The Refreshing Gender Politics of ‘The Rise of Phoenixes’

Seeing yourself on screen is a beautiful thing, even if you need subtitles.

Every couple of years, I rewatch the first one-and-a-half seasons of Showtime’s The Tudors, a deeply stupid show for which I nonetheless retain a perverse nostalgic fondness. The sets and landscapes are beautiful, the soundtrack is all subtly muzak’d versions of medieval dance tunes, and the episode scripts are replete with exquisite moments, such as Henry VIII saying “I hate time itself” while gesturing weakly at an astrolabe. The leading men have modern haircuts and look like British footballers at a half-assed fancy dress party. There are a lot of deeply likeable grifters to root for: from Sam Neill’s Cardinal Wolsey, constantly torn between his ambition to be pope and his need to take a goddamn nap, to Natalie Dormer’s Anne Boleyn, who is so contemptuously beautiful that “inventing a fake religion” honestly feels like a proportionate seduction tactic. Most delightfully of all, despite the showrunners’ best efforts to make everything as sexy as possible, the characters still have to spend a significant amount of time standing in front of mullioned windows reciting Wikipedia articles about theological conflicts in order to keep the plot moving forward. It’s great fucking television.

As someone with a sad job and an itchy brain, I am constantly trying to find something to watch on TV that will occupy my attention and not make me feel miserable. A lot of the “binge-worthy” shows that my friends suggest to me are ultimately too violent for me, or too sad, or too stressful, in some hard-to-define way. Unless I am forcing myself to sit through some piece of socially important television for educational purposes, I really don’t want to watch, say, a vicariously humiliating interpersonal drama, or a wry reflection on the difficulties of modern life. That’s not to say that I want television that’s devoid of any emotional stakes: I like shows that touch on broad themes that resonate with me. But, in an escapist mode, I want something that excites my imagination and feels reasonably distanced from my day-to-day life. To this end, I mostly watch things like murder mysteries, space operas, and sort-of-historical-but-mostly-nonsense dramas about royal court intrigue. 

After I completed my most recent biennial viewing of The Tudors (stopping, as I always do, at the point where the torture and executions start to definitively outstrip the lewd theological shenanigans), I was once again at a loss for something to watch. After a few false starts, my friend Lyta Gold pointed me towards a new Chinese drama that had just been released on Netflix called The Rise of Phoenixes. I had barely watched any Chinese television before, but from the show’s trailer, The Rise of Phoenixes appeared to meet all my requirements: attractive people, lavish costumes and interiors, characters using chess boards (or, in this case, Go boards) as an exposition tool for political machinations, etc. The first episode also demonstrated a refreshing willingness to narratively allude to violence without fully showing it, which—as an actual human baby so easily fooled by simulated gore that I have to check parental viewing guides for action movies before I watch them—I deeply appreciated. I quickly settled in, hoping this would be a good one.

As it turned out, it completely devoured the next few weeks of my life, and not just because of my love of intricate imperial succession conflicts. I was also riveted by the presence of the first genderfluid protagonists that I, personally, had ever seen on a television show of this kind.

The show is set in a fictional kingdom called Tiansheng. The story follows two main protagonists: one, Ning Yi, is the calculating sixth son of the Tiansheng emperor, who is constantly maneuvering to discredit his brothers and remove them from the imperial succession. The other protagonist is a young woman named Feng Zhiwei, who is sometimes Ning Yi’s accomplice and at other times his rival. In the first scene where we meet her, Feng Zhiwei is wearing men’s clothes: we learn that her younger brother is a bit feckless, and that she loosely impersonates him from time to time. Later, after being implicated in a murder, she takes on a fulltime male disguise and starts going by the name Wei Zhi, eventually becoming the emperor’s designated top scholar and a trusted royal official. The rationale for the cross-dressing here is a little sketchy: Feng Zhiwei never seems to work out a fully consistent backstory for her male persona, and continues publicly associating with her birth family in both her male and female identities. This vagueness generates constant scrutiny and speculation about “Wei Zhi’s” origins, which is hardly ideal if you’re trying to live undercover. 

