The Rebel Princess: Epic on All Fronts

Christina Knight | July 28, 2022
A woman stands at a wall with a hand on it, looks down and smiles.

Zhang Ziyi as Princess Awu, subject of The Rebel Princess. Scene from Episode 6, when the princess is a teenager.

The Rebel Princess, a Chinese period drama streaming on PBS, is epic on all fronts. It has an ensemble cast representing power players in an Imperial palace, settings that range from exquisite ceremonial rooms to barren battlefields, a reported budget of over $100 million, top actors and creative talent, and 68 episodes. The epic drama centers on a princess played by international film star Zhang Ziyi. Film critics and fans have been equally wowed by actor Zhou Yiwei who plays general Xiao Qi, an admirable character that defies military leader cliches.

A man and woman sit close together and wear satiny white robes. She leans against his shoulder and he puts an arm around her shoulder.

Princess Awu (Zhang Ziyi) and Xiao Qi (Zhou Yiwei) in The Rebel Princess.

All 68 episodes are streaming now. Our Senior Director of Programming, Susie Hernandez, is a fan and in our monthly newsletter for THIRTEEN members, called The Rebel Princess a “romantic fight-the-power drama”:

The Imperial family has become ‘rotten to the core’ and shows no regard for the people. A pawn in politics, Princess Awu must marry an outsider general. But there’s nothing like crisis, revenge, love and rebellion to make a great romantic power couple. There’s a kingdom and people to fight for!

Besides the amazing chemistry of the two ‘leads,’ the lavish costumes and spectacle of royal ceremonies took my breath away. I should point out that the epic is more romance than politics, which I welcome right now, and I hope you do too.

Below we share some background on the series talents, the main characters, and where to hear more from those dedicated to covering Chinese drama.

Zhang Ziyi

Western audiences know Zhang Ziyi best from the Oscar-nominated films Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Memoirs of a Geisha.  Zhang has starred in many Chinese films, commanding more salary than any other screen actress in China and among the highest paid actresses in the world. If you’re not aware of her star power, having her in a series on PBS is like having a series starring Viola Davis or Elizabeth Moss on public television. 

The Rebel Princess is in fact the first “small screen” (television) role for Zhang.

How to Watch

The Rebel Princess premiered on the Chinese streaming platform Youku on January 9, 2021 and all 68 episodes can be streamed on PBS stations now. The costume drama is part of the extended library of Passport videos offered to members of PBS stations, as a benefit of membership. Use THIRTEEN Passport to stream The Rebel Princess and other dramas and PBS programs on THIRTEEN.org, or better yet, download the THIRTEEN app or PBS Video app.

The same one-and-a-half minute scene montage plays as the introduction to all episodes, so feel free to fast forward through it. A second montage plays at the end of each episode, also identical throughout the series.

Language, Subtitles, Captions

Mandarin (“standard” Chinese) speakers will appreciate that the actors’ own voices are used in The Rebel Princess, which is not a given in Chinese dramas! The complexity of accents and many dialects in the Chinese diaspora has led to Chinese productions using professional voice actors to dub over actors (the reasons why are well explained in a video by YouTuber AvenueX, an excellent and entertaining source for Chinese drama reviews). We have seen a reference to the Taiwanese actor Tony Yo-ning Yang (Prince Zitan) being dubbed.

English subtitles are automatically positioned in clear, legible-size white text on each episode of The Rebel Princess. If you typically have captions turned on for PBS videos, turn them off while watching The Rebel Princess. Otherwise, you’ll be faced with identical captions in two different formats, positioned slightly differently and with different timings on your screen.

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Criticism of English translations for Chinese dramas also hit The Rebel Princess, which is reported to have instances of anachronistic language and casual expressions – epochs ahead of their time for a period drama. 

What Do Chinese Drama Fans Say?

We’ve been amused, inspired and all the more enlightened to see what fans of Chinese drama are saying about The Rebel Princess. We especially appreciate the insights of bloggers and YouTube channels that are dedicated to dissecting and elaborating upon Chinese productions, providing context and especially strong opinions. Perhaps you’ll find one to follow among our recommendations. We particularly enjoyed the many comments their material draws.

The first seven episodes cover the princess’s youth in the palace, so reviewers say stick around for the ride if you find this portion slow-going.

Costumed Stories

This site dedicated to Chinese and other East Asian dramas focuses on Chinese and Korean period dramas.

“Yes, The Rebel Princess is, by far, one of the best the world of Chinese costume dramas has to offer. It’s also a treasure trove for metas and dissections,” says the site.

The unnamed author of Costumed Stories identifies himself as “​​a queer Asian writer-person from the U.S. who grew up on genre media and online fandom culture. My pronouns are he/him.” He wishes the central romance was paced differently but says, “that’s about the worst issue with this drama, as the rest of the story was fantastically crafted, from its epic war scenes, to its political factions and insurgencies, to how equalized its main characters are in terms of importance.”

Read the whole review: The Rebel Princess’ Review: No Expense Is Spared and It Shows

AvenueX YouTube channel

The AvenueX YouTube channel is devoted to Chinese dramas and storytelling in its various forms. The unnamed host, based in Canada, is deliciously opinionated and witty, delivering missives on costume dramas while costumed in a semblance of historical women’s dress and hair styling. AvenueX videos can generate hundreds of equally opinionated comments.

