A friend of mine got a few of us watching The Romance of Tiger and Rose. The show has a tantalizing introduction: a modern-day writer passes out and dreams about the world the writer is currently writing. In addition, that world has two kingdoms split by gender status: one side female-only breadwinners and one side has male-only breadwinners. Lastly, the writer knows that the writer is in a dream and reacts to the plot holes the writer’s own dream finds. As far as I can tell, the point of the show is that Chen Qian Qian, the Third Princess consigned to an early death and the role the writer ends up playing in the writer’s dream, is the protagonist in this show. The writer as the Third Princess wins the people, the parents, the crown, and the love of the male lead.
By the end, however, I actively rooted against Chen Qian Qian.
I’m 75% sure I’m wrong to feel this way. From the sky, I get it: the plot device character becomes the main character now that the writer understands the character more deeply. The ascension is worth rooting for right? The self-discovery is worth rooting for, right? The character goes from pathetic to strong, right? Chen Qian Qian is someone whose warmth you want in a successful protagonist, right?
Problems start in episode 3, when Chen Qian Qian tries to play Han Shuo and Chen Chu Chu. Originally, Han Shuo, the son from the male-dominated kingdom, and Chen Chu Chu, the Second Princess from the female-dominated kingdom, have a tragic romance. However, now, Chen Qian Qian plays Han Shuo and Chen Chu Chu by sending out letters that tell Han Shuo to meet a spy and Chen Chu Chu to find a spy, so that Chen Qian Qian can save Han Shuo and win Han Shuo’s favor. Why? Chen Qian Qian knows she’s in a dream and knows the goal is to get Han Shuo to love Chen Chu Chu. Why isn’t Chen Qian Qian getting Chen Chu Chu to save Han Shuo?
In episode 5, Chen Qian Qian does even worse. In the writer’s script, Chen Chu Chu performs love’s sacrifice by stealing her own kingdom’s greatest asset, the Dragon Bone, to save Han Shuo from a lifetime illness. Now, the impetuous Chen Qian Qian steals the Dragon Bone and performs love’s sacrifice herself. Chen Qian Qian knows that this is how Han Shuo falls in love with someone. Why choose to replace Chen Chu Chu with herself? Doesn’t this make Chen Qian Qian the ultimate traitor? Chen Qian Qian doesn’t even love Han Shuo; this was self-preservation. That’s not love’s sacrifice, that’s greedily putting yourself above your people.
Episode 6 is Chen Qian Qian using Pei Heng in a cruel fashion. Chen Qian Qian’s archrival Lin Qi brings out all the people who have been affected by Chen Qian Qian’s childishness. In the original script, Chen Qian Qian uses the role of princess to avoid paying for anything. This scene is supposed to show that Chen Qian Qian deserves her fate. Instead Pei Heng, the Minister of Defense, the only male in the kingdom’s cabinet, and the man betrothed to Chen Qian Qian, steps in to defend Chen Qian Qian from the angry creditors. Now Chen Qian Qian has used everyone who might like her: Chen Chu Chu, their mother, Han Shuo, and Pei Heng. This isn’t a heroine; this is a spoiled brat.
Episode 7 has Chen Qian Qian ignoring orders and choosing to save miners at the sacrifice of the mine; this is a good thing. However, at the end, when the noble women chastise Chen Qian Qian, petroleum flows out of the ground to somehow justify Chen Qian Qian’s actions. Remember, this is the writer’s passed-out dream. The writer, to keep herself in her own dream, has introduced petroleum as a completely artifical plot device. This God-like plot device wins the hearts of the people, which Chen Qian Qian had no right to win. Chen Qian Qian has completely ruined Lin Qi for Chen Qian Qian’s own benefit, which is often the behavior of an antagonist this early: The Romance of Tiger and Rose is 24 episodes.
Episode 10 is Chen Qian Qian winning the title of Crown Princess and the first sign that Chen Qian Qian should realize she has messed up. Han Shuo paid off graders for the Crown Princess test which is obvious to everyone. This helps the love story: now we have Han Shuo saying “I like you.” However, this doesn’t help anyone believe that Chen Qian Qian has earned anything. I think that’s why her fight with Lin Qi is so weird: it’s an attempt to at least show that Chen Qian Qian earned something. I was still left with the feeling that the person who worked hard and sacrified so much, Chen Chu Chu, lost to someone who didn’t work hard and didn’t sacrifice, Chen Qian Qian. By now, we also know that Chen Chu Chu is not the biological daughter of the Ruler, while Chen Qian Qian is, and we know that Chen Chu Chu does not know this. So of these two characters, who do you root for?
