EPISODE 8

 

Episode 8

 

(Karen)

Hello and welcome to Chasing Dramas! The podcast that discusses Chinese history and culture through Chinese TV dramas. This is Karen, and this is Cathy. This is episode 7 of the podcast, but we’re analyzing episode 8 of 后宫甄嬛传,Empresses in the Palace. There’s a ton of culture to analyze in this episode actually which we’re very excited to discuss. As always, if you have any comments/questions or feedback, please email us at Chasingdramaspodcast@gmail.com

 

Let’s start off with a quick recap. This episode is pretty light in terms of plot. Pretty much, this episode recounts our main character 甄嬛, after 8 episodes of dodging the emperor, is finally healthy and ready to um, get “married”. I must say, considering the subject matter of this drama or at least this episode, the drama is able to do this in quite a classy way, because, as we’ve mentioned before, anything explicit is banned by the Chinese government. 

 

(Cathy)

So what happens:

The first half of the episode is lovey-dovey. 雍正, the emperor is very excited (or at least, as excited as his pancake face can bring us to believe) (Karen – if you look at this scene, he really does just have this dead pan face it’s actually hilarious)  Yes – he’s excited and takes 甄嬛, our main character, outside of the Forbidden Palace to another palace with hot springs for what I’ll call is a lovely spa day. There’s a conversation at the hot springs about 汉成帝, 赵飞燕,赵合德, very famous people from the Han Dynasty. We’ll discuss the importance of this。  

 

甄嬛 wants a “normal wedding”, but she knows that she can’t have it because she’s only a concubine. 雍正 is very taken with her honesty and promises to give her one. The curtain closes on a romantic night.

 

It’s a sleepless night for many people in 后宫, the imperial harem, including the favored concubine, 华妃 and 甄嬛’s best friend, 沈眉庄 who is also establishing herself in the palace。

 

甄嬛 returns to 后宫 and the first thing she does is greet 皇后, the empress or official wife of the emperor. 甄嬛 performs the three kneels and nine bows or 三跪九叩 which we discussed in the 3rd episode and which is a customary formality after spending the night with the Emperor. Here, 甄嬛’s attire has also matured a bit. Her clothes and hair are styled much more formally.

 

(Karen)

After she leaves 景仁宫,甄嬛bumps into 丽嫔 and 曹贵人。If you recall, 丽嫔 and 曹贵人 are two concubines that are team 华妃. They are allies with her and want to bring down 甄嬛。 Here, we see 康路海 is currently working for 丽嫔 and he sneaks away after seeing 甄嬛 to talk to her。If you don’t remember who this guy is, that’s fine, let me tell you – he used to be the Head Eunuch for 甄嬛 back when she just arrived at the palace, but then upon seeing her sick, and thinking she’ll may never amount to much, he basically jumped ship to go work for 丽嫔. Ever the social climber, this eunuch, 康陆海 actually goes and tries to get back into 甄嬛‘s good graces and is actually wondering if he can serve her again. The nerve of him! 丽嫔, his current master, witnesses this scene and runs up to this conversation, gets all mad and punishes him. 甄嬛 isn’t stupid and knows that he doesn’t have any loyalty, which from day one we’ve seen she values very much and doesn’t take him back. He is left kneeling on the floor and punishing himself by slapping himself in the face. That’s a common punishment for folks in the palace. 

 

I’ve gone back and forth on the lesson here for 康陆海。 On one hand, it’s important to be loyal but is blind loyalty great? Especially if you have a terrible master? (We see examples of this later). I think the true lesson here is recognizing when you have a good master and being loyal to a good master. If 康陆海 was smart enough to see that 甄嬛 has potential, just like the empress or almost anyone in the palace, he would not have left and probably would be in a much higher social standing. But now, he has the reputation of someone who isn’t trustworthy. He’s a minor character, and was only around for like a few episodes, but this is, unfortunately, the last we see of him.

 

(Cathy)

Anyways, when they get back to 碎玉轩, 甄嬛 finds out that she’s been gifted with 椒房之礼. We’ll discuss this later but this is a huge deal!  

 

A few days later, 甄嬛 is sitting with 沈眉庄 and they discuss 雍正’s favoritism. 沈眉庄 is frank in sharing with her best friend that she’s a little jealous of the attention that 甄嬛 is getting but she knows that it’s beneficial for the two of them to be favored which means their position in 后宫, the imperial harem, will be much more secure. Servants won’t sabotage them as much and the other concubines will give them more respect. 沈眉庄 advises 甄嬛 to bide her time and to “endure” or tolerate (忍)the other concubines, no doubt from her own learnings.

 

Elsewhere, 安陵容, the third friend of the trio, who was embarrassingly returned to her palace after being called to serve the emperor, comments how no matter how close people may seem, there will be cracks to their relationships. 

 

(Karen)

Not too long after,

雍正 summons 甄嬛 to his own private residence. He has a plate of dumplings brought to her and she takes a bite. It’s super cute and she’s rightfully embarrassed afterwards. We’ll discuss the meaning of this.

 

华妃 and her minions are huffing and puffing in 华妃’s palace. 丽嫔 and 曹贵人 are voicing their displeasures for 甄嬛’s sudden rise to power. 雍正 is spending a ton of time with her and it’s understandable that the ladies are jealous.

 

The next day, 甄嬛 comes in late to 请安, which is the formal court greeting to 皇后, the empress, and this is the most fascinating thing. We’ve seen 3 ladies at this point be late to this court greeting. First is 华妃 (which is a habit for her), then it’s 沈眉庄 (where, if you recall, she had to change clothes) and now 甄嬛。 But what happens. Nothing! Remember how 沈眉庄 got completely chewed out and punished by 华妃 for being a tiny bit late? 甄嬛 is late as well but no one says a word. You see here how important favoritism by the emperor. Everyone knows if they give 甄嬛 a hard time at this point, they’ll just be hurting themselves in the eyes of the emperor so it’s best to just leave it be. 沈眉庄 did not have that much established favoritism and therefore, was a target. No one dares to punish 甄嬛 right now because of all the things the emperor has done for her the last few days. Smartly though, 甄嬛 does not flaunt anything like 华妃 does and just takes her seat at the court greeting. 

 

(Cathy)

We also get our first mention of 四阿哥, who is the 4th son of the emperor, and the Empress has a curious reaction to him. We find out that the 4th prince/son of the emperor is not favored by the emperor whatsoever because he was the product of a drunken night and was actually reprimanded by his father for this act. So this prince has been relegated to the sidelines…Spoiler alert though, this prince ultimately becomes the next Emperor, the famed 乾隆 emperor so what happened? His story is obviously a deviation of Chinese history but still fun to see how it turns out nonetheless.

 

The episode ends as ladies leave and 华妃 tries to sow some jealousy between 沈眉庄 and 甄嬛.

 

Analysis:

 

(Karen)

Okay – we’re going to get into some deeper stuff. There’s a lot to cover in this episode.

 

The first, is a reference to a han dynasty emperor. This takes place when 甄嬛 is at the hot spring taking a nice bath complete with rose petals everywhere. That’s another cliche of Chinese dramas that you see time and again. Baths always, always are covered with rose petals and it doesn’t matter the season. The emperor comes to see her while she’s taking a bath, I mean, rude, so she asks him – do you want to be 汉成帝, because I dare not be 赵合德. He is sort of miffed and they have exchange about this comparison and this allusion. So, what’s going on.

 

汉成帝 was one of the last emperors of the Western Han dynasty. He lived from 51BC to 7BC, so several thousand years ago. The Han dynasty was a very important dynasty in Chinese history. It produced very famous emperors that expanded China’s borders, pushed back the Huns and also was the dynasty when the silk road was initially established. There are tons of books and dramas about emperors, empresses, princes, princesses, heros, poets, of this dynasty.  The Han which this dynasty is named, is one and the same as the “Han” people of China so you can see how important this dynasty is. 

 

汉成帝 was the 12th emperor of this dynasty. He is known, unfortunately, not for doing any of these great things that helped establish, expand and develop the empire, but because he was one of those emperors that loved debauchery and the pleasures of women. He abused his power to focus only on building extravagant palaces, having lavish parties, and for having spent time with ladies in his harem. 

 

Of the women he had in his imperial harem, were two sisters – one named 赵飞燕 and the other 赵合德, the woman our main character, 甄嬛 referenced. These two women are famed in Chinese history for their beauty. The more famous one, 赵飞燕 is considered one of the most beautiful women in Chinese history. She is not of noble birth and historical archives say that she is primarily an accomplished dancer but ended up being the second official wife of this Han emperor. There are dramas that depict this scene, but her “claim to fame” if you will, is that she is so thin and light, that she can dance atop of drums. This drum dance, is her signature. There is a beautiful scene in a drama called mu yi tian xia where this dance is exhibited, in case anyone wants to watch it. And what did we say previously about women who are singers and dancers? People of higher birth don’t appreciate these low ranking attributes. Anyways, the two sisters, 赵飞燕 and 赵合德, though famous in history, mostly are portrayed in a negative light because they are the women that distracted the emperor from his duties. They schemed and murdered their opponents in the imperial harem and were basically women that used their beauty for “bad” instead of good. History labels them as would I would say are “femme-fatales”. Both of these women did not have good endings. One sister was given poison, the other committed suicide.

 

So you see why, when being compared to this Han dynasty emperor, this current emperor, 雍正 is a little annoyed. He says how dare you compare me to him? Basically, 甄嬛 was a little shy he was visiting her in the hot springs and hopes he isn’t um as lustful as this other emperor is. But also, she wants to tell him she doesn’t want to distract him as these sisters did. But isn’t this fun? Literally 2 sentences that zhen huan says conveys a whole story. I love it.

 

But the stories don’t end just there. To appease the emperor, she says that the emperor, 雍正, is very wise and brilliant, something that the han dynasty emperor cannot compare to. He, however is not appeased whatsoever, but turns around and says, how would you know I’m wise and brilliant especially in court? You’re not allowed to discuss court matters.

 

This is very important and exemplifies actually, I would say, the basis of Chinese society that was established back by Confusius. In Chinese culture, and also mentioned by Confucius, men and women have very defined roles in the family. It is very patriarchal and the men are focused on the outer section of the family while women are focused on the inner section. Men are and always will be the head of the family, and they will tend to public affairs. Women, are focused on matters within the family, so child rearing, managing the servants, hosting events etc. They are not supposed to interfere with affairs of court, or of what the men of the household is focused on. This is division of labor at its finest in Chinese society. On a much grander scale in the imperial family, it means that women are not supposed to meddle in affairs of state. As we have seen, the empress, or the official wife of the emperor, is only supposed to be focused on affairs of the imperial harem. She, and other concubines, are not to talk to court officials or to give opinion or advice on anything related to state matters. In many cases, if they are found to be meddling, the punishment could be severe.

 

The reason behind this is that, as we just discussed, there have been plenty of examples in Chinese history where women have distracted emperors from their duties and in some extreme instances, have brought about the demise of entire dynasties.

 

In practice, however, it is clear that women play an incredibly important role in state affairs whether the men like it or not. As we will see, the empress dowager, the emperor’s mother is incredibly knowledgeable of state affairs and was crucial in helping the emperor secure the throne. There are numerous examples of women, in their restricted roles, play a key part in history. Perhaps the most powerful woman in China at any given point in time, is actually the empress dowager, the Emperor’s mother. If you were not aware, in the Tang Dynasty, a woman, who was the wife of the emperor, actually declared herself emperor, the first and only in Chinese history. So you see, even though women were unequal in terms of roles, their importance in Chinese history cannot be understated.

 

We went off a bit to discuss the division of roles here. Zhen Huan was able to keep the emperor happy by continuing to say that she doesn’t know anything about court affairs. All he knows is that in his imperial harem, he has women who are more beautiful than these two sisters, and also women who are as thoughtful and elegant as Ban Jie Yu. Not to get more complicated but Ban Jie Yu is another concubine of this Han Emperor’s harem. She however has a good reputation for being graceful. So basically, Zhen Huan is saying that the current emperor, has much more fortune than this Han dynasty emperor because you have beauty and you have grace.  You really can’t stay mad at that.

(Cathy)

Let’s get to 椒房之礼. 椒房 has its roots all the way back to the Han Dynasty which we discussed earlier. 椒房殿 used to be the name of the Empress’s palace! The literal translation is peppercorn room because 椒 means peppercorn and 房 means room. 

 

雍正 is truly going all out for her. This might also just be my projection but he’s doing this for her because she’s from the Han Banners so she’s Han Chinese. These are customs that she’d be more familiar with. They are different from Manchu wedding customs. 瑾溪, one of her maids, says the only other person to receive privilege as a concubine was 华妃, who remember is also from a Han Banner!

 

The wedding room is repainted with a mixture made with peppercorn and mud. Peppercorn has a lot of seeds and this new room wishes that the new couple will have many children. Peppercorn also gives off a pleasant aroma that is much nicer than your normal perfume. 

 

甄嬛 goes up to the bed and lifts the covers. We see different nuts, dates, and coins! So let’s see what we have:

红枣 – red dates

花生 – peanuts

桂圆 – longan

莲子 – Lotus seeds

 

These four make up the idiom “早生贵子”, which means “to have a son soon”. This is meant as luck for the happy couple to have a child soon. It’s all about the homonyms! Just so you all have it. 红枣 = 早, 花生 = 生, 桂圆 = 贵, 莲子 = 子。

 

Then what’s up with the coins 铜钱?  Well this is important for another idiom 铜钱安床. If you can sleep comfortably, then you’ll be flushed with money and luck! The Chinese are all about traditions, luck, and superstitions. A wedding night is supposed to be a lucky affair so they go all out! 

 

The last piece. Notice the color of the new bedding? It’s red. Now this is also very unusual for a concubine! In Chinese culture, red is reserved only for the wife! Consorts or concubines can only use pink. This whole 椒房之礼 is also usually reserved only the wife because she is the real “partner” to the husband. Consorts are not. 

生饺子

 

Next, I want to briefly touch on the scene where 雍正 brings 甄嬛 to his own private quarters and a Eunuch brings a bowl of dumplings. 甄嬛 eats a dumpling and immediately spits it out. She says “生的!” which translates to it’s raw. 

 

Taking a bite from a raw dumpling is customary for a new bride. She needs to say “生的” because it also is a wordplay on “早生贵子”, or “to have a son soon”. 生 here can mean “raw” or “to give birth”. It’s a good omen if the wife says this! This is just a very romantic gesture because 雍正 hopes that she can have a son for him soon. It’s a gesture  that I don’t even think 华妃 received.

 

余莺儿- the voodoo doll

 

The last scene we want to discuss is back with 余莺儿. Remember her? The level 1 opponent from the last episode who only lasted for a short while. She is the maid turned concubine but was very mean and got punished by the emperor for having no manners and for overstepping her authority. Well she’s been relegated to a tiny room somewhere by herself evidently forgotten and she is angry at 甄嬛 for taking her favoritism. So what does she do? She is stabbing this doll thing. She basically made a voodoo doll and is cursing 甄嬛 for her misfortunes. Some variation of Voodoo actually expanded to China from Africa. You’ll see this practice of cursing people with a voodoo doll in several Chinese dramas. This will play a major part later in the show. It is very taboo but pops up a lot in Chinese dramas. So what happens? You basically create a tiny doll in the shape of the person you are trying to curse. You will generally put their name on the doll and then what you do, is you stab the doll with needles. Each stab is supposed to hurt the actual person. Don’t know if you believe in this type of magic? Evidently this type of thing was popular back in the Qing dynasty and also in Chinese dramas but it shows up time and again. This 余莺儿 is having a fantastic time stabbing this doll of 甄嬛 in an effort to get revenge. How long can she keep this up? And will she actually be able to hurt 甄嬛。 We’ll find out soon enough.

And that’s that for Episode 8! Are we excited? 甄嬛 is living in the clouds. She’s got all the attention from the Emperor and I think she really thinks that she’s in love! Which is cute. I must say that the emperor definitely knows how to pull out all the stops. Even with that pancake face and no emotion, he is able to woo women left right and center. I’d be blushing if I got all these gifts from him too.  In the next episode we’ll see how 甄嬛 handles all this attention.

 

Thank you so much for listening. Hope you enjoyed this episode as much as we enjoyed discussing it! As always, if you have any questions/comments, please email us at chasingdramaspodcast@gmail.com . We will catch you in the next episode.

EPISODE 6+7

 

(Karen)

Hello! Welcome back to Chasing Dramas! The podcast that explores Chinese history through historical TV dramas.  This is Karen and this is CAthy. Today we’re actually going to be discussing episode 6 and 7 together of 后宫甄嬛传, Empresses in the Palace because it’s really plot driven with not a whole lot of analysis we can do that we haven’t covered already。As always, you can watch these episodes if you’re in the US on youtube to follow along. There are actually subtitles now. I do highly recommend watching the show.

 

—–

(Cathy)

雍正 is still let’s just say enjoying the “pleasures” of 余莺儿, the maid. He’s even given her a special title with the name of 妙音娘子 which roughly translates to Lady with the Beautiful Voice, because, we find out that she’s also the daughter of a 昆opera singer and knows how to sing. She’s not super educated, even though she pretended to be educated and usurped 甄嬛’s position. The Emperor enjoys her singing enough to make up for this oversight and is having a fantastic time. 

 

Interestingly though, 雍正 decides it’s time to sleep with some of the other ladies from the selection who have not yet had the opportunity to serve the emperor. The one that’s left is 安陵容. Finally! Everyone in her palace is so excited for her. You’d think she’d be able to “fulfill her duties” but no. She’s shaking so much from nerves that the Emperor takes one look and says, nope I’m not spending the night with someone who doesn’t want to and…he sends her back! He gets 余答应 here instead. C’mon girl…This is absolutely devastating. 安陵容 waits months to get an opportunity with the emperor and she just blows it. She is crying as she is sent back to her palace. It is absolutely humiliating to be returned back to her quarters. She made such a poor first impression that it is unlikely she’ll ever be able to serve the emperor again. She is basically done.

 

(Karen)

At this point even 太后, the Empress Dowager, is annoyed at 余答应, the new servant-maid-turned-concubine who only knows how to sing in the dead of night. The empress dowager wants someone like 沈眉庄, who is composed and poised and even-keeled, taking care of the Emperor. You’ll see a theme here. The empress dowager favors 沈眉庄.

 

In any case, we find out that this 余答应  has been wreaking havoc in the 后宫, or the imperial harem, which we’ll discuss later. Shortly after, 沈眉庄 comes to 甄嬛’s palace give the news that 太后 herself gave the order to strip 余答应 of her 妙音娘子 (Lady of the Beautiful Voice) title, and confined her for half a month. Within half an episode, her favoritism and power is greatly diminished.