Art by Tiffany Pai

The Rise of Phoenixes is 70 episodes long (at least, as it was released for Netflix), and Feng Zhiwei remains fully in disguise as Wei Zhi for more than half the show’s run. Outside of a couple brief scenes where she mentions that she looks forward to resuming her real name someday, Feng Zhiwei seems to have little to no angst about being forced to adopt a male identity. On the whole, Feng Zhiwei is good at being a man, and even seems to have fun with it: sometimes, Wei Zhi has the demeanor of a refined, genteel scholar, and at other times, he’s a crafty, cocky little shit. Feng Zhiwei likes drinking and gambling, and is highly learned and politically astute, and thus has almost no difficulty inhabiting a male role in the imperial capital. She also “passes” as male pretty effortlessly: although some people are suspicious about the origins of the upstart court official Wei Zhi, hardly anyone—until the plot forces a dramatic identity reveal around episode 40-something—is suspicious about Wei Zhi’s gender. The handful of people who do figure out Wei Zhi’s secret more quickly are very nonchalant about it, and keep it under wraps without even being asked. Feng Zhiwei has to muster all her resourcefulness to keep up with Ning Yi’s intricate political schemes, and this is what provides the plot’s primary momentum, not the fact that Feng Zhiwei happens to be disguised as a man.

Throughout the show, Feng Zhiwei/Wei Zhi also has romantic tension with a range of characters. There’s Ning Yi, the aforementioned devious prince of Tiansheng, and Helian Zheng, the bro-ier prince of the northern kingdom of Jinshi; both of these characters are aware that Feng Zhiwei is a woman, but the bulk of their foundational interactions take place while she’s living as the man Wei Zhi. There’s Shaoning, the spoiled princess of Tiansheng, who falls in love with Wei Zhi without realizing that he’s the same person as Feng Zhiwei. There’s Feng Zhiwei’s loyal bodyguard, Gu Nanyi, who seems to be neurodivergent and who (as we learn in one scene) is equally comfortable in “men’s” and “women’s” clothes as long as he can fight in them. There’s Feng Zhiwei’s female warrior friend, Hua Qiong, whom Feng Zhiwei first meets after her own female identity has been outed, but while she’s still primarily running around in men’s clothes. Although my investment in The Rise of Phoenixes didn’t really depend on Feng Zhiwei “ending up” with anyone in particular, I couldn’t recall any other show I’d seen with such a diverse plethora of not-quite-heterosexual relationship possibilities, without being billed as an “LGBT drama.” The idea, too, that a general-audience historical action-adventure show could explore a topic as politically-charged as genderfluidity, deliberately but also playfully, centering it as a plot point without reducing it to a teachable moment, was genuinely a revelation to me: they just do not make shows like this in the United States, and thus it had never occurred to me that such shows were even possible.

Of course, it’s not as if I’d never seen cross-dressing featured in U.S. media before, but as I tried to recall any English-language films and television that actually centered around a “female” protagonist in “disguise” as a man—well, all that really came to mind was Disney’s Mulan (based on a Chinese story), film adaptations of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and various teen sports movies inspired by Twelfth Night. (It’s kind of weird that the Anglophone world is so invested in Shakespeare as the apotheosis of English-language literature, and yet we have comparatively little media about gender questioning!) Maybe it’s because women wearing drag, in this day and age, is (often, although not always) viewed as so nonthreatening as to be unremarkable: a lot of traditionally male clothing signifiers have become increasingly identified as unisex, and the line between “women in ‘menswear’” and “women dressed as men” is consequently super blurry. Men in femme drag, meanwhile, existed for many decades in mainstream media purely as the punchlines of jokes, and now continue to inhabit a transgressive and masculine-panic-inducing place in the U.S. popular imagination; the idea of a U.S. television show that casually but non-comedically centers around a man in disguise as a woman, or a man who enjoys wearing women’s clothes, is currently hard to imagine.

I am also not saying that any of the characters on The Rise of Phoenixes are explicitly or intentionally written as trans, nonbinary, or gay. Just because some person enjoys cross-dressing doesn’t necessarily mean that they have any particular sexual orientation or gender identity. But I think a cross-dressing drama like this one is an interesting kind of gender/sexuality Rorschach test: you can potentially learn something about your own preferences or desires based upon what you think is “really” going on here, or what you wish were going on. Is Feng Zhiwei a straight cis woman doing drag for politics, who just really gets into the spirit of the thing? A lesbian or bisexual cis woman who enjoys switching between masc and femme aesthetics? A nonbinary person? A trans man trying to achieve escape velocity from his birth identity? All these readings are permissible given the events in the show, or, at the very least, are flights of imagination with some grounding in the source material.

