Empress Wu

Reviewed by: sukting

September 02, 2003

Rating: four

How long
40 episodes

This serial caused a storm – or rather a typhoon when it was shown in Hong Kong. It received 50% of the ratings that TVB lost.

Mei Niang is unwillingly betrothed to Prince Li Zhi at the age of 14 years. Before she enters the palace, the current Emperor Li Shi Min has a nightmare and dreams of his empire coming to an end because of this future daughter-in-law. He consults a fortune teller and indeed, he finds out that her birth date really causes the end of his dynasty. Moreover, his son will not live long when he is with her. He then decides to find someone to kill her (how ruthless he can be!)

But alas, Mei Niang is destined to have a looooong life. She is saved by 2 swordsmen, Yuwen Jun and Ming Chong Yan. Both men carry a torch for her due to her pleasant and naïve personality. But when they find out her identity, both have to hide their disappointment. The following scene shouldn’t be missed. She enters through the palace gates and they reluctantly watch her as the gates close.

Shi Min is annoyed that Mei Niang isn’t killed. He treats her with hostility but he is alarmed that Li Zhi is attracted to her. Mei Niang is later sent to the nunnery to be a nun because Shi Min cooks up an excuse that his Empress is dead and he needs someone to chant sultras for her for 3 years. He hopes that Li Zhi will forget her after 3 years. Mei Niang is unhappy over this.

Li Zhi is a forgetful man and sure enough he forgets about Mei Niang. Shi Min sets high hopes for this youngest son because his two other sons are too power hungry and aren't filial to him at all. But Li Zhi proves to be incapable in both martial arts and the ruling of the country. This scene is memorable – Shi Min has a duel with Li Zhi…and his son loses to him in just 3 strokes. Shi Min is so upset that he throws his sword away, wondering what will happen when he dies.

In the meantime, Mei Niang grows prettier despite being bald. She secretly plans her revenge. Actually Chong Yan knows about her plight and offers to take her away. However, she refuses as she wants to wait her chance. Chong Yan is disappointed to see her change and discusses this with Jun. Sigh – Jun is a stick-in-the-mud and believes that Mei Niang should remain loyal to the Emperor. He loves her but doesn’t dare go against traditional customs. He even chides Chong Yan for going against Shi Min’s wishes.

Chong Yan is very annoyed with Jun. He even has a spar with him but the duel turns to be a draw because both are very highly skilled. Chong Yan knows that Mei Niang loves Jun and she has actually requested for Jun to elope with her. But she loses all hope when Jun refuses to take her away. What’s the point of leaving with Chong Yan when Jun has no guts to accept her and marry her? So she decides to change her fate so that she can be a successful ruler in the future to spite him. This shows that when a woman is offended, she can take drastic measures!

When Li Zhi visits the nunnery one day to pay respects to his late mother, he sees her and his memory is rekindled. He proposes marriage to Mei Niang but Shi Min turns him down. But…well, later she becomes his wife anyway (so sorry I forgot the process). Both are at loggerheads with each other and she refuses to see Shi Min even before he dies due to an illness. Shi Min dies with his eyes open – a belief that he is reluctant to part with this world because things are not yet settled.

The two old officials, Shang Guan Yi and Zhang Sun Wu Ji try to persuade Li Zhi to choose another empress but he declines. Both old men are shocked when Empress Wu starts to take charge of court affairs as Li Zhi always seeks her opinion. Both oppose to all suggestions that she makes. Empress Wu is annoyed when both get assassins to try to kill her. Luckily Chong Yan saves her in time when he visits her. She later sentences both men to death.

Jun’s martial arts junior, Wan Er is Shang Guan Yi’s granddaughter so she decides to seek revenge. She fails in her assassination attempt. Wan Er looks at Empress Wu with vengeful eyes but she softens when Empress Wu tells her about her plans to rule the country. In fact, so impressed is she that she drops the idea and starts to think that her grandfather was too stringent in the rules. Empress Wu also admires her talents and decides to give her an official post.