 

(Cathy)

甄嬛 heads out into the gardens to enjoy the fresh air. She’s been cooped up for several months. She’s playing her 萧,a vertical bamboo flute. Who happens to be wandering around? The Emperor! They finally meet each other face to face. But oddly? Or Cutely? Enough? Depends on how you see it, she doesn’t know who he is。 But he knows exactly who she is. He’s surprised she doesn’t recognize him and takes it in stride. He pretends that he’s the 17th prince instead of the Emperor himself. They have a long conversation about the piece she played on the vertical bamboo flute and…he is enamored. He walks back to his palace grinning ear to ear. 

 

(Karen)

So if you’re thinking about how it’s possible she doesn’t know who he is, what is explained is that during the selection, she had her head down the entire time. She did not look up to see what the emperor looked like. And also, in this scene the emperor is wearing more casual clothing, not his imperial garb, so it might be easier to mistake him for a prince. 

 

(Cathy)

When 甄嬛 gets back to her quarters, she asks her maids about the 17th Prince. She doesn’t think the guy is him because she knows that the 17th prince is supposed to be young as opposed to this guy who is in his 40s. She asks if the 17th Prince is actually here in the palace and it turns out he is. So this story checks out..

 

Not too long after, 甄嬛 is in the garden again with her servants enjoying a ride on a swing that her servants made for her and the emperor runs into both of them again. He is still upholding the facade that he is the 17th prince and they have a lovely discussion about apricot flowers. Which of course, we will discuss. What would our analysis be if we didn’t discuss all the references to flowers in this show. As she leaves, she asks the “17th Prince” to not tell anyone that they’ve met because technically, this is not allowed. He, of course, agrees.

 

(Karen)

The emperor is completely infatuated with 甄嬛 and is enamored with her 箫. But he hasn’t figured out how to see her again since she’s technically “sick”. 余答应 is, however, still trying to regain favor by the emperor, crying and singing while kneeling outside through the night at his palace. He relents and she regains favor once again and is flaunting it around, again.

 

This episode ends with the emperor failing to meet 甄嬛 for an “date” as it’s raining and he’s pulled away by his mother, the empress dowager. 

 

(Cathy)

That was episode 6, now onto Episode 7.

 

The main crux of this episode is that Zhen Huan and the emperor missed each other for their meeting. But because it was raining he falls ill and is bedridden for a while as he recovers from this sickness. Zhen Huan, also has her heart fluttering, but again, she’s thinking it’s the 17th prince and is still apprehensive.

 

The big scene of this episode is that Zhen Huan is out on the garden again after a few weeks and enjoying her swing with her maid. But who comes to visit her this time? It’s 余答应. Now this girl is nothing but disrespectful to 甄嬛 and dismisses her saying things like – you’re only a higher rank than me by a tiny bit, who do you think you are to tell me to curtsey to you and respect you, and “rank and title doesn’t matter in the palace, what matters is the emperor’s attention. I have his attention now and he cares only about me.”

 

(Karen)

Poor girl. She doesn’t realize there are ears everywhere and this whole exchange is overheard by none other than the emperor himself. He’s healthy now and wanted to come here. Like a knight in shining armor, he steps in and reveals himself to protect 甄嬛 from the verbal abuse and disrespect from 余答应. 余答应 is shocked and kneels on the floor immediately, referencing him as emperor. 甄嬛 hears 余答应 greet him as such and is equally shocked, because she now realizes that he was the emperor all along. 

 

余答应 is crying and wailing, trying to get the emperor to forgive her. But he’s had enough of her. She is demoted from her position to a position just above a maid. In response to her comment about 甄嬛 only being a tiny bit higher in rank than her, the emperor increases 甄嬛’s rank to noble lady. The same rank as 沈眉庄。This is out of the norm because she has yet to “serve” the emperor but he doesn’t care. He likes her a lot. So she gets promoted.

 

(Cathy)

The emperor, in an extremely romantic gesture, decides to pick up 甄嬛 and carries her all the way back to her pavillion – where everyone – the eunuchs, the maids, the guards can all see this. 

 

Dang dang dang dang – everyone now knows that she is definitely favored by the emperor. At her pavilion, 甄嬛’s servants are absolutely ecstatic to see the emperor. Because it means – hallelujia, they are saved. And indeed, what happens, after the emperor drops off 甄嬛, and makes the formal declaration that she has been promoted to a noble lady, she becomes showered with lots of gifts from not just the emperor, but the imperial household department. You know the department that was withholding coal and stuff in the last episode? Now they’re giving her tons of materials. She gets new servants to make up for the ones that left in prior episodes and now she has new clothes and clothes. It’s honestly quite despicable but whatever.

 

The episode ends with 甄嬛 discussing with her friend, the imperial doctor, 温实初 that it’s time to make her get better, slowly. That way, she’ll be able to fulfill her duties as a concubine. He’s obviously a tiny bit upset, but there’s not a whole lot that can be done. 

 

——–

Analysis

 

An Ling Rong is not really mentioned in these past few episodes but we have to feel for her. She had the opportunity of a lifetime to actually serve the emperor but she completely blew it. From one perspective, this again shows her class difference between herself and the other ladies. She doesn’t have the confidence and it was probably getting to her head a little. She didn’t expect to have the opportunity and therefore sealed her own fate. Other women knew they would at least have an opportunity. 

 

This is absolutely humiliating for her. Who knows what people are going to do to her now. She is the laughing stock of the palace.

 

Analysis – Yu Da Ying

(Karen)

 

So – who is this person. Let’s spend a little time discussing her. Her character to me is like Level 1 of this video game that is the Imperial Harem. We saw level 0, or the training level, with 夏冬春 because at least this 余答应 has served the emperor.

 

Why is she not a threat. You’ll notice that the empress and even 华妃 aren’t too worried about this new woman. 华妃 is nowhere near as jealous about this lady as she is of, say, 沈眉庄。Why is that? Well, because this 余答应 is a maid and her father taught her to sing. In historical Chinese society, singing and acting in general, is a very, low class activity. Especially if you’re doing this for money. You’re singing for money which equates you to…I’ll let you think what that means. Anyways, no one in 后宫 thinks that she’s actually going to become anything of substance in the Harem because she has no background, meaning her family isn’t wealthy or powerful, and because she’s not very classy or that smart…which will lead her to her demise. It’s a minor annoyance right now but everyone knows she’s just a tiny distraction for the emperor. Basically people are expecting her to crash and burn…it’s just a matter of when it’ll happen.

 

(Cathy)

So how do we see this. 

 

Well, there was a whole debacle with 余答应, 淳常在, and 欣常在。. 淳常在 says that she and 欣常在 walked passed 余答应’s carriage and her horse got spooked. 余答应 and 欣常在 got into a verbal spat and 余答应 ordered 欣常在 be thrown into 慎刑司. Department of Prudence or Office of Punishment? Basically it’s the 后宫 version of prison. 

 

How can 余答应 a second class female attendant do this to someone of a higher rank? She really overstepped her bounds. She has absolutely no authority to do this. Who is she to do this? Right? The arrogance of 余答应 has caused a lot of the other concubines to very mad. No one will help her.

 

(Karen)

 

Sure enough, shortly 沈眉庄 comes to 甄嬛’s quarters to give the news that 太后 herself gave the order to release 欣常在, strip 余答应 of her 妙音娘子 (Lady of the Beautiful Voice) title, and confine her for half a month. The Empress doesn’t give the order because, as explained in the next scene, 太后 has much more sway in these matters than 皇后 because inevitably, the emperor is going to try to ask for forgiveness and that undermines her authority. She can’t go punishing favored concubines but 太后, the empress dowager, can. It seems as though things have calmed down a bit and this 余答应 has definitely lost a level of her favoritism and power. And in just one episode. Now, the emperor who was super into her, doesn’t care that much any more. She’s outside his palace singing non-stop but he doesn’t care.

 

(Cathy)

But now, you see that she is actually quite a terrible person. She is cracking walnuts for the emperor as he naps, but to show her “power”, she asks one of the emperor’s eunuchs to come help her. But to help her, she demands that he uses his bare hands to crack the walnuts and not use any tools. Have you ever eaten walnuts before? They are encased in a very tough shell. You have to use tools to crack those walnuts so cracking those open with your bare hands is very difficult. She’s punishing him for literally no reason other than the fact that he’s a eunuch and she thinks she’s above eunuchs. He tries to push back but she insists. He can’t really do anything because he’s a servant and she’s a master now. So he cracks them and his fingers start bleeding. What a woman. So abusive with just a tiny amount of power. It’s also clear that this woman only cares about short term displays of power. Anyone with actual power would not pull these things (well maybe Hua Fei but she has more money and power to back her up). What 余答应 does now is only going to hurt her rather than help her.

 

(Karen)

I think this show is also a good lesson on the importance of treating people as equals or at least, treating people as just people, even if they are a bit different from you. A key theme of palace dramas is how overlooked eunuchs and maids can seem even though they are just humans like the rest of the masters in the show. 

 

余答应 cares only about her current situation and flaunts it. She doesn’t realize that compared to the rest of the imperial harem, she’s nothing. She does attempt to try to ally herself with 华妃 but that doesn’t work too well. This also show a little bit of oversight from 华妃. You’ll notice that 皇后 doesn’t even try to pick 余答应 as an ally because…she’s not worth it. And indeed, we see in episode 7 – 甄嬛 doesn’t do a whole lot and she is able to destroy this level 1 villain. Or at least knock her out for a bit. When 皇后, the empress, hears about 余答应 getting demoted, she doesn’t even bat an eye. She says, it’s expected. She also expected 甄嬛 to be promoted. 

 

(Cathy)

-Let’s now discuss the fact that the Emperor and 甄嬛 finally meet. For the sake of this show, I’ll pretend 甄嬛 never actually met the Emperor even though she clearly saw him during the Selection. (Karen) Yea, I can’t really believe that she can’t see him but it is true that you’re technically not supposed to look at the emperor straight in the face.

 

雍正 and 甄嬛 discuss the piece she’s playing on the 萧, a vertical chinese bamboo flute. It’s called 杏花天影 by a Song Dynasty poet 姜夔 (Jiang Kui2). The poem’s title includes 杏花 or apricot flowers and is about someone missing his sweetheart and being nostalgic for a bygone era. 杏花 or Apricot flower is another flower that is commonly used in chinese literature. There are records of how to plant apricots dating back more than two thousand years in China. It’s also commonly used in Chinese medicine.

 

Well this apricot flower becomes a talking point the next time 雍正 runs into 甄嬛 in the garden. He asks if she likes them because she’s reciting a bunch of poetry about the flower in her analysis of them and she does say that 杏花 are modest and gentle. He says, the flower is like you. But 甄嬛 says no, I don’t like 杏花! They look pretty but the fruit and seeds are bitter. If my life starts out beautiful, but the ending is sad and lonesome, why would I want to be like this flower? I’d rather be a pine tree. I can stand forever in the forest, and be green and colorful for my entire life, even if I’m not the most extravagant or pretty.

 

There’s a lot of foreshadowing in this exchange. Most ladies like to use the flower metaphor. 沈眉庄 with the Chrysanthemums 菊花, 皇后 with the Peony 牡丹。But 甄嬛 doesn’t, she’d rather be something completely different like a tree. This shows that she’s different from the regular women in 后宫. This also shows the differences between 皇上 and 甄嬛. He automatically assumes that she likes 杏花 just because she played one piece and there just happened to be 杏花 around. He puts her in a box and although he seems intrigued by her, do we really think he’s listening? Or is he just inferring. BUT regardless, in episode 7 he really goes all out for her, so maybe?

(Karen)

The most eye-roll thing, or would you say naive thing about this drama, and perhaps this shows how old and cynical you and I are now, is that 甄嬛 is still wishing that she will have a once in a lifetime love that will be with her until death. The phrase she uses is 愿得一心人,白首不相离. This is one of THE most cliche lines in Chinese dramas. It is literally used in all sappy chinese dramas to talk about wanting an everlasting love. This line is actually from a poem from a han dynasty female poet named 卓文君. The Han Dynasty was one of the earliest dynasties in Chinese history and existed more than 2000 years ago. 

 

This phrase basically translates to, “I want to get the heart of one person, and we are not to part even when we have white hair”. Which just means, having a loving relationship forever. 

 

The young romantics in all of us would love that too right? Who doesn’t want a long, ever-lasting love? But it’s completely incongruous with the situation that 甄嬛 finds herself in. Like there is no way that the emperor can love her only if he has to spend the night with a bunch of other women. For all the other dramas where this line is dropped in a palace drama, it’s a ton of BS. 

 

Fortunately, 甄嬛’s main maid gives her a dose of reality and says, you can’t expect that especially with your fate and your life now. The only thing you can expect, is that he shows that he cares. He cannot have only one heart for you, but he can use his heart and care about you. That’s as much as you can expect. Hey, I think this is wise dating/relationship advice. Having fair expectations will help manage any relationship.

 

In general though, we find out what 甄嬛 really wants at her core, and I think what a lot of women want, which is to be loved by someone wholeheartedly. Unfortunately, in this drama and in their lives, these women of the imperial harem are fated to never experience that kind of love.

Now that 甄嬛 has the full attention of the Emperor, everything is coming into place for 甄嬛 to bear the brunt of palace drama. She will have to go to 请安 (greetings), deal with back-stabbing, and make alliances. 瑾溪 put it best, she never was truly away from palace battles and each ladies fortunes are closely related to court. We’ll see how 雍正 and 甄嬛 get along in the next episodes.

 

Well that’s the end of today’s episode. We hope you enjoyed it. If you have any suggestions or comments, please send them to chasingdramaspodcast@gmail.com . Until next time!

EPISODE 5

 

(Karen)

Hello! Welcome back to Chasing Dramas! The podcast that explores Chinese history through historical TV dramas.  This is Karen, and this is Cathy and we are back again to discuss the next episode of 甄嬛传, Empresses in the Palace。

 

甄嬛is dealing with a mutiny from her servants. She hasn’t seen the Emperor, in about 2 months and the gossip is that she never will. No one wants to tie their fortunes to a loser. She is understandably upset and dismisses everyone who wants to leave. Only 瑾汐,小允子, 佩儿 are left along with 浣碧 and 流珠。The original head eunuch of zhen huan’s palace, decided to leave to 丽嫔’s palace.

 

We quickly see that even as a concubine, if you aren’t in favor, it isn’t a comfortable life. It’s winter time and 瑾汐 (the head maid) and 小允子, the only remaining eunuch, are trying to burn some coal to keep warm in the cold. But the coal is very poor quality coal that burns with too much smoke so it’ll be impossible to put in the room. The Eunuchs from 内务府 Imperial Household Department who give out materials to the various ladies obviously decided it wasn’t worth it to give zhen huan quality coal.

 

(Cathy)

Fortunately, 甄嬛’s two friends, 沈眉庄 and 安陵容 stop by to check on 甄嬛。 Immediately 沈眉庄 realizes that the Eunuchs are playing games and not providing the allotted supplies。沈眉庄, who currently is very favored by the Emperor, brings over a couple of baskets of silver coal (basically higher quality coal) to help 甄嬛 through the winter. 

 

After this scene 沈眉庄’s main servant actually goes to 内务府 the Imperial Household Department, she’s able to help secure materials for 甄嬛 so that she can survive through the winter. Unfortunately 颂芝, 华妃’s main maid also comes and basically bullies everyone.

 

(Karen)

A bit more time passes and it’s time for the new year celebration. With 甄嬛’s illness, she was granted leave to stay her quarters and not attend the main festivities of the royal family. She has a lovely time with her servants – joking and playing games. They are making 剪纸 or Papercuts and the legend was that if you can put it on a high branch and make a wish, then the wish will come true. She’s still a young girl here and enjoys having fun.

 

In the Palace, 华妃 has organized the new years eve celebration and everyone is getting a little tipsy. The emperor, his concubines and various favored brothers are in attendance for the feast. We are also introduced to the handsome 17th brother, 允礼。

 

There’s dancing and music, quite a lively occasion, but the Emperor becomes upset when he sees red plum blossoms as part of the decorations. He decides to go out into the plum blossom garden, 椅梅园 for a stroll. 

 

(Cathy)

There, he hears a woman who is making a wish by reciting a lovely poem from the Tang dynasty. Who is it? It’s none other than 甄嬛! She makes the wish but is overheard by not just the emperor, but also the 17th prince, who has come out to find the emperor, and…a maid who is staffed at the garden. Her last name is Yu.

 

The emperor calls out – wondering who is making the wish. 甄嬛 first hides away so she cannot be seen by the emperor and then lies to say that she’s a servant maid in the garden before sneaking away. She is supposed to be sick and in bed. She shouldn’t be seen out and about so late and in the dead of winter. She was worried she’d get in trouble.

 

(Karen)

The handsome 17th prince reveals himself to be following the emperor and they leave the garden, but not before the Emperor, smitten and surprised to find an educated woman among the ranks of the garden maids, asks his head eunuch to find out who that woman is.  Obviously, he doesn’t know it was 甄嬛. During the questioning, the maid who overheard the exchange – named Yu, seizes her opportunity to become a woman of the emperor and falsely claims that she was the one to make that wish that night. The emperor happily accepts her claim and showers her with attention. 

 

沈眉庄 and 甄嬛 discussing this new woman.  沈眉庄 is getting a tiny bit worried about not getting as much attention by the emperor with this new woman but is even more worried about their friend 安陵容 because this servant girl, 于, is of a much lower birth rank than 安陵容 (who at least has a father who is an official) but now has the same rank. Concubine. 于, has been promoted twice recently so her and 安陵容 are the same rank.  

 

(Cathy)

The episode ends with a small confrontation between 余答应, this new servant girl turned concubine, and 沈眉庄, as she leaves 甄嬛’s palace. We see that 余答应 is very rude and condescending and flaunts her favoritism. It’s one thing when you’re 华妃 to talk down to 沈眉庄 who is of a lower rank, it’s another when you’re several tiers below 沈眉庄 and talking rudely up to her. 

 

(Karen)

Analysis

—-

A few quick notes for the episode, that we won’t dive into but we want to point out.

 

安陵容 who we haven’t really discussed in the last couple of episodes, has the lowest rank of the ladies – below 甄嬛 and 沈眉庄 She still hasn’t been called by the emperor to spend the night. It’s not a given. Something else of note is that 甄嬛 hasn’t told her friends what’s happening so they’re in the dark that her illness is actually fake.

 

(Cathy)

梅花  – or Plum Blossoms will be a constant motif in this series. In China, they represent virtuosity, purity, and hope. It is a symbol of winter and is known as one of the Four Gentleman of Flowers in Chinese art, the other being Chrysanthemums, which we already discussed, orchid, and lotus. Plum blossoms have a certain history in this story which is why the Emperor is so taken with sights of these flowers.

