Mini-Recap: The Rise of Phoenixes Episodes 1-2

A one-off recap of Episodes 1 and 2 of The Rise of Phoenixes. The drama is currently airing on Hunan TV (7:30~8pm CN time) and iQiyi (10pm).

No news of English subs yet.

The Cheng Dynasty collapses after a successful rebellion by then Duke of Minhai, Ning Shizheng (Ni Dahong). He then founds the Tiansheng Dynasty, and instates his eldest legitimate son Ning Chuan (later played by Hai Yitian) as Crown Prince after killing the ninth prince(ss) of Cheng.

L-R: Ning Shizheng (emperor), Chang Hai, the crown prince’s supporter

Fast forward eighteen years, the Tiansheng court is splintered into various factions – the powerful Chang clan led by Chang Hai, the Duke of Min, supports the Crown Prince, while Assistant Minister Ge supports the simple-minded fifth prince. To maintain a balance of power, the emperor releases Ning Yi (Chen Kun) after eight years of house arrest, describing him as a painful ‘nail’ that will keep the different factions in line.

L-R: Crown prince Ning Chuan, fifth prince Ning Yan, second prince Ning Sheng

Ning Yi appears to be an ignorant prince who is uninterested in politics, swearing that he only wants to spend the rest of his life drinking and weaving brocade (for which he is well known for). However, we already know that he’s no fool, and is only biding time before he strikes back against the people that caused the third prince’s death. The emperor and the princes know this too, though the former decides to turn a blind eye, while the princes have no choice but to accept their brother with welcome arms.

Sixth prince Ning Yi, Prince of Chu

To ensure that Ning Yi and the other princes are evenly matched, the emperor arranges a marriage between Ning Yi and the daughter of the Qiu family. However the Qiu family firmly believes that the Chang family and the Crown Prince will be the ultimate victors, and Madam Qiu sends her niece Feng Zhiwei’s (Ni Ni) engagement card back to the palace instead of her daughter’s. Given Feng Zhiwei’s true identity as a descendant of the Cheng Dynasty, her ‘mother’ Qiu Mingying (Liu Mintao) is understandably conflicted when she hears the news.

Feng Zhiwei cross-dresses as a man to attend school in place of her good-for-nothing brother.

At a popular textile shop that sells brocade woven by Ning Yi, court official Xin Ziyan (Zhao Lixin) is waiting for his measurements to be taken. Surprisingly, the tailor that walks in is Ning Yi himself, the prince he had earlier criticised for being useless and lacking filial piety and loyalty. It’s explained that he initially worked for the third prince, and was entrusted by him to assist Ning Yi in his endeavours. Currently a double agent who acts as the crown prince’s guardian, Xin Ziyan secretly discusses plans with the Prince of Chu to further estrange the crown prince from his followers.

Xin Ziyan

Ning Yi’s secret network also includes Zhuyin, a popular courtesan who inadvertently befriended Zhiwei after the latter helps break up an altercation between her and the Qiu household’s fifth concubine (Deng Sha). While returning a hairpin to her new friend, Feng Zhiwei meets Ning Yi, and is introduced as a ‘weaver’ who works for the Prince of Chu.

Zhuyin, Feng Zhiwei, and the ‘weaver’.

The second prince (Shi An) is clearly a more seasoned politician than his fifth brother, and in an attempt to destabilise the Crown Prince, spreads a rumour that the ninth prince of the Cheng Dynasty is still alive and well in his principality Yanzhou. He also fabricates a murder case that suggests the Bloody Pagoda, an organisation loyal to the previous dynasty, is back for revenge. However, Xin Ziyan tells the Crown Prince that the rumours may be man-made, sowing the first seeds of suspicion in his mind.

The next day, Ning Yi is preparing a banquet for his brothers, and Feng Zhiwei, wanting to meet her husband-to-be, sneaks into the manor as a courtesan. She accidentally runs into the ‘weaver’ Ning Yi, and pleads with him to arrange a meeting between her and the Prince of Chu. Ning Yi is aware of the Qiu family’s tricks, and knows that Feng Zhiwei is in fact a substitute (hence the nickname ‘Little Civet Cat‘).

However, he doesn’t want Feng Zhiwei ruining his plans that night, and locks her in a pavilion. During the banquet, the appearance of an “assassin” (who was actually Feng Zhiwei trying to escape captivity) who seems to be headed for the Crown Prince further weakens the shaky alliance between the three brothers. 