Li Zhi finds out that Mei Niang doesn’t love him at all and that she is only interested in power. He later dies miserably of old age. Empress Wu later becomes the ‘emperor’. Chong Yan, although impressed with Empress Wu’s talents, could never accept her iron fist methods in ruling a country. Thus he declines any official post and retreats with his junior, Xia Fei Yan. Fei Yan is secretly in love with him but still stays by his side upon knowing that he loves Mei Niang all along. She only manages to win his heart when she dies for him after having shielded him from attacks by her father’s enemies. Chong Yan becomes miserable and single to the end.

How does Jun react? He could NEVER accept women as officials although he himself becomes an official later. He has no choice but to marry Wan Er because the marriage is already set by her grandfather. Imagine his displeasure every time he has to face Empress Wu in court and also having his wife accompany him all the time! He starts to question whether this is Empress Wu’s revenge plot to spite him back. But later, he can see that she really puts in an effort in the court affairs, not losing to Shi Min.

However, this traditional man is still unhappy that he is working under a woman. One day, he and Empress Wu are drunk in the garden. Empress Wu boasts that she can make the flowers in the garden blossom the next day despite the fact that it was snowing then. Imagine her shock when she wakes up and her maids tell her about the promise! She quickly gets the best gardeners and they manage to make this promise come true.. Jun finally accepts her to be the Empress in the end.

Introduction on characters

  1. Wu Mei Niang/The future Empress Wu – Fung Bo Bo (acts occasionally for ATV now)
    She is the star of the serial. Many are stunned that she can act so convincingly from a 14 year old to an old woman in her 60s. Her acting powers are really flawless. What a sharp contrast to how she acted in Emperor Qin where her performance was so disappointing. The change in Wu is so drastic from a demure and kindhearted girl who loves animals to a murderer who doesn't even blink an eyelid when she gives commands to kill. ATV has made a smart move!

  2. Yuwen Jun – Poon Chi Mun (acts occasionally for ATV now)
    I hate this man. He doesn't have the guts to love and doesn’t deserve Wan Er’s love too. I am puzzled as to how Mei Niang can like him instead of Chong Yan. He loses to him in both personality and looks – love is very blind in this case. But thanks to him, if not Mei Niang would not have achieved so much in life. He just accepts his fate as it is. You may call him a coward if you wish.

    Poon is satisfactory in this role. You really hate him whenever he appears – always talking about traditional rules that must be followed and cannot be broken. No wonder Wan Er always quarrels with him because both just can't see eye to eye with each other’s views.

  3. Ming Chong Yan – Lau Wing (now based in Taiwan and occasionally acts for ATV)/Tsang Wai Kuen (with TVB)
    You must have wondered why there are two actors for this role. Not that Lau Wing is too busy to continue the acting but he cannot continue the acting. He had quarreled with his ex-wife, Dai Liang Chun, and their marriage was starting to break up. He took leave to talk to her in Taiwan. In the end, he disfigured her with forks and knives. The woman suffered great injuries and had to undergo plastic surgery. It’s said that her second marriage broke up too. Lau Wing fled to China, forgoing his chance to act in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

    Later, he returned to act in ‘Emperor Qin’ when the case was over – surprised that he wasn’t imprisoned or fined? That’s because he didn’t commit the crime in Hong Kong and he didn’t step into Taiwan so he was spared. He only returned to Taiwan after the 15-year ban.

    Okay – enough of his sad history. How was his acting? I was very impressed! Despite his troubles in real life, he still gave a strong performance – unlike Fung in Emperor Qin. Many of us liked him so much when he portrayed this Da Hup. He was very open minded and was receptive to new ideas. He was very kind to Fei Yan but you could feel him trying so hard to avoid her loving eyes. Plus his stunning outlook - always in those white clothes and high martial arts skills, this swordsman definitely had presence.

    In fact, he was so good that I couldn't accept Tsang as his replacement at first. Tsang always appeared in a dark green gown that made him look so old. Moreover, he had just started out and his acting was still raw then. He had no chemistry with Wong Siu Fung, unlike Lau Wing who could create sparks. With Fung, the acting gap was even larger. But we can't blame this man for he did try very hard.

