What if the “Villains” Were the Heroes? A belated TBR Team Challenge Review of Dong Lan Xue

“Summary”: The maid in charge, Shen Yan, has assisted the Seventh Prince Chu Ning Yuan in seizing the title of crown prince. The two, who also had tragic experiences, became cold-hearted in order to seek revenge and seize power. They are used to seeing the dark, and the little warmth is only left to each other. Chu Ning Yuan gradually fell in love with Shen Yan who was always by his side, but Shen Yan was indifferent to his love, and even took the initiative to match Chu Ning Yuan to marry the daughter of a powerful minister in order to destroy the current crown prince’s plan to stabilize his power by taking the prime minister’s daughter as a concubine. Chu Ning Yuan saw Shen Yan’s intentions and became more determined to keep Shen Yan by his side. [Lightly edited by me, initially taken from MDL]


Dong Lan Xue is a short webdrama that is obviously low budget but doesn’t look like it at all. The costumes are gorgeous, as are the actors, the sets are well done, the script is excellent, the acting is good, there’s great fight choreography, and even nice background music. I think it was the first super short I’ve seen – as in each episode is only 2-3 minutes, and I was impressed with not only how much gets packed in, but how well the story is told.

I recently found out the director only does this as a hobby, and while I of course support people doing what they love, I was like “noooooo” because man it’d be so awesome if she did this full time – I’ve watched three of her four dramas listed on MyDramaList and enjoyed all of them. (In fact it’s the same director as An Ancient Love Song, which I reviewed last month.)

Our female lead is Shen Yan, a palace maid, who lives to clear the name of her family  after her father was wrongfully accused of corruption when a bridge project went wrong due to other people’s machinations and greed. (She also lives for vengeance.) The men in her family were executed, and the women forced to become courtesans/prostitutes She eventually escapes somehow, and the way we meet her/the first scene of the series is her killing the eunuchs who are beating the unfavored seventh prince. She tells him she’ll teach him to fight and help him kill his enemies. Then when the series “really” starts there’s been a time jump of a few years. I love me a badass heroine. She also isn’t cold or “indifferent” as the blurb says, “just” broken (and utterly traumatized) by her past.

Our male lead is Chu Ning Yuan, the seventh prince. His purpose in life is avenging the wrongful death of his mother – and a way to do that is to become the crown prince. He and Shen Yan have a mutually beneficial relationship – she needs his power to investigate the bridge incident, he needs her skills and support in the battle for the throne and getting justice. He’s also totally in love with Shen Yan, and I’m a goner for a smitten hero. It was also fun watching a character that gets to be exactly as he wants – grumpy and curt with no fake pleasantry or politeness. He smart, scheming, and willing to take a little (or lot) of pain to get his girl.

I’m super canon so I 99.999999999% root for the leads, and this is no exception, but what makes Dong Lan Xue special is how grey/black they are here. One of Shen Yan and Chu Nin Yuan’s main principles in life is basically “if anyone is a problem, we solve it by killing them.” While of course this is terrible in real life, in a drama/for fictional life, I … think it’s pretty awesome.

Because each episode is so short a lot of the usual drama filler and draggy parts are eliminated. It might be a bit too telling about my character (or lack thereof?) but when an annoying tropey character that usually dominates way too much of a series is dealt with by the end of episode two, I laugh and clap my hands each time. (You have to see it to get why this might be 😅 on my part.)  However despite the short length you don’t miss out on a great story. What’s also fun is I’m pretty sure since this was a short webdrama a lot more got past censorship than would otherwise. (There are hints at gay and lesbian relationships, and I am all for it.) While of course the whole series is still PG13 (while I don’t know all the censorship rules/it doesn’t seem anyone does/it’s “mostly vibes” by whoever is in control) the series is also surprisingly sexy. The tension, the chemistry, it’s all 100. An example is – while not unheard of – the brothel the characters visit is one that has male courtesans/prostitutes. And there’s light kink too.

