The Sword and The Brocade

thoughts by Z

What a lovely drama.

Starring Tan Song Yun and Wallace Chung; aired in 2021; 45 episodes


I fell in love with Tan Song Yun (aka Seven Tan) in The Fox’s Summer. She has such a spunky vitality that is so so engaging to watch. Even though I wasn’t a big fan of My Mr. Mermaid or Under the Power, if I could find a fan edit of just her scenes, I’d watch it in a heartbeat. She’s just that engaging.

Because of this, The Sword and The Brocade subverted my expectations. I tuned in thinking that I was about to watch another fusion drama, with Shi Yi (played by Tan Song Yun) as the brash, takes-no-shit Female Lead who steps all over the societal barriers that are meant to keep her down to assert her independence and win the admiration and love of the Male Lead (and Second Male Lead while she’s at it, obviously) and become the focus for the hatred and scheming of a bevy of court-ladies, concubines, madams, and the politically-corrupt. And to be honest, I was hella looking forward to it.

The Sword and The Brocade is not that drama.

It is thoughtful and subdued; calm and controlled.

Just like Shi Yi, our amazing Female Lead.

Don’t get me wrong. There is all kinds of scheming from the harem and the political-corruption has maaaaybe just a little too much screen time, but the reason I’m here writing down my thoughts about this drama is because I was so taken in by the story arcs and the thoughtfulness with which the script held true to the characters. Just so wonderful.

The basic set up:

Shi Yi is the daughter of a concubine. She spends a significant portion (and the happiest) of her childhood away from her father and half-siblings, having been sent away by the main wife. She and her mother scrape out a living mostly due to their hard-work and Shi Yi’s talent in embroidery. Shi Yi harbors the wish that she can use embroidery to continue to provide a basic, comfortable life for herself and her mother. But when she is called back by her father and pressed to marry General Xu Ling Yi (aka Marquis Yongping; played beautifully by Wallace Chung), her desire to remain unmarried and independent is starkly at odds with societal and familial expectations.

Going forward, I’ll pay no mind to spoilers.

This drama is a slow burn. For good reason, many reviewers have compared it to The Story of Ming Lan and I think if you liked Ming Lan, you’ll like Sword & Brocade (and vise-versa).

Both have concubine-born FLs who are acutely aware of their standing in society and the odds stacked against them. Both have MLs who are older and have had previous relationships (and children). Both treat their viewers respectfully, allowing us to slowly grasp the complex relationships and rules that turn seemingly-low level stakes into edge-of-your-seat entertainment.

I think it’s fair to guess that if you like Jane Austin, and find yourself gasping when Darcy reaches for Elizabeth’s hand to help her into the carriage, then you’ll definitely find yourself clenching your jaw each time Shi Yi is called in front of her mother-in-law for an unearned scolding.

Without attempting (and, I’m sure, failing) to recap the entire show, I want to speak on one particular reason that I found The Sword and The Brocade so moving, so worthwhile.

From the very beginning I believed that Shi Yi had the ability to be independent. She had the intelligence, fortitude, and practical skill (embroidery) to leave the capital and live comfortably with her mother and her BFF/maid Dong Qing. In such a devastatingly patriarchal, Confucian time-and-place, striking out on her own and living life for herself (not her matriarchal family, or her husband, or her husband’s family, or her children, ad infinitum) seems like the only path that could offer her a modicum of autonomy.

So HOW could a time-period romance with a “happily married” end goal POSSIBLY stay true to this character and deliver a satisfying, believable arc? How could she maintain her agency and be in a relationship with such a heavy imbalance?

Amazingly, the show delivers.

Some viewers seemed displeased that Ling Yi fell so hard for Shi Yi, and yet Shi Yi kept her distance for a long time. She didn’t even seem to have feelings for him, and she was quick to allow herself to be manipulated into thinking he was responsible for her mother’s death. Even once she started acting on her romantic feelings for him, Ling Yi still pined and pined, torturing himself with the question of whether she actually loved him or simply felt grateful toward him.

But why should Shi Yi, who never wanted to be married in the first place and who accepted the marriage and took on the burden of main wife with aplomb, even in the face of hostile in-laws and scheming from the harem, why should she fall for Ling Yi in the first place?

Because he’s nice to her? Because he respects her? Because he loves her?

Not good enough.

This seems just like Ling Yi fears, that she’s actually just confusing her feeling of gratitude with feelings of love.

In part, this is due to her lack of previous relationships. She has nothing to compare her feelings to, so of course she flounders when trying to understand them.

But more than that, much more than that, is the fact that the relationship is too unbalanced for us (or them) to believe that she can even truly separate feelings of gratitude and love.

An employee in a relationship with a boss. A student in a relationship with a teacher.

You cannot divorce romantic feelings from the power dynamic.

Similarly, stay-at-home mothers who become destitute after a divorce because they lack independent funds and who can’t easily find a new job because they lack the expected experience. How many (mostly) women stay in unhappy relationships simply because they know they can’t afford to leave it? Too many.

Ling Yi is a good man. He treats all of his concubines respectfully (if only respectfully) and he sticks to his values and works hard in court to rid it of corruption and help the populace. He also does all kinds of swoon-worthy things for Shi Yi.

But still, it wasn’t until he told her to keep the divorce agreement that I believed in their relationship whole heartedly.

This was a beautiful decision from the scriptwriters.

Shi Yi has finally fallen for Ling Yi. They have been through more than 40 episodes of tribulations together and made it through stronger for it. They have the utmost trust in each other and Shi Yi is planning to rip up her divorce agreement.

But Ling Yi stops her.

He tells her to keep it.

It’s such a small thing, but it is so powerful.

It doesn’t matter if he is trustworthy. It doesn’t matter if they love each other. It doesn’t matter if they have the utmost faith in one another and their relationship.

It isn’t a true relationship until it is balanced, and it can’t be balanced until Shi Yi has the agency to leave it.

That she chooses to stay is what makes it a true happily-ever-after.