From a writing point of view, Huo Buyi as he becomes known as, is perhaps the most complex character of the story. While there’s a rugged masculine warrior persona that he carries around for public consumption, trapped in that strapping body is also a grieving lad of six who saw terrible things happen to people that he loved done by someone who was trusted by the family. A relative. A brother-in-law that his birth father trusted to his detriment and that of an entire city. That little boy consistently serves as a reminder to Huo Buyi of the helplessness he once felt but now as a man with resources at his disposal, he is obligated to set the record straight. The rational side of adult Huo Buyi always believed that he would eventually put all the pieces together and present a case before the emperor and his court to convict all the perpetrators as well as finger Ling Yi as the chief inside man who literally let the enemy in with open arms which is to say that the slaughter of thousands was ultimately on him. The calculating Huo Buyi thought that if he were dogged enough and played his cards right, he would get his man in the end. When his arch enemy as it were slips through his fingers, something visceral within snaps. The terrified helpless little boy who had no one he could trust rears his head (so to speak).
The same helpless child is the man we see giving testimony in the emperor’s court. Dishevelled and stripped of his fine weeds, a recovering Huo Wushang aka A’Zheng tells his story at last of what happened to Gu City 15 years and the aftermath before arriving at the capital city with his aunt Huo Junhua. By then, she’s an absolute emotional basket case after witnessing not only the deaths of thousands before her eyes but also when she spots the head of her young son stuck at the end of a pikestaff on the city wall. Clearly the enemy on that occasion was merciless in the extreme. Wushang and Junhua survive by hiding among the corpses. It’s a horrifying experience and when asked by the emperor about his identity, Wushang lies about being Ling Buyi to protect himself from his father’s murderer until he was old enough to embark on the journey to peel the layers off what happened that horrible day.
A parallel scene is staged when Wen Di poses the same question to the grown up Zisheng who is less like the arrogant Ling Buyi but more like the reserved A’Zheng when he first appears before the emperor all those years ago. “Tell me with your own lips, Child. What is your name?” This time he declares himself to be Huo Wushang, the surviving offspring of Huo Chong, sworn brother of the emperor.
After the death of Peng Kun Zisheng knew he would have a hard time proving his own identity and his claims about Ling Yi’s culpability. I stress this because there are those who think that he shouldn’t have romanced Niaoniao if he was going on a killing spree. Thankfully there’s a birthmark that Wen Di knows about and Yuan Shen manages to track down some useful evidence that Mdm Chunyu, Ling Yi’s widow left with Consort Ruyang to corroborate some of his claims. The competent Third Prince has done some digging and discovers that Zisheng’s chief accuser, Censor Zuo is collaborating with the remnants loyal to the previous regime. Despite what anyone thinks about how he handled the situation it’s clear why Zisheng takes matter into his own hands, and tries to leave the Niaoniao and the Chengs out of the picture as much as possible because death was awaiting him for his sins. He really believed that he would be executed for committing murder due to the paucity of evidence.
There’s no denying that it was Zisheng’s intention to “abandon” Niaoniao after doing the deed. However, it is clear that he did to protect her from his bloody deeds. It may not be much of an excuse to the woman who feels slighted but it is a reason — and in the scheme of things, not a bad one either. Of course, Niaoniao who has abandonment issues from way back, takes great exception and decides to end things between them because she’s disillusioned with how he handled the situation especially because she has been nothing but supportive of his need to gain resolution for the dead of Gu City. She’s understandably hurt at what she sees to be a betrayal although that was never the primary driver motivating Zisheng to act the way he did. Nevertheless instead of helping both of them see each other’s perspectives, the empress takes Niaoniao’s side because she thinks this is what the distressed Niaoniao needs at that moment. Zisheng, who is already racked with guilt about leaving her and taking a swan dive down the cliff when she aided him in an escape attempt, thinks he’s committed the unforgivable sin, takes it on the chin and accepts what he sees to be the inevitable — permanent separation. Instead of asking for forgiveness because he feels worse than a worm, refuses to explain himself. She on the other hand refuses to forgive because to her mind she’s given her all and he didn’t come to the party.