In the United States, there’s certainly more media featuring queer characters than there used to be, but it’s still relatively rare to see an LGBT or gender-nonconforming character in a central role. There are some dramas that specifically focus on life as an LGBT person, or on LGBT people from history, but on a “genre” show—a mystery, a thriller, a sci-fi epic—there might be, if you’re lucky, one or two minor queer characters, who often feel like they were slotted in to fill some kind of representation quota. (The Tudors is a good example of this: a few characters are selected to have Homosexual Intrigues, and are then killed off in pretty short order.) Likewise, nonbinary or genderfluid characters, as such, are incredibly rare. (GLAAD’s 2019 report on U.S. media identified 5 nonbinary characters on television shows across all broadcast, cable, and streaming platforms, along with 12 trans men and 21 trans women characters.) This in itself doesn’t surprise me, especially since it’s only quite recently that the concept of identifying as nonbinary has entered into sort of mainstream discussion in the United States, and self-identified nonbinary people make up a very small percentage of the population. Although I am sure that lack of nonbinary characters is also motivated by the U.S.’ discomfort with non-heteronormative gender identities, as a representational lacuna it’s not comparable in scale and insidiousness to U.S. media’s deliberate stereotyping and erasure of groups that have much larger numbers and more sustained social visibility—such as virtually all non-white people.

Character representation numbers aside, I think it’s also true that the complexity of figuring out how to relate to your gender still isn’t frequently regarded in U.S. media as something worthy of dramatic treatment. As I’ve muddled through my own feelings about gender over the past decade or so, I’ve been incredibly grateful for the increasing availability of essays and videos by trans and nonbinary people, which helped me realize that I was allowed to actually think about what I wanted, instead of just assuming that anything I wanted was inherently frivolous and impossible. But in all honesty, it was also extremely meaningful to me, at a moment when I was still teetering hesitantly on the brink of expressing myself, to watch an entire 70-episode television drama that featured a main character swapping between gender identities. Encountering more and more trans and nonbinary people in real life had started to make me feel like changing my pronouns or gender expression was something that was actually achievable in the mundane world of my work and social life. Seeing a gender “transition” dramatized on a fantasy-court-intrigue show, somehow, made it feel even more achievable. 

Exactly why I felt this way is a complicated knot to untangle, but I think there are a few interconnected reasons. Firstly, seeing a genderfluid character in a non-contemporary setting is a helpful reminder that trans identity and gender nonconformity are not merely ephemeral modern fads—which is the repressive, self-loathing narrative that conservatives, as well as many “concerned” liberals, are constantly trying to force on gender-questioning people. There have, in fact, been trans and nonbinary people throughout history, across the world; thus, it shouldn’t be “weird” to see a trans or nonbinary character in a show with a fantasy or historical setting, because trans and nonbinary people have existed for as long as the concept of gender has existed, and so any society that has gender in it logically should have some non-cis people in it. Including these characters doesn’t have to be an anachronism, or a heavy-handed, narratively incoherent P.C. flourish: these characters can be a natural feature of the environment. Secondly, it was also extremely satisfying to see a protagonist who had interests, conflicts, and agency apart from their gender identity, but who nevertheless enjoyed and was good at switching between different modes of gender expression. The dream of what it would be like to publicly change your gender identity, and have people immediately find you likeable and intriguing, rather than unmasking you and branding you as a fraud, is one that I think trans and gender-nonconforming people don’t get to see portrayed too often on television. One important role of fiction—especially imaginative and speculative fiction—is to allow us to envision best- or better-case scenarios. This is especially helpful if the dismal cinema of your brain is already producing worst-case scenarios for you, free of charge, on a continuous loop.

At first, as a total newcomer to the broader world of Chinese dramas, the plot of The Rise of Phoenixes struck me as unique, exciting, and unlike anything I could recall seeing on television. I tried to find out more about the author of the serialized webnovel that inspired the series, and discovered that there wasn’t much information publicly available (at least in English) about her: webnovel authors in China seem to stay outside of the public eye, even if their works are extremely popular. Feeling bereft without any more episodes to watch, I began randomly trying out other Chinese dramas that were available to stream. At this point, I realized that the “woman takes on a male identity for hand-wavey plot reasons” character wasn’t unique at all to The Rise of Phoenixes, but was in fact an incredibly common trope. YouTube and other streaming services soon began feeding me recommendations for a whole host of shows with summaries like “eldest daughter of border-guarding family disguises herself as her dead twin brother to navigate her family’s interests at court” and “top-ranked general is discovered to be a woman living in disguise as a man, and subsequently is married off to a beautiful but lazy prince to undercut her political influence.” It turns out that—in mainland China, as well as Taiwan, Korea, Thailand, Japan, and other countries—there are a shit ton of these shows, situated across a variety of fantasy, historical, or modern-day settings. Obviously, millions upon millions of people were watching these shows long before I knew about them: the fact that their existence was surprising to me is a reflection of my total ignorance of huge swathes of non-Anglophone media (although admittedly, it’s only recently that the internet has started to make international television and cinema more easily accessible to a global audience). 