 

Karen

[Scene 1]

 

Alright — Analysis time! What do we want to discuss.

 

This time, we’re not going to focus as much on the concubines, but look at the servants instead. This scene is after 沈眉庄 goes to visit 甄嬛 and realizes that she’s being jipped by the eunuchs of 内务府.

 

This scene shows the dramas and subtleties of servant life that most other dramas don’t discuss. Reminds me a little bit of Downton Abbey actually.

 

(Cathy)

彩月, who is the head maid for 沈眉庄, goes to 内务府. This is the department that manages all of the internal affairs of the palace. 彩月 is there to pick up the monthly allowance for her master. Now, I think we mentioned this in our intro episode, but each status for a concubine has an allotted allowance each month to spend that is increased the higher your rank/title is. It seems that here, you have to go pick up the money from this department. If your family has money, that’s another situation.

 

彩月 casually mentions that she JUST went to 甄嬛’s palace to send some stuff, and decided to come pick up the allowance along the way. And immediately,  the head eunuch says, oh, you came from 甄嬛’s palace? 采月 says yes, my master and 甄嬛 or more specifically, her title of 菀常在, are childhood friends. 菀常在 is missing things here and there so my master has always picked the nicest things to send over to her. The head eunuch quickly responds – how is it appropriate for 沈贵人 to be sending stuff, it must be because some things fell through the cracks. We will immediately replenish and make up for what was missed to 甄嬛.  If you watch this scene, none of it is overacted, it’s very pleasant. No accusations, no threats – just subtleties that one side drops and fortunately, the other side picks up on immediately. 

 

(karen)

采月,the maid, upon hearing that supplies will be replenished and therefore achieving her goal, promptly replies – I understand that your department is very busy with thousands of things to work on every day. It’s inevitable that things are missed. So again, rounding out the conversation by not accusing anyone, but acknowledging that this is appreciated and her master will be happy.

 

For this exchange. 采月 mentions the connection of her master to 甄嬛 very casually. Even though there is nothing threatening, the underlying tone here is very clear. 沈眉庄 is favored by the emperor, and she is good friends with 甄嬛, so you, eunuchs of 内务府 should heed my master’s example and also treat 甄嬛 accordingly.

 

(Cathy)

This exchange when we look at it, is exactly why it is (i) crucial to “fight” in the palace for the emperor’s affection and (ii) the concubines align themselves into factions. Let’s take a look at the first point. If you are favored by the emperor, you have more sway over most of the servants because they think that you have the power to help them further their careers or else give them larger monetary rewards/tips. I mean I get it. The worst part is that if you aren’t favored, not only will the servants not help you, they will actively try to sabotage you which is sometimes worse. No one wants to serve someone who’s just gonna wallow away.

 

Onto the second point, breaking into factions or finding allies, as is the case here with our main character 甄嬛 and 沈眉庄, is an easier way to survive in the palace if you DON”T have a whole lot of favoritism by the emperor. Other factors to keep in mind are, of course, your matrilineal line. Why do you think all the servants treat 安陵容 poorly? She comes from a poor background. Fortunately, she has allied herself with these two ladies. The main person right now is of course 沈眉庄 because she has favor. 安陵容 just needs to keep her head down and while she won’t be too well off, people won’t bother with her.

 

(Karen)

From this exchange of the servants, you realize how tiring being in the palace is and how precarious the each woman’s position is because it is a non-stop constant battle for affection not just because your own fortunes are tied to how much the emperor likes you, but your day to day by the eunuchs and maids will be heavily influenced by this favoritism. The head eunuch here can most definitely make your life hell if he really wanted to. Like, cut off supplies to coal or good food or clothing. Even though to the outside you’re a “woman of the emperor”, you are at the mercy of these servants. 

 

—–

 

And on that lovely note – let’s discuss a new main character. He is…. Dang dang da da — the 17th prince! His name is 允礼。He is the younger brother of the current emperor who is the 4th prince. Brother from another mother but they have a good relationship. He is handsome and dashing and we are told he is very focused on studying and likes his books or to travel and not focus too much on politics. He’s also great with the flute. When he is introduced during the new years eve celebration, he, by the historical timeline, is around 26.

 

(cathy)

Now to give some context – remember a few episodes back, we mentioned that the current emperor went through a ton of drama to become emperor. The previous emperor had a whopping 25 sons and ended up having 9 of those sons scheme and battle for the throne to become the next emperor. Our current emperor, 雍正, had to dispose of most of his opponents, and we mentioned even his own blood brother, the 14th prince who is now in exile. Therefore, 雍正, our current emperor is INCREDIBLY wary of his brothers. However, he has a really good relationship with this brother the 17th prince – primarily BECAUSE he’s so focused on books and not politics. 

 

A little bit of cool history, remember how we discussed in episode 2 the whole name rule? It’s where you can’t have the same character or the same sounding character in your name as the emperor? Well, we know that 雍正’s real name is 胤祯。His brothers all had 胤 as a character. Well after he is coronated as Emperor, all of his living brothers changed their names to 允 because they couldn’t have the same character as the emperor! That’s why in some shows/stories they will be referred to as 允 instead of 胤。

 

(Karen)

Now this handsome gentleman is asked to follow the emperor, when the emperor becomes upset at the sight of red plum blossoms as part of the decorations. The 17th prince, follows the emperor to the garden where the emperor overhears 甄嬛 making her wish.  

 

To re-iterate, there are a total of 4 ppl in the garden at this point. 1- the Emperor, 2 – 甄嬛, 3 – the 17th prince and 4 – this other servant girl – 余。

 

In the garden, 甄嬛 says two lines of a poem – 逆风如解意,容易莫摧残 from the poem 梅花 Plum Blossoms by the Tang Dynasty poet 崔道融。This poem is pretty on the nose since the title is literally Plum Blossoms. These two lines basically mean, I hope the northern winds are understanding and do not destroy the flower. 甄嬛 wants to remain “pure” and hopes she doesn’t get swept up in all the palace drama.

 

(Cathy)

All 4 of the characters overhear this. 雍正 is impressed and wants to know who she is. 甄嬛 lies and says that she’s a maid. Well 雍正 wants to find out who she is after leaving the garden because he’s surprised there are educated people.

 

When 苏培盛, the emperor’s head eunuch, asks if anyone knows the corresponding line the next day, the maid 余 seizes her chance and says the second part of the line 容易莫摧残. She is presented to 雍正 and the 17th Prince. And just like that, the Emperor makes her a 官女子, the lowest ranking concubine. 

 

Now listen to the 2 lines he says as he leaves the room, 玉楼金阙慵归去,且插梅花醉洛阳. The maid, 余莺儿 kind of just sits there. She has no idea what it means. 允礼, the 17th prince, then asks “do you know what this means? This is a poem by 李白, the emperor likes 李白.” 李白 is one of the most famous Tang Dynasty poets in Chinese history. It seems like 允礼 is helping her out, giving her some pointers to win favor. But no! This was a red herring, he’s testing her! These two lines are actually from a Song dynasty poet by 朱敦儒 (Zhu Dun Ru). 余莺儿 doesn’t correct him and just says, “thanks”. 

 

I am impressed that the drama didn’t say, hey this is wrong. We had to do some research to learn about this poem and lo and behold, it wasn’t by 李白。

 

(Karen)

Well now he knows that she’s a fraud. He doesn’t outright tell his brother that but makes it pretty obvious to 苏培盛. The 17th prince is one sharp cookie. He knows that telling his brother the truth won’t do him any favors and it seems like 雍正’s mind is pretty set on this girl. 允礼 knows when to keep his mouth shut. Affairs of 后宫 and politics will most likely get him killed, he just needs to stick with playing Chinese go and his flute. 

 

In a short period of time 余莺儿 is now already a 答应. She’s super bitchy towards everyone

 

And that’s that with Episode 5 of 甄嬛传。 In the next episode, we’ll see how this new girl survives…hey at least she lasted longer than 夏冬春. What’s going to happen to 甄嬛 now that this girl has taken her spot?

EPISODE 4

 

(Cathy)

 

Hello and this is Chasing Dramas! We’re discussing Chinese history by following historical Chinese TV dramas. You’re listening to Cathy and Karen. Today we’re discussing episode 4 of 甄嬛传, Empresses in the Palace。

 

How is everyone doing? Been a busy couple of days for us – we recorded additional music on the zither so hope you enjoy. 

 

江福海, who is the chief Eunuch for 皇后, the empress, is still at, 华妃’s palace quarters. 华妃 refuses to take any responsibility for 福子’s death and instead notes that it was 福子 who ran off. How is it her, 华妃’s problem if she’s run off and died. 福子 is the servant girl that 皇后 gave to 华妃 in the first episode. 江福海 doesn’t have a great response and retreats.  (Karen: don’t you just feel bad for the servants? They die and not a whole lot can be done. I actually think there should be a body count tally to see how many deaths there are.) 

 

(Karen)

Back to our main character, 甄嬛 is still in shock from the events in the previous episode. She’s realizing just how terrifying it is to be in the palace and she’s thinking of ways to protect herself. Outside in the courtyard, one of her maids notices a weird pattern of ants crawling around a tree. 甄嬛 tells the eunuchs to dig up whatever is buried there. It’s a pot and inside is something that smells putrid. 甄嬛 shocked, tells everyone to pretend like they’ve never seen this before and asks them to disperse.  

 

甄嬛 goes back to her room, contemplating what to do. She tells 浣碧 to summon the imperial doctor 温实处。He’s the childhood friend that wanted to marry 甄嬛. Anyways, he stops by to check on her and she tells him that she doesn’t want to be available for the Emperor and needs his help to make her seem sick. She shows him what they uncovered. 麝香仁 or a musk pod to which he is shocked。温实处 reluctantly agrees to help her. We’ll analyze this scene more in depth.

 

(Cathy)

It’s time for selecting the concubine for the night. It is the first night that the new ladies are available to the emperor. Obviously, 皇上 asks for 甄嬛’s name plate but upon hearing that she’s unavailable and sick, 皇上 picks 沈眉庄.

 

Fast forward a month, we see 沈眉庄 admiring chrysanthemums gifted by 雍正。He’s taken a liking to her! 雍正 likes that she’s educated and gifts her even more chrysanthemums upon hearing that she likes them. 皇上 actually wants her to start learning management which is a big responsibility. He likes that 沈眉庄 is poised and calm. 

 

(Karen)

Meanwhile, 甄嬛 is still bedridden. 剪秋,皇后’s main maid, comes to visit and check on her. While you think this is a nice visit, 皇后 is actually using 剪秋 to incite jealousy between 沈眉庄 and 甄嬛 while also checking to see if 甄嬛 is actually sick or not. 皇后 has 齐妃, one of the older consorts, over for tea and they gossip about the ladies. Pretty much what you find out is that the gruesomeness that we’ve seen is standard in 后宫。

 

(Cathy)

华妃 is in the garden admiring chrysanthemums. She sees eunuchs hastily moving a bunch of beautiful and new chrysanthemums and thinks they are for her. But, when she finds out that the beautiful chrysanthemums are actually for 沈眉庄, 华妃 throws a hissy fit and orders all of the chrysanthemums in her palace to be thrown out. Uh oh, it doesn’t look good for 沈眉庄. 

 

Indeed, at the next 请安 (greeting), 沈眉庄 comes late because she had an accident walking to 皇后’s palace where a eunuch accidentally spilled water on her clothes so she had to go back and change. We don’t know if this was on purpose or not. Anyways. 丽嫔, who we saw in episode 2, drills down on her tardiness. 华妃 chimes in and serves out a punishment. 华妃 starts to see 富察贵人 (a manchu noble lady) and 沈眉庄 as legitimate threats.. She brings 富察贵人 who is Manchu in to teach her how to “研墨” which means grinding  ink, but really, it’s a punishment meant to tell her who’s boss。

 

—-

(Karen)

 

雍正 is dealing with a rebellion to the west. He’s got no one to choose except for 年羹尧 and sends him to the front lines. 

 

 

At the end of the episode, we finally get back to 碎玉轩, 甄嬛s quarters,  to check in on 甄嬛. All of her servants, except for 浣碧, 流珠 and 瑾溪,are starting to treat 甄嬛 poorly because she’s not getting any attention from the emperor.  It truly is a cold hearted world out in the 后宫. It looks like the servants are about to mount a mutiny. This is all because 甄嬛 has refused to be available for the Emperor.

 

(Scene 1)

(Karen)

Alright Cathy. What’s the first scene you want to discuss?

 

(Cathy)

I want to discuss the scene where 甄嬛 requests for 温实处, the imperial doctor, to come over for a check up. This is right after they find the mysterious object from the pot. 

 

(Karen)

Ok – what do you want to share about this scene?

 

(Cathy)

Well, first let’s give some background about Chinese medicine and how people are diagnosed.

In Chinese medicine, the doctor usually checks your pulse on your wrist to make the diagnosis. This practice has been around for centuries, if not millenia. It’s how Chinese doctors were able to detect pretty much anything in your body. In the drama, he places a handkerchief over her wrist before performing a check up because In this society, a male is not allowed to touch a female unless they were of course, married. There can be no skin on skin contact, even for a doctor. Reputations have been ruined if a male so much as touches you. 

 

(Karen)

Not quite. A bug here is that apparently, imperial doctors were not even supposed to check pulse this way. You’re supposed to tie a string around the concubine’s wrist and pull the string across the room to check what the ailments were. I have no idea how accurate their diagnoses were, but these were the rules set by imperial doctors. 

 

(Cathy)

I’ll say, I feel like 甄嬛 treats 温实处 extremely poorly. She knows he’s in love with her and dangles his promises of protecting her for life during the conversation. Not cool, girl. 

 

The main thing I want to discuss is actually the potent smelling object they dug up earlier. 甄嬛 gives it to 温实处. He’s shocked. How does she have such a thing? What is this mysterious object? The mythical ingredient that is used for every palace drama! Musk or 麝香!

 

Ladies and gentlemen, remember what this is! It’ll show up everywhere. In Chinese dramas, this is the all powerful object that causes miscarriages and potentially stops a female’s ability to reproduce.

 

Musk is a chemical from the gland of the male musk deer. The pod is dried and used to make medicine. Musk has been used in Chinese traditional medicine for thousands of years. It can be used for seizures, convulsions, and bruising. It also gives off a scent which is why it’s used in perfume! It is true that pregnant women should not be using musk but musk doesn’t have the ability to stop the female reproductive system. In the drama, this is dramatized.

 

The previous inhabitant 芳贵人 (another noble lady concubine) was banished after suffering a miscarriage because she apparently went crazy with grief. Was it because of this thing? It was most likely that she had a miscarriage because this item was around.  What terrifies 甄嬛 the most is that this dangerous and harmful item was plotted in such a way that it was very difficult to detect. If it wasn’t by sheer stroke of luck, who knows how this could have impacted 甄嬛.

 

(Karen)

甄嬛 is savvy enough to know that 后宫 is a terrifying place. She comes up with a plan and asks 温实处 to help her seem sick and unavailable to serve the emperor. This is because she does not want to be the center of attention and draw the ire of the likes of 华妃. The other consideration here is that she needs to not only protect herself, but her family and her family’s reputation. She needs to find a way to survive in the palace and protect her family. She deemed pretending to be sick is the only way.

 

(Cathy)

It’s always good to have a doctor around

(Cathy)

Now, Let me briefly discuss the scene with 皇后 and 皇上 where they are deciding who to select for the evening. I actually want to talk about 皇后 bringing up the incident of 福子。雍正’s reaction upon hearing this right now is interesting. He knows that 华妃 must have done it because it’s in her nature and he actually tells 皇后 to investigate.  Palace maids are from the banner clans, not just random people from the street so, it doesn’t look good to have one unexpectedly die. Something else that’s interesting is that when 皇上 hears about the fate of 夏冬春, who is now permanently disabled from her punishment in the previous episode, he’s more or less like meh, she deserved it. He does not care whatsoever that she’s disabled. 

 

华妃 knew that this punishment wouldn’t be a big deal and to the Empress and Emperor, it wasn’t

 

 (Cathy)

And on that note – Karen, what scene do you want to discuss next?

 

(Karen)

Sure, I want to discuss the scene after 沈眉庄 has been picked to serve the emperor. This scene is where you uncover what type of person she is. Well, in TV time it’s the next scene. In drama time, it’s like a month. She’s out in her palace enjoying chrysanthemums that the emperor gave her. 皇上 stops by to see how she’s doing and he notices that she likes chrysanthemums, her clothes even has chrysanthemums sewn into them. He asks her why. 

 

She responds, with a poem “宁可枝头包香死,不曾吹落北风中“ She likes the 气节 or integrity of the flower, to which 雍正 is immediately impressed. Not only by the fact that this means she is educated, but because she cares about something as important 气节 which is not something everyone focuses on.

 

So, let’s dissect this verse because I really like this poem. I think about it a lot after watching this drama. This poem is by a Song Dynasty scholar named.郑思肖. This verse is actually quite well known. It describes the chrysanthemum flower with a historical twist. There are four total to the poem. The first two lines, which she doesn’t recite, basically says that chrysanthemums bloom at a different time than most other flowers. She stands alone against the rest in her beauty – which is true given that they bloom generally late summer through early winter. The last two lines, which 沈眉庄 recites says that when the flower’s life ends, it would rather wilt on its stem than to blow into the north wind. Basically saying that this flower has integrity and is able to stand its ground.  Now the “north wind” piece of this poem is significant. For those of you who aren’t aware, the late Song dynasty, when this poem was written, was when the Mongols – a la Ghengis Khan, were invading China from the north. The Song scholar purposefully mentions the north wind as a way to say that they would rather die than be subject to Mongolian rule. 

 

For 沈眉庄 to like this line and to like this poem, shows that her mind is resolute in what she wants. If she has an idea of what she wants, she will stick to it and not back down. 雍正 is impressed and gifts her a lot more chrysanthemums. Historically, in China, women have been described as flowers whether it be in books or poems etc. This drama is no different – 沈眉庄 can be compared to this chrysanthemum flower. This is also pretty good foreshadowing for what she will be like for the rest of her life.

 

(Cathy)

沈眉庄 has the attention of the emperor, she’s now the target for a lot of people. 

 

I want to discuss the next 请安 scene. Last episode, 沈眉庄 had 甄嬛 to help her but this time she’s by herself and doesn’t come out unscathed. 沈眉庄 arrives late because a eunuch spills water on her. 丽嫔 begins the attack, giving a snarky comment on her late arrival. Remember that 丽嫔 is on the same side as 华妃。Even 皇后 seems a little annoyed but she nevertheless excuses her. 

