Twdramas have been failing me recently – so I took a trip to the mainland instead. Bu Bu Jing Xin, or Startling at Each Step, will be my first mainland Chinese drama. It came highly recommended, and is talked about in some circles with almost cult-like fanaticism. Recipe for something good, yes? Yes!
The PremiseOur modern day heroine has a car accident and her soul travels back in time 300 years into an old incarnation of herself: Maertai Ruoxi (Cecelia Liu). It’s the Qing dynasty and Emperor Kangxi reigns; spoiler alert: he’s got over a dozen handsome sons. Stuck in the past Ruoxi is forced to live the life of a court lady, maneuvering herself through a web of princely politics, succession battles, and of course love.
Don’t be fooled. BBJX is not another elaborate time travel drama. Based on a novel, it’s merely an excuse to throw a lady of the modern world into a stunning and gorgeous period setting, and let history take over. Ruoxi ‘arrives’ years before the next exchange of power will take place. She therefore comes with the foreknowledge of which prince becomes emperor, and which princes will fail at the attempt. They only unknown is how exactly she should live, walking the careful path of survival.
|And what her role is, no one knows.|
Why is this drama is a cut above anything else with a vaguely similar plot?
- Because, Ruoxi is an intelligent woman who more or less knows how to survive; she adapts to her surroundings, plans her life as best as she can, and never loses her humanity, or her love of forging and maintaining relationships.
- Because, BBJX isn’t just about the love entanglements of the main actors. It’s about everyone’s relationships: brothers, sisters, servants, lovers, and most importantly, friends. Their ties to each other are deep-rooted, and highly explored within the course of the drama. They might lead to sacrifice or death, or be the sole reason a person wants to be alive.
- Because, there are some killer love stories. Choose the right OTP and you’re almost rewarded, but I can count at least 9 different ships, four of which I hung out my sails for. Romantic or non-, these ships could break your heart.
|Warning - Super feels will be had by all.|
Is it funny or serious? Both. Bu Bu Jing Xin walks a fine line between the genres of youthful comedy, and more melodramatic settings of life and death in the Forbidden City. So stop everything you’re doing and WATCH IT
And if you have already, read on for a short series of essays on Bu Bu Jing Xin. :)
WARNING: Major Spoilers - Stop reading now unless you've finished the drama and are majorly obsessed with it. Like me.
- The drama is beautiful to watch!
- The characters make you care, big time.
- The heroine feels so real.
1. The drama is beautiful to watch:
Bu Bu Jing Xin starts briefly in the modern era, but spends almost no time there when Ruoxi wakes in early 18th century Qing dynasty. From then on there’s no set that isn’t visually stimulating. Despite occasional bad CGI, close-up horseriding shots, etc., and obviously painted backdrops of the outside landscape, the world they create makes you feel like you’re really there sitting in one of the numerous princes’ estates, lounging in an ornate garden room, staring at the moon on the Mongolian grasslands, or ascending the steps of the Forbidden City throne room.
Add the costumes and your eyes will be feasting on the most delicious details in every scene. From women's dresses to the princes' wardrobes, hair styles, ornaments and jewelry, everything aids the scene, the story, or the overall feel.
The best part is that the drama KNOWS its sets are stunning. One pretty backdrop doesn’t necessarily create a beautiful effect all on its own. Fortunately, the camerawork is slow and intentionally magnifies an already stunning panorama. And plenty of period dramas clothe their characters in colorful outfits. Bu Bu Jing Xin takes its time to really appreciate the costumes.
I know next to nothing about filming and editing, but it’s no hard task to say that BBJX does this well. Where one shot may feature nothing except a ponderous character, it’s impossible to tear your eyes off away from the screen, so spectacular is the overall picture.
Misc Thoughts on Clothes And Sets:
- Since we’re just as new to this as Ruoxi is, I love how the earlier episodes showcase her thoughts on the wardrobe, or the landscape, and even the temperature (welcome to the world of no air conditioning)! For her first formal occasion, she has to ask her maids how many layers they’ve put on her: 6 and they’d even forgotten the chest cover. She wobbles walking in the unfamiliar court lady shoes. Yet she perseveres and grows accustomed to everything; you won’t see her moaning about clothing layers or makeup after she’s given up thinking about home.
