While I’m more than willing to concede that Yuanyi is in large part the reason for why Niaoniao carries around low trust issues on her sleeve, at the end of the day the business of co-existing with Ling Buyi has to go on for better or for worse. It is undeniable that Niaoniao has become the fiercely independent young woman because of the perception that she’s had to stand up for herself for the longest time. That side to her is decidedly the result of both neglect as well as hit and miss parenting. The issue of “losing herself” was borne out of that fear of having no one to rely on rather than a well-thought out philosophical position leading to a kind of activism. On the surface it looks as if Niaoniao is fighting for her right to be her own woman but dig deeper and it seems to be about her ongoing need to prove herself while shaking her frustrated fists at the mother who has been emotionally absent for far too long.
Shaoshang has been accused of many things — many unjustified — but her real fault is a kind of needless obstinacy. On the other side of that coin is determination which has served her extremely well through some dark days but Ling Buyi is not Xiao Yuanyi or even Cheng Shi. She can’t keep living like a loner who is up against the big bad world on her own. Furthermore the reality is that she was never entirely on her own even when her parents were away fighting wars. Nor was she when they returned. For instance she’s always had friends and siblings supporting her when the occasion called for it. She’s also had Dad or Uncle come to her defence. Whether she realises it or not, she’s never been entirely alone. Never. Even when she was abused by her grandmother and Second Aunt, there were people secretly helping her like Yangyang and Lianfan. She has practically said so herself. I imagine it suits her to cling on to this pessimistic individualistic vision of her life because it has reliably given her a certain amount of strength to push on during tough times.
Of course I remind myself that this is a coming of age story and that Shaoshang is on a journey which includes the pitfalls of love and marriage. Ill-considered parenting has left her ill-equipped to give and receive trust readily. Now that she’s being parented by the emperor and his wives on a level that’s hitherto been closed to her, a whole new world of possibilities is opening up to her. While she’s always had people barracking for her from the sidelines, her engagement with Ling Buyi comes with a full complement of cheerleaders who are there hopefully for the long haul. The English poet John Donne in his most famous sermon states this best:
“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;”
While her vengeful actions does have ramifications for others, it is equally true that the offence against Shaoshang was never hers alone to bear. The empress says as much. These young women have acted in disorderly fashion, flouted palace rules and the head of the palace must exercise her discretion and dole out discipline accordingly. It isn’t one person’s grievance but it concerns law and order in the first family’s own backyard.
In the aftermath of her revenge prank against the incorrigible Fifth Princess and her companions, Zisheng confronts Niaoniao about her reticence on the matter of having being pushed into a palace pond:
“That day you were in tears while asking me to embrace you, were you feeling mistreated after being bullied by them? If it weren’t for the fact that the 5th Princess let it slip, how long were you planning to keep this from me?"
From the look on his face and the tone of his voice Shaoshang immediately senses that she’s done something to upset him and attempts to alleviate his concerns by attempting to diminish the seriousness of the situation and the gravity of the princess’ crime — the snakes were non-venomous in fact, just your garden variety water snakes that can be found all over the countryside. It is an evasive tactic to insist that it isn’t a matter that warrants his attention — a small matter that she could handle on her own. His response is terse. If so, why not tell him? If the day comes and the mean girls have murderous intent, would she likewise keep mum? Isn’t his concern for her safety legitimate? After all if he did drag her into the palace fray, shouldn’t he be responsible for her well-being on some level.
For Zisheng it boils down to trust… or a lack of it. His frustration is that she doesn’t factor him in her calculations. That’s what all that talk about wanting to be her confidant support, and for her to be honest with him. is about. It’s not about control, not even about reliance but greater intimacy. Niaoniao, perhaps bewildered by the turn of the conversation reflexively falls back on her “I’m-an-independent-woman” line as if it addresses his misgivings with direct relevance. In the scheme of things, it’s an odd comeback to his point because it doesn’t address the root cause of his fears. As far as he’s concerned, she could have died, a categorically irreversible state of things. He is genuinely in a panic for her life. Pleading for greater honesty and expressing a longing for closeness might be a challenge to her naiveté but it’s also an expression of love.
Niaoniao undoubtedly realises that she could have handled this situation better but doubles down on the angry talk rather than address his heartfelt concerns or acknowledge the importance of taking his feelings into consideration. The exchange escalates into a series of accusations (or perceived accusations) and defensive postures ending rather badly with the “That’s who I am” riff being replayed for the nth time — as if it’s the only answer that immediately settles all problems between them. It’s the same o’l same o’l “take me or leave me” tactic that’s calculated to end a difficult, troublesome conversation without resolving the issues that brought it about. All it does is relegate it to the too-hard basket. It is another instance of “angry talk” rather than accommodation winning the day.
