get to the end romantic goal. For some viewers, this is going to be off-putting. It is a journey of a brilliant woman finding who she is and what she wants to fight for. Within that fight, the political intrigue of who holds the power of the emperor is played out.
Time and time again, I was impressed by how savvy so many of these characters were. There was so much depth beneath all the political factions and the different characters who comprised the court and royal families. This aspect of the story is also a slow burn. You will get to know the character and, throughout the drama, you will get more and more layers to everyone’s story. There is no such thing as a one-dimensional character; everyone has a reason for what they do. Whether it is survival, revenge, family loyalty, or at times, loyalty to the country/emperor, there is always a reason for people’s actions. I love a good political fight, especially when everyone isn’t just separated into good and evil, and this drama gives me all the depth I could wish for. You just have to be willing to wait for the payoffs.
The styling/cinematography is also exceptional. You have all the luxury and stylish designs in the sets and clothing for the drama. I love a show that doesn’t feel like it uses the same outfits as whatever show was last filmed on the film set. From the hair to the dresses and the uniforms, everything felt intentional and needed to create this elaborate world of court. My one complaint is that I always get pulled out when a drama has CGI animals. There are one or two scenes that use this filming technique in Kunning Palace. They are not my favorite, but I try to remind myself that I can get past this whenever the story is at a level that mini flaws don’t deter.
I don’t want to get into plot details, since this is a show you need to go through the journey to get the full effect. I will say that there were no threads left unraveled. Every story arc got a good conclusion and I was very satisfied from start to finish. I highly recommend for anyone who loves palace dramas–give this one a chance and know that the slow burn is well worth it in the end.
til the next drama adventure,
Dramas With a Side of Kimchi