- I love the attention to detail, from the hair ornaments, to the tea dishes, to the sometimes embroidered report covers. The tea set Ruoxi designs for the traveling court with individualized cups was a creative addition to the story. I want to drink out of those!
- The princes were just as handsomely clothed as their faces. Sure they all look good, but the first party scene where they show up in their finest, all arrayed in different regal colors – wow! Also, but I love their braids. Especially how 4th prince always walked with his hand behind the back, hair in hand.
|Even these peacock hats are pretty sexy.|
The One Drawback to a Beautiful Set“Everything’s gorgeous! I so want to live there!” Hah. Except that the past isn’t all rosy colors, blooming flower gardens, and spotless living quarters. there are no toilets, and 99% of the populace probably lived in complete filth. Props to the laundry compound where Ruoxi is sent to live and slave in for a few years; that’s probably the most realistically dirty set you’ll see. However, I’ll still take my pretty colors and run with that. It’s a drama after all!
|And we can't all live in a gorgeous, confined garden.|
2. The characters make you feel, big time:
The cast is large. But the cast and characters are thoroughly lovely. Ruoxi doesn't wake up in the past alone and unloved. She's dropped into a world with ready-made family, acquiring a huge coven of brothers and friends - and their personal inter-relations are the number 1 driving force for the whole drama. The political conflicts are always second to the consequences these conflicts will have on one another. It's so very much about humans - and each character is gifted with a unique spark. Here are the OTPS, ships, and relationships of the Bu Bu Jing Xin family.
Ruoxi and the Princes
|4th Prince - Nicky Wu|
4th Prince: My favorite prince starts out with the personality of a charismatic icicle, yet it's that stern aloofness that made him part of my OTP. I always knew that Ruoxi would have to fall in love with the man who would become emperor. I never expected how long it would take, and then how painful it would be. 4th Prince is the ideal drama character, but he's also ruthless, cruel, and no matter of sympathetic understanding can make you fully love his every aspect. I adore the man for loving Ruoxi unconditionally; I was always braced for the time he'd learn about Ruoxi's past with 8th Prince, and expected him to not only hate her but suspect her motivations. And yet, this never quite happened.
|Because he really did know her well.|
|8th Prince - Kevin Cheng|
8th Prince: The noblest prince of all, it's with a sad heart that know from the beginning he will die alone. What's worse for us is seeing each one of his relationships fail, especially his devotion, spring love, and ultimate rejection by Ruoxi. She's not his first love, but in Qing dynasty he is Ruoxi's. It is painful to see their hesitant courtship, not limited to mere hand holdings in the snow and a symbolic bracelet, but literally frolicking.
|It all happened too soon though.|
|10th Prince - Ye Zu Xin|
10th Prince: Our resident babo, and comic-relief, 10th Prince was more than just a funny man. He represents the innocence of his world, the noble and straight-forward love that is meant to be dashed. His and Ruoxi's early relationship was beautiful. He loved her, she liked him as a brother worth protecting and caring about. The scene of his engagement to Mingyu affected me nearly as much as it did Ruoxi's. In the space of a moment a man's happiness dashed and his freedom is taken away, and Ruoxi is pissed. Not because she is a depressed lover, but because she is human being. Adding to the list of reasons why BBJX wanes tragic, it's because after all the years of guarding over 10th Prince and his wife's relationship, Ruoxi's decision to allign with 4th and 14th Prince and become the emperor's woman leads her on a path forever different to the one she and 10th met on and became friends.
|13th Prince - Yuan Hong|
13th Prince: Arguably my favorite character in the whole drama, here is the most tragic of all- 13th Prince is always a bit of a mystery, especially as a man living in this age. He holds the drunken secrets of Ruoxi's origin, teases her about this thing called 'equal rights' and is her best friend from beginning to end. I shipped the friendship of these 'death-defying siblings." If Ruoxi lacked ambition, 13th Prince did too - his whole life devoted to helping his beloved 4th brother. Maybe this is why the two are so similar. Both loved 4th Prince selflessly. Both understood 4th Prince's loneliness. And each was ready to sacrifice their life for him. Where Ruoxi reached her limit though, 13th Prince never wavered, or dwelled overly long on the list of hardships caused by this relationship. And he always supported Ruoxi, always held her relationship with or without 4th Prince in his heart.