- the birthright princess who hasn’t worked hard, doesn’t respect anybody, and doesn’t pay for anything, or
- the princess who doesn’t know she’s adopted, who’s worked hard and become an army general, and ensures everyone is treated responsibly?
Episodes 11 through 13 I think represent Chen Qian Qian’s guilty conscience. The plot moves outside and Chen Qian Qian tries to put Han Shuo and Chen Chu Chu together, which only halfway works. Chen Chu Chu ends up falling for Han Shuo. However, due to Chen Qian Qian toying with Meng Guo and misunderstanding a forcing character (Zi Ying, the schemer), Chen Qian Qian ends up in the critical scene where Han Shuo must kiss the woman he likes. Yet again it’s Chen Qian Qian taking a moment away from Chen Chu Chu:
- Han Shuo’s initial meeting,
- Han Shuo’s use of the Dragon Bone,
- gaining the Crown Princess title, and now
- having Han Shuo irreparably fall in love.
At this point Chen Chu Chu snaps of a sour demand to Chen Qian Qian: relinquish Han Shuo. I don’t know why Chen Qian Qian as the writer didn’t realize this, but by now Chen Chu Chu is turning into a wicked witch.
Episode 14 is another case of Chen Qian Qian writing a plot development that ruins Chen Chu Chu. Chen Qian Qian states the goal of not wanting to be Crown Princess, so Chen Qian Qian has Zi Ying (now a very good schemer) plant a defense map in Chen Qian Qian’s mansion. This is easy: Chen Chu Chu finds Chen Qian Qian with treasonous documents and the switch is there. However, Chen Qian Qian is careless, Han Shuo switches out the treasonous documents, and Chen Chu Chu is left embarrassed to the point that Chen Chu Chu rightly wonders if Chen Qian Qian is cunningly trying to destroy Chen Chu Chu.
From here on out, we have a regular plot where the now-twisted Chen Chu Chu slowly goes insane and the extremely lucky and undeservedly successful Chen Qian Qian ascends to the throne. Clearly Chen Qian Qian has given up on saving Chen Chu Chu, having her own dream turn Chen Chu Chu into a dictator calling for the death of close ally Lin Qi and eventually her own mother.
Chen Qian Qian doesn’t decide why Chen Chu Chu is rotten until episode 24, where a locked-up Chen Chu Chu and a now-ascendant Chen Qian Qian talk in a jail cell. Possibly the best scene in the show, and a great job by actresses Zhao Lu Si and Zhou Zi Xin, the writer and the female lead come face to face with what went wrong over 24 episodes. In that scene, Chen Qian Qian as the writer blames Chen Chu Chu’s character defects for how the plot turned awry. Here is my problem: Chen Qian Qian is wrong. Chen Qian Qian’s greed is what cost moment after moment for Chen Chu Chu. Chen Chu Chu acted honorably but was continually reprimanded due to misfortune caused by Chen Qian Qian. Chen Chu Chu lost the love of her life because Chen Qian Qian, who didn’t even like Han Shuo, still wanted to look good to him. Chen Qian Qian used her advantage as the omnipotent God of her own dream to steal all the love in this show. What did Chen Qian Qian expect when Chen Qian Qian used her powers to steal all the good moments? Chen Chu Chu was a beautiful fruit that Chen Qian Qian left out in the dirt to rot and mold. Chen Qian Qian was at fault, but never admitted fault.
The show itself has a fantastic start and then a mediocre to below-average middle and end. The highlights were the two sidekicks Bai Ji and Zi Rui, who were hilarious in their roles as comic foils. Bai Ji’s blunders and Zi Rui’s miming were brilliant. But I could not get past this feeling that the person I’m supposed to root for in this show is the bad guy, in both senses of that phrase. I root for Chen Chu Chu even though she is the bad guy. I’m supposed to root for Chen Qian Qian but Chen Qian Qian is the real bad guy.