The Rise of Phoenixes: Thoughts on Ning Yi, Part I (Episodes 1-23)

kakashi: I tend to express my love for a drama through recaps, but since my plate is too full for that, I want to at least spend some time babbling about The Rise of Phoenixes outside of RAWR. I absolutely love it. (I have currently seen up to episode 23, so, if you haven't seen this far yet, be aware of spoilers and if you've seen it all, be aware of spoilering me :) My first (rather long) post is about Ning Yi.

Ning Yi - the "Useless Prince", Part I

Ning Yi is the Sixth prince of Tiansheng Kingdom, the Prince of Chu. We meet him in episode 1 when he is just released from an eight-year long imprisonment in Zongzheng Temple (for attempting to rebel, they say). Though plagued by nightmares about his involvement in the killing of the previous dynasty, he has not been idle in his confinement and acquired wealth by making silk brocade. He uses these funds to help the empire when there is a plague and his father, the Emperor, grants him amnesty afterwards.
He seems to have a few screws loose and takes care to appear slightly crazed and weak, with no appetite for power ("I only wish to weave silk for a living for the rest of my life"). That's certainly advisable since all his brothers flock around and kiss up to the current Crown Prince Ning Chuan, who is brutal and heartless, but belongs to the Chang clan - an influential family with a lot of military power. Ning Yi is dismissed pretty quickly as useless and laughable (doing a woman's job as a weaver), with no political backing and power.
But we've all watched enough court dramas to know that appearing weak is one of the strongest defenses if you want to survive the power battles among ambitious princes and strike when the opportunity presents itself. In Ning Yi's case it's mainly revenge that drives him: his third brother, the only one who was ever kind to him and his mother's names need to be cleared and their honor restored. Sidenote: It's interesting that his Father, the Emperor, sees his usefulness rather than his "weakness". He calls him a nail: "place him anywhere and he can prick someone and cause bleeding." And he declares that he'll be very useful to use against the overly powerful Changs. To protect his nail, he wants to marry him to the daughter of one of his officials (Colonel Qiu). 
But Colonel Qiu doesn't want to have his precious daughter marry this weird prince - so they switch the birth charts and present his niece, Feng Zhi Wei, as the bride. Prince of Chu and the freespirited Zhi Wei meet by coincidence and gaaaaaah... but that's for another post. Or two.
Prince of Chu might not have powerful backers at court (yet), but he is certainly capable of gathering very loyal people around him. The most unlikely is Qingming Academy Headmaster Xin (his bromance with the Prince will be another post) - who skillfully pretends to sneer at the Prince. There is also a courtesan named Zhuyin (the disgraced daughter of a general) who helps them, Gu Yan, the head of the Royal Guards with a troubles past, the lovely bodyguard Ning Cheng, and other people sympathetic to Prince of Chu like his father's trusted head eunuch.
Ning Yi and his friends manage to take down the Crown Prince eventually (extremely powerful scenes in episodes 22 and 23) but it's only the beginning of the journey that will end with Prince of Chu on the throne. In these 23 episodes, different facets of Ning Yi's complicated character are revealed: He is capable of heartbreaking grief and deep, loyal love of all shades -  but he's also calculative and cold when necessary, a man who doesn't hesitate to kill to get what he wants.
It's his many imperfections that make me love this character. He is erratic. He has a temper. And he is clearly dangerous. But it's the injustice done to his third brother, who was killed due to the Crown Prince's scheming, and the defamation of his mother that drives him - not ambition (that may come later), which makes it very easy to root for him, even though he uses people mercilessly.
I am particularly intrigued by how his growing affection for Feng Zhi Wei is not how we get to know his emotional and vulnerable side. Since he is not the type of man who gets easily derailed because of a woman (it helps that he knows who her family is, though he doesn't know everything yet), his emotions towards her get expressed mainly through a strong protective impulse and massive teasing. He finds her "interesting" from the moment they meet even though (or because) she is a challenge to his plans in various ways, not least because she refuses to be a pawn in his game. 
There are a few exchanges that highlight most clearly who he is and especially, how torn he is inside between someone who is naturally good and gentle and someone who can steel his heart to be even more ruthless than his ruthless enemies in the first 23 episodes. It's telling that quite a few of them are with her. 