 

华妃’s not having it. This is a perfect opportunity to strike 沈眉庄 down a little bit. 丽嫔 remarks, if she asks for forgiveness every time, does that mean she can disregard the rules and court etiquette?  沈眉庄’s maid tells the truth of what happens, and before 皇后 can even breathe, 华妃 swoops in to say no matter what, it’s still your fault.  This is a sticky situation. 沈眉庄 isn’t getting out of this. 

 

Ok, can I pause here to say what? You’ve been late so many times! You now bring up this palace etiquette thing?

 

(Karen)

敬嫔, a soft spoken concubine who is the ruling concubine if the palace where 沈眉庄 lives, tries to help her out but is quickly shut down by 华妃. As the highest ranking concubine in that palace, 敬嫔 also needs to be reprimanded for not teaching 沈眉庄 better manners. 

 

皇后 does not come to 沈眉庄’s aid and asks what type of punishment would be suitable. 华妃 starts off big. For her crime of boastfulness and belittling the empress, she should be flogged 30 times. But since I’m being merciful and this is your first time, you’ll be docked 2 months pay. Oh and 敬嫔, since you didn’t teach her properly, it’s the same punishment. 

 

(Cathy)

30 floggings for a small woman? You’ll most likely be dead. 华妃 has given out harsher punishments. Remember 夏冬春? 皇后 finally steps in. They will be docked only 1 month pay because it’s almost the new year and she dismisses the ladies.

 

Before 华妃 leaves though, 皇后 stops her. She points out that she’s never reprimanded 华妃 for being late so why be so strict on 沈眉庄?To which 华妃 responds, “You’re too kind and 皇上 knows this. That’s why he gave me the power to manage 后宫, if I don’t do something what will he think?” That’s a pretty good blow. 皇后 tries to win back the argument, “Well since 皇上 gave you the power, you should lead by example and come early to future greetings”. She’s trying to force 华妃 to come early. We’ve already seen her tardy twice! 

 

Nope, 华妃’s gonna do what she wants. “I can’t help it if 皇上 tells me to sleep in! Who should I listen to? You or him?” 皇后 cannot win that argument…and concedes of course, listen to the Emperor. 

 

华妃 definitely won that round and she knows it. Look at that strut!

 

(Karen)

Everyone is jealous of 沈眉庄’s favoritism from the Emperor.  沈眉庄 doesn’t quite know how to play the game. She’s made herself too much of a target. To be fair, it’s tough. You want the favor of the Emperor but you can’t seem too eager about it. 华妃 needed some ammunition and 沈眉庄’s tardiness was the perfect excuse. No one can say it was an unfair sentence. 皇后 is definitely annoyed too, otherwise she probably would have made more of an effort to stop the sentence. 华妃 also used this sentence to pit 敬嫔 against 沈眉庄。敬嫔  basically got punished for no reason. Kill two birds with one stone.

 

(Cathy)

Let’s now discuss two scenes that bring together the political machinations of the Imperial Court (前朝) and the Imperial Harem (后宫). 雍正 is discussing with some of his courtiers/government officials about a rebellion in the Northwest 青海. The best person they have to quash the rebellion is 年羹尧. Do you remember who he is? He is 华妃’s brother.

 

Here, 雍正 says, “年羹尧 rules the roost in the northwest.” The idiom he uses, 大权独揽, to arrogate all power to oneself,  to describe 年羹尧. It is definitely an idiom that has a negative connotation and 雍正 is wary to give 年羹尧 more opportunities. The solution is to have another up and coming viceroy join the expedition so that 年羹尧 doesn’t receive all the credit. 

 

(Karen)

When the courtiers leave, we see that 华妃, sent over some desserts for 雍正 as if this were on cue.  雍正 takes this opportunity to gift 华妃 Eastern Pearls and wants 苏培盛, his head eunuch, to personally send them over. We discussed this last episode, but 东珠 Eastern Pearls are extremely valuable, more valuable than jade. There are certain Eastern Pearls that are only designated to the Emperor, Empress, and Empress Dowager. This gift is highly unusual and truly elevates 华妃’s status! 雍正 gives the answer that it’s to reward her for doing such a good job managing the 后宫。 But what did we just witness? 华妃’s brother is about to go to war. This is my reading of this scene, but 雍正 needs to keep 华妃 appeased so that her brother will be successful on the battlefield. He’s managing both aspects of court to get the best result. With all the power that 年羹尧 has right now, 雍正 cannot risk him rebelling against his empire. Happy sister= loyal brother = quashed rebellion. 

 

(Cathy)

Do you notice how giddy周宁海, 华妃’s eunuch, is? It’s because he knows how valuable the pearls are.

 

This whole political strategy even extends further to the scene with 皇后 and 雍正。皇后 brings up her discoveries with the case involving 福子’s death and what 雍正 wants to do about it. He knows exactly what happened, but he brushes it and tells 皇后 to let it go. Why the sudden change? Earlier we saw that 雍正 was willing to let 皇后 investigate. At that time he most likely already knew that happened. But now, with 华妃’s brother off to the Northwest, he can’t risk 华妃receiving any type of sentence. He needs to keep the power balanced in that family. 皇后 is understandably disappointed and look what 雍正 does. He feeds her a spoonful of the swallow’s nest, personally! This intimate gesture will keep the Empress happy for a while! She drops the case with this gesture. What a player. Every action he takes is calculated. He is the emperor after all.

 

And that’s that with Episode 4 of 甄嬛传。 In the next episode, we’ll see how zhen huan deals with not having any attention by the emperor.

EPISODE 3

 

(Karen)

Hello! Welcome back to Chasing Dramas! The podcast that explores Chinese history through historical TV dramas.  This is Karen, and this is Cathy and we are back again to discuss the episode 3 of 甄嬛传, Empresses in the Palace。In the last 2 episodes, we saw that our main character zhen huan, gets chosen to be a concubine in the imperial palace of emperor 雍正.

 

(PAUSE)

 

So what next – well let’s start off with a general recap. This episode is pretty simple. We follow how the 4 new ladies (and other characters) fare in the palace.  Basically the ladies are brought to the palace and are settling in. 沈眉庄 is placed at 常熙堂。She has maids that she brought with her and can pay tips to the eunuch. 安陵容 is by herself and does not give any money. What’s worse, she’s stuck sharing a palace with the haughty 夏冬春。

 

甄嬛 is placed, by the grace of a meddling 华妃, to smaller and farther quarters within the palace. She now lives in 碎玉轩. She shares the space with a younger girl 淳常在, who is not even 14, who was also selected as a concubine. Blegh – Doesn’t that just make your skin crawl? 

 

They kind of just gloss over the fact that she’s so young and is supposed to be, you know, a woman for the emperor. 

 

Anyways, the girl is very cute, bubbly and loves to eat desserts. 

 

甄嬛 also meets her servants. Her main maid, 瑾汐, who previously attended on former concubines, is quite kind to 甄嬛, gives her pointers on things here and there. The head eunuch is a man named 康陆海, who seems jovial enough。甄嬛 points out that she wants loyalty and solidifies it with giving 康路海 a large sum of money. 

 

(Cathy)

As everyone is settling in, we see that there are plenty of gifts being bestowed upon the various new ladies including 甄嬛,夏冬春 and 沈眉庄. These gifts, which include lavish jewels and fabrics, are from 皇后 and 华妃 as they begin to create alliance within the palace. 甄嬛 accepts them but does not use them, instead she tells her servants to documents them and to put them in storage. She knows exactly what 皇后 and 华妃 are doing and tells her servants to keep quiet.

 

I feel bad for 安陵容 because she’is not given many gifts since her family has no connections or power. She isn’t a threat at all to anyone but also can’t be of help. She has no money either. 夏冬春 who lives in the same palace as her, sees this and does not hesitate to make fun of her for it.  夏冬春 also makes it known that she prefers gifts from 皇后 rather than 华妃. She basically shouts it from her door. Bad mistake…

 

To make herself feel better, 安陵容 goes to find 甄嬛 and 沈眉庄 who are at 甄嬛’s palace. Upon hearing about 安陵容’s situation, 沈眉庄 and 甄嬛 give her some of the gifts that they received and 安陵容 is very grateful. Here though, the class difference is very evident in their interactions. 安陵容 has no support, no money, and received no gifts. Despite being good “friends”, there is always going to be that distinction between her and the other two ladies.

 

(Karen)

A few days later, the entire 后宫 is presented to 皇后 in their first official 请安, or greeting. 华妃, as is her MO, asserts her dominance over all of the ladies. 夏冬春 is asked to speak and she again makes it known that her clothes are from 皇后, much to the annoyance of 华妃. 

 

沈眉庄 gets into a bit of trouble with 华妃 and is bailed out by 甄嬛. When everyone is dismissed to leave, 夏冬春 does not hesitate to follow 甄嬛,沈眉庄, and 安陵容 out and continues to boast. 

 

华妃 is in the background hearing this conversation. Once she’s had enough, she steps in…and… we’ll discuss this scene. 

 

After the encounter with 华妃, 甄嬛,沈眉庄, and 安陵容 are shell shocked by what they just experienced. They stumble to a remote corner of the palace. They don’t have time to recover before bumping into some eunuchs running away from something. 甄嬛 goes to investigate. She finds 福子’s body in a well. The same girl,that was gifted to 华妃. Yep, she’s 100% dead. 

 

(Cathy)

The news of 福子’s death travels quickly to 皇后 and she’s extremely angry. Verbal jabs, she can handle, but to kill a servant that she sent, that is inexcusable. Ok you might think, why do I care about this maid right now but it’ll pay off in the next episode.

 

甄嬛 returns to her quarters 碎玉轩, still in a daze. Her servants are extremely excited to tell her the news that the new concubines will be able to “serve” the emperor starting tomorrow night! 

 

They all tell her she’s got to be the first one!

 

(Karen)

皇后’s head eunuch, 江福海, goes to 华妃’s palace, ready to interrogate her about the whereabouts of 福子. BUT 华妃 turns the tables and asks HIM where she went. She simply says that she doesn’t know where she is. She acts shocked when 江福海 tells her the news that 福子 is dead. 

 

And that’s the end of the episode!

 

(PAUSE)

 

(Cathy)

So, we know that the ladies are now in the palace and getting their first taste of what life will be like for the rest of their lives. I really like this scene because [discuss]

  • You see the difference between 安陵容 and 甄嬛 and 沈眉庄. 甄嬛 and 沈眉庄 are more well versed on how to play the rules. They constantly are “tipping” the eunuchs around them. 安陵容 doesn’t have that type of money and as a result is left to fend for herself.
  • You also see that eyes and ears are everywhere in the Forbidden Palace. 夏冬春 makes herself an easy target for 华妃 because she’s literally shouting her preference of 皇后 to everyone。
  • KAREN -TALK ABOUT SOMETHING

 

(PAUSE)

 

The big scene that we want to discuss revolves around the official 请安 or greeting. This is the first time we see the new ladies meet the other concubines. Let’s just say…this 请安 is a life or death situation.

 

We’ll start with 甄嬛 getting ready in the morning. One of the new maids suggest that she dresses lavishly for the event, but 甄嬛 requests for the exact opposite. She says to dress and style normally.

 

An official greeting is a big deal. It’s the first impression that you make on the other concubines in the 后宫。Everyone is watching you so you have to think about what type of impression you make. I don’t think zhen huan knows that she’s favored by the emperor but she’s smart in not to show off too much.

 

(Karen)

At 景仁宫, the new concubines present themselves to 皇后. 华妃 as usual is still not there. She saunters in a little bit later. 

 

(Cathy)

When she does, everyone turns around to greet 华妃. There’s a funny bug in this scene, you’ll notice 曹贵人 on the top right turning around to see where 华妃 is during her curtsey. Haha, she doesn’t know when to get up. 

 

(Karen)

I swear, every single time we have a 请安, drama happens. 

 

(Cathy)

Well to be fair, this is the only time the ladies all have to be at one place at the same time. When else are they going to start showing off?

 

Well 华妃 sits down and 齐妃 asks, “You woke up so late, are you feeling unwell?”. 

 

(Karen)

I’m watching this and I don’t know why 齐妃 even does this and provokes 华妃? She never wins against 华妃。

 

华妃 responds in the most 华妃 way and says, “皇上 stayed up late reading documents so I stayed up late with him. This morning he told me to sleep in.” All of the other concubines lower their eyes because she’s boasting that 皇上 was with her. 华妃 then goes on to say “皇后,you aren’t mad are you?”

 

(Cathy)

皇后 really is the only one that can handle this situation. Well of course she can’t say, yes I’m mad. She responds “well today’s the first time we meet the new concubines. We have new sisters here, they can keep us company”. This is a subtle jab reminding 华妃 that even though you are the favorite, these new ladies might take that from you. 

 

夏冬春 being 夏冬春, actually says out loud to the girl next to her, “Who is 华妃 showing off to?” and of course 华妃 hear’s this. 华妃 gives 夏冬春 a dirty look. 

 

It’s time for the formal greeting, with the 3 kneels from the ladies. 

 

(Karen) 

Let me explain. All of the new ladies are presented to 皇后. They conduct what is called 三跪九叩. The translation is 3 kneels and 9 bows (or kowtow). Basically, you get on your knees, kowtow 3 times, stand up, and do that 2 more times total. This is one of the most formal greetings you can do. 

 

http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_3f7ddd5901015nw1.html

 

In this drama, however, the women kneel, but don’t bow. Instead, they raise their right hand up to their temple three times. Apparently, this is done to substitute the bowing because back then, there was no hairspray but the concubines had hair piled high on the tops of their heads in elaborate styles. So…. what could happen when you kowtow with that elaborate hair? It falls out. Having a  bad/messy appearance is another sign of disrespect so, this was the compromise for the concubines. It was a more practical matter to raise your hand up to your temple than to bow so many times and risk your hair falling out. 

 

At least, this is what I read from an interview with the cultural etiquette instructor for the drama, who incidentally is also playing the imperial doctor, 温实初。

 

(Cathy)

 

Look at the seated concubines in the background when 甄嬛 and them are doing the formal greeting. Everyone’s yawning, looking away, whatever else. It’s quite funny. I’m not even talking about the scene where it specifically pans to them, but literally as they are performing the ritual.

 

The bloopers of this scene are quite hilarious because they kept having trouble coordinating everyone to have the same timing for kneeling and the hand gestures.

 

(Karen)

皇后 allows them to stand up and tells the new concubines to meet the other consorts. 

 

The new concubines greet 华妃 with a curtsey. She’s gonna show them who’s boss! Yay!

 

华妃 does NOT tell them to stand up, so they are still in their curtseys. Generally, once someone greets you, you allow them to get up immediately, as the 皇后 did earlier. 华妃 does not. 

 

She instead has a conversation with 皇后 and says, “The jade that the Imperial Household Department sent this year isn’t very good. They aren’t very clear. It’s harder to get good jade anymore.”  She’s ignoring the other women on purpose.

 

皇后 doesn’t even miss a beat and responds “华妃, at your age, you don’t need jade. So the ones that the Imperial Household Department sends you will be newer jade. Besides, with someone like you, where else are you going to get better jade?” 

 

华妃 seizes the opportunity to respond “Of course you’re right, jade is a bit old for me. I don’t deserve to wear it. 皇后, if you don’t think it’s beneath you. I’d like to give you my pair of earrings.”

 

皇后 does not take the insult. She says “I just received a set of Eastern Pearls, that I had made into earrings. If I accept your earrings, wouldn’t that be too extravagant? 皇上 would get mad.” She then gently reminds 华妃 that the new concubines are still kneeling and only then does 华妃 tell them to get up.

 

(Cathy)

Ok let’s really dissect what just happened here. 华妃 compares the new ladies to the jade, saying that they aren’t very good. 皇后 responds by saying of course they can’t compare to you.  华妃 then takes the comment as another comparison on jade itself. Jade is usually worn on older ladies and makes the jab to 皇后 saying that she’ll gift them to 皇后 since she’s older and deserves them, 皇后 does not accept her gift but instead mentions Eastern Pearls. She won’t take jade because of them. This may not seem like much, pearls, what’s the big deal?

 

Well Eastern Pearls are actually very valuable. They are difficult to find, highly regulated on where they can be picked, and only sent to the royal court. Certain Eastern Pearls are restricted so that only the Emperor, Empress, and Empress Dowager can wear them. Even with 华妃’s wealth, she cannot wear the Eastern Pearls. 皇后 won’t stoop down to wear jade if she has the Eastern Pearls. If you look at 皇后’s earrings in this scene, she does seem to be wearing pearls, whereas 华妃 is wearing jade. 

 

I will have to give my props to 皇后. She knows she can’t compete with 华妃 on certain things so she responds in the way she can, with power bestowed upon her by rank and title. Things that 华妃 no matter how much favoritism she has, cannot have. 

 

(Karen)

华妃, annoyed, now directs her ire to 夏冬春. She asks who it is and 夏冬春 greets her. She’s brash, and actually looks at 华妃 straight in the face. Notice 颂芝 in the background chuckling? She’s laughing at her. 

 

华妃 comments on 夏冬春’s appearance. The fabric must be very expensive! She responds yes, this was a gift from 皇后! I wore it specifically for today! 华妃 says at least you are a grateful person and 夏冬春 gives her thanks. 夏冬春 is such a dumb girl. She doesn’t think she’s done anything wrong and gained the favor of the Empress. You haven’t even established yourself and you are now openly flaunting your allegiance to 皇后! This is a sure way to make enemies. Are you sure 皇后 will have your back?

 

(Cathy)

华妃 next turns on 沈眉庄 and 甄嬛. She asks for them and they greet her. Notice, they don’t look directly at her. Their eyes stay down. 华妃 treats them much more seriously. They are legitimate threats. 华妃 comments on the simplicity of 甄嬛’s attire. If 甄嬛 wore something extravagant, similar to 夏冬春, she wouldn’t be left off the hook so easily and would have most definitely been criticized for flaunting her wealth and interest from the emperor. 华妃 continues to say “皇上 has an eye for selecting beauties”. This puts both 甄嬛 AND 沈眉庄 at the disadvantage. Now the other concubines know exactly who to target.

 

(Cathy)

Now 沈眉庄 tries to appease the situation. She comments on 华妃’s beauty saying that she’s the true beauty of the palace, we are only fireflies, how can we compete? Her choice of words is terrible because she uses the idiom 国色天香 to describe 华妃’s beauty and 华妃 immediately latches on this and uses this as ammunition. 

 

(Karen)

What’s the big deal? 国色天香 is an idiom used to describe a stunningly beautiful woman. The direct translation is “National Beauty, Heavenly Fragrance”. This describes a peony flower and who does the peony flower represent? As the National Beauty, it is the EMPRESS!

 

沈眉庄 just inadvertently used a phrase reserved for 皇后 on 华妃.  This could be disastrous. 皇后, if she wanted to, could punish her for it. 沈眉庄 does not have a response and it looks like she’s in deep trouble. 华妃 has landed a blow.