This is a conversation that should have taken place long before this event occurred. In fact this should have been thrashed out after the “tiger seals” incident when she was on the cusp of apologising but Zisheng was too desperate and eager to reassure her that he loves her the way she is that she’s never felt compelled to take his feelings into consideration now that they are a couple. Just because he loves her as she is, doesn’t mean that a) there’s no room for improvement in the way they communicate b) that he can just pretend he’s fine with her jeopardising her own safety. Up to now he has had his eyes and ears everywhere but this time he was entirely in the dark. It genuinely terrifies him to think that she could have died when he has the means to prevent the whole fiasco from escalating.
While conflict can lead to negative consequences, it’s also a symptom that there’s something in the relationship that needs attending to, preferably immediately. Conflict is often an opportunity for the people involved to strengthen their bonds with honesty and in-depth communication. It always a puzzling thing that people spend so much time and energy on their careers/professions and so relatively/ proportionately little effort on their closest relationships.
Indeed the apple certainly doesn’t fall far from the tree. Niaoniao has inherited this propensity to double down from her mother. Other characters have said this in the course of the drama, but it’s worth reiterating here. Niaoniao is far more like her mother than both of them like to believe. It doesn’t have to be about genetics but this refusal to acknowledge that they could be wrong in an argument explains where we’re at in this portion of the story. Yuanyi, although says the right thing at times, parents Niaoniao like she’s disciplining soldiers and never admits that her way of doing things might be counterproductive. Although she cares, she won’t say it or take steps to improve their relationship. She would rather be contrarian for its own sake than admit that she’s been wrong about how she’s treated Niaoniao.
Fortunately for her, Niaoniao has her future royals in-laws to take her in hand. It’s never too late to figure things out with the other half. As His Majesty says. It’s an ongoing, lifelong process of negotiation and accommodation which results in two people becoming “one flesh”.
It is suggestive… maybe only to me… that Niaoniao doesn’t say that she didn’t tell Zisheng about her near-drowning experience because she was afraid of his response — that he might recklessly turn the place upside down and cause furore among the royals. In fact when she discovers that he’s about to be punished by the emperor for beating up the imperial censor, she enjoys a little snicker giving hearty approval of her fiancé’s errant ways. Of course her revenge is hers to savour but she’s not so independent that she doesn’t mind him doing his bit. So it begs the question — is she more afraid that he will prevent her from having the satisfaction of exacting revenge by her own efforts than him trampling on her independence? My guess is that it’s the former. That would be far more consistent with the Cheng Shaoshang that I’ve come to know and love. The day she insisted on personally witnessing the rebels getting executed for their crimes against the state and civilians told us everything we needed to know about what makes Shaoshang tick.
The beating that Zisheng received purportedly for taking matters into his hands in punishing the eight heads of households seems to be a parallel to the one Niaoniao received from her mother for sabotaging the bridge at the Wan household. Niaoniao’s empathy for Zisheng is at an all time high here as she pleads for the punishment to be withdrawn. On what basis does she seek to have it overturned? She appeals to the emperor on the basis that he’s Zisheng’s surrogate father and that Zisheng is a pitiful character who does insane reckless things (like her) because of the absence of his birth parents. Like her, he has suffered gross parental neglect and begs the indulgence of His Majesty. Although on the surface it seemed like the meting out of excessively severe punishment, the technique applied is calculated to mitigate the damage. This time round, it’s the emperor’s stage-managed scheme to arouse all of Shaoshang’s better feelings for Zisheng and get her to ‘fess up because he can’t have these two lovebirds at loggerheads or in a perpetual state of limbo.
There can be no doubt that the drama as a whole is a satirical exploration of dysfunctional parent-child dynamics. When we have the Fifth Princess successfully managing to incur the ire of everyone present in the empress’ courtyard, or when the emperor goes to great lengths to give his godson a flying head start in nuptial bliss, it’s not hard to see where the show’s priorities are. The moralising around bad parenting reverberates around these recent episodes with unequivocal clarity: Parents, put some effort in raising your children or they will be an utter nuisance to everyone in close proximity as well as a scourge on society. It may be an oversimplification to say that bad parenting leads to bad kids or better parenting leads to better children but few would disparage the thesis in its entirety. Universally the correlation is hard to reject out of hand.