|14th Prince - Lin Geng Xin|
14th Prince: I never would've guessed in a million years, that this last of the brothers to be properly introduced would become the man Ruoxi marries, even if it was out of self-preservation. Of all the Ruoxi-prince interations, these two had the most ups and downs. Fiercely devoted to 8th Prince, even against his blood brother, 14th Prince and Ruoxi probably had more arguments than she ever did with the two men in her love triangle. I originally suspected 14th was a bit hot-blooded, and certainly he had a temper when shaming Ruoxi. I did suspect that one day their relationship (seemingly never that strong or deep) would be severed, however I was wrong. Of all the men, 14th Prince acted the most brotherly. Even after a scolding, he could still turn around and act tender. I should never have doubted him. But to offer a soul-saving marriage to Ruoxi years after she rejected him is something not any man could've done. It breaks my heart that he got to be the last man to hold her as she died, and still he had to surrender her ashes to a man he hated. But he did, because that was her wish.
|Where brotherhood leads to death|
4th and 8th Prince: The enemies, the rivals in love. Was there ever a time when they weren't destined to hate the other? Despite friendly appearances, the two never seemed so close. Those with the most ambition for the throne probably couldn't ever become friends. It was hard to like both men fairly and equally. When the virtuous 8th prince snarled at 4th's trials, or when the 4th gloated over 8th's misfortunes, I wanted to spit and throw a tantrum. How could brothers treat each other so!?! Oh, a throne. That would do it. I like these men best though when they agreed upon something, and that something was usually a ploy to save or protect Ruoxi. Regardless if her survival was secondary to their main goals of stripping the Crown Prince's titles, their calculated battle always made sure she would be out of harm's way.
8th with 9th, 10th, and 14th Princes: The losing faction - I always wonder what made these brothers hover about each other since they were all so very different. Half the time it seemed this brotherhood lived to keep one another from doing something stupid (especially with 9th and 10th). Yet between 8th and 14th at least there was never any visible rivalry, even when one son was beloved by his father and the other was detested. Would 8th have truly supported 14th had he become emperor? Maybe he would have.
4th with 13th Prince: The lone duo - I loved them most, especially in each other's sense of sacrifice. 4th Prince may have been ambitious and overly cunning, and yet BBJX provided us with enough proof that part of his ambition lay with his desire to free 13th from exile and let him lead a better life. Unfortunately, the tragedy was all 13th's, when he confesses to that lie to save 4th, thereby committing himself to at least 10 years of harsh exile. This was the first time I lost it and sobbed like a howling baby. It traumatizes me that 13th lost not just 10 years of his life, his health, and Luwu, but that he rarely seemed happy. As if he knew his life was always committed to his older brother, he takes each pain in strides and.. dies. That was his life. BBJX the drama doesn't really elaborate on his accomplishments apart from such dedication. They don't tell us about his 'death-defying' escapades. He just is.. Until he's not. And then is 4th/the emperor truly alone. Winning the throne is relative to losing everything else, and these two defined that.
|It was always obvious which son was her favorite|
4th and 14th Prince: How I ached for these blood brothers. Did 4th ever hate his younger brother, or was it just 14th's allegiance to 8th that made them so distant. Or was it their mother's cruelly biased love? I yearned to see these two make up and accept one another, but this is what a throne does to brothers. Had 14th been around sooner after their father's death, I suspect he might have had a worse ending, not because 4th wanted him dead, but because his existence got in the way of 4th's plans. How bittersweet was 14th's life - he missed his father dying, he missed his mother dying, and he got the remnants of Ruoxi's life after the palace used her and tore her apart. 14th is a better man, yet with the fight taken out of him he insteads becomes sullen and content, probably remorseful that his life wasn't worth much after all. And due to the circumstances, he can never really forgive or be forgiven by his own blood brother.