I swear, Chen Kun hasn’t changed since his Painted Skin days.


Everything and everyone in this drama looks beautiful – it’s comfortable and natural because there are no bright filters, and neither is it so washed out that it looks dull and grey. I also want to point out how professional the team is for sticking to on-site recording, and using everyone’s original voices –  this is definitely a big step forward for Chinese dramas in general. Acting wise, I thought Chen Kun was a bit over the top when he was acting as a drunken idiot, but he is perfect in the more serious scenes with Xin Ziyan.

Zhao Lixin is my favourite so far – his interactions with his wife Hu Ke (as Dahua) are hilarious, and I’m really looking forward to seeing more of his scenes with Chen Kun and Ni Dahong.

Fun fact: Zhao Lixin narrated the introduction to episode 1.

Ni Ni is beautiful as always, and though Feng Zhiwei still seems a bit naïve at the moment, I’m confident the character will grow up once she enters the imperial court as Wei Zhi.

I’m actually worried about the story and its pacing more than anything else after seeing the sheer number of writers and editors involved in this project – I really want to love this show, and am desperately hoping The Rise of Phoenixes will not be the next Tribes and Empires.

21 thoughts on “Mini-Recap: The Rise of Phoenixes Episodes 1-2

  1. I’m now watching this a 3rd time. I miss some things and want to see it to help me figure this out. I will say the ending is disturbing & i wish for a better one.

  2. Thank you so much for your recap! I knew i was missing on some details from trying to speed read what was going on and trying not to miss the beautiful filming. I havent checked yet but hope you write more on future episodes while i continue on the journey watching.

  3. Ooooooh. Been scouring the net for anything like this. Thanks heaps!!! :) This has long been on my to-watch list (I love Ni Ni!!!!) but I can’t for the life of me find comprehensive resources and such. I braved watching the episodes (lol) even with zero knowledge of Chinese. I get the impression that Ning Yi is what Xiao Jingyan will be if he had the manipulative aspect of Mei Changsu and the deviousness of Xia Jiang. :) Zhuyin and Zhiwei are so shippable! I actually love the voice of the actress playing Zhuyin, it’s so low unlike when female leads are dubbed with almost child-like voices heh (because I understand nothing I just focussed on listening to their voices). This drama is such a visual feast: it is as beautiful or more beautiful than the stills and the trailers—it’s always a disappointment when stills come out looking sharp and all and the drama is nowhere near that.

    • That’s how I feel about Ning Yi so I think you’re spot on.

      The drama is sooo pretty, you can just take screenshots and it’ll look like you spent hours photoshopping it.

      If you like Zhuyin’s voice you should watch some films with Ma Li. A lot of people have said their voices sound similar.

  4. It’s really slow. Having not read the book, I still have no clue what the direction of the show is. All the palace intrigue is really, really slow and kind of boring given that they’ve given me no investment in any of them winning. Like the Crowned prince doesn’t seem that bad and the male lead seems scheming, but I have no idea if he’ll be a good leader.

    They should’ve opened with Feng Zhiwei arguing with wuyiniang in episode 1 and then have wuyiniang killed by the end of the episode. And then have Wei Zhi show up by episode 2 . Introduce the palace intrigue as it applies to her so that I actually care, and then broaden the scope from there.

    • I’ve read the book, and to be honest, it’s not going to help viewers understand it any better because the plot and female lead’s personality has changed so much. As for the political intrigue, the writers have spread a wide net but aren’t very good at bringing everything together. I never really understood the real/fake assassins case, and whether or not the crown prince actually took any of them under his wing . The fact that he just released Qiu Mingying because he was afraid Zhiwei would create a ruckus is unbelievable.
      So far all Ning Yi wants to do is pull down Crown prince and fifth prince avenge his brother without harming innocents, but that just sounds so naive in this context.

      I think it’ll get better when Zhiwei becomes a politician (maybe in like 4 episodes?) – they seem to be following the novel pretty closely with that arc.

      • So is Ningyi like Xiao Jingyan and the female lead his Lin Shu, complete with the face changing and her own Feiliu (is Xiaobai’s character suppose to be like Feiliu?).