AvenueX posted about The Rebel Princess after viewing the first seven of 68 episodes, when the character Princess Awu is a teenager and receives a beautiful, but interrupted coming-of-age ceremony in the palace. Unbeknownst to me, the character is supposed to be age 15 for that ceremony and AvenueX is livid that the production didn’t use a younger actress for this section of the series. She is also frustrated that Zhang, who was 38 years old at the time of filming, didn’t pull off acting like a teenager with more aplomb.  This was a point of contention in online commentary when the series first came out in China in 2021. For me – keeping up with subtitles and unfamiliar names and playing catch-up to Chinese palace dramas – the fact that the same actress plays the teenage and adult character was not a distraction at all. (After all, I watched a 76-year-old Robert De Niro play a character who was in his early 30s in The Irishman).

I do admire AvenueX’s passion for storytelling and entertaining style, so I’ll focus on her positive responses to the series. “The quality of the production is not only reflected in its budget (over $100 million US dollars). It is also reflected in its insane ensemble.” AvenueX explains it’s the only drama to have “ever put together such an impressive crew in television history.” Among the talent she calls out: director Hou Yong; director of photography French cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd; the head production designer Han Zhong (Hero). Zhang Ziyi’s gorgeous styling is thanks to Oscar winner Ye Jintian and Oscar nominated Zhang Shuping. The wonderful score is by Japanese composer Shigeru Umebayashi, who wrote the scores for House of Flying Daggers and In the Mood for Love and many Hollywood productions.

Watch her review in Monarch Industry/The Rebel Princess First Impression.

Alexis P. Johnson

YouTuber Alexis P. Johnson is a filmmaker and her YouTube channel covers Korean and Chinese drama. She is “obsessed” with The Rebel Princess, calling the production value “off the chain,” “nuts” and “immaculate” for its attention to details in costumes, set and lighting. She considers the series’ pace to be slow, which she loves so she can better pay attention. In her review, she covers why Xiao Qi is such an admirable character, the rarity of a drama addressing a chronic illness, and much more about the princess and her primary relationship. Alexis advises that her review contains spoilers, but I say watch it all so your viewing can be guided by her unequivocal enthusiasm for the series!

Watch Chinese Drama Review – The Rebel Princess.

The Rebel Princess AKA’s

Three woman in chinese traditional royalty dress in palace courtyard

Episode 51 scene with Princess Awu (center) and her maid Su Jin’er (left).

The Rebel Princess is based on a novel Emperor’s Conquest by Mei Yu Zhe. The Chinese series name is Shang Yang Fu (the name of the princess).

You may see the drama series referenced online by an earlier working title that was trotted out: “The Monarch Industry.” The monarch in that case was not the butterfly, but to the fictional clan whose many ancestors have been Empress Consort, wife of the Emperor. The actual rebel princess is part of this Wang clan, and while growing up, she is adored by all. 

Here are some key characters of note.

Wang Xuan, AKA the series’ “rebel princess,” Princess Awu, the female lead played by Zhang Ziyi. 

Xiao Qi, AKA, a commoner who became an esteemed general and who is rewarded with the title Prince of Yuzhang. Male lead played by Zhou Yiwei (The Message, Dying to Survive, Tribes and Empires: Storm of Prophecy).

Prime Minister Wang Lin, AKA Princess Awu’s father, played by Hewei Yu (Cliff Walkers and the upcoming film, The Three-Body Problem).

Ma Jinruo, AKA Wang Lin’s wife and the Emperor’s younger sister; the mother of Wang Su and Princess Awu. She is played by Angie Chiu, veteran of many kung fu series and known more recently for the TV series Imperfect Love.

Zi-Long, The Crown Prince (the oldest of three brothers and the prince destined to be emperor), played by Guo Jiaming (Pacific Rim: Uprising; The Message). He loved Princess Awu as they grew up together, but he’s a nasty character and she never liked him.

Zilu, The Second Crown Prince (the middle brother), played by Purba Rgyal (Prince of the Himalaya).

Zitan, The Third Crown Prince (the youngest brother, who stands the least chance to ever become emperor). He and Princess Awu were childhood sweethearts. He is played by Tony Yo-ning Yang (Plurality, My Ex-Boyfriend).

Su Jin’er, Princess Awu’s maid and noble consort, played by Liu Yun (Sex and the City).

Find Community around The Rebel Princess and Chinese Drama

A man and woman in traditional royal Chinese casual dress stand next to each other and react with horror at something

Scene from Episode 16, The Rebel Princess.

We would love you to hear your reactions to The Rebel Princess on social media. Loop us in by tagging us on these platforms: Twitter (@Thirteen/WNET), Facebook (@Thirteen WNET New York) and Instagram (@thirteenwnet).

One great place for on-going discussions of Chinese dramas is the subreddit r/Cdrama on Reddit, which has more than 24,000 members! Here’s your direct portal to its r/Cdrama posts on The Rebel Princess.

Drama Panda is a site for reviews of Chinese and Korean dramas, Chinese entertainment news and celebrity gossip. 

Marcus Here! is a popular YouTube channel for discussion around Chinese dramas and celebrities.

We have to give credit to the blog cyn-lynn, which wrote short synopses of every single episode The Rebel Princess!

There’s been a lot of royalty in our blog pages recently. See what we shared about the musician Prince and his streaming concert, and the August 2022 broadcasts featuring Princess Diana.