13th and 14th Prince: I like to consider these the babies of the princes we come to know, though each had a maturity beyond all. For sure they are probably close in age, and yet divided like a world apart by their representative allegiances. I'm not sure they would ever have been as close had it not been for Ruoxi. She was always the anchor around which all the princes rallied. Would 14th have begged for 13th's relief in exile if Ruoxi hadn't started it first? Would they ever have shared the same motivations if Ruoxi hadn't been their anchor? Like when 13th sent 4th to take her name out of concubine listing, and 14th already being there on behalf of 8th's? I also enjoyed their cautious when the two factions caution worked together to take down the Crown Prince. If 8th wanted to send evidence to 4th, to keep all appearances' sake they had their subordinates meet instead. In politics they acted like the opposing lackeys, while still skirting around their own modest respect for the other. Shame that they couldn't ever grow closer.
Sisterhoods of Bu Bu Jing Xin
|Sisters who aren't that different from each other.|
|Two sisters you can't just hate|
Thank goodness BBJX didn't spend too long in the backstabbing, bitch-slapping side stories of the female's domains, but even Ruolan and Minghuis, and Ruoxi and Mingyu's, rivalries became fleshed out relationships. They sister sets were never going to become best friends, but they did come to an understanding and grudging respect. I loved the scene when Ruoxi compliments Minghui's proud devotion to her disgraced husband. Similarly, it was gratifying to watch Mingyu mature and respect Ruoxi for her efforts patching up Mingyu and 10th's marriage, and to see them laugh briefly about their childhood squabbles. Of course none of the women lived happy lives. Their fates almost all ended in some sort of tragedy or half-tragedy. The fate of women in that day? Even the beloved princes' wives faced hardships we could never even dream of. The peripheral vision BBJX gives of them is horrid enough. And that was cutting out half of the behind the scenes harem drama we just know existed. Thank you drama for sparing us of that much. Had Ruoxi married the emperor and had to deal with his real wives and concubines, I couldn't have handled it - something she must have predicted.
Now, I love the peopled of Bu Bu Jing Xin, but ultimately I LOVEEEE this drama because of this reason:
3. The heroine feels so real:
Despite this being a time travel drama where the heroine just so happens to land in a relatively cozy situation, and falls in love or befriends nearly every prince of the royal family, what makes BBJX so powerful is how realistic Ruoxi is. She is by far the best character and the filter for how we perceive the story. With her we are amazed by and a little bit intimidated by her newfound circumstances: learning the ropes, getting familiar with the culture, the attitude, how to keep a dignified bearing, and most dangerously- how to survive.
Fate and History, and Equal Rights:How a modern heroine nurtures a crippling sense of fatalism.
I dislike time travelling stories where modern characters become obsessed with either A) changing the past or, B) acting like a fish out of water for a billion episodes. That's why I want to meet Ruoxi and give her a big hug for acting like a normal person would in an [admittedly fantastical] situation. After her awkward phase, not only does Ruoxi learn to adapt within the confines of history, she also manages to stay true to herself without going crazy overboard. BBJX could have so easily been a story of Ruoxi fighting brutally with any and all to either create or maintain the freedom she so craves. Instead, it's a tale of give and take and acceptance. Sadly this is what builds upon the tragedy, but it would be even more fantastical to think that any modern woman could ever manage a happy ending in such circumstances.
|This is about as heroic as 4th Prince is ever allowed to be.|
Examples of Ruoxi making the best of it:
- Entering the maiden selection, and becoming an excellent tea servant
- Learning all forms of feminine tasks (drawing, embroidery, cooking etc.)
