Team TBR Challenge Review/Rant: The Legend of Hao Lan

​(This is the synopsis from Wiki) Betrayed by her family and her first love, Li Haolan finds herself in desperate circumstances. Her father, State Censor Li He, arranges marriage between her and the far-older Yu Ping, who treats his other wives brutally. When she tries to circumvent this fate by begging her first love, Prince Jiao, to marry her, Li Haolan’s stepmother, Gao Min, orders her killed and thrown into the river. Surviving only by chance, Li Haolan crawls back from the brink of death to discover her reputation in tatters, as Gao Min spread the rumor that Li Haolan shamed the family by eloping with a stranger to explain the girl’s disappearance. Li Haolan’s mother, Wang Wan’er, a lowly concubine, has gone mad with grief over her daughter’s unknown fate. Gao Min orders the murder of Li Haolan’s mother and sells Li Haolan into slavery, just as Li Haolan watches her sweetheart marrying her little sister, Li Xiuyu.

Stricken with the knowledge of everyone’s complicity, and unable to return home, Li Haolan vows she will never beg for another thing in her life as she tries to claw her way out of her fallen circumstances and avenge the death of her mother and the wrongs done to her. The scheming merchant Lü Buwei purchases Li Haolan and takes interest in the fate of this intelligent, unusual girl. Together, they form an unlikely partnership as they both begin to climb the ladders of power.

Through Lü Buwei’s influence, Li Haolan enters Zhao‘s imperial court and makes a match with Ying Yiren, the captive prince of Qin. As Qin and Zhao fall into war, the balance of power changes, with Li Haolan on top.​

The theme this month was a gimme/reader’s choice  and I went with not only one of my most recently watched dramas but the one I most need to process. So the summary/synposis is basically everything that happens in the first episode. I have A Lot of Feelings about this series and an overarching summary in my head is “all the men in this series are trash.” There are only one or two that get more than five minutes of screen time that are mostly ok and … they both die. Granted, most the women in the show are truly terrible too. That being said, I’m … actually not mad I watched this series, but man – it is DEFINITELY not a “happy watch.” Production wise, it’s fantastic. This is clearly a big budget production. The sets, costumes, the actors, the music – it’s all so incredibly well done. It’s a historical drama in terms of not only setting, but it’s based on actual people.
I actually watched the whole damn thing in two days, no thank you, insomnia. I also did fast forward through a lot of the scheming because I don’t care about that shit, and you see it play out anyway so that’s something. I honestly don’t think I missed much though, and I “rewatched” the whole series the next day in that I watched the scenes between the heroine and her husband. And I realized – there aren’t that many. I don’t think I missed any in my second selective fast watch, and it’s possible it could all fit in the span of a single episode. Two at most. Yikes. (They’re also apart for five episodes, which covers the span of eight years/has a time jump.)