        • They both want to overturn the third prince’s case, but Ning Yi is more devious, both in the drama and in the novel. Wei Zhi does support Ning Yi in secret when she becomes a politician, but I’m more excited about the 相爱相杀 scenes after her identity is revealed.
          And yes, Gu Nanyi is pretty much Feiliu but with a loveline.

  5. Holy shit I never knew I needed NI Ni as all my favorite wuxia leads until today’s episode. That scene where she’s crossdressing as Wei Zhi and drinking, followed by the one of her standing up for Zhuyin, grabbing her hand, and running away, and the one where ZHuyin is telling her her sorrows and she wipes her tears away??!!! And then her toying with the Xin couple?

    Linghu Chong is my favorite wuxia lead and I’d never seen a scene that screams Linghu Chong as much as Ni Ni as Wei Zhi drinking her sorrows away.

  6. I feel I need a degree in Chinese Language to follow this drama. There is so much dialogue and political terms. It is not easy watching. In fact, I need to keep referring to the Wiki cast list so I can keep up with each new characters. I do enjoy it but I will likely hold off for now till it reaches closer to the end to watch again.

  7. I was worried the plot would be horrible, but it’s pretty engaging so far. Tribes and Empires had zero humor in it, but Ni Ni and Chen Kun managed to naturally convey some humorous moments. I am really confused by some of the Chinese reviews though. Douban is being spammed with one star reviews. How can this drama be a one star drama? Even Tribes and Empires deserved three stars for the costumes, sets, and cinematography and this is better than Tribes and Empires…

    • The scores for currently airing dramas aren’t very reliable due to all the fan wars that go on there – it’s best to check half a year after the show finishes airing.

      • Thanks for recap… Could you please recap the following episodes. I really love this drama but I don’t understand Chinese. This is very helpful.

  8. I just finished episode 4 and my thought is that there needs more Ni Ni. I was a little concerned about her doing an ancient drama since ancient times + dramas are both out of her comfort zone, and Feng Zhiwei is more ambitious, strategic, and not-so-gorgeous compared to her previous characters. I thought she nailed it. I love how Zhiwei’s personality is super consistent and shows through every expression even when she’s given some weird lines/scenes. Her scene with Zhuyin was super shippable and cute. It helps that the two of them, along with Wuyiniang, are also the fastest talkers in the series.

    Also this drama has in general such a pretty female cast combined with amazing costume/makeup for everyone. Even the random courtesans look beautiful, and everyone so far is nailing their roles – from Ni NI to LIu Mintao to Hu Ke to Deng Sha to Mei Ting to the actress for Zhiyin.

    Chen Kun is handsome but having his hair down makes him look messy (same with LIu Yifei’s Mulan photo). He’s not bad, but his expressions feel more disjointed and it’s difficult to figure out his personality even when he’s putting on the same mask. His “crazy alter ego” feels like someone pretending to crazy. Even if he’s putting on a facade, why is he different in the brothel scene vs with his brothers? Surely someone would be able to tell by that alone he’s acting.

    Episode 3/4 imo were slower with way too many flashbacks and scenes of Ning YI acting. I realize that it’s a trend for serious ancient dramas to talk slowly because the dialogue takes longer to digest, but I hate it. The dialogue in this especially feels very weird because sometimes they talk very colloquially but sometimes they talk in language I won’t understand unless I look at the subtitles, and that’s distracting.

    BUt this is pretty (this is the first drama in like forever where the outcome looks as pretty as the trailers) , there are cute and fun moments, and I already love Feng Zhiwei and really like a couple of the side characters, so I’m still excited.

    • I was floored by the scene where she took an oath in front of her mother (Zhou Zhiruo and Miejue much?) – Ni Ni is a very capable actress, and I’m just wishing she would choose better projects. Feng Zhiwei was already pretty ruthless from the very first chapter of the novel, and I like how the drama’s changed it to allow her to grow.

      That’s why I thought he over did it at the banquet, though I’m pretty sure (or hoping) most of the antagonists know he’s not actually crazy. Going to hold this thought until I see more episodes. They’ve really elaborated on the subplots and characters from Ning Yi’s side, but I’m fine with it so far, because I enjoy their scenes. XD

  9. Thanks for the mini recap! Very helpful for non Mandarin speaker like me who’s very interested, but has found myself staring blankly at the screen due to the lack of sub.

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