The first exchange I wish to highlight is the scene with a heartbroken Zhi Wei, who blames herself (and him) for the death of an innocent boy (and many others) in Episode 18. Prince of Chu is unusually emotional because he had reason to believe Feng Zhi Wei died. This is mere moment after he finds her alive. Awwwwww, my heart.
After this moment, he reluctantly reveals who Headmaster Xin is to him and she makes him promise that whatever his plans are, he will stop sacrificing the lives of the innocent. His reply: there is but one law: Eradicate all evil. She must remember that always. But then, he says "I promise" - but it's like these words are choking him.
This - who is innocent and who is not, or rather, who can be killed and who cannot - becomes a big issue between them and the topic of many more interactions. She is truly pureharted and good in a naive kind of way and would rather give her own life than see others suffer because of her. He on the other hand acts knowing he cannot win this fight without getting his hands bloody - and that some of this blood may be the blood of bystanders. In Episode 19, he does not hesitate a second before he kills someone Zhi Wei tried to protect.
But was the man really innocent? Not really. He used to be with the Bloody Pagoda, a secret assassin organisation whose purpose is revealed later, and through a series of events became the Crowd Prince's men. In that capacity, they did a lot of dirty work. To Feng Zhi Wei, that does not matter. She judges humans by far less complex standards and definitely not by their past. It's how they behave in those moments she gets to know them that matter to her.
That is why Prince of Chu's actions hurt and (to some extend) baffle her: he was always very kind to her, but since she's very intelligent, she also sees that this is just one facet of his character. In episode 19, when they meet after she has become an Official, she tells Headmaster Xin that she "does not even know who he is" - and that she fears that if she helps him again, other people will die. Headmaster Xin tells her this: "What your eyes see might not be real" and to ask herself what kind of person he truly is.
This getting to know who he is is a journey though and more tragedy needs to happen in between. This time, it's Prince of Chu who has someone he cares about a lot taken from him in Episode 20. The Chang family uses Zhi Wei, who is cross-dressing as a man and has become an official at the Palace, to bring poisoned wine to him. He has been giving away the wine and food his father sends him routinely. They even joke about "it could be poisoned" frequently. His friend, an ex-convict and weaver Huo Laosan, drinks the wine and dies.
Ning Yi is ready to  jeopardize everything at this moment, but Feng Zhi Wei stops him, promising she will bring the culprits to justice. It looks like the Crown Prince's sister the Princess Shaoning had something to do with it and Zhi Wei fears she's the next "innocent" Ning Yi will have killed.
Ning Yi repeatedly warns her about Shaoning, but does not move against her - simply because he knows he's up against bigger evil, Chang Hai, the real mastermind behind the Crown Prince. He voices his concerns to Zhi Wei and she understands... I think it's the moment she really starts understanding how dangerous Ning Yi's situation is and that he is not just a choleric killer, but a very smart strategist.
We get to another really insightful scene in episode 21, this time between Emperor and son. Actually, it's one of my favorite so far. For a long time, Ning Yi played the silly, powerless, sickly prince in front of his father. In this episode, that's out of the window. Ning Chuan is disgraced (and soon no longer the Crown Prince) and for the first time, the Emperor asks Ning Yi a few very personal questions. After making sure he is speaking to his father, not the Emperor, Ning Yi is so frank I shudder because for even a fraction of this, the Emperor could have him executed. "Parental love is a luxury for the imperial family", he says and blames his father for turning a blind eye to the injustice done to his mother.
His father/the Emperor forbids him to look into his mother's death at which Ning Yi says "Then you should send me to be with my mother." Ouf. He's one determined nail. The Emperor clearly sees what asset this wild Prince is to him too... more to come, I guess.
A third very insightful scene and another (frankly scary) facet of Ning Yi is revealed when the discharged Crown Prince rebels and his father sends him to "make the former Crown Prince execute himself". Such an order is typical for the Emperor, by the way (he's really well portrayed though I'm not sure he'll get his own post) - and he's openly using Ning Yi now. Who isn't happy at all about it, but of course, this is not the time to resist.
After Ning Yi has left, the Emperor sends Zhi Wei to make sure the Princess Shaoning is safe - she heard her father's order at the military camp and rushed to the capital to warn (and stop) her brother. Before she appears, Ning Yi plays his big brother like a fiddle and is just about to give the order to kill him. In an edict, his father now tells him to (just) "stop the rebellion" and give Wei Zhi/Zhi Wei the power to supervise the army if necessary.
He is extremely angry and frustrated (his brother who was unjustly killed - he did not get such an intervention), but Zhi Wei urges him to be lenient and do "the right thing" (for her, that means not kill his brother). Ning Yi doesn't care if he'll face criminal charges though, he wants to, must kill him. Then, Zhi Wei says something very important: "If you kill him, you are no different from them. I'm not trying to save him. I'm trying to save you!"
As a response, he tells her he is trapped - that's who he is, if she still had questions about it - and if she tries to stop him... he'll kill her too. Ouf. And even more ouf: she stands her ground and tells him she has been sent by his father to supervise and supervise she will. She won't let him kill innocent people. That, to her, is the Princess.
It's when his brain takes over again - and he tells her to go into the palace, where Shaoning and her brother have fled to, to persuade her to leave her brother. He may let her go. It's a tacit agreement the two reach at this point, because Zhi Wei no longer pleads for the Crown Prince. And wanna bet Ning Yi knew what would happen next? Ni Chuan takes Zhi Wei hostage (this way, the Crown Prince has forfeited his life anyway, since she's the Emperial supervisor) and attempts to get away like this. Now this might have worked if Ning Yi weren't the type of man to gamble with everybody's life. Including Zhi Wei's.
He shoots her in the leg to get her out of the way. She manages to topple down the Princess... but the Crown Prince dies in a shower of arrows. So, overall - and even though there was no reluctance there at all, also not later, when he gets to kill uncle Chang Hai for his father - Ning Yi knows his father is using him as a scapegoat. It's a turning point for this character. He tells his dead brother in his coffin that he only fought him to defend himself. He has no desire for power. But from now on, he will not defend himself anymore - he has nothing to hide.
"Are you happy?" Zhi Wei asks him, now that he has gotten his revenge? Oh yes, he is, he says... but the tears in his eyes as he thinks about his dead third brother and all the other innocents who had to die belie his words. Whatever he does, he says, the dead won't come back. There is peace between them at this point, and understanding. But there is also a great sadness in Ning Yi, despite his recent success... may it be because he knows that in a fight like this, there are never any true victors... only losers.