The Secret of the Three Kingdoms (2018) is a historical drama. The action takes place between 200 and 220 AC and deals with the historical events of the decline of the Han Dynasty, which has been ruling China for 400 years. The story revolves around the last emperor of Han, who was a hostage of one of the feudal lords (Minister Cao Cao). The imperial family had no army, no land and no real power.
Two of the feudal lords killed the former emperor, Prince of Hongnong (the older brother of the twins) and made the 10 years old brother the new emperor, hoping to manipulate him, while holding him hostage. He is rescued by Minister Cao Cao and brought back to the capital, only to become Cao Cao’s hostage. At the age of 14 he marries the empress and they both decide to become political partners and attempt to restore the glory of the Empire of Han. He discovers that he has a twin brother who was hidden away from the palace and is living a carefree life, unaware of his own identity. At the age of 18 the emperor falls ill and asks the empress to bring his twin brother into the palace to ask for his help, but he dies before they can meet.
Yang Ping/Liu Ping, played by Ma Tian Yu (Ice Fantasy, Ice Fantasy Destiny), is the twin brother of the reigning emperor. He has lived his life as a foster child in the Sima household, unaware of his identity. He is best friends with Sima Yi, whom he looks up to as his older brother and mentor.
The dying young emperor sends for his twin brother in hopes to save the Han Dynasty from collapse. After having his death faked, Yang Ping enters the palace, but he arrives too late. He complies with his brother last wish and takes on his identity in order to carry on the fight for the survival of the Empire.
A Brief Introduction into the Main Characters
The Emperor: unlike his deceased brother, Yang Ping is wise, compassionate and meek and will try to bring peace to the land by pacifying the warlords who are waging constant wars. The emperor is their ruler, but in reality, the imperial family had lost its influence over the course of time. Now the feudal lords want to use him as a tool to subdue the other lords.
The Empress, Fu Shou: one of the two reasons the empress is so determined to sacrifice herself for the peace and unity of the Empire is because she is of royal blood (it will be made clear later into the series). Her deceased mother was a princess of Han imperial family. The other reason is her loyalty towards the deceased husband with whom she shared the same political ideals.
Princess Consort, Tang Ying: she is the ex-empress, the wife of the previous emperor, who was killed. She lives in the shrine dedicated to her deceased husband. She is a trained assassin and an ally of the imperial family.
Minister of Works, Cao Cao: in his youth he rescued the imperial family, but with time he forgot his righteous ways and began undermining the authority of the emperor. His ambition is not to subdue the land, but he genuinely wants to unify the country. However, he thinks that the imperial family is too weak to accomplish that (he will appear much later in the series).
Guo Jia: he is Cao Cao’s strategist and the most feared person. He is intelligent, cunning and „he is never wrong”. The new emperor will try to win him over and will engage with him into a battle of witts. He is a key figure in the plot and will appear in episode 12.
Cao Pi, Cao Cao’s son: the historical records describe him as an accomplished warrior and a poet. He became the first emperor after the downfall of the Han Dynasty.
Sima Yi (also called Zhong Da): He was a skilful strategist and his descendants (grandson) took the power from the Cao’s family, founding the Jin Dynasty. In this series he is the emperor’s „godbrother” and best friend.
„The Secret of the Three Kingdoms” is based on a 14th century historical novel titled „Romance of the Three Kingdoms”. Although the events described in the novel span from 169 until the reunification of the land in 280, the story of the drama covers only about 20 years, from year 200 until the end of Han Dynasty in 220. The novel had numerous adaptations: films, animations and, most noteworthy, a television series in 1994 with the same title. The 1994 adaption was one of the most expensive series in television history at the time.
The drama is accurately depicting the major historical event, however, the writer took great liberties with some aspects of the story. This does not clash with the historical facts, but we simply have no proof for them. For example, there is no account of the emperor and Sima Yi being friends, nor that the Princess Consort ever crossed paths with Sima Yi, let alone having a romantic relationship with him. The greatest twist that gave the story a lot of its drive is the introduction of the twin brother and the identity switch.
I enjoyed watching this drama. It kept surprising me at every turn. Although the viewer knows the unfolding of the historical events, the drama has the great merit of not being predictable. The pacing is quite good and the story does not fall flat (many other dramas, both Chinese and Korean are, unfortunately, guilty of such flaw).
The love story progresses naturally and is both strong and delicate at the same time. It certainly has the power to leave a long lasting impression.
Despite the premise of the story, there is no significant change in the hero’s character throughout the series. Therefore, if, after reading the plot, you’re expecting a coming-of-age story, you might be disappointed. Since the very beginning we get a glimpse into Yang Ping’s personality: he is benevolent, meek and compassionate. Later those traits do change, but only in the sense that they are perfected by wisdom and strength of character.
I have to give props to the director and the writer for not giving in to the temptation of overdramatizing the story with unnecessary plot twists. Moreover, despite the anticipated sad outcome, the writer has managed to come up with the best scenario, given the historical events. We were presented with bitter-sweet ending and a satisfying closure.
The background music is minimalistic. The OST, however, is magnificent, especially the outro. It gives gravity and stature to the drama.
Casting and Acting
The acting is stellar (with very few exceptions: i.e. Tan Jian Ci in the role of Cao Pi, although part of the blame goes to the writer).
My favorite portrayal is, without a doubt, the empress, played by Wan Qian („Tribes and Empires: Storm of Prophecy”). She is able to portray effortlessly the most intense or delicate emotions with a glance, a frown or a simple gesture.
Although the most anticipated star of the cast was perhaps Elvis Han, („Siege of Fog”), the reigning couple stole the scene every time. On a side note, oddly enough, Elvis Han seemed to struggle getting into his character at times.
Overall, the supporting cast deserves praise as well; it presented us with memorable and very well portrayed characters, whether heroes or villains.
The overall impression is that the drama did not have a very big budget. That does not get in the way of thoroughly enjoying the drama, but one can spot the lack of extras and the computer generated images during battles.
However, I did appreciate the cure for details: nowhere did I see synthetic fabric either in decoration or clothing. As far that I could tell, they used natural fabric. This gave the impression of an authentic depiction of the era.
One of the staple characteristics of a Chinese drama is the luxurious costumes, extravagant hairpieces and breathtaking scenery, which in some cases are not matched by great acting or a good story. This is a drama that does not attempt to distract the viewer with special effects and saturated sceneries, instead it is a plot and character driven drama, which is why I enjoyed it more than I had expected.
The shortcoming of this series ar very obvious at times, however they are forgivable when we consider the overall quality of the drama.
All characters have two names and sometimes it can become confusing, especially early into the series.
The use of wigs was overwhelming. Although we were spared the sight of poorly blended wigs on the forehead, the men’s wigs were very distracting at times (this is a sin many Chinese dramas are guilty of).
The CGI was in a few battle scenes more obvious than intended.
I wished they added an extra episode to give more closure to the viewers.
Would I recommend this drama?
Yes, wholeheartedly. It has a great story-line, amazing acting, good pacing, and a lifting message: you can achieve the best of what you can be without giving up on your principles, especially when the driving force is the love for your country, your better half and your friend.