It was nice to see the maid with the power dynamic – although Shen Yan is so socially low, and Ning Yuan is the prince, she’s the teacher, and the one who takes lead/informs him on how to act. She’s the initial schemer. They understand they’re both using each other. (Although it’s more complicated for him, of course, because he’s fallen desperately in love with her.) Shen Yan takes longer to come around. There’s also humor tucked in, one example being when Ning Yuan is trying to decide what to wear, and his “entire wardrobe” is black. (Cuz he’s a “villain” you know.) Or another character who is in love with Shen Yan flirting with her, even saying “I’m doing this despite the risk of the seventh prince possibly killing me for it.”

I think anyone could and would enjoy the series, but there might be some cultural “subtleties” that might be lost with someone who doesn’t know. (E.g. the crime of the actual villain – the crown prince.) The show gives you enough information, but there’d just be more “umph” if you know – but saying it here would be a spoiler for the series. The symbolism and themes carried through, there’s so much going on in this little drama (plum blossoms!). The attention to detail too – while it seems silly, there’s actual blood in fight scenes, which a lot of big budget dramas don’t bother with (what sword?) which people just turn a blind eye to – but it adds so much when it’s there. It’s done subtly too – no big comical or excessively gory sprays of blood.

There’s impressive character growth, relational development, and a good plot. I’ve watched this drama at least three times now (maybe five?) and would still be happy to watch it again. It’s worth noting the subtitles on YouTube are also mostly on point – which isn’t always the case, as sometimes machine translating is used and those are usually… comical bordering on insulting. There’s only one thing I’d like to note – this one scene, you’ll know what it is – when Shen Yuan says “this servant is offended” … really it should be something like “sorry for causing offense/taking liberties.” Anyway. Also while Dong Lan Xue avoids a lot of the annoying usual tropes, it hits the usual highlights too. (Forbidden love, revenge, clenched fist of emotion, etc etc.)

Although the main characters are “villains” – they’re the way they are for very good reason. We get glimpses of their backgrounds, the prince’s is pretty clear from go, Shen Yan’s is shown through flashbacks. It’s heartbreaking. So while normally they’d be “the baddies” – it makes sense to see how and where they became what they are, and to support them in their actions.

I will warn though, there’s one short torture scene – definitely still PG13, the results have always been blurred out on YouTube when I’ve watched (thank goodness) – it’s not too much but I definitely got wide eyed when I watched it. These characters are willing to go to extremes.

All in all, Dong Lan Xue deserves a lot more love than it gets, and I think it’d be an excellent introduction to Chinese dramas, especially for someone concerned about investing time into a series. Great acting, great characters, great story, just all around something not to be missed. (And I remember the first time I watched it I squealed at the sexy – heh, which is amusing what is !!! vs romance novels. It’s a running joke with people who watch historical/costume cdramas.)

You can watch episode one/the whole series here:
(There’s a brat new servant who comes in and “tells off” ML and FL …)

ETA: *SOBS* E1 seems to have been removed but the trailer mostly covers it … E2 is still available

4 thoughts on “What if the “Villains” Were the Heroes? A belated TBR Team Challenge Review of Dong Lan Xue

  1. ki pha

    Omg, I’m definitely going to be picking this up and putting it on my to watch lost. I have no time for too long of a series and draggy parts, so these shorts will do very well for me.

    1. Limecello Post author

      Eeee!!! *claps hands* I hope you watch it and let me know what you think!

      If you’re interested in other short dramas I have tons of recs – lol they’re basically all I’ve watched this month (or longer?) :X

    1. Limecello Post author

      IT TOTALLY IS DENISE! AND SO LOW INVESTMENT TOO! I’m super into webshorts now. LOL perfect for my zero attention span and impatience for the evil static characters who always win just to drag out plot – can’t have those characters when the episode is only like 3 minutes 😀


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