 

(Karen)

甄嬛 swoops in and saves the day and says “皇后 rules over us like the moon shines brightly over the earth. 华妃’s stunning beauty is like a shining pearl. We cannot compete” 甄嬛 in quick succession uses 4 idioms. 母仪天下,明月光辉 to describe 皇后. 母仪天下 is the phrase to describe 皇后 as it literally means, being the mother of the empire. She still uses the same 国色天香 for 华妃but says that it’s like 明珠璀璨 (a flashing pearl)。This doesn’t quite elevate her to the status of Empress and the use of 母仪天下 trumps everything else. This gets 沈眉庄 out of her bind and she’s grateful for it.

 

(Cathy)

皇后 is impressed. 华妃 is too but not in a good way. 甄嬛 just exposed herself as a quick thinker and one who is educated enough to keep up with 华妃. This is not the type of attention she wanted. At least 甄嬛 has the comment sense to NOT look up during the exchange. 

 

皇后 wraps up the proceedings. Reminding the ladies to focus on having children, not get into squabbles of jealousy, and to support each other. Haha, that’s not happening. 

(Karen)

甄嬛,沈眉庄,and 安陵容 leave together and right outside, 夏冬春 catches up to congratulate 甄嬛 and 沈眉庄 on being able to cater to both 皇后 and 华妃. She insults 安陵容 some more, asking 沈眉庄 and 甄嬛 why they even bother giving stuff to the servants. 

 

夏冬春 does not understand the whole value of keeping your mouth shut in the Forbidden Palace. Anyone could be listening! Of course, who is? 华妃 and her entourage walk out of 皇后’s palace to this scene and hears everything but the other ladies don’t notice. 

 

夏冬春 is still going on and on “saying my family doesn’t need this stuff. 沈贵人 sure knows how to bribe people”. 甄嬛 gets mad and wants to say something but is stopped by 沈眉庄。

 

(Cathy)

You… can’t bring up your family in any situation like this. There will always be someone with a more powerful family. She may have been a big fish in a smaller pond, but now she’s just a minnow in the 后宫。Indeed, 颂芝, 华妃’s servant, sneers to say the 夏 family can’t even lift a shoe compared to us. 

 

(Karen)

I don’t know what happens with 安陵容, maybe it’s because she’s with her friends, but she finally grows a backbone and initiates a conversation. This part is quite clever.

 

She praises 夏冬春’s family for being a highly decorated military family. 夏冬春 takes the complement and rubs it in saying, we’ve been courageous for generations. Nothing like your lowly family. 

 

安陵容 then apologizes again for what happened at the selection. 甄嬛 turns around because she doesn’t quite get what 安陵容 is trying to do. Well 安陵容 continues, “I went back to reflect on my actions, and then I realized. It must be because you come from a decorated military background, you must be well educated in both letters and military acumen. No wonder you were so imposing. You truly represent your family”

 

(Cathy)

The phrase 骁勇 means strong, brave, imposing. This is generally positive but only for males. It could be negative since it means all you have is strength and not brains. It has a negative connotation to females because females are not supposed to be “strong” or “imposing”. They need to be meek and demure. This is an insult to 夏冬春 that she’s masculine and has no brains. 

 

夏冬春 doesn’t even realize this. She plays right into the insult and accepts the praise, saying “Of course, this is my family tradition!” 

 

Everyone around her starts giggling. They all get the insult but 夏冬春 doesn’t. 华妃 can’t take it anymore. How can someone in the palace be so dumb? And at the level of a First-Class Attendant? She signals for 周宁海, her head eunuch, to take care of her. 

 

(Karen)

At this point, 夏冬春 sees everyone laughing and figures it out. She’s furious and lifts up a hand, looking to slap 安陵容。 甄嬛 stops the first attempt but she tries again. This time she’s stopped by 周宁海, the head eunuch。He grabs her arm and forces her to kneel.

 

It’s time for 华妃 to um…how should I say this… make her grand entrance. 

 

(Cathy)

She saunters over and says – “The autumn views in the imperial garden are usually beautiful but someone has broken this tranquility”

 

夏冬春 has the gall to say, “安答应 was disrespectful, I just wanted to punish her a little bit” 

 

Wow, that is not what you should say…

 

(Karen)

华妃 responds “Are the Empress and I no longer in 后宫? When did the xia family start running hou gong? You need to start handing out punishment? I don’t think you can handle the burden”  Oh my goodness, look at her eyes. They are literally shooting out daggers. 夏冬春 overstepped her authority. In a strict hierarchical society, this will not be tolerated and 华妃 does not. She’s had enough with this girl and this gives her the opportunity to dole out a punshiment.

 

Here is the literal killer line. “The maple leaves aren’t red enough this year” to which 颂芝 chimes in “I heard maple leaves need to be bleached with blood to be really red”. “Oh really? Let’s gift 夏常在 a 一丈红 then. We’ll use her blood to bleach the maple leaves in my garden.” 

 

(Karen)

夏冬春 and us don’t know what that is and is cold heartedly explained by 周宁海, 华妃’s head eunuch, “This is a form of palace torture. A long thin wooden stick (called 杖)  is used to beat your lower body until everything is reduced to a bloody mess.  The red (or 红)from far away looks amazingly beautiful. That’s why it’s called 一丈红.” It’s also a word pun, the 丈 is a unit of measurement. That’s pretty accurate as with the stick, you are reduced to a pile of red.

 

夏冬春 hears this and slumps to the ground. She is petrified. What a terrifying punishment and one that is so severe too! She starts begging 华妃 for forgiveness but it’s too late.  She is dragged away for this punishment to be executed. If this doesn’t kill her, at the very least, she will be disabled for the rest of her life.

 

(Cathy) 

That’s crazy! The title of 一红 seems quite pretty actually but the real meaning is so brutal. People may be familiar with medieval torture chambers in Europe, but the types of torture and punishment techniques the Chinese had were equally if not more brutal. 

 

(Cathy)

华妃 turns to the remaining ladies and reminds the rest of them that just because you 3 aren’t punished doesn’t mean you are off the hook. Go back to your palaces and reflect on your actions.

 

安陵容 is scared out of her mind and her knees give way. I mean I would be too!  Someone just got killed in front of their eyes!

 

Holy crap! We thought 夏冬春 would be a bigger character in this drama. It’s only episode 3 and she’s killed off! 华妃 just showed us exactly what she’s capable of! She was pissed off that 夏冬春 was openly aligning with 皇后. She needed to get rid of her. 夏冬春 did herself no favors by being so stupid. Word travels about everything you do. She did not have the clout to protect herself. As a lowly First Class Female Attendant, how are you going to compete with a favored Consort? And one with a powerful brother? You can’t. You flaunt it, you die. 

 

(Cathy)

What a welcome. This is as much a warning to the new concubines as it is to 皇后. 华妃 can do whatever she wants to the people in the palace. 

Funnily enough, later on in the episode when 皇后 finds out about 夏冬春’s fate, she doesn’t really care about. She even agrees with 华妃. Like I said earlier, 夏冬春 didn’t even get assurance of protection from 皇后. 华妃 didn’t have any reservations to serve out her punishment. 

 

后宫 is a cruel place. It’s truly life or death.

 

(Karen)

I also want to note that the actress who plays 夏冬春 is named 颖儿。 She’s actually quite well-known in the Chinese entertainment industry, at least when this was being broadcast. She had acted/even headlined more dramas than, for example, 安陵容 and 沈眉庄. Therefore, when this drama was airing, everyone was completely shocked that such a big name actress would be killed off within 3 episodes of a 76 episode drama. This shows the unpredictability of the characters in the show. You’re kind of wondering now, who will live and who will die.

 

Remember how during the Selection, 皇上 told 甄嬛 how he would not let her, as a beauty, wither and die in the palace because it is a place that nurtures beauty? Just one episode later we see that that was complete BS!

 

(Cathy)

So what happens next? We mentioned this earlier in the recap. Pretty much the 3 ladies, 甄嬛, 安陵容  and 沈眉庄 walk away shocked and scared. They come across some servants running away from something. 甄嬛 being brave, goes to check it out and finds the dead body of 福子 in the well. She is further shocked and they each scurry back to their quarters, absolutely scared of what happened that day. 

 

In the next episode, we see how 甄嬛 handles this situation.

 

(Karen)

I also want to note and emphasize here that even though we’ve been saying how 华妃 has been brash and ruthless, she is also smart. She is able to pick up on tiny details, such as the mistaken phrase used by 沈眉庄. 华妃 can turn conversations around very easily and insult people in the most passive aggressive way. Yes, she benefits from having a powerful brother, but she’s no walk in the park either. She knows how to solidify her power in the 后宫 and is ruthless when needed. Perhaps more than necessary, but she isn’t dumb by any measure. There is a reason why she is able to survive and attract the attention of the 皇上。

 

We also see in this episode that 沈眉庄 is not quite as adaptable as 甄嬛. She can’t get herself out of her bind. To be fair, I don’t think many people could. 安陵容 is no pushover either. She showed that she could handle herself in front of 夏冬春. She just doesn’t have a family to back her up. 

 

That’s it for this episode. The drama was confined to just the ladies today, let’s see what happens when the new concubines because available to serve the Emperor.

Episode 2

 

 

Welcome back to Chasing Dramas! The podcast that explores Chinese history through historical TV dramas.  We are here to to discuss the next episode of 甄嬛传, Empresses in the Palace。This is Cathy, and this is Karen

 

(Karen)

We left the first episode on a cliffhanger. Now onto episode 2. 

 

Our main character, 甄嬛 is being presented to the Emperor and Empress Dowager at the Selection or 选秀 to see if she has a future in the forbidden palace as the emperor’s concubine. The entire time she’s on her knees, looking down as is required by Chinese custom. Basically, you are not allowed to directly look into the eyes of the royals when you are in their presece as a commoner. But she is asked to tilt her head up and both the Emperor and Empress Dowager sit up, shocked. 

 

So, what happens?  For this episode, what we’ll do is continue on with this scene, do an analysis because there is a lot to unpack, and then we’ll do a recap of the rest of the episode and additional scenes we want to discuss.

 

Let’s jump right back

 

(Cathy)

After 甄嬛 lifts her head up, we see the Emperor becoming very intrigued . The Empress Dowager glances at the Emperor. You can see the gears turning in her head. She says 甄嬛’s last name 甄 is against the law.  

 

So the rule is that you can’t have a name that sounds like the Emperor’s name. A bit complicated here since we’ve been calling the emperor 雍正. That is his official name that we, in history, know him by. BUT, his birth name is 胤禛,甄, 甄嬛’s last name sounds like 禛, from  胤禛 the emperor’s name. By law, you could be punished for it. You need to change your name, even though the written character is different, because they sounds similar, it is still taboo.  This rule isn’t just reserved for the Emperor, it’s actually taboo to refer to your family elders like that or have similar sounding words in your name. For the Emperor, who has the Mandate of Heaven, it’s on a much grander scale. You change your name  People have been put to death for this. 

 

Well that’s weird, given that her father has been in court for many years and this issue never really came up. 甄嬛, who is still kneeling on the floor, says that her father got a reprieve from Emperor 康熙 himself, 雍正’s father to keep their last name because (and this is additional wordplay) their last name of 甄 sounds like 贞 which means loyal and that’s a good thing and is why this last name shouldn’t be a problem. 雍正 readily agrees, much to the dismay of his mother because she can’t rebuke this answer.  

 

雍正, now, obviously interested, asks the Empress Dowager, “Do you know about the legend from the Three Kingdoms Era? 江南有二乔,河北甄宓俏. The 甄 family has historically produced beauties”. 

 

(Karen )

OK, let’s translate this piece. What is he trying to say. The first half of this phrase is describing two beautiful ladies from southern China who were very famous for their beauty and marriages during the Three Kingdoms Era. The second part of the phrase is describing a beauty from northern China that is named 甄宓, who has the same last name as 甄嬛.

 

雍正 just used 甄宓, one of the most famous women in Chinese history as justification for praising 甄嬛, with the implication that the 甄 family produces beautiful women. Not only that but the Three Kingdoms Era is right at the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty over 1000 years ago, further pushing the link for 甄嬛 as a Han beauty. There’s this whole history for 甄宓 that we won’t get into here, but basically, the emperor is saying that our heroine is related to one of the most beautiful and famous women in chinese history!!

 

Another fun tidbit – the actress Ada Choi who plays the 皇后, actually played 甄宓 in a HK TVB drama from 2002. The show was called 洛神 or in english, where the Legend begins in case anyone is interested.

 

You can see the Empress Dowager’s disappointment, she drops her eyes but doesn’t give up, she needs 甄嬛 out. So she tells her to come up towards them. On cue, a eunuch splashes tea towards her feet, but 甄嬛 continues to walk and isn’t perturbed. We’ve got some ominous music in the background as we see how she’ll perform. Next up, the Empress dowagers’s maid drops a cat who meows loudly but 甄嬛 keeps her composure while another girl screams from fright. If you couldn’t tell, all of these were tests. The empress dowager is looking for any opportunity to dismiss 甄嬛. Both the emperor and empress dowager are watching intently.  The Empress Dowager can’t find any fault, relents and says “At least she’s composed”

 

(Cathy)

Ok what’s interesting is, on first watch, you just think that the Empress Dowager is testing 甄嬛 to make sure she’s up for the task. But then why did the Empress Dowager bring up name rule? When I first watched I didn’t catch it, she does NOT want 甄嬛 in the Palace! Why? If we come back to the scene after watching the series, you’ll understand why she’s doing this. We won’t spoil this now but keep it in the back of your head.

 

雍正, who takes cue from the empress dowager that he can continue, again quotes the poem, 嬛嬛一袅(niao3)楚宫腰 but says the next line 那更(jing1)春来,玉减香消,which translates to “but as she waits for spring the beauty withers”. That’s morbid, 雍正 says the Forbidden Palace is perfect for nurturing beauties, we won’t let you wither. That is his excuse to give her a perfume sachet and keep her in the palace. See? It’s very subtle. Using poetry to convey meaning and to make a point. And with that 甄嬛 against all her hopes, gets chosen to stay. I guess praying at the temple didn’t work.

 

By contrast, the poor girl behind 甄嬛 who got scared by the cat unfortunately gets punished for it. She can’t ever be considered for selection again. That’s the power of the Emperor. At first, I’m like she’s 16 what’s the big deal. It’s a huge deal because it’s a stain on her family. Her family name is ruined pretty much. Losing composure what the Empress Dowager was hoping 甄嬛would do. If she had screamed, she would have received a similar fate.

 

Phew – 甄嬛 is officially going to the Palace! So are three other ladies that we know of also entering the palace are 沈眉庄,安陵容,and 夏冬春. Let’s recap the episode quickly before diving into other scenes. 

 

(EPISODE RECAP)

 

(Karen)

The Empress and the Emperor decide on the titles to give the new concubines. 甄嬛 returns home to her parents and younger sister and she’s very sad that she has to leave her family for the palace. 华妃 gets mad about another concubine and takes it out on poor 福子, the servant girl that the empress had given her to learn manners. Didn’t we say she was dead? Yep, she’s dead. We also see our first formal 后宫 court greeting! We meet most of the ladies in the 后宫 and let’s see the fireworks go! We get our first glimpse of the 后宫 alliances! We’ll dive deep into this scene so we won’t give too much away right now. At her home, 甄嬛 invites 安陵容 to stay with her before entering the Palace so that they can prep together. 甄嬛’s father comes to give her some last minute advice on doing well in the palace and hopes that she has at least a peaceful life, which is pretty touching. But then, he drops a huge bombshell, 浣碧, one of 甄嬛‘s servants (whom she is taking to the palace) is actually her half-sister! Her father basically got 浣碧’s mom pregnant and couldn’t bring her back because she was the daughter of a convicted courtier. What a scummy thing to do, but hey, it’s not his drama so we’ll move on.

 

An imperial proclamation is delivered to both 甄嬛 and 安陵容 by Eunuchs from the Palace telling them what their title is and when to enter the palace. A senior servant lady is also sent from the Palace to teach the two ladies palace etiquette, which is pretty much a plot device for us to learn what’s going on in the palace.  She explains the rank system of the consorts and what it takes to be called a “娘娘”. We’ll re-explain this but essentially, there are varying ranks of concubines in the palace based on your matrilineal line, your birth banner, your wealth etc. Additionally, we find out that the emperor was previously married to his first “official wife” when he was still a prince. He was very much in love with her but unfortunately, she died while giving birth. He has been heartbroken ever since. The current empress, or “wife” is the first wife’s sister. He respects her but it doesn’t seem like there’s love.

 

In the palace, we also find out that 华妃in her jealousy, purposefully put 甄嬛, who 华妃 knows is of interest to the emperor, in a living spot that is isolated and destitute. When 皇后,or the empress finds out, she can only sigh and see if she can spruce up the place. 

 

The episode ends with 甄嬛 heading off to the palace, saying goodbye to her parents and her much younger sister (from the same mother). 

 

(First Scene)

 

(Cathy)

With that background, let’s go back to discuss our first scene. This scene takes place right after the selection. It’s at night, at his primary residence. 雍正 is still quoting the line in the poem that 甄嬛 used to describe her name, obviously smitten. 皇后 comes in to congratulate him on the new ladies saying that the whole palace is talking about how the emperor met many beautiful women today and that he’s very happy… (Karen – ugh. Can you imagine that being discussed today? How weird.)

 

(Cathy)

She begins to say 甄嬛 is rumored to look like… but 雍正 stares her down and she doesn’t finish the sentence. He says 甄嬛 ‘s eyes are similar and that’s about it but doesn’t get mad. The Empress says that’s already very rare. 

 

Similar to whom? What’s the story there? We’ll have a spoiler discussion at the end of the episode for those that want to listen.

 

Now, 皇后 comes in not only to congratulate the emperor, she has other business to do, namely managing the titles of the concubines coming in. She asks what title the emperor is looking to give 甄嬛. He says, let’s give her the title of 贵人 (which is a decently high rank and translates to Noble Lady)。

 

And I love what the 皇后’s response is. She says, that’s great. We have a Mongolian woman coming in with the title of 贵人, a Manchu woman coming in with that title as well. We will also have two Han ladies coming in with this title. The emperor asks who the other Han 贵人is, and we find out it’s 沈眉庄, the childhood friend of 甄嬛。皇后then says, the rank of 沈眉庄’s father is much higher than 甄嬛’s. Next, she says, I understand that you, as emperor, value the han bannered families, but inter-marriage between Mongolians and the Manchu is tradition. Would it not be too conspicuous if there were two 贵人 from the Han Banner? The emperor agrees and demotes 甄嬛 to one step below, to 常在, or first-class female attendant. 