In the final analysis the Fifth Princess is a bag of floating hot air in search of a kick. (Or a kick in the pants) The Veruca Salt of the palace. With all her pretensions to coveting the throne, she is really not much more than an entitled child who is adept at throwing tantrums and disparaging others with infuriating vigour. She’s the monster offspring that is the nightmare of every parent’s existence. When it was time for her to receive her punishment, even the otherwise mild mannered Cao Cheng could barely contain the contempt in his voice. Her punishment, a gift from the vengeful Ling Buyi as promised, is a call back to her insistence that killing Cheng Shaoshang would be no worse than trampling on an ant. If Cheng Shaoshang is just an ant then in the final analysis, her toy boys are just toys right? Extreme situations call for extreme measures.
Sadly it’s clear that she’s been overindulged and both parents — the emperor and the empress, kindly people as they are — have to take some responsibility for the way she’s turned out. As I’ve said previously, parenting is more of an art than a science. Every child is different and needs to be dealt with on an individual basis. What might work for the crown prince won’t necessarily work for the others.
Ling Buyi, The Punisher, doubles up as a terrifying vigilante as he sips tea in leisurely fashion while publicly shaming Very Important Bad Dads who have raised badly behaved daughters who just happen to be involved in Niaoniao’s near drowning event. On the surface it seems like he’s just taking hot revenge for his beloved fiancee but because he’s the consummate schemer, he uses this as an opportunity to raid the Imperial Censorate for documents related to Gu City and Marquise Yue while he’s threatening the imperial censor with over-the-top interrogation techniques. It’s as much theatre as the emperor’s idea to have him flogged in front of Niaoniao. Here he kills three birds with a stone: First, he avenges Niaoniao with all the bombast he can muster. Secondly, it’s also his rather extreme way of showing Niaoniao how he feels when she doing her Lone Ranger act with no thought to consequences. Moreover, I don’t think he was ever in doubt that she loved him, only that she was withholding the only thing he wants from her — trust. It is a most precious commodity that can be given to another because without it, no relationship can have longevity much less intimacy. Thirdly, it is provides cover for his men to raid the Censorate’s archives for information while he makes repairs to the damage he’s done to the offices.
Backing him up in his bid for the roles of judge, jury and executioner, is Yuan Shen now working for the Ministry of Justice. For the first time in a long time he’s becoming someone that I may be able to root for because he went against his usual programming by publicly demonstrating support for the woman he loves. He has always been good for a laugh now and again… and when he’s not being a mean boy. I particularly enjoyed his rare show of the cooperative spirit when Zisheng offers to turn over evidence incriminating the seven Bad Dads who are also involved in other types of hanky panky. This is where the actor Li Yunrui really excels — when he plays the elegant haughty scholar who understands the irony of the situation that he’s in.
I was remiss in my previous post when I failed to mention the crown prince consort’s insecurity and jealousy of his childhood sweetheart Qu Lingjun which is intruding on her relationship with the crown prince. Consort Chu was not the crown prince’s first choice for a wife (a match made for political reasons) and a choice that a very young Zisheng had foreseen would have damaging ramifications for the royal family — a prediction that no one heeded then and from how things are gradually playing out, a decision everyone will end up regretting in time to come.
Hi again, Lily! It’s always so nice to hear your thoughts for LLTG.
The part where you mentioned how Niaoniao isn’t quite alone in so many aspects… I am glad you called it out. For Shaoshang, I wonder if it’s the result of being an adolescent to not quite reflect that while she was separated from her parents, when her family returned, her father and brothers lovingly out-right dote on her. The same with her third uncle and especially her third aunt (I miss them). But I do think whenever she has the inner monologue to herself of relying on no one else but herself, it does help her endure the hard times.
YESS! I wish there was more conversation between them for growth from the tiger seal incident. It felt like such a missed opportunity for the drama.
Ahh, this! “It always a puzzling thing that people spend so much time and energy on their careers/professions and so relatively/ proportionately little effort on their closest relationships.” All of this!!!
At first, I thought the way LBY executed his “gift” to the princess was quite cruel, though in character with him. Then considering what you reminded us with what 5th princess did and how she saw Shaosheng’s life, I could understand why LBY exacted the situation.
I think in another place and time, if he and LBY were not love rivals, they’d be good friends.
I always love the way you write and structure your thoughts/essays by the way. You already know that though. :) Onto the next!