This is a review and a rant. I can’t decide who the hero is – there are two definite male leads, both in love with our heroine … but I think the “first male lead” is … actually NOT the guy she marries. (Look it’s complicated, okay?) What’s also interesting is as I said, this is based on history. Ying Yiren was a hostage prince in the country of Zhao. *Hao Lan’s historical details/records are essentially nonexistent – most of what’s available (especially in English on the internet) is questionable, albeit fascinating and sensational. But really, all that anyone knows for sure is that she is a woman from Zhao. And the mother of the first emperor of [unified] China, Qin Shi Huang. Honestly, I think this is because there is no hero. Seriously – “all the men here are trash.”
I like the actress Wu Jin Yan who plays Li Hao Lan because she’s a good actress and was the lead in one of my most favorite dramas ever, The Story of Yanxi Palace, but I’m starting to wonder if she might be a bit one note. (I’ve also seen her in Royal Feast and it’s always very clearly her/she’s the same, if that makes sense.) As for Hao Lan the character … she’s great until like the last three episodes. The first episode she’s betrayed by her love (after being betrayed by her family), and she has a big wake up call to depend on herself and not a man. And then of course she falls for a man who lets her down time and again. And again. And again. (Sometimes he has really good reasons/had no other choice but … it definitely gets old.) She’s very smart, resourceful, and resilient though. And lucky. Her parenting had me head tilting – at first I think she was way too indulgent and then it’s like a switch flips and once her kid becomes a teen she becomes a cold demanding exactress. I’m trying not to get into spoilers although I might have to.
Honestly once we see Ying Zheng as a teen I thought “he’s a fucking psychopath” and I decided to do some googling and realized he’s Qin Shi Huang and then I was like “oh, him being a psychopath might be totally accurate.” He was a truly terrible person. Just … alarmingly cruel. But also incredibly smart. Also talented, obviously was able to unify (or you know, conquer) seven countries and establish what is basically China today. Canals he ordered built are literally still being used today, so we’re talking well over 2,000 years. He also built the Great Wall of China/connected it into one. Many more things. The earthen soldiers, etc. But holy damn the way he’s portrayed in the series. It’s very 😱.
I guess we talk about our two male leads (MLs) now.
Lu Bu Wei (LBW) is played by Nie Yuan. (And look, NY plays the emperor in Yanxi Palace so when he as LBW tells HL that he loves her in episode 10 my feelings were exploding all over the place and I was screaming and was like fifty million exclamation points. He tells her she’s his partner, confidant, soulmate, lover/loved one… and I should’ve known it all goes to shit.) LBW is an incredibly ambitious man. He’s a merchant, and I believe at the time merchants were considered to be very low class. (I know there was a time period when there were basically four social classes and merchants were second to last.) He’s rich as Midas but has no power – it can be taken away instantly, and the aristocrats can take away his money or even liberty with just a word. He was enslaved for a year just for a really minor infraction, so he’s determined to not only have money but also power. He never wants to be stepped on again, and is willing to do almost anything to make that happen. Then there’s his pride of course so sometimes he says things to salvage his pride and it Seriously Fucks Shit Up. (Of course, this is a fault all the characters have.) He’s incredibly glib, smart, and resourceful, but unfortunately limited by his background. He does become the prime minister of Qin … but doesn’t have a good ending.
Ying Yi Ren/Ying Zichu, King Zhuangxiang of Qin is played by Mao Zi Jun, and he’s a fantastic actor. His eyes convey novels. I really liked him and want to see him in other series but I also want to shake him and kick his shins because his character is ass. I’m laughing as I write this because I’m SO MAD at how trash he is. He CLEARLY loves the heroine but he manipulates the fuck out of her before she dies. So the thing is he’s been injured and poisoned and is sickly and dying for like a decade. But right before he dies, he just … does this beyond Machiavellian scheming that allows him to essentially root out all the last rebels and dissenters in the court to pave the way for his son to easily ascend the throne with “no threats.” He freezes out the empress, Hao Lan during this – allowing everyone to think he doesn’t love her anymore and is about to depose their son, and she’s out of favor. Hao Lan knows this isn’t true, but she thinks he froze her out because in the end she’s just a pawn to him, and he put his scheme before their relationship.
BUT NOPE. Zichu actually froze her out because … dude is Manipulative As Hell and wants Hao Lan, who he knows to be very sentimental to basically obsess about him and focus on their love and for her to live the rest of her life in regret and only able to love him. He wants her everything – even after he’s dead.
Which, whatever. I don’t love it but I get it … kind of, but to freeze her out even at the very very end – after the rebels were executed and he’s on his deathbed. He summons LBW, and all the ministers, talks to all of them and gives them his last instructions, but ignores Hao Lan. She literally stands outside his chamber for well over a day, but he refuses to see her. *screams* Just thinking about it now makes me want to bash him with the pillows they used – which appeared to have wooden ends.
And then there’s this – Yiren (his birth name which he changes to Zichu once he gets back to Qin to curry favor with the empress who was convinced to take him as her adoptive son…) is manipulative AF. He does actually love Hao Lan, and helps her, but she helped him a lot too. There are also a number of times when he takes advantage of a situation, when it was actually LBW helping Hao Lan but Yiren steps in just enough to take credit. And the little things he does to get Hao Lan to warm up to them as soon as they’re “fake married.” Yiren also plays on Hao Lan’s sympathies and loyalties to get her to stay with him. In the series, in fact, granted everyone thinks LBW is dead, but Yiren creates a situation where Hao Lan has to marry him. He’s the better choice, but Yiren could’ve figured out something that saved Hao Lan from marrying anyone. He loved her and wanted her and took her though – and even manipulated the situation so the queen of Zhao herself paired them.