Where I part ways from the leads (and by extension the writer possibly) is that I don’t think what Zisheng did is an unforgivable sin that warranted a break up of any kind because forgiveness is almost never about the other party being deserving. Forgiveness is born out of mercy and out of grace. The irony of it all is that everything he did was for others. There’s no denying he did things on his own without consulting her and perpetrated some degree of deception but that doesn’t have to be the death knell of their relationship. It’s almost as if Niaoniao expects Zisheng to be perfect which is unrealistic. I realise too that when you’re young and inexperienced things can seem worse than they really are. (Not unlike having your first child) In fact, this moment handled rightly could have been an opportunity to strengthen the relationship. This is where the adults come in to save the day like on other occasions and act as sounding boards. But where were they? Noticeably missing in action. Deafening in their silence. All this tells me is that the writer really wants this separation to take place. Why? To get Huo Buyi to the northwest maybe so he can atone for his sins there and wallow in purgatory like a monk.
To my older mind this whole event feels like a lost opportunity and maybe that’s what the writer is after. The separation is an overkill to my mind and it leads me to question the strength of the foundations that have been so painstakingly laid down prior to this debacle. I also have to question their commitment to one another. In common parlance it reads this way: It ain’t a good look let me tell ya. If every couple bailed out every time they had problems, the divorce rate would be even higher than it is right now.
Most days I’m fond of Wen Di because he comes across as a big cuddly bear that provides laughs and his affection for Zisheng is rather heartwarming. I also like that he’s good to his wives. As a monarch, however, my feelings are rather mixed. Just because he’s not like other tyrannical tv emperors doesn’t make him a less troubling figure at times. To me he’s just far too sentimental than is healthy at times particularly for a man of his position. No doubt he is the master of theatre. The kicking thing he does is rather amusing but it’s hard to take him seriously when he’s throwing tantrums in front of his court officials. On the matter of the crown prince, he is absolutely frustrating in his refusal to budge. Generosity shouldn’t be the most important defining character of a ruler. Fortunately for him, the Third Prince who is absolutely his mother’s son, is far more reliable than his oldest. It’s reached a point where even the empress has to make threats to force Wen Di’s hand about who his successor should be. This should clue us in on the state of things. As Zisheng has good reason to know the crown prince is really not up for the job. It’s unnerving to know that he’s practically handed Zisheng the keys to the throne room even after the tiger seals fiasco. But this is all on Wen Di too who is all heart. Fortunately for him he has loyal generals and officials at his disposal (and to his credit he does inspire loyalty in certain types of men) or the remnants of the previous regime would have overrun the city by now.
The Third Prince continues to impress with intelligence and decisiveness in what little we do see of him. I had an inkling that he was closer to Zisheng than he let on because during the marriage proposal he looked like he was supporting Zisheng’s bid to make a wife out of Niaoniao. Also during Huo Chong’s memorial feast (if memory serves) the Third Prince noted rather wryly that everyone was bootlicking now when they all treated Zisheng really badly when he first arrived. It was surprising, although not entirely, to know that it was he who saved Zisheng when he got dunked in the palace pond as a child. It makes sense that two men of a similar disposition and intellectual ability would get along much better than even two brothers.
While Niaoniao has a legitimate grievance against Zisheng for abandoning ship, a refusal to forgive is a trap that leads to bitterness. Holding a grudge is a huge burden to bear and there’s no honour in it. I get it. I do. The silent treatment is punishment for hurting her deeply. I’ve been there and done it. I even have the T-shirt for it but holding on to one’s pride in such instances brings no relief just more anger and resentment. Moreover Niaoniao doesn’t look anything like a happy camper who is relieved to be free like a bird. If anything she looks like a woman who has condemned herself to a lifetime of misery by locking herself up in the palace.
To be honest and this is a word from the heart — I wish the leads wouldn’t have given up on their relationship this easily especially in a show that’s trying to advocate the strengthening of marriages. No matter who is at fault and who did what first to whom, there are lessons to be learnt and opportunities for growth that are lost when people give up on each other without much of a fight. I say this as someone who has grieved for friends who have taken the same route and in the same way I grieve for the couple at the centre of this drama.