One loosely-historical drama that I watched, Nv Shi Zi (whose English-subtitled version was distributed as The Heiress), has a somewhat similar premise to The Rise of Phoenixes and illustrates the different ways the trope can be repackaged. Han Shiyi, the protagonist, is a woman who has lived nearly her entire life since childhood in disguise as her dead male twin in order to protect her family’s political interests. Unlike The Rise of Phoenixes, which primarily focuses on the complex political landscape within which Feng Zhiwei’s male disguise is situated, The Heiress spends a lot more time dramatizing the difficulties that a divided gender identity poses to one’s love life. Although Han Shiyi seems to fully enjoy roistering around as a male playboy, her situation becomes more complicated when her male love interest becomes fixated on “restoring” her female identity so that they can get married. Han Shiyi also “passes” a little less successfully than Feng Zhiwei, with more characters questioning her face shape and body size and wondering if she’s “really” a man (although, by the same token, her male swagger is convincing enough that when she later appears in female clothes, multiple people who know her as a man ask her if she’s “in disguise” as a woman). In some ways, both The Rise of Phoenixes and The Heiress are quite heteronormative on their face: although the protagonists in their male personas attract the adoration of beautiful girls, the protagonists are depicted as amused or alarmed by this attention, and work assiduously to deflect it whenever it becomes too serious. By contrast, our drag kings have explicit romantic tension with cis male characters, which has a distinct frisson of homoeroticism that’s periodically undercut by narrative PSAs reminding us that She’s Really A Girl Deep Down. (In The Heiress, the love interest also has a significant sexuality crisis before realizing that his male friend is “really” a woman: this is apparently a very common trope on other gender-bending shows as well.) 

In both of these two shows, the eventual restoration of the main character’s female identity, name, and clothing occurs under fraught circumstances involving kidnapping and amnesia; the mutual camaraderie that existed when the main character and the love interest were both socially acting as “men” is shattered; and attempts to transition into wedded heterosexual bliss turn out nightmarishly, with our former drag kings miserably deprived of status and agency. (I won’t say which is which, but one of these two shows ends in total tragedy, while the other features the lead character throwing over all her former love interests to roam the world alone in a slightly more femme edition of her coolest masc outfit.) The collapse of the romances in both cases have a number of other causes related to dynastic politics and family loyalty, and so it’s very much not clear that these shows truly invite us to conclude that Heteronormativity Ruined Everything (as opposed to the usual “star crossed lovers” type thing), but it was nonetheless pretty remarkable to watch these two characters forced back into femininity and being clearly unhappy about it—the exact inverse of the classic “tomboy” trope in a lot of Anglophone literature and film, where a sporty masc girl matures into a “normal,” appropriately femme woman.

It’s interesting to note that shows like this manage to get made in China despite the fact that broadcast codes are much more restrictive. At the present moment, China has media censorship laws that forbid or place limitations on the presentation of a range of issues, including a general ban on depictions of same-sex relationships. Nevertheless, there’s still enough demand for shows about LGBT characters that Chinese showrunners have been motivated to find ways around the censorship restrictions: in addition to continuing to make gender-bending shows that skirt the edge of what constitutes a “same-sex relationship,” a number of novels that prominently feature gay romances have been adapted into highly successful TV shows. Because these dramas can’t show any kissing or confessions of love, the shows on their surface portray very deep same-sex friendships, but it’s very obvious to the viewer that they’re watching a romantic love story, which is carefully unfolded over the course of 40 to 50 episodes. (One such show that’s recently taken off internationally is The Untamed, the exciting story of an anarchist necromancer who rescues refugees from prison camps, murders his enemies with a demon flute, and exchanges frequent longing glances with his “best friend,” a moody zither-player. Everyone should watch it, it’s great!) In China, these heavily-subtextual gay TV romances are often adapted from danmei, novels depicting gay romances that are produced primarily (although not exclusively) by women, for an audience comprised primarily (although not exclusively) of other women. The genre is part of a larger ecosystem of similar romance stories that exists across east Asia; it parallels—and has significant overlap and interchange with—the phenomenon of slash fiction in the United States and elsewhere, which has historically also been female-dominated and is centered around borrowing ostensibly straight characters from popular books, films, and television shows, and rewriting them into gay fanfiction.

