Bu Sokuten: The Empress of China From the Perspective of a Learner of Japanese

Bu Sokuten

One of the surprising things you’ll find yourself able to do when you study a new language is be able to watch movies and TV shows of a third language through that language. On Japanese TV, you’ll frequently find Chinese and Korean dramas in addition to popular American TV shows airing with Japanese subtitles. I’ve only watched a couple of Korean dramas in my life, but I’ve never watched any Chinese ones. I think it was June of last year that I first stumbled upon 武則天-The Empress- (read as Bu Sokuten), also known as The Empress of China, airing on TV. I love stories with historical settings, so I was immediately hooked by the story of a young concubine named Wu Ru Yi/Wu Mei Niang (known as Bu Nyo I, and later as Bu Bi Jou in Japanese) who eventually becomes the female emperor of China and even establishes her own dynasty. I was looking forward to tuning in every week.

Much to my dismay, it turned out that they were only airing the first two episodes as an incentive to get you to sign up for their premium channel that airs Korean and Chinese dramas. I wasn’t about to do that, so I wound up waiting until it was available for rent from Tsutaya in September. I realize that you can easily find The Empress of China on Youtube in English subtitles (and quality that’s better than DVD quality), but I wanted to use the show as reading practice for Japanese. Also, I read that there’s a censored version and I was hoping the Japanese version was uncut. I believe though that they used the Hong Kong version since cleavage was covered up but you could still see all of the beautiful costumes and hairstyles. So, I stuck with renting the DVDs. Unfortunately the cheapest way to rent the DVDs was to rent 5 for 1,000 yen a week. Each disc had only two episodes, so I was very near to burning out most weeks, though I also rented movies to space out the show a bit more.

Anyway, compared to Japanese, Chinese speakers are very fast, and as a result there isn’t as much time as there is in, say, a Korean drama to read the Japanese subtitles. As a result, this show wound up being very good speed reading practice for me. However, near the end I did stop the show more frequently to save words that I didn’t know into a Japanese dictionary app on my phone. I wound up with a list of over 150 words from the last 20 episodes or so. I would not recommend watching this kind drama full of vocabulary related to Chinese court politics and life unless you’re at an fairly high level of Japanese.

To tell the truth though, I’m not sure I can really recommend this drama to someone unless they’re someone I think potentially could wade through 82 episodes of what feels like one long movie that gets paused every hour. It’s much different from other TV shows with hour long episodes that I’ve watched, where there’s a beginning, middle, and an end to each episode. You never really get a sense that an episode is almost about to be over when watching The Empress of China because every episode ends in a cliffhanger instead of neatly wrapping up a subplot and then ending. I found myself frequently checking at some points in the story how many minutes were left in an episode while watching.

Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy watching the show. I doubt I would’ve made it through all 82 episodes otherwise. I really enjoyed Fan Bing Bing’s performance as the titular character and the details of the costumes and sets were gorgeous. It has a memorable soundtrack and the story was interesting enough to keep me going despite being afraid that I would burn out because I had to watch so many episodes every week to be able to watch it as cheaply as possible.

Caution: Spoilers beyond this point!

However, I did not like the ending all that much. I think there were others disappointed by it as well, though some of my reasons might be a bit different from those I’ve read online. In particular, the story felt like it all went downhill after Princess Gaoyang’s (known as Princess Kouyou in Japanese) rebellion. This part in particular was disappointing to me. The DVD collections included behind the scenes specials with some of the DVDs. I watched one of them and shocked at what I discovered what I thought was a spoiler in that Li Zhi (Li Chi in Japanese) and Li Ke (Li Kaku in Japanese) wind up dueling it out and it comes to a dramatic end when Li Zhi kills him. This never happened in the show though. I assumed this would have been part of the rebellion, but it was cut out for some reason. I really wish they had kept this in because it’s so much more interesting than what had happened to him in the show (which was basically nothing. He was sentenced to death offscreen and we didn’t even get to see his execution). I might rent the DVDs with the behind the scenes videos again some day so that I can go back and rewatch this cut scene and any others that could potentially explain what they were originally hoping to do with the end of the story (or what might potentially be added back in if they ever do an uncut release). Plus the whole plot line in the last few episodes with Ming Yue, Mei Niang’s niece, just felt really abrupt like they were trying to throw in more drama unnecessarily.

In general, it was a bit of a let down that they didn’t show anything that Mei Niang did when she finally took power as the female emperor of China at all, like the title of the show would suggest. Though judging from the Japanese commercials, it looks like “The Empress” part of the title might supposed to refer to her as the emperor’s wife. Considering that Wu Zetian has such a negative reputation in the history books and this show was all about portraying her as a good mother, wise politician, and someone who’s always the hero, perhaps it would’ve been hard to keep up that good image that they worked so hard to achieve for someone all about killing anyone, including her own family, who threatened her power.

Minor mom note, but I was impressed that in the behind the scenes video that they said that they used an actual 20 day old baby when Mei Niang had her first baby!

This all being said, if there’s anyone who may be interested in trying out their reading skills with the show, you can find the first episode with Japanese subtitles on Youtube:

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