 

Do you see what 皇后 did there? She didn’t outright say that she didn’t agree with giving 甄嬛too high of a title, but she came at it from a political perspective. It is unclear at this point if she’s doing this really for the sake of the royal family and maintaining balance between the banners, or for other personal reasons. 

 

Even though he demoted 甄嬛, he gives her an official title with the name 莞. So how it works is that generally, you are called by your rank plus your last name. If you are special, you get a more special title with a character bestowed upon you by the emperor or the empress dowager.皇后 asks is it referring to Tang Dynasty poem? 雍正 says no, I like the way she smiles (莞尔一笑). This 莞 is actually SUPER significant. There’s actually another reason why he chose this but we won’t know about this right now.

 

Spoiler section: 宛宛 is 纯元 nickname. So it’s super similar to 莞. Can’t remember if 皇后remembers this fact.

(请安)

(Karen)

 

So the main scene that we want to discuss is the first official 请安。 it’s the 后宫 version of attending court. What happens is that the ladies of the 后宫 are expected to “greet” the 皇后 every morning.

 

There is a lot of detail here. 皇后 sits at the head of the room. The other concubines sit according to their corresponding rank with the highest ranking ladies (below the 皇后) sitting closer to her.

 

The scene opens and 华妃 is the only one late to 请安. All of the other women of the 后宫 are already there. We currently see a total of 5 ladies in addition to the 皇后。 In the grand scheme of things, not a huge 后宫。There is one other Consort (the same rank as 华妃), called 齐妃, two who are a step below with a rank of Imperial Concubine or 嫔。They are 敬嫔 and 丽嫔。Next is a noble lady called 曹贵人 and finally a female class attendant called 欣常在。 There is also another Consort who is sick called 端妃。 So in total, one 皇后 and 7 concubines.

 

华妃 is late and 皇后’s servant suggest they finish the 请安 for today. The Empress holds her ground, she’s the Empress, 华妃 is just a Consort, she must come. 

 

Tea is served for the ladies. The ladies begin some small talk about the favoritism of 华妃. 皇后 obviously hears all this. 

 

Well, 华妃 struts in not too long after. Pay attention to etiquette in this scene. When she arrives, the 4 ladies who are of lower rank, get on their knees to greet her. 齐妃 who is at the same rank as 华妃 curtseys but doesn’t get on her knees. 皇后,obviously with the highest rank, does not get up at all. 

 

华妃 doesn’t even take time to breathe before launching her attacks. 华妃 turns around to one of the ladies, 欣常在 and says that it seems like her health is improving, coming to this 请安 so early.   欣常在 thanks her but says that even though she felt a little off in the morning, she can’t be late to meet the 皇后。 If you couldn’t tell, a slight nudge to 华妃 for being late. We find out the reason she’s unhealthy is because she had a miscarriage. Anyways, 皇后 thanks 欣常在much to the chagrin of 华妃。

Everyone, at the behest of 皇后, sits down. 华妃 gives this half hearted curtsey to 皇后. 

华妃is given a cup of tea, She raises the cup and takes a whiff, only to say that this seems to be last year’s 龙井 tea. No matter how well you try to preserve tea, there will always be a moldy smell. She’s actually given her batch to her servants. If 皇后 needs new tea, she can always give her some. Her jab is that ugh, you still have this old stuff? What kind of Empress are you?

 

皇后 continues to smile serenely and brushes it off, she is prepared for this. She tells 华妃 that she’s also been gifted some of the newer tea by 皇上, the emperor, but has decided to give it to the 3rd prince, who is the son of 齐妃 saying that the 3rd prince liked the tea but didn’t want to bother his father for something so simple. 

 

(Cathy)

华妃says that if the 3rd prince likes to read and is a good student, then she’s sure that 皇上 will gift everything to the 3rd prince and smirks while 齐妃 scowls. The reason behind this is that the 3rd prince, even though he is the oldest, is not the smartest person and not the favorite of the emperor. Implicitly through this conversation, we find out that the 1st and 2nd princes, are no longer alive. 皇后 says that because the 3rd prince is the oldest, and the 2 younger brothers are still small, the emperor will obviously place his hopes on the 3rd prince. I also want to note that Princes are addressed primarily by their birth order. Even if a prince dies, the birth order does not change. That’s why 3rd prince is the oldest, but will not be called the 1st prince.

 

 

华妃shifts the conversation to the fact that 皇上ascended the throne very quickly and not much was done in terms of renovation. She says it was a pity that 皇后must live in her current palace called 景仁宫. She’ll pick a day to come help 皇后 refurnish her palace to be nicer and let her live more comfortably. Here, 华妃 is disrespecting the 皇后 by implying her home is too modest and that she needs 华妃 to help with renovations, further undercutting the authority of a 皇后。

 

But instead of being offended, 皇后 has another rebuke. She serenely and calmly says that the emperor just came to power, everything should be simplified. The renovations can be discussed at a later date. Thereby, calmly not accepting help from 华妃 and also implying that having a modest palace is fine/accepted. 华妃on the other hand, says that she feels bad that her own palace, 翊坤宫 is so extravagant. She feels self conscious every time she comes to see 皇后 and her less extravagant palace.

 

Here, 齐妃 chimes in, obviously annoyed that 华妃made all these jabs earlier about her son and her lack of attention from the emperor. She says that 华妃 lives in 翊坤宫 which was where the previous emperor’s favored consort 宜妃had previously lived. Of course, the living space is going to be different. 皇后 then says that 宜妃 had lots of sons so the previous emperor definitely favored her. 

 

At this point, 华妃 decides that it’s getting late and she needs to leave. Like what? We’ll explain in a bit She just sat down. She gets up, curtseys to the 皇后 and leaves quickly. 丽嫔, one of the ladies in the group, shoots a glance over to 曹贵人 and also gets up to leave shortly aftel. 曹贵人 doesn’t immediately leave and waits to be dismissed with the other ladies. So, here, you see the women partitioning off into factions. 丽嫔 is a follower of 华妃. 曹贵人 is evidently as well. HOWEVER, 曹贵人 isn’t as brash. She hedges her bets and doesn’t leave to follow 华妃 until everyone else is dismissed. 

 

Once the ladies leave, 剪秋, 皇后’s main maid comments on 华妃’s brashness. She then says that they’re palace is the best because 皇上 personally bestowed it to her. 

 

It’s a completely different story outside. 华妃 is livid that 齐妃 and 皇后 used the comparison. The previous occupant 宜妃 did have a lot of sons, but the sons also committed treason and led to the downfall of their mother. How dare the Empress curse her in this way! See these aren’t outright insults, there are anecdotes! If you don’t know them, you’ll be viewed as an idiot, but if you do, you get the insult.

 

丽嫔 is walking next to the carriage and tries to assuage 华妃, saying stuff like she’s not the favorite, you are. She can’t do anything to you.

 

华妃’s servant 颂芝 also adds, our palace 翊坤宫 is the only one that has the word 坤。The same word that’s in 坤宁宫, which is where 皇上 and 皇后 were married. You see how much the Emperor values you? The Empress doesn’t even have this privilege!

 

华妃seems mollified and much more pleased with this answer. 

 

Look at all the meaning you can get just from one word! For both 皇后 and 华妃the servants have huge sway on their master’s opinions and moods. It really is how you frame it!

 

(Cathy)

But how fantastic was this scene? You can tell how quickly some of these ladies think on their feet. Each one knows the hierarchy of the 后宫, but they are all vying for attention. Subtle words have huge implications. 

 

华妃 is annoyed by 欣常在, the first woman she greeted when walking in, the one who had a miscarriage and said she didn’t dare be late to greeting the 皇后, Well, 华妃 remembered this, and told the eunuchs that 欣常在 was still unhealthy and therefore, cannot be presented to spend the night with the emperor. Even though, when the emperor hears this, he is able to see right through this, he does not alter her actions. Poor 欣常在.

 

What we learn in this episode is that the 后宫 has eyes and ears everywhere. 皇后 and 华妃  know everything about the new ladies even though they weren’t at the Selection. They even know what the ladies are like to the servant ladies that teach etiquette. This is a first sign that you have to be exceedingly careful about what you say and do to others and the servants. Additionally, we find out that one of the current ladies of the 后宫 just had a miscarriage. Hmmm….

Episode 1

 

 

Welcome to the Chasing Dramas Podcast. The podcast that explores Chinese history through historical Chinese TV dramas. This is Karen and this is Cathy. We are diving in to episode 1 of 甄嬛传, Empresses in the Palace! 

(Karen) 

Let’s start off with the recap for episode one. Then we’ll go more in depth on the major characters and key scenes we want to discuss. 

 

The show opens and it’s year 1722, 雍正 is recently coronated as Emperor and we’re first introduced to this massive display of what court looks like during his time. 

 

We meet two officials, 年羹尧 and 隆科多 who are promoted by the emperor to higher ranks within court. As they leave the court, 雍正‘s primary eunuch, 苏培盛, comes out to give medicine to, 年羹尧, as a gift from the emperor for a battle wound he’s endured. They exchange pleasantries and we find out that 年羹尧 not only just got promoted, but his sister is a concubine in the 后宫。

 

Later, in the evening, the emperor is in his primary residence. His mother, the empress dowager, or 太后 stops by. She mentions that he only has 3 sons while his father had 24. It’s time for a “Selection” or 选秀 to bring more women into the palace.

 

We are next introduced to the empress 皇后, the official wife of the Emperor, and 华妃, the emperor’s favorite consort. The empress asked 华妃 to stop by her quarters to discuss the preparations of the 选秀 or “selection”. This conversation ultimately ends on a sour note and 华妃 reluctantly leaves with a servant girl from the empress in tow. 

 

(Cathy)

We are finally introduced to our main character, 甄嬛. She’s praying at a temple, hoping not to be selected to the palace. She’s 17 at this time and doesn’t want to marry someone wealthy and powerful, only someone who loves her. As we know, this is more or less wishful thinking. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have a drama to watch. However, when a childhood friend and imperial doctor 温实初 asks for her hand in marriage, she politely rejects him, saying that they are more like brother and sister.

 

We are also introduced to 沈眉庄, another young woman, who is also prepping for the selection. She and 甄嬛 are friends.

 

Just before the selection, we have a scene between the empress and the emperor. She is very pleased he is having dinner with her but points that it is important to not eat too much of a favorite dish. This self restraint can also be applied to ppl. The emperor hears this and becomes annoyed because we know she’s talking about him spending perhaps too much time with 华妃. He leaves and actually goes there instead, leaving the empress dejected.

 

(Karen) 

And now… it’s time for the selection! How the selection works is that you are presented to the emperor and empress dowager who decide whether or not you get to stay and are worthy of being in the palace. We are introduced to 2 girls who are going through the selection in addition to our main character 甄嬛 and her friend 沈眉庄。These girls are 安陵容, who comes from a poor, low ranking family, and the other, 夏冬春, who is of a much higher social status. 安陵容 accidentally bumps into 夏冬春 which offends her. Drama ensues and 甄嬛 comes to the rescue. When everyone calms down, they go into the procession for review by the empress dowager and the emperor. By a stroke of luck and her good manners, 安陵容 gets chosen to stay, even though originally the emperor didn’t want her. The arrogant 夏冬春 is selected to stay. When it’s 沈眉庄 and 甄嬛’s turn, 沈眉庄’s poise and beauty are enough for the empress dowager to select her to stay. This is an interesting piece, the empress dowager makes the decision. Not the emperor.

 

Lastly, it’s time for 甄嬛. She kneels before the emperor and empress dowager. The episode ends on her deliberation. What’s going to happen?

 

(Cathy)

 

That was the episode in a nutshell. Let’s start discussing some key scenes and introduce some characters

 

Let’s first introduce the Emperor. 爱新觉罗·胤(yin4)禛 – or 雍正 Emperor, who is portrayed here by 陈建斌.

 

雍正, was the 5th Emperor of the Qing Dynasty, who was born in 1678 and ruled from 1722-1735. He was 44 when he ascended the throne and ruled for only 13 years.  He came to power after a famous coup, where the story is that 9 sons each plotted to become the heir apparent. In the end, 雍正 reigned supreme which speaks to his cunning, his intellect, and his ruthlessness. These are all characteristics we see displayed fully in the show. He has difficulty trusting people and is very focused on consolidating his power. 

 

(Karen)

Hey, do you remember show came out, there was a lot of controversy around the casting choice and acting style. People said 陈建斌, who is well-known in China, is too old. How could all these women fight over this guy. 

 

(Cathy) – oh yes! Wasn’t it something about in the original book, the Emperor was this hot, fit dude and totally not like this guy. 

 

(Karen)

Well…雍正 was 44 at the start of this show so in general it made sense. 陈建斌 was I think 40 when he acted this, so totally age appropriate! Also, fans would say that he showed little emotion in his acting and would actually call him pancake face when this was airing. 

 

(Cathy) – haha, yea 煎饼叔. I also want to point out that it might be a play on his name 建斌 and 煎饼 (pancake). It’s just a fun play on words!

 

(Cathy)

Let’s actually talk about the opening scene. The drama opens with the emperor in court and there is a brief introduction of two men, 隆科多 and 年羹尧. These two are true historical figures who were crucial to aiding 雍正 winning the throne. In this scene they just got promoted. 

 

年羹尧:

A member of the Han Chinese Bordered Yellow Banner, he is a top ranking military commander and brother to 华妃. 

 

隆科多:

A member of the Manchu Bordered Yellow Banner. He was the younger brother of an empress to the previous emperor. So you could say he’s an uncle of sorts to 雍正。 

 

This scene is a more realistic depiction of court than most TV dramas since everyone’s outside and the eunuch has the whip to start the proceedings. Usually everyone’s cramped in the small palace which is totally not real. 

 

(Karen)

Let’s discuss 苏培盛, the Eunuch who gives 年羹尧 the medicine.  He, is 雍正’s primary eunuch and he basically governs all the eunuchs in the palace. 苏培盛 is actually one of the few eunuchs who has a historical record.  His burial site is in a known location, which is very rare for eunuchs.

 

Ok, so 苏培盛 is seen as a pleasant servant right now, bowing to 年羹尧 and being very respectful etc, but 年羹尧is fully aware that 苏培盛is essentially the emperor’s messenger and perhaps one of his most trusted advisors. Basically, you can’t piss this guy off because he’s an extension of the Emperor. 苏培盛 actually wields enormous power within the palace as the head eunuch.

 

—–

 

(Cathy)

 

We just met some of the main players in the Imperial Court. The next scene we want to analyze is the discussion between 雍正 and his mother about his 后宫。

 

In this scene, the Empress Dowager doesn’t directly pressure 雍正 to go to 后宫, instead, the Empress Dowager mentions that the emperor’s father had 24 sons! Our current emperor only has 3! It’s time to start adding more children!  Ok to be fair, 3 at 44 with concubines is a low number.

 

What is revealed here is that this emperor is not necessarily a philanderer which, plenty and I mean PLENTY of emperors in Chinese history have been. He actually spends a lot of time actually ruling the country, and doesn’t necessarily focus on the pleasures of women. This is true in history. 雍正is known for being a workaholic and having significantly fewer children than his father.

 

What is fascinating here, is that in western culture, you have one wife who is responsible for continuing your line and running the household. Yes, as the man, you can have mistresses, but generally the children of your mistresses cannot inherit. If you want legitimate sons, you may need to resort to extreme measures, like Henry the 8th in England.  In China, however, at least in the palace, you have one empress, but the emperor can have many concubines and those children from the concubines, at least in this dynasty, can inherit the throne. That was the case with this emperor.

 

太后 frames it as having children is his “duty” and because of that, we need more women. 

I also want to point out that this is all super transactional. There’s no discussion of “love”. Just – hey, is she going to be able to produce healthy babies. The Empress Dowager, even bluntly says, some of the women in 后宫 are too old to have children! She then finally gets to the reason for coming tonight. She wants 雍正 to have the Selection!

 

(KAREN)

Here’s a little bit more information of the Selection: 

The selection (or 选秀)which literally translates to “selecting beauties” generally occurs once every 3 years and it’s a way for young ladies from prominent families to enter into the palace. Translations may vary but we’ll call it the Selection.

He also wants to bring more ladies from the Han Banner families. You see here? He’s trying to be strategic about solidifying this Manchu and Han connection. Now here’s a big distinction, these Han ladies MUST come from Han Army of Eight Banners (汉军八旗). They couldn’t just be plucked from the street. There was a rule that Manchu bannermen and regular Han could NOT intermarry. This rule wasn’t law and it wasn’t strictly enforced but it did limit who family members from the banners could and couldn’t marry. 

 

(CATHY)

太后 agrees, she’s very savvy and knows what her son is doing. She does remind him that just because new people are coming doesn’t mean he should neglect the ladies who are already there, especially the Empress. So at least that’s nice of her. Didn’t she just tell him to get more women? We also want to point out that the Empress is related to the Empress Dowager. It’s all about the politics! 

 

Let’s briefly talk about the Empress Dowager. 

乌雅成璧, 皇太后, the Empress Dowager – is portrayed by 刘雪华

The mother of 雍正, she was a Consort to Emperor 康熙. She had two sons, the 4th son 雍正 and the 14th son 胤Yin禵. Both of her sons participated in the bloody fight for the throne. Unfortunately 雍正 and his brother were on opposing sides. 雍正 won and 胤Yin禵 is no longer in the picture. 

 

—-

 

(KAREN)

Ok, now we get to my favorite scene we want to discuss. This is where we are first introduced to the Empress (皇后) and 华妃。

 

(Cathy) – YAY!

 

(KAREN)

This is where you learn how to be passive aggressive. Using words to fight battles instead of weapons or fists.  So many back and forths in just one scene. 皇后 starts by thanking 华妃 for coming over to her palace during her normal “afternoon repose”.  华妃 responds by saying that she doesn’t have the luck of 皇后 of being so free, is there something that 皇后needs? She’s basically saying, I have work, and you don’t. What kind of Empress are you?  皇后 ignores this jab and asks 华妃 about preparations for the selection and of course 华妃 wants to show off that she’s prepped and ready to go. Usually, everything is overseen by 皇后 but the Emperor gave 华妃 the reins for this event which undercuts the authority of 皇后. 华妃 can’t wait to start showing off, saying stuff like, “uh 皇上 wants me to be frugal but I can’t lose face for him and so I HAVE to make money appear somewhere. How will anyone know my pain?” 皇后 of course has to put this serene face on and doesn’t say anything.

 

(Cathy)

So I say this is round 1 and I think 华妃wins.

 

(Karen)

So for round 2, 皇后 offers 华妃 some desserts. 华妃 pauses at first, obviously because she doesn’t want to eat this but, just before 皇后 tells HER servant to force the desserts to 华妃,she tells her main lady maid(颂芝) to pick something from the options of desserts. What does 颂芝 do? She… DROPS it. You could be severely punished for that. Like, bludgeoned to death. That’s so disrespectful to 皇后 and is basically a slap in the face。 

 

(Cathy) – yea, that takes guts.

