Stand By Me (2021) The Matter of Love

At the heart of this drama is an emperor who has profound trust issues and is consciously or unconsciously in desperate search of someone to trust. Reliability is what he needs more than romance but with the package that comes in the form of his sword bearer, Cheng Ruoyu is the prospect of romance — a romance he cannot allow himself to be distracted by in his path to bring matters under his control. Therein drives the push and pull. It’s obvious to anyone with eyes (including the Empress Dowager) that the normally inscrutable Qi Yan favours his sword bearer not just as a loyal officer of his court but as a woman that he has feelings for. Officially she is meant to be his shield but there’s something about her personality (not just her inferior martial arts or impetuosity) that sees Qi Yan coming to her aid over and over again.

In many ways Cheng Ruoyu is an all-too familiar female trope. Cheerful, optimistic and naive in the ways of the world. More at home perhaps in a rom com than in a palace drama. She doesn’t fit comfortably in that milieu in part because she is a lost child with no memory of her past even while she descends from a patrician family. Her role as a well-placed but innocent pawn in other people’s scheming makes her the perfect foil for those who are more adept at playing this high stakes game where winning and losing is a matter of life and death. Still her good-natured if impulsive temperament is what wins her the most unlikely friends and the love of a lonely emperor. Cheng Ruoyu or Yu’er as she’s called by those closest to her, epitomizes what Rousseau would have called the authentic self which is marked by a purity in heart, childlike wonder, untainted by thoughts of vengeance, the corruption and political expediency that surrounds her. She is impulsively devoted to her duty and her cause — to protect the man sitting on the throne. A ripe candidate to move even the hardest heart. This too arouses all of the emperor’s protective instincts and drives the “push” element in their dynamic.

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In Episodes 24-26 unbeknownst to her she becomes embroiled in a zero sum game where she is called upon to choose between the “aunty” who raised her for eight years and the man she’s sworn fealty to in more recent times. I say unbeknownst because this zero sum game was established the day she was found and adopted by aunty, Cheng Xi head of the Violet Bureau. Rather than a sword bearer for the emperor, it is revealed that she was nurtured to be a sword (or honey trap) for those who wish to destroy and overthrow Qi Yan from his position. With the best of intentions, she wants to “save” Cheng Xi from her “misguided” ways so when she’s confronted by Qi Yan on the issue, she lies and dodges the question. To him it’s a matter of loyalty, to her it’s a matter of salvation. To him it’s about whether his trust in her is warranted but to her it’s about giving Cheng Xi a second chance and calling her to repentance. It’s a test she fails to everyone’s dismay because in her naivete the nature of the zero sum game escapes her. Yu’er in her unadulterated innocence represents a third way. She eschews the conventional dictum of kill or be killed (not always literally) but to save as many lives as possible.

With recent revelations, the romance makes even more sense than it did at the beginning. Love is the unpredictable variable — the spanner in the works — that has disrupted the best laid plans of monsters and men. Cheng Ruoyu with her perceived recklessness is that variable that could steer the ship one way or another. Others may have had plans for her but she has her own ideas of how the rest of her life with the emperor plays out. Qi Yan may say he wants to send her someone to protect her and yet if he were honest with himself, he can’t bear to let her go. With his mouth he says one thing, with his actions he says something else. It isn’t the sign of a man distracted, it is sign of a man who is committed. But at this point he sees it only as a weakness rather than an asset because he can’t bear to see her hurt. Which is a shame because love brings out the best in him and makes his hellish existence far more bearable.

In a voiceover moment, Qi Yan addresses the late former emperor as he turns to watch a departing Yu’er. In it he says “Brother, as you see, even though I’ve turned into a demon, when I’m faced with such a woman, it’s impossible for me not to like her. This is the woman I like. She is called Cheng Ruoyu.” Her back is turned to him so she can’t see the sad, wistful, longing look on his face. For the viewer it is a significant moment that encapsulates their push and pull perfectly.

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