In the second watch it really became clear how Yiren was manipulative as hell. He fools everyone except for LBW though for numerous reasons. First, Yiren is a hostage prince in Zhao. He’s constantly bullied, and often actually tortured. He’s also gentle, scholarly, charming, and easily considered weak. However, he has a core of steel and fire – how else could he have survived in a hostile country for so long. (And the fact as to why he was chosen to be a hostage prince out of his father’s twenty-seven sons. In part he did so to protect not only himself but also his mother, who is an unfavored concubine. His father/those in the Qin palace or kingdom can’t “” really do anything to her because her son has merit.) Another part is the fact that he’s royal, so automatically is at another level and has been given a lot of advantages.
I don’t know how historically accurate their eight year situation was, but I’m mad about it. I understand why Yiren went to Qin first and had to leave Hao Lan behind. (They spent a LOT of effort to try to get out … and had numerous failed plans.) Once he’s there, Yiren (now Zichu/ZC) does as his father to bring Hao Lan and their son to Qin … but I don’t know how much they really do. When ZC first arrives back home in the country of Qin he’s “only” a royal grand son. So … even though he’s told the palace supposedly sent five envoys to Zhao to bring back his family … I guess being 1/27 means they aren’t really going to put in that much effort. So as soon as his father becomes emperor and he becomes the crown prince, ZC does get Hao Lan and Zheng to Qin. But even that goes poorly. And once they get there everyone treats Hao Lan and Zheng terribly. What made me the most mad was her mother in law, ZC’s birth mother treats Hao Lan horribly. Like I get the empress doing it … but geez damn even her actual mother in law? Ugh. (Plus the fact that ZC did have a son with one of his concubines…)
They also leave in a lot of evil characters – the Zhao Princess for one I just … shake my head at – although it’s kinda wild she almost becomes Hao Lan’s last friend. One thing about this series that’s wild is how it could turn the women around. What I did love about it is how absolutely incredible and dynamic the women were – and how much power they had. The empress of Zhao is hella evil – and one thing that annoyed me was how she kept telling Hao Lan “I didn’t help you this time because…” and I was like “bitch you’ve never helped her.” And the one time she did Hao Lan was imprisoned and tortured and almost put to death – she was literally dying from the scorpions that were poured on her, but … the empress did get Hao Lan pardoned so I guess there’s that? (She also exhibited a massive power flex and terrified the whole palace …) She unfortunately was major mentor and influence on Hao Lan. I think this explains some of her 180 in the last 2-3 episodes in how she parents and her attitude but I can’t be sure. Han Qiong Hua, a princess of Han who was sent to Zhao basically as a gift/tribute and she was an absolute evil chaos muppet … who ends of as one of Hao Lan’s closest friends and then she dies. (It’s a tough time to be alive, and especially in palaces where it’s all danger and machinations and power grabs.)
There’s also the cultural aspect there – I don’t think Americans can really grok the whole filial aspect as in how very far and deep it goes. Like it’s supposed to be totally acceptable if your parent slaps you across the face for no reason just because they’re your parent. (And maybe you’re even supposed to be grateful to them for “teaching you a lesson?”) That’s … not okay here. When the grand empress dowager is dying, she sends six eunuchs to go summon the emperor to see her in the span of two hours, and he ignores all of them. (This is the evil mother in law I mentioned.) Hao Lan goes to her son and slaps hims across the face and berates him for not going. Although I think she does it more for his image than for being filial – if nothing else at least these two generally aren’t hypocrites. But the how she says it really sets him off and like … how did you not know that’s exactly how he’d react? Your son the psychopath.
I did like one other thing Hao Lan said – when her son is basically off the rails, LBW criticizes her for her parenting and she snaps back that the first eight years of his life were literally torture. Then they finally got to Qin, and his father had him studying and working for something like 16 hours a day for the next eight years. And as soon as ZC died, LBW took over as his tutor. So … where and when exactly is she responsible for who he is today. She points out how if he does anything good the credit goes to the men for training him well but as soon as there’s anything to criticize him about it’s all on the empress. Go girl.
The very end though – the absolute WTFery in my mind and then she’s all “I did this for you/to train you/help you become the undisputed king of Qin/all the countries.” Not going to detail it but I hated it.
I also have questions about the actor for Lao Ai/how he was written/portrayed. I just … you have to read about him yourself In the drama, they don’t do any of that – the plot has him in love with the empress, but she just used him as a tool to hone her son. (Which I found contradictory because she raised him and supposedly she’s this nostalgic, emotional, sentimental person, but the script adds this like one tiny line about how one thing he did two years ago was a betrayal.)
Then there’s the fact that there is a lot of censorship going on. At one point I thought “whatever – I know it’s not historically accurate but couldn’t they at least have given Hao Lan and LBW their HEA? And the thing is – I think the director et al actually tried to do so – but it didn’t pass censorship in china. (There are some stills released of the two together on a boat supposedly their “ever after” that had to be cut.)
I think the horrid ending and mess of the last few episodes really ruined the series for me. I would’ve even been ok with a sad ending or a mess of one had it made more sense. It wasn’t a fun romp like Yanxi Palace nor was it brilliant scheming like in Zhen Huan/Empresses in the Palace or Nirvana in Fire. Otherwise though – like I said, Hao Lan was clearly big budget. The costumes, the acting, the sets, everything is much better than your usual random drama. One wonders what cdramas would/could be without such strict censorship.
This isn’t a series I’d recommend so much as “I need you to watch it so we can DISCUSS THE THINGS BECAUSE OMFG.” Plus everyone in it in any sort of main or support role is truly beautiful. So there is that.

You can watch the whole series for free here .
(I watched on Viki but the seconds I watched on YT seemed to be well subtitled/captioned in English.) As for the formatting of this post … I wrote the review in gmail and then c/p’d it here, and I just can’t with the trying to fix it. I wanted the bold and italics copied though.)

*I write her name Hao Lan because it’s two distinct characters. The dudes I didn’t because … I mean not capitalizing/separating seems to be standard but I was so annoyed at them and wanted to make her even more distinct.

Join the conversation!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.