 

Karen

颂芝  drops to her knees and begs for forgiveness. 华妃’s reaction is to say “oh no, she’s so clumsy. If the Empress doesn’t punish you, I will”. Pay attention to the smirk 华妃 still has on. This puts 皇后 in a corner. If 皇后 punishes her, she’ll seem too 小气 petty and not regal which makes her lose face. Pretty much everything in this society is about losing or saving face. Well what does the Empress do? She initially lets it go, and it seems that 华妃 wins this round again. She protects her servant, and also avoids having to eat the dessert. So it’s 2-0 to 华妃。

 

(Cathy)

But, 皇后 is not going to just let this go. She starts to say, “oh no, don’t worry about it. 颂芝 is too senior to be doing this stuff. Let me introduce you to this new servant girl 福子. She’ll do this for you”. As soon as 皇后says this, 华妃’s her smirk turns into a scowl. Of course she doesn’t want this new girl! Who is she, she could be a SPY! 华妃 says no thank you, but 皇后 isn’t going to back down and we see her very sweetly turn the tables and say “oh, 福子 needs to learn more about being a good servant and she can learn from the best with you”. So obviously, 华妃 can’t say no. She is so mad and gets up to leave. 

 

Karen

I love how she’s just staring daggers at the servant girl 福子 as she passes her. 

 

Cathy – so it’s 2-1? I think 皇后 won that round. Ok, here comes the final kicker. Just as 华妃 is about to step out, 皇后 says “It’s great to have new ladies come in. They will have some healthy children for the Emperor.” 华妃 actually begins to tear up because WHY? She doesn’t have any children. No matter how much 华妃 wants to show off with her money and status, she does not have the most prized possession in 后宫。She will now have to compete with younger and prettier women for the emperor’s affection. 华妃is so wrapped up in how much power she has planning the selection and trying to put 皇后in her place for not being asked to run this show, that she forgot just what the consequences are of this “selection”. It is definitely not lost to 皇后 and she now makes sure 华妃 doesn’t forget it either. Look at that, I think 皇后 just won that round. So it’s 2-2 for this battle.

 

Karen – ok but I think 皇后 really won that scene cause 华妃 had to leave with the new servant girl!

 

Phew – in this 4 minute scene, you learn so much about these two ladies and how “battles” work in 后宫. It’s passive aggressive. It’s vicious. 皇后 is regal and composed but she’s no Mary Sue. 华妃 is glamorous but brash. 皇后 has the power of being the all mighty Empress, but 华妃has the favor of the emperor and has money. They each know the others weaknesses and will not hesitate to strike all the while putting on a beautiful smile.  

 

Karen

 

After watching this again just now, I want to say that all this drama that happened was totally unnecessary. The only “real” piece of information that 皇后 perhaps needed, was to know how the “selection” preparation was going. The rest is literally the two of them fighting and trying to show off who is superior. Like no one else is in the room. This conversation did not need to happen. But… we get to learn so much about these ladies.

 

Anyways, as we see 华妃 leaving, she gives an annoyed glance to 颂芝, her main servant, who then promptly yells at the new 福子 to move to the back. The 2 interesting pieces here are that you see just how strong the relationship between a master and her servant can be. Just a glance or a pause, and the servant knows exactly what to do or say on behalf of the master. The second is that, damn, people are so two faced. 颂芝 was super meek in front of 皇后just now, and immediately turns around and is just flat out nasty towards 福子。 That’s just how it is!

 

Here’s a little bit more information on these two powerful ladies.

 

乌拉那拉·宜修 – or 皇后 Empress The Empress to 雍正, and his second official wife, she is related to the Empress Dowager and comes from the powerful Ula Nara clan. The 乌拉那拉 clan is one of the main noble Manchu houses and has sent many females to be concubines in the imperial harem throughout the Qing Dynasty. As the Empress, she holds the power of “Middle Palace” and controls the Imperial Harem. Basically it is her job to manage the comings and goings of the 后宫. Her character does not have a historical counterpart so we’ll just go with it. She is portrayed by the Ada Choi, who was most widely recognized for her HK TVB dramas. Though famous previously, she’s gained critical acclaim in mainland China with this role. 

 

年世兰 华妃 – 蒋欣

Sister of 年羹尧, introduced with a rank of Consort (which means she controls her own palace and is pretty much second in command at this point). She is the Emperor’s favorite and often shows it through displays of wealth and disregard for the other women. Her real life counterpart was actually one of the emperor’s favorite.

—–

 

Ok, at this point, we’ve introduced most of the major players in the Forbidden Palace – 皇上 (or the emperor), 太后 (the empress dowager), 皇后 (the empress), 华妃 (the emperor’s favorite) and a few others. Let’s now actually talk about our main character. Zhen Huan

 

甄嬛 – 孙俪 

She is introduced as the eldest daughter of 甄远道, aged 17 at the start of this show. She is from one of the Han Army of Eight Banners and her father is a member of the Court of Judicature and Revision (大理寺少卿 which is an upper fourth rank 正四品, which for all intents and purposes, is modest but respectable. As a daughter from a relatively prominent family at Court, she is sent to the Imperial Concubine Selection.

 

While we were doing additional research is that we found out that the pronunciation of the character of 嬛 for our heroine’s name 甄嬛 can be pronounced a couple of different ways. In addition to huan2, it can also be pronounced xuan1 and qiong2. The meaning of this character changes depending on context. Because of this drama, this written character has been popularized as huan2, but it could be different.

 

沈眉庄 or  惠贵妃,济州佐领沈自山之女 – 斓曦  (lan2, xi1)

She comes from a powerful family to the east. She and 甄嬛 are childhood friends.

 

Both of these ladies, because of their family rank and titles, are going through the process for the “Selection”.

 

She’s prepping for the selection with her mother. In a mock Q&A, she says she’s read the classics of 诗经 (The Book of Songs) or 孟子(Menscius) but her mom says NO, the emperor doesn’t want a scholar, he needs someone to have children. Don’t say any of this. Which to me right now is like UGHHHH.

 

(Karen) But you know what, that was how it was back in the day. It’s kind of weird because even back then accomplished women needed to know painting, how to play Chinese Go, how to read/write poetry and play musical instruments but there is still the adage of not knowing too much is a good thing. This whole drama is pretty much about how smart (or not) some of these women are. They may not have read too many books, but they are still very strong and capable.

 

All of this is describing how restrictive the life of a woman is during this time in history. 

 

—-

(Cathy)

The next brief scene we want to quickly discuss is of the Emperor. He’s with 张廷玉, a 1st rank member of court, who says how 雍正 needs to be wary of his favoritism with 年羹尧 and others. 雍正 doesn’t say much back but his lack of response is SUPER telling. 

 

Later on

 

Well 雍正 goes to dinner with 皇后。At first it’s very cordial, 雍正 really enjoys the soup that 皇后 made and he tells her that she doesn’t have to cook. It’s amiable and you know she’s inwardly very pleased he’s being nice to her. He asks for another bowl but the Empress stops 剪秋 (her main servant) from giving him more. She quotes a rule that 皇帝 can’t eat anything more than 3 times otherwise he can’t eat it again for some time. 

 

(Karen)

I just want to note here, that this actually was a rule in the palace. One of the reasons was to prevent poisoning. If people can’t figure what the royals prefer to eat, then they can’t specifically poison anything. 

 

(Cathy)

From my interpretation of the scene, the Emperor was ok with the reminder and was also probably thinking, alright, i’ll come back in the future for more. No big deal.

 

But then, 皇后 sees an opening, and has to add that the rule is in place to not show favoritism and must practice self control. 雍正’s face seems fine but then he responds “It’s the rule for food, but also for people”. He’s pissed. He understands 皇后’s jab to him.She wants him to stop favoring 华妃。 See most things in this drama are subtle.  皇后 offers another dish and the Emperor responds with an idiom “Eat don’t talk, sleep don’t talk”. He then gets up to leave and TELLS her, “oh I’m gonna go to 华妃’s place to check up on her”. Her face drops. She’s crushed. Girl, it’s the first time you’ve seen him in weeks. WHY did you have to bring this up? You just pushed him away! UGHHH. You can tell from this interaction that she’s not favored, even though she has the title of the empress.

 

雍正goes to 华妃’s place and just as he’s about to step into her quarters, he notices 福子, the servant girl from 皇后. Do you remember? The one that really annoyed hua fei. He notes that she’s young and looks good enough to serve at this palace. And of course, 华妃 becomes pissed. One of her many faults, 华妃 is easily jealous. She cannot believe that 雍正 paid attention to this new servant and took up her time. How dare she…Yup, the girl is dead.

 

(Karen)

Something else to note here is that 华妃 is coy. She knows how to get the affection of the emperor. There’s a word in Chinese called 媚 which doesn’t have a direct translation I think, but ultimately means sexy but in a coy sort of way and would describe her perfectly in this situation. 雍正may have to spend time with 华妃 to appease her brother, 年羹尧, but he’s still enjoying it nonetheless.

 

(Last major scene of the episode).

 

(Karen)

 

So the last scene we want to discuss, is the “selection”. This day, the selection is only for Han Bannered

 

Towards the end of the episode, we see all the ladies lining up in their long Manchu gown, Pot-Bottomed Flowered Shoes, and the coiffure, specifically called 旗头. This is different from Han dress and the style must be worn in the palace at all times. 

 

In this drama, the ladies wore whatever outfits they wanted. THeir hair was also unique to their choosing. This was not actualy the case in history. The outfits were standardized. Also, from research that we’ve seen, people have noticed that these actresses wore outfits from other famous dramas. Evidently they were renting clothes from other productions since these aren’t cheap. It was funny to see an outfit from another show that we loved, popping up in these scenes.

 

So how does the selection work? It’s pretty simple. In this drama at least, ladies from specific banners who are selected for this final round interview are presented to the Emperor and Empress Dowager in small groups. The emperor and empress dowager will evaluate you on a number of factors – obviously your beauty, your family line, among other things. If you are chosen to stay to be a concubine in the palace, You will be given a perfume sachet. Pretty much a pouch with perfume in it. Otherwise, you’re given a flower and sent home. 

 

The actual selection process is long and arduous. There are many levels of selection across the empire. We only see the final selection at the Forbidden palace to speed things up a bit. Only the ladies who have passed those other rounds are sent to Beijing. Of course, it is a huge honor to be given a perfume sachet. It elevates the status of your family to have produced a daughter worthy of the emperor. But, I also think it’s great that in this drama, even if you’re the emperor, your mom has a say in who you um…bring home. 

 

(Cathy)

We next see a courtyard and the ladies are waiting to be called and presented.甄嬛 and 沈眉庄 quickly catch up. we are also introduced to 安陵容 and 夏冬春。As we mentioned earlier, 安陵容 accidentally bumps into 夏冬春 who promptly yells at her. If you haven’t gotten a flavor yet of how important your matrilineal line is, you get a taste of that here. The first thing 夏冬春 demands is, what’s your family. That’s the most important thing. 安陵容’s father is a low ranking official and 夏冬春’s father is much higher up. 夏冬春 immediately starts reaming into the poor girl upon learning this info. She makes fun of her clothes and her jewelry and as the ultimate insult wants her to 下跪 kneel to apologize. Which, in chinese culture, is the ultimate humiliation. You only kneel to, for example, your family elders, higher ranking officials or obviously, the imperial family.

 

What’s interesting in this scene is that other ladies in the courtyard are considering whether or not they should help 安陵容 . They are hedging bets on who will be selected and really don’t want to get on 夏冬春’s bad side if she does get chosen to be in the palace. If that happens, she’ll only get more powerful and may cause trouble for their families back home. An ling rong, on the other hand, doesn’t pose too much of a threat so they are willing to watch her get builied. Well obviously 甄嬛, our heroine, goes up to help. She’s knows how to handle the situation and 甄嬛 only states is her father’s position. She doesn’t even say her name. 夏冬春’s like whatever, that’s not a high enough rank.  甄嬛 shows off some of her smarts. She says It’s not good to make a scene during selection, especially during the Han Banner selection, you don’t want to give all of us (including your father) a bad name. She directly appeals to 夏冬春‘s ego. Well 夏冬春 can’t do anything and walks away in a huff. 

 

甄嬛 and 沈眉庄 makes introductions to 安陵容. We see that 沈眉庄 is more reluctant to make the acquaintance but 甄嬛 isn’t worried. She notices that 安陵容 does not have many accessories so she picks a Begonia flower (海棠花) from a nearby bush and puts it in 安陵容’s hair and even gifts her a pair of earrings for which 安陵容 is very grateful. Well our heroine needs to be introduced as the nice girl! It’s the trope! 

 

(Karen)

Soon after, the ladies are called to be presented to the emperor and the empress dowager. The emperor’s standards are incredibly high and he pretty much dismisses almost everyone immediately.

 

When 安陵容 is called to be presented, she is passed over! But 安陵容 sincerely gives her thanks. This surprises the Empress Dowager. Most girls when being presented with the flower are really upset, but she still shows gratitude. 安陵容 responds that it’s because she is grateful to even have had the opportunity to come to the palace.. The Empress Dowager praises her for understanding etiquette. Then, our TV magic happens, a butterfly lands on the Begonia flower that 甄嬛 gave her. This catches the eye of the Emperor and she is allowed to stay and is given a perfume satchet! As she leaves, 安陵容is ecstatic. However, what’s interesting is that she doesn’t thank 甄嬛…

 

As the selection continues, the empress dowager becomes annoyed that 雍正 isn’t picking more ladies. So, because of that, 雍正 selects the next woman that pops up. And who is it? None other than the mean 夏冬春。 He notes that her name is interesting and she is over the moon. 

 

Next up is 沈眉庄 and 甄嬛。沈眉庄 goes first. She’s asked if she’s read any books and 沈眉庄 being the good daughter, and taking the advice from her mother lies and only says that she’s read Examples for Women 女则 and  Advice for Women 女训. How lame. I’ll say 眉庄 just gives off an air that she’s educated, in addition to being poised and beautiful. The Emperor even asks her if she’s read anything else but she says no she mostly knows sewing and other female stuff. He seems disappointed but the Empress Dowager chimes in to say that they’re picking ladies for the lineage, it’s already great that you know how to read. She is selected to stay but what’s interesting here is that the Empress Dowager made the decision. Not the emperor.

 

Time for 甄嬛。She’s asked the origin of her name, which she quotes the line 嬛嬛一袅(niao3)楚宫腰 from a poem by a Song Dynasty poet 蔡伸. This line basically describes a woman’s figure is feminime, graceful, and beautiful. 雍正’s impressed. She’s educated. So this doesn’t go entirely with the whole we don’t want educated ladies mindset.  

 

He tells her to lift her head up and DUN DUN DUN!

 

https://zhuanlan.zhihu.com/p/27578070

 

End of the first episode! 

 

(Karen)

So that was the first episode of hou gong, zhen huan zhuan. What did you think? We only meet the main character halfway through the first episode. This story is as much about the palace, the politics, survival, and the emperor as it is about her. We just discussed some of our favorite scenes. It really is interesting to see the different dynamics with the characters in hou gong. We got a glimpse of the major characters but we’ll see how the grow and change throughout the drama. 

 

 We already see different factions in the palace and how battles work in 后宫。 The writing is clever and the acting is phenomenal. The clothing and makeup were also focused to reflect a character’s arch at a certain point in time. The empress and 华妃 have expensive outfits with beautifully ornate coiffures while 甄嬛 and the other younger ladies have much simpler outfits and hair. Overall, the series is 76 episodes long and we look forward to going through our favorite scenes and analyze them with you. 

 

Looking forward to the next episode!

And with that, thank you so much for listening to episode 1 of Chasing Dramas. We look forward to having you join us for the next episode as we chase and discuss hou gong zhen huan zhuan 

Intro to the Podcast

 

 

 

(Karen)

Welcome to: Chasing Dramas! This is Karen, and this is Cathy. We’re exploring Chinese history and culture through historical Chinese TV dramas. 

 

When thinking about which dramas we want to discuss for the podcast, we decided to focus on period dramas that represent certain eras in Chinese history. We also wanted to choose ones that were very well done in terms of not only the story, acting, but the clothing, the hairstyles, the etiquette, the use of certain nomenclature etc so as to learn more about China.

 

With that, which drama are we going to talk about? None other than: 后宫甄嬛传 or Empresses in the Palace. It is a drama that is set in the Qing Dynasty during the mid-18th century, under the reign of Emperor 雍正. He is the 5th emperor of the Qing dynasty. This drama follows the trials and tribulations of a woman named 甄嬛 as she enters and matures in the Imperial Harem as a concubine of 雍正. 

 

This drama came out in 2011 and was a massive hit in China. It stars 孙俪 as the title character 甄嬛,陈建斌 as the emperor,蔡少芬 as the empress,蒋欣 as another consort in the palace named 华妃, and many others. Due to the popularity of this show, it catapulted many of the actors and actresses to A-list status. The show received numerous awards for best directing, best acting and best production. I, myself have watched this drama in its entirety multiple times and with each viewing learn a ton. It was the first mainland drama I think to really explain a lot of the intricacies of the Imperial Harem. And because it was so popular, many other dramas are able to build upon this knowledge and rarely has to “re-explain”, for example, the ranking system, the 嫡庶 system etc. We will discuss this throughout the drama. 

 

Cathy – do you remember first watching this show? What was that like?

(Karen and Cathy discussion)

Key points –

Very poetic and academic – 

Standardized what the imperial harem is like

More of a serious drama that rewards multiple viewings and portrayed court/imperial life more accurately than previous dramas. I feel like many dramas were able to build off of this drama and not re-explain things like how the harem works for example because we assume everyone has watched this. 

 

(Cathy)

The drama is based off a book by 流潋紫 (liu2 lian4 zi3). For those that want to watch and follow along, I believe this series is on youtube. There’s actually a condensed 6 episode version of the show created for Western audiences. It’s on Amazon Prime with English subtitles in the US and might be on Netflix in other regions, but we’ll stick to the original because there’s just so much more to discuss! (Also, some of the translations aren’t that great either so…).  This drama has a total of 76 episodes, each 45 mins long.

 

(Karen)

How this will work in our shows is that for each podcast episode we will provide a brief recap (5 min or so) of the events that happened in the drama episode, then dive more deeply into a few key scenes which either has cultural historical significance, or is significant to the plot. 

 

This episode serves as an intro episode with general background knowledge of the time setting and cultural norms of the series. So for those of you who don’t know anything about the Qing Dynasty, this will help provide some more context and background information. A mini history lesson if you will. I will say, that when doing research for this podcast, we realized how um… different a lot of this is at least by today’s and western standards so…should be interesting to say the least if you have no background on this. 