In the United States there are technically no broadcast censorship laws: we have a prevailing notion that “showbusiness” is LGBT-friendly, and producers are surely well aware by now that that there’s a significant audience of both LGBT and non-LGBT people that wants to see queer characters and relationships robustly portrayed in media. And yet, if you were to go to any TV producer in the United States. wanting to adapt, say, a high fantasy novel that also happens to be a gay love story, there’s almost no way your show would get made! (If anything, U.S. and other Anglophone showrunners are notorious for “gaybaiting” their audiences: dropping little in-jokes hinting at a possible gay relationships between characters, to partially satisfy their fan base, but then at other times going out of their way to narratively reinforce one or both characters’ non-negotiable heterosexuality.) Likewise, if you wanted to pitch a fun historical drama about a trans or nonbinary character—or a show that dramatizes a protagonist’s experience of transition or genderfluidity within the context of a larger plot—I can’t help but think that you’d struggle to find any takers for that pilot, given that I haven’t seen a single show like this in the United States. 

Even though China currently has more formal barriers to portraying non-heteronormative relationships on television, there seems to be a general awareness that there’s a large public appetite for these narratives, and attendant motivation to find creative ways to get around the censorship limitations, and make shows that not only include, but center around gay and gender-nonconforming characters. I don’t have any insight as to whether this is motivated purely by the knowledge that there’s an enthusiastic audience that can be readily capitalized upon, or if these shows’ creators attach any political significance to portraying these interdicted narratives. Regardless of the reasons why these shows do get made in China, it’s striking that similar shows don’t get made in the United States, in spite of the U.S.’s nominally more permissive broadcast culture and the presence of ready-made, eager audiences for such content. A friend of mine who previously worked for Marvel told me that Marvel executives constantly raised the specter of “the Chinese market” as a reason why Marvel couldn’t create films that centered (for example) black characters, or gay characters. As she pointed out, the fact that Black Panther ended up doing very well in China, and the fact that Chinese TV is actually, by some metrics, much more comfortable with non-heternormative characters than mainstream U.S. TV, demonstrates that these excuses were purely designed to paper over Marvel’s own racism and homophobia, and the perceived racism and homophobia of their U.S. audiences. 

In writing this essay, I’m aware that my tone of delighted awe may be a little annoying—these shows have been around for a while, and Chinese and Chinese diaspora audiences have been well aware of them this whole time. I am not making any special claim, as a white American nonbinary person, that I understand the full cultural context of shows like The Rise of Phoenixes or The Heiress. Some media scholars have noted that Chinese media companies’ packaging of more masculine-presenting modes of female identity, in ways that are explicitly distanced from being lesbian or trans, walks an unusual line between expanding some types of gender expression and suppressing others. Likewise, danmei and the TV shows that are adapted from them are not straightforwardly representational because they are often created and consumed by people who identify (at least publicly) as cis and heterosexual. In all parts of the world, media that’s actually made by queer people, about queer people, often looks quite different from mainstream television that superficially borrows queer themes—although, in the United States at least, some of this also has to do with the fact that LGBT or gender-nonconforming television often gets little funding and/or is siloed off as a kind of a “genre” show of its own, as if these storylines can’t exist in the world of “regular” television. (It may also be misguided to believe that “mainstream” television produced for mass audiences will ever have a high volume of well-rounded queer characters, but again, if you’re a person who primarily likes fantasy, scifi, and period dramas—shows that are hard to make on an indie budget—it’s hard not to wistfully hope that we could get there eventually.) I’m also not qualified to speak about the intersectional dimension of being both queer and Chinese, and the way that those two huge areas of poor representation in white-majority Anglophone media affect people who belong to both groups.Nevertheless, I think lots of queer and nonbinary people (and people generally) would find these Chinese dramas interesting, compelling, and strikingly different from the fare they’re used to seeing on U.S. television! It’s very easy to underestimate the extent to which people in the United States—unless you are part of a specific diaspora community—are totally unaware of huge swathes of mass media that are consumed by millions of other people on the planet. Seeing firsthand evidence that certain stories can be told, and that the refusal to tell them is in fact deliberate, can be extremely revealing. If I had known that there were so many cross-dressing Chinese dramas out there, I certainly wouldn’t have spent so much time re-watching The Tudors. Maybe I can cut back to revisiting that one once every three years.

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