  4. Li Zhi – Yu Chan Shun (now with TVB – as Dong Fang Bu Bai in State of Divinity96)
    He was also young when he took up this role but he was so good in here as the timid man who only followed his father’s orders meekly. You really pity this poor man – no brains, no good skills and no woman to love him. So pathetic!

  5. Li Shi Min – Kong Hon
    He is formidable as the Emperor. Many are won over by his natural acting. He can be very ruthless to Mei Niang but who can blame him for being able to see through Mei Niang’s true colours when she returns to the palace? His dying scene is the most tragic in my view. The fortune teller tells him that Mei Niang not only controls his son but his grandson will also have no power. That is why the poor man can’t die in peace.

  6. Shang Guan Wan Er – Lau Hung Fong
    She was pretty here but her acting was not that good. I didn't really like the way Wan Er loss her hatred for Empress Wu in only one scene! That was really too fast! And the way she spoke to Jun at home – please give him some due respect! The poor man already did not feel like a man in court and now also at home!

  7. Xia Fei Yan – Wong Siu Fung
    Her acting was much better than Hung Fong. If you thought that she was as highly-skilled as Wan Er, you made the wrong guess. Chong Yan studied under her father who was a scholar so she knows nothing about martial arts. She is sweet and gentle, always listening to Chong Yan and cheering him up. Unfortunately, her love for him is one-sided. You will pity her sad ending.

  8. Princess Tai Ping – Bai Ying Ran (as Murong Jiu in Taiwan’s version of The Handsome Siblings)
    She is the apple of Empress Wu’s eyes. Sweet, caring and understanding, she supports whatever Empress Wu is doing. She was even willing to marry the prince of a distant land to build better relationships. Although she had limited scenes, she still left me with a deep impression.

Most favourite character
Ming Chong Yan – for being a righteous man and for daring to do whatever he thinks is right.

Most hated character
Yuwen Jun – he is so rigid on rules that no one will like him in here. If we had more of these men in the modern world, many women’s futures would be ruined by him.

Interesting scenes

Battle of wits between Mei Niang and Shi Min

Battle of wits between Mei Niang and the two old officials

Duel between Chong Yan and Jun – they really fight till both fall into a big heap of hay!

How Empress Wu manages to keep her promise to make all the flowers blossom

Interesting facts

TVB sneered upon knowing that Fung Bo Bo was chosen to be the lead. Although she had done serials for TVB, ratings weren't that outstanding so they thought that it would be the same for ATV. How much more could she achieve?

But Fung was determined to prove them wrong. She gave her best and won over half the population. TVB lost lots of advertising contracts. They even got Wong Min Kuen’s ‘Bo Lien Lamp’ (if I remembered correctly – please let me know if I make a mistake) to pit against her. But the serial already had such a strong following that its foundation could not be rocked.

It later sparked off the making of many historical dramas as the previous ATV owner, Mr Yau Tak Gan, was a history lover. Other successful examples were ‘Emperor Qin’ and ‘The Young Dowager’. There were also unavoidable disasters like ‘Zhu Ge Liang”.

Yu Chan Shun did get popular but for only a while and many forgot him. This is so sad - he even committed suicide once by slashing his wrist. Luckily he was saved. I still find that he shines in supporting roles.

It is sung by Cheung Lam Yan – un unknown. Surprisingly, the song is more famous than the singer. She actually sings very well – so well that I can still remember the lyrics all these years! Ths lyrics really fit the story very well.

But the subtheme songs were a letdown. They were too modern. Thanks to a friend, Shan, who sent me a cassette all the way from London to Singapore so I could listen to them.

Those interested to listen to the songs may wish to download from

This is a must watch for all television viewers. I am sorry that this review is so short. I had wished to write it longer but my memory really failed me and no tapes/vcds are available for me to rewatch it. You won't be disappointed with the great acting and closely-knitted plots. Don’t miss it if you have the chance!

Sukting's Ratings :
On acting : **** (Scale of 5)
On story : **** (Scale of 5)

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