Lily, you’re here. Thank goodness. I spent the week trying to figure out how from a storytelling perspective with HBY’s revenge arc and Shaosheng’s abandonment could have been better written without needing to go down the same path of “noble idiot” but struggled. I’ve given up for now because of headaches from this. LOL. I felt that there was no other way because Zisheng was hunted by that other general. But I felt such whiplash when he told CSS to go, and then she came charging in with the horse to save him. He took her hand, but they were surrounded, so perhaps he was thinking they truly could have escaped together had they not been cornered to the cliff, leaving him with no other choice of not wanting her to die with him. CSS was more than willing to, but not Zisheng.
Ah, thank you for breaking down the scenes of HBY’s desperation because I kept thinking and wondering if I had missed something in what might have suddenly triggered his rash action compared to the calculative and painstaking measure he’s taken, given how much he’s held in for so long to bid his time. I actually wasn’t sure had Peng Kun been alive, if it could have still proven Zisheng’s real identity as Huo Wushang, aside from the birthmark. Perhaps I missed something along the way, but I don’t know if I can bear to go back yet…or ever.
Junhua is such a complicated character for me because I feel empathetic for her but also want to hate her. True that she saved Zisheng and they survived together, but she is cruel and never the mother-figure he needed. Granted she suffered from mental illness and PTSD following the murder of her only son, but it appears that even in her youth, Junhua was willing (no different from 5th princess) to harm Consort Yue to the point of Consort Yue almost losing her life in the process. Junhua in her lucid moments continues to drill into Zisheng who is barely 6, survivor’s guilt and the need to avenge their maternal clan. What a heavy burden for someone so young to bear.
Anyway, YES to this later segment of what you wrote in terms of what Zisheng did not being unforgiveable. I think if CSS, given the years apart, had taken the time to think about it, or have some sort of enlightenment, this might have allowed her character growth. “Forgiveness is born out of mercy and grace”. AMEN. This incident is the first time their relationship has truly been tested, and to abandon each other is heartbreaking, making me question the very foundation of their love for each other too. “There are lessons to be learnt and opportunities for growth that are lost when people give up on each other without much of a fight.” Me, getting emotional again and nodding.
Hello! Kathleen introduced me to your page and now you have a new fan! :) It's been such a pleasure reading your analysis and thoughts. Your posts are always so insightful and stimulating! I finally watched Ep. 51 and wanted to chime in about our main couple's separation. I might be in the minority here, but I fully supported Niaoniao's decision (although, if they were in modern times, taking a "break" would've been more apropos). I think it would've been completely OOC if she hadn't.
For Niaoniao, abandonment is the ONE issue she can't tolerate or forgive. It's her deal-breaker. She even flat out tells Zisheng this (btw, I loved that she could communicate her needs and assert her boundaries), so it comes as no surprise when she follows through with the separation. I love that she remained steadfast on such a core issue for her. When the Empress visits Niaoniao's bedside for their heart to heart, their conversation encapsulates her stance perfectly. It's even more heartbreaking because Niaoniao completely understands Zisheng's need for revenge and doesn't resent him (and admits she likely would've done the same in his shoes).
Abandonment is such a deep, raw wound that's always lurking below the surface. It's intertwined with her identity and even haunts her (subconsciously). It's why Zisheng has to go to such extreme lengths to chip away at the walls around her heart. For lack of a better example, it's like trying to build a brick house on a straw foundation. As time progresses. Niaoniao matures and her relationship with her family improves, enabling her to patch that foundation. All the while Zisheng has been diligently building a sturdy house on top of it ... but ultimately, her foundation is still straw--likely reinforced with better materials now--but still shaky and susceptible.
All that said, I'm totally with you when you pointed out the adults are all MIA and that the author quite possibly wanted the separation to happen. I've noticed in many romance C-dramas, excessive/unnecessary self-sacrifice and sabotage are common tropes that I find quite frustrating because it happens without rhyme or reason but like you've highlighted, simply for the sake of separation. LLTG has been the only one I've taken exception to because I thought it was totally in line with Niaoniao's character, personality, and history.
Hope it's okay that I shared these thoughts! Looking forward to reading your next posts down the line :)