- Allowing herself to grow close with the princes, despite knowing their ends
- Becoming a mature and modern woman with years of practice in the art of patience
Freedom: In which Ruoxi remembers a life where she had equal rights and the option of choosing her own path in life. Here she has no power over her future except at what comes as a risk to her life. When drunk, Ruoxi discusses these epic modern thoughts with 13th Prince, but of course nothing ever comes of them, even from this progressive thinking prince. There's also a theme running all throughout that indirectly forces Ruoxi to ask herself 'what do you want?' And it's frustratingly never answered! With acceptance of the situation, other than a vague notion that she wants 'freedom', Ruoxi has no other specific agenda. How exactly does she live 'free'?' Her life is just one long train of indifferent survival, even when it comes to the characters she loves, and especially them.
|Looking more and like her sister|
Examples of Ruoxi's yearning for freedom:
- Risking death or crippling by horse in the chance she might return to the present
- Cultivating a modern friendship with 13th Prince
- Refusing to be married to any of the princes, even the ones she likes or loves
- Eventually marrying the 14th Prince just so she can leave the palace forever
Fate: Nothing sucks quite so much as befriending and loving people you know will meet a cruel end. BBJX tells us (in case we're not versed in Qing history) who will win the battle for the throne. So we, like Ruoxi, know the bare facts of what's to come. It's her fate to be stuck here knowing these facts though, so more important than just surviving the buildup and aftermath of the princes' rivalries, Ruoxi lives with the knowledge that she is forever intertwined with their fates.
|A fateful birthday party?|
Examples of Ruoxi playing a game with fate:
- Folding 1000 paper cranes for 10th Prince
- Rejecting the 8th Prince's love while still attempting to dissuade him from the throne
- Casually warning 8th Prince of his future arch-rival 4th Prince
- Choosing to fall in love with 4th Prince, ostensibly because he'll be the next emperor
- Otherwise remaining as passive to the passing of history as she can
- Discovering at the end that it was her very light warning that caused history to happen just like it was supposed to.
|Ruoxi, choosing which side to pity more|
Heartbreak: I'll never figure out if Ruoxi chose not to love 8th Prince, choosing 4th Prince instead, because she thought it would be any easier. For a woman so determined to live as far removed from the conflict she cannot control, why would being the lover of the future emperor seem like a path worth waiting for? It betrayed her and broke her heart more than anything in her whole life.
Knowing the future is hard enough; accepting it's your fate to be unable to change history for the sake of your loved ones, that's rough. Learning at the end though that it was all you, that you were the catalyst for the slow destruction of the people you care far, how does a person live on? Fortunately for Ruoxi (and this is a only a fortune relative to say... having to face proper punishment), she's also been cursed with a shortened lifespan. Her life is a ticking clock, and when she dies she won't have anything to show for her existence except a string of historical characters made miserable through knowing her. Welcome back to the present Ruoxi/Zhang Xiao, where you get to remember 20 miserable years, and a failed loved.
"fatalism" : a doctrine that events are fixed in advance so that human beings are powerless to change them; also : a belief in or attitude determined by this doctrine
I don't think Ruoxi ever sets out to change the future. Rather, she tries to remain as neutral as she can be to the princes' rivalries. But I also don't think she anticipated herself changing so much, thanks to the restraint she forces herself into.
|Remember when she was this cute?|
The problem with watching Ruoxi age is you get to see the startling difference between the 16 year old girl, fresh from the modern world, turn ever more quiet, moody, and downright depressed. She knows fate is playing a game with her, and it's telling her to shut up and not attempt to change the past. Against her heart's wishes, she spurns the losing faction, and treats the future emperor differently. Because of this, she is more open to 4th Prince's advances and her own love for him. Would she have fallen in love with him if he'd been any other prince? Or does she essentially give up before it's even over, because she thinks that choosing the winning team will make her life easier in the long run? She teaches herself patience because it's all she's got to live on. To serve in the laundry for years, to rejoice when 4th Prince is crowned emperor.. she lets herself celebrate the hard years, but knows it's not the end for her. She is still a woman of the modern world, and cannot reconcile the rigid life of the palace with her love for the emperor. It's not enough to live on.
|Plan 14... Why couldn't we have skipped the other stuff, huh?|
Will she be reunited with her prince in the modern world? Will the sequel next year hold up the story? I don't know yet. I just know that regardless of what's to come, I'll forever think of this drama, and keep rewatching it. Now I'm even watching it without subs, just because it's so gorgeous I can't take my eyes away from the screen, and sometimes you don't need words to feel for the characters. Tears need no dialogue. Still, I'm ready to start from the beginning again...