 

(Cathy)

And with that, welcome to Chasing Dramas. We are so excited for you to join us for our first series. We look forward to discussing episode one of 后宫甄嬛传。Next is going to be the general history for this show. If you would like to skip this, please proceed to episode one of our podcast!

Let’s talk about some Chinese history!

 

History – Setting:

Qing Dynasty:

(Cathy) The drama takes place during the Qing Dynasty or at the time, it’s called 大清 . The Qing dynasty was founded by the Manchu Aisin Gioro (or 爱新觉罗 in Mandarin) clan in 1632 and ruled China from 1644 to 1912. It is the last imperial dynasty to rule China. There is a lot to discuss for each dynasty and each emperor, but for the purposes of this drama, one important item to note is that the Manchu Aisin Gioro clan is not Han Chinese. The Manchu were from Northern China and were militaristic, well versed on horseback and had close ties to the Mongolians.  In present day, Manchu is the second largest minority group in China and according to the 2010 Census from Baidu, there are over 10 million Manchu living in China. They have their own written and spoken language and many still live in dong bei province in China. 

 

(Karen)

Qing dynasty rule is actually very easy to visually distinguish in Chinese history primarily because of the different fashion and hair styles for both men and women. It was more obvious for men because men were required to have the “queue” hairstyle which basically meant having a long braid of hair at the back of the head, while the front half of the head was shaved. Han hairstyle was more like a bun at the top of the head. You know, how in Disney’s Mulan, Mulan put her hair up in a bun and was able to go off and join the army? That bun hairstyle was Han. Not Manchu. There was actually a lot of drama surrounding this hairstyle. Generally Han people didn’t cut their hair so shaving part of the head was welcome. Han people did not want to conform to this new look because it meant relinquishing the identity of a Han person and acknowledging the demise of the Ming dynasty, the dynasty that was overtaken by the Qing. I mean, yea, that hairstyle was around back in the days of Confucious some 2000+ years ago. I get why there was resistance. People were actually massacred for not shaving their heads. This change was a slow and bloody process. On a lighter note – in present day, when you see a Chinese actor with a shaved head, doing interviews or on an entertainment show, you know – oh he’s acting in a Qing dynasty drama.

 

Another key distinction is the clothing. Han clothing – if you can imagine again Disney’s Mulan or perhaps a picture of Confucious, were generally more like wrap dresses or robes. That’s how I like to think of them at least. Obviously, there were some stylistic differences across the dynasties, but generally Han dress had this characteristic. Manchu dress, which was called 旗装, were much more distinct. They have high collars and a unique button style. You see these clothes a lot in “traditional” chinese stores so next time you see them, you’ll know that this is actually more Manchu than Han chinese. 

Foot binding also became more ubiquitous during this dynasty which basically meant that women of certain status had their feet bound from a young age. It was incredibly painful because it meant the bones couldn’t grow and walking was limited. That’s why it was a status symbol – a woman with bound feet couldn’t really work fields and do manual labor. This practice was banned in 1912 with the fall of the Qing dynasty and the Chinese Communist Party in later years did work to stamp this practice out.  

 

(Cathy)

Some other key aspects of this dynasty – We won’t go into too much detail here for this drama, but we want to point out that that the transition from the Ming Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty was extremely bloody. The Qing dynasty is significant for not only being the last imperial dynasty in China, but also one of the 2 major dynasties in Chinese history that is not ruled by ethnically Han people. The other is the Yuan dynasty ruled by the Mongolians – a la Ghengis Khan’s direct descendents. What is interesting about the Qing dynasty is that the Manchu, opted not to decimate the entire Han population and culture, but instead decided to integrate certain aspects of the Han culture into their own such as language and writing. One example of this can be seen in the Forbidden Palace in Beijing, the gates and palace names are written in both Chinese and Manchu. However, there were still a LOT of ethnic clashes during the Manchu conquest so it’s not like it was smooth sailing for either side. This Manchu and Han divide plays a key aspect to this drama with the Manchurians always being cognizant of keeping power above the Han. This dynamic is something we will discuss throughout the show.  

 

(Karen)

This drama focuses primarily on women so let’s discuss that aspect of society.

 

The dynasties of China represented a feudal system. Chinese culture and society has historically been very much a patriarchal, conservative society. There were strict rules on how women should behave, going back to the days of Confucious some 2500 plus years ago. He even wrote text on what is expected for women behavior. Polygamy was the norm for people of wealth and stature. The man has only one “wife” who is his legitimate partner, but can have multiple concubines or consorts. The main reason for this is to ensure the family lines continue. These themes and the struggles of women of this society is key to this drama that we will be further exploring. 

 

That was some basic historical background. Cathy, what else should we know in preparation of this drama.

 

(Cathy)

Setting

前朝后宫

The main setting of this drama is the emperor’s harem, or 后宫. Though it means “harem” in English, the direct translation of the words is “palace in the back”. This contrasts with 前朝 which is the Emperor’s court in which he conducts his ruling affairs, but the direct translation to those 2 words are “front court”. So you see, the emperor must manage two aspects of his life. The court, for ruling, and the harem, for continuing his progeny. There is a clear delineation of his roles and, of course, the role of women.

 

The concept of 后宫, as we see, is extremely interesting. Maintaining the purity of the royal bloodline and having as many children as possible is seen as the duty of the emperor. The women that reside in the 后宫 place their fortunes for the rest of their lives on how many children she can have for the emperor and how successful these children are. However, another aspect that we will see repeatedly in the show, is that winning favors with the emperor as a woman is a crucial diplomatic strategy. Women are sent to the emperor by family members to ensure closer ties amongst the two parties and the emperor will accept women to ensure those family members respect his authority

 

(karen)

To ensure purity of the bloodline, there is literally only one “man” in the 后宫. The men that serve the consorts/concubines are all eunuchs. For those that don’t know, eunuchs are typically castrated at a young age and they grow up in the palace to serve the members of the court. The only other “real men” allowed in 后宫 are imperial doctors and palace guards. It is generally restricted for other men, even family to see concubines in 后宫. The concubines must maintain a level of separation with almost everyone she sees that is not the emperor. Eunuchs have been employed by imperial households for thousands of years. They were very quintessential to palace life. Although they could obviously not father children, many of these eunuchs became incredibly powerful figures in court because of their close connections to the royal family. Several reigns have met their demise because of eunuchs meddling in ruling affairs.

 

For background on how this works, every night, palace eunuchs from 敬事方 comes to the emperor’s study with the names of each concubine on a tray. The emperor will then flip the card of the name of the woman he wishes to spend the night with. When that happens, the selected lady is pretty much undressed, rolled up in a comforter, placed in a special carriage (sometimes), and brought to the emperor’s quarters. And this carriage is a special carriage so everyone knows who’s spending the night. Obviously, things change here and there, the emperor can decide to visit the palace quarters of whichever lady lives there, but this is the general gist. Every woman the emperor spends his time with is recorded by 敬事方 eunuchs to make sure they know exactly when a child is conceived, to again ensure purity of the bloodline.

 

(Cathy)

后宫制度

How does this work? Women, as with men in court, have rankings in 后宫. Your rank depends on a number of factors – your age, your favoritism from the emperor, the number of children you have, and your family connections. You must be appointed the rank by either the emperor, empress dowager or the empress.

 

This is also described in the drama, but generally, you have one empress or 皇后, that rules the harem on behalf of the emperor. She is what is considered the “main” wife. Every other woman is, or supposed to be, subservient to her. She has special privileges, as we’ll mention throughout the show, that make her special. There is normally a 皇贵妃, the Imperial Noble Consort. Then the next rank is 贵妃, the Noble Consort. Then four women are generally appointed 妃子, Consort。The next tier is 嫔, Imperial Concubine。Of the above ranks, according to the drama, you are able to have your own, or at least control your own palace quarters. You can refer to yourself as 本宫 (owner of a palace) and servants will address you as 娘娘. Anything below that, you must live and listen to the 妃 or 嫔 who runs that palace apartment. As we’ll see, this can be interesting. Of course, if you are tasked to live elsewhere, you must do so. Below 嫔, in this drama, are 贵人, Noble Lady, 常在,First-Class Femal Attendant, 答应, Second-Class Female Attendant. Servants will address you as 小主 (little master).These are the ranks int eh Qing dynasty. Other dyansties will have different names and ranks.

 

(Karen)

Women are not only sent from families, but typically, every three years or so, there is a selection process where women from all over the country are sent and assessed as to whether or not she can be a concubine in the Imperial Harem. This practice has also been around for millenia. Part of the reason this is done so frequently is to ensure, again, that there is a healthy line of offspring. As the saying goes, not having filial piety is one thing (aka respecting your parents), but not having an heir is egregious. As we’ll also see in the drama, people’s life span, especially women, are very short. People die of illness or of childbirth or of the drama that occurs in the palace so people need to be continuously replaced. Additionally, sometimes, servant girls will catch the eye of the emperor. We will see this as well. Many try to seduce the emperor, but this is dangerous and could result in death from jealousy of another consort or the emperor himself. However, if successful, these women turn from servant to owner. That is how they improve their own careers. Several women have become incredibly powerful through this route

 

(Titles)

I also want to highlight titles and names just so people aren’t confused. We may alternate how characters are addressed. Generally, people have their given names and then their titles. It’s the same as in English. You have the Duke of Cambridge, but his name is William. In Chinese history for the harem, you are generally called the rank plus your last name, unless formally given a title by the emperor, empress or empress dowager. So for example, if I am a consort with the rank of 妃 and my last name is 安, I will be called 安妃。But, if I am given a title of, for example, 德, I will be referred to as 德妃。 I hope that makes sense.

 

Alright and with that, I think we are ready to start. Of course, this is only a small snippet of information about the Qing Dynasty and Chinese history in general but hopefully will give enough context for what is happening in the show.

 

Thank you for listening. Please join us for the next episode of Chasing Dramas. 

Song Of Glory (2020) 锦绣南歌 Review 

Republishing my review of The Song of Glory or 锦绣南歌. I was excited to see this drama as I am quite fond of 李沁 Li Qin. She is one of the younger actresses that I follow and enjoy seeing on screen. She was gorgeous in both 楚乔传 Princess Agents and 如懿传 RuYi’s Royal Love in the Palace. Her performances on reality tv shows such as Running Man reflect that she is a thoughtful and funny person.  Here are my main thoughts on the drama.

 

 

Pros for this drama:

1. Main leads – The story revolves around Li Qin’s character, Shen3 Li2 Ge1 沈骊歌 and Liu2 Yi4 Kang1 刘义康. She is an orphan, raised as an assassin to kill Liu Yi Kang, who is the 4th prince during the Liu Song Dynasty. While many viewers say they don’t particularly like the male lead, Qin Hao, I thought he was more than adequate. He has more maturity that fits his role well. He is a bit on the older side so perhaps people think he and Li Qin don’t pair as well but I thought it was fine. These two had passable chemistry and were the highlights of each episode.

2. Historical setting – The setting doesn’t matter a WHOLE lot here other than the fact that it made me do research on what this dynasty is. This is not the well known Song dynasty that reigned from 960-1279AD ruled by the Zhao 赵 family. Instead, this Song dynasty reigned for a rather short period from 420-479AD ruled by the Liu 刘 family.  This dynasty is part of the Northern and Southern Dynasties era of Chinese history. Not many dramas are set in this period because it’s messy and short. The various dynasties didn’t last very long and their stories not as notable as some of the other dynasties. Though, it seems, that after researching Liu Yi Kang’s life, he was not as benevolent as this drama portrays him to be.

3. Setting and Costumes – The sets and costumes for this drama were high quality.  Li Qin’s assassin and dance outfits in particular are form fitting and well made.

(Some additional Pros in the Spoiler section below)

Cons:

1. Story/Plot can drag  – the first couple of episodes start off well enough. There’s suspense and intrigue into why or how this one official is enacting corrupt activities. The 2 main characters Shen Li Ge and Liu Yi Kang work together to solve mysteries albeit never knowing each other’s true identities. But after around episode 25, the story becomes convoluted and drags to watch. 

2. Female hairstyles – when women are married in this drama, their hairstyles are…not as ideal. I’m watching them and thinking “was this historically accurate? If not, why make these styles? They are not attractive!”. 

3. Plot holes and miracles that unfairly benefit the antagonist – essentially there were many scenes that I wanted to say “how is that possible!?”. How can a bad guy show up where she does without anyone noticing? She’s the daughter of a general. Shouldn’t she have restrictions? 

4. Plot holes and miracles that allow the main characters to survive life threatening wounds – the main female lead gets injured numerous times throughout the drama. Unless it is to drive a sad farewell between her love, she generally gets saved by her friends and is bouncing around killing people or doing reconnaissance like her life threatening wounds never happened. Injuries that should have killed her or at least put her out of action for months are healed in, what seems to be, 24 hours.

 

Final thoughts: I thought this drama was…fine. It started off strong and ended on a weak note. The main leads were cute and there was never an issue with their faithfulness in the relationship which was refreshing but there were plentiful plot holes and inconsistencies that just make you want to bang your head against the wall. Some story lines dragged on or else didn’t make sense. Bad guys kept on coming back or stayed alive to add difficulty to the story. However, the high production value and quality acting from the acting team make this a passable drama to watch in the background. 

PSA – DO NOT WATCH THE LAST EPISODE. Pretend the drama ends at episode 52 and that episode 53 doesn’t exist. You’ll thank me. 

 

Overall Rating; 6/10 

 

 

 

 [Spoiler discussion! – Don’t read if you don’t want parts of the drama spoiled!]

 

Pros – Sibling Relationships – With most dramas where there is a throne at stake, brothers tend to turn against each other. This drama stayed away from that cliche and allowed the 2 main brothers, the 4th prince and the 6th prince, to trust each other. They worked together to bring about a change in government policies throughout the empire. It was heartwarming to see these two succeed.

Pro – the main wife of the 4th prince – She actually stays pretty pure throughout the drama. She cares for her husband and genuinely enjoys spending time with the main female lead, even though both of the share the same man and it’s clear he loves the main female lead, not her. She doesn’t display too much jealousy. She’s a saint for that. 

Cons – Constant miscommunication – This drama is filled with instances where so many heartaches or issues could have been resolved if the people just talked to each other. In the beginning where the main female lead didn’t know the identity of the male lead, the male lead tried multiple times to tell her. Each time, she stopped him. The result? She stabs him not knowing his true identity… And that ending. Oh my gosh. This ending made my blood boil. The drama added unnecessary “drama” at the end of this show where the main couple could have just lived happily ever after. But no. The show writers just had to add a ridiculous star crossed lovers plot point. The main couple didn’t talk to each other whatsoever about what’s really happening in an effort to keep the other person happy and paid the price. 

Cons – Unfair expectations of women’s roles – The main couple get together. She is a female assassin with limited decorum or training on how to behave at court. He is a prince. She marries him as a concubine and they are in love. That’s all well and good. But after they get married, he tells her she needs to stop being the woman who goes out fighting. She needs to stop being so course. She instead needs to stay at home, become a refined woman at court and be a good wife. While overall, he let’s her be, accepting that she isn’t a great cook and sees the immense value she add to his life by being a smart woman with insane martial arts skills, he was initially insistent. I know this is just a drama set in a historical time period, but it irks me nonetheless. He tried to change everything about her. Other dramas such as Nirvana in Fire or The Story of MingLan don’t portray relationships in this way. Perhaps just one of the reasons why those dramas are superior to this one. 

Rattan (2021) 司藤 Review 

It’s been a while but we’re back with reviews and recommendations of Chinese dramas we’ve recently binged and first up is the fantasy drama: Rattan!

Rattan, or Si Teng (司藤)stars Jing Tian 景甜 and Zhang Bin Bin/Vin Zhang 张彬彬. The story begins where Zhang Bin Bin’s Qin Fang visits a faraway place called Dhana with his girlfriend to find a family to express gratitude for helping his family many years ago. 

 

Once there though, an accident causes Qin Fang to crash into a forest. The crash kills him but as his blood drips onto the grass beneath him, an alien being Si Teng, of the Yi Tribe, is brought back to life and Qin Fang is revived along with her.  

The story revolves around uncovering the truth behind the mysterious and powerful Si Teng’s past as she wakes up from an 80+ year slumber. Si Teng is a member of the Yi Tribe (though technically, in the book, she’s a part demon but the Chinese government banned mention of demons so she’s an alien). Many mysteries are uncovered as Si Teng and Qin Fang trace clues back to why Si Teng was “killed” in the first place and how she was able to wake up after almost a century.

 

 

 

Rating: 8.5/10

I personally HIGHLY recommend watching this drama. It was one of the first dramas I’ve chased in 2021 and it did not disappoint. Jing Tian has not had a great track record of strong performances but she knocked it out of the park in her role as Si Teng.  Si Teng is a powerful alien with magical powers and brains to boot. Her reputation precedes her as a bloodthirsty alien and she plays the part very well but in reality, she has a cute and dopey side. It’s fantastic seeing her be an absolute QUEEN since she is THE most powerful person in the drama while also having a softer side.

Not only does Jing Tian’s acting surprise viewers, the costume design and makeup is a breath of fresh air. Si Teng went to sleep in 1930s China and therefore is used to wearing Qi Pao, the traditional dress for women during that time. In modern day, her wardrobe retains many of those elements which translates into many iconic looks. The drama is a feast for the eyes due to her many costume changes. Since the drama’s airing, many women are now following Si Teng’s make up style, particularly how she shapes her eyebrows.

The other main viewing point for this drama is the chemistry between Si Teng/Jing Tian and Qin Fang/Zhang Bin Bin. Zhang Bin Bin has been in several dramas with Yang Mi and Dilireba but has failed to reach the A-list. This drama has propelled both him and Jing Tian to the forefront of popularity with lots more resources coming their way. The main driving factor is their chemistry which is off the charts for this drama. You can’t help but feel at ease watching these two act off each other but it’s even funnier when tall, handsome Zhang Bin Bin is relegated to the damsel-in-distress mode for most of the drama and Jing Tian has to go save him. Certainly a reversal of common cliches and its done surprisingly well.  Many interviews between these two leads have left fans clamoring for their relationship to translate off-screen and it’s easy to see why. 

Rattan is a quick and breezy 30 ep and is available on Youtube in the US with English subtitles.  Like I said, I highly recommend the show.  I thought the topic was so interesting that at 15 ep in while I was waiting for updates, I went and binged read the book the drama was based on. The drama does a relatively good job reviving most parts of the drama and removes quite a bit of the gory/bloody portions of the book.  Let’s just say I couldn’t sleep after binge reading the book because I was scared and thankfully the drama is much more palatable. 

 

Let us know  your thoughts on this drama if you’ve watched it already!

-Karen