Welcome to the Chasing Dramas podcast. The podcast that discusses Chinese history and culture through historical Chinese dramas. We are back with our discussion of episode 56 of 后宫甄嬛传, Empresses in the Palace. This is Karen and Cathy.
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And, in case you missed it, Karen posted in the Blog section, a review of the new drama, 锦绣南歌，The Song of Glory that is currently airing and stars 李沁 and 秦昊。Let us know if you prefer such reviews in podcast form. We’re looking to do more of these types of reviews even though the meat of our podcast is still in-depth analysis on the dramas.
Now let’s get back to our show!
After 10 long episodes of being away from the palace, 甄嬛 has finally made it back! She now has a new identity, a new son, a new palace, but it’s the same old game. She’ll have to fight and scheme for everything to survive in the palace. Instead of being a han woman, the emperor proclaimed her a member of the powerful 钮祜禄 manchu clan. She has a son, the 4th prince and a new palace, 永寿宫。 甄嬛 is currently pregnant with the 17th prince’s child but she has successfully tricked the emperor into thinking the child is his in order to return to the palace.
For this episode, I feel like I will just be fawning away at this new 甄嬛. I don’t know about you, but normally after the death of 华妃, I skip episode 43 onwards and come straight to this episode. 甄嬛 is back, baby. And she is back to mess things up in the palace. Before when she was just 甄嬛, she was on the defensive. But now she is 钮祜禄甄嬛 and is on the offensive. Her clothes, makeup and hairstyle in these few episodes are also my favorites. The actress for 甄嬛, 孙俪，does such an exquisite job portraying the difference in moods this time 甄嬛 is back in the palace. Her heart is dead to the man she is now with. She recognizes how cold and calculating this palace is and takes that all in stride. She does not expect there to be anything other than deception or manipulation. Her bright red lipstick and heavy smokey eye help convey that but god damn does she look amazing.
As 甄嬛 is walking through the entrance to meet with the members of the imperial harem that have come to welcome her, she holds her head up high. A stark contrast to many of the flashback scenes we see of her when she first entered the palace. Back then, she generally had her head down and was submissive. This time, 甄嬛, or rather 钮祜禄甄嬛 as she is now a Manchu woman, has put away those fears and is ready to use her power to protect herself. The emperor’s edict states that 甄嬛 left the palace after giving birth to the 4th prince and has now returned. A complete lie but he’s the emperor, he can do what he wants.
There are plenty of old faces to greet 甄嬛 at the entrance and several new faces, all donning their formal court attire. Probably only 惠嫔， or 沈眉庄 , 甄嬛’s childhood best friend, and 敬妃, the adoptive mother of 甄嬛’s daughter, are genuinely glad to see her. The empress lies through her teeth to declares that she was ecstatic at 甄嬛’s return. The former friend of 甄嬛, 安陵容 also speaks, singing praises of 甄嬛’s return and of her new palace even though she caused 甄嬛’s miscarriage.
Speaking of the new palace, the emperor swiftly takes 甄嬛 to see her new home,永寿宫. It is a big upgrade from her old palace, 碎玉轩。 It is grand and stately. It’s the closest palace to his office. Look, there’s ice and a nice fan to help keep the palace cool. What extravagance! But we’re 8min into returning back to the palace and 甄嬛 is already sniffing out the hidden threats. She says to the emperor that the palace is too opulent, she cannot live here. She knows that there will be negative gossip throughout court for living in such an extravagant palace. The emperor waives her concerns away saying that he and the Empress added many of the decorations so no one will say anything.
甄嬛 next immediately hones in on the fragrance that’s wafting throughout her palace. We all know by now that fragrances are one of the most dangerous substances in the palace. 甄嬛 saw what it did to 华妃 in earlier episodes and asks what type of fragrance this is. As she suspected, the emperor tells her that 安陵容 was the one to create this special 鹅梨帐中香。Remember, 安陵容 created this special cream that is supposed to help prevent scarring, but instead, contained powerful doses of musk that contributed heavily to 甄嬛’s miscarriage. This scheme was masked by various other scents 安陵容 included in the cream so 甄嬛 knows how dangerous 安陵容is/
The emperor leaves after settling 甄嬛 in, none the wiser of the threats potentially posed against 甄嬛 but 甄嬛 promptly gets her bearings. She asks her faithful eunuch 小允子, who’s been tasked with serving her again, how the palace has been. He explains that the court ministers heavily disapproved of renovating this palace, 永寿宫, saying all sorts of horrible things. 甄嬛 understands that the Empress purposefully added many expensive decorations to her palace in order to fuel the flames of discontent from the court officials while also playing the part of the good wife to the Emperor.
甄嬛 then asks for the doctor 温实初 to come examine this suspicious fragrance. See? After years in the palace, 甄嬛 knows the tricks of the game and sets up the necessary precautions. Once again, how wonderful is it to have 温实初 on your side? He tells her there’s nothing harmful like 麝香 or musk in the fragrance that could impact her pregnancy but warns her not to have any 依兰花 or cananga plants around. The fragrance and this plant combined will create an aphrodisiac. Odd, but nothing too problematic right now. Such wonderful information. At this point, I feel like 温实初 is one of the most valuable people you can have on your side. He will tell you all the bad stuff that will affect you so that you can protect yourself because he has an extremely sensitive nose.
With that settled, the next person to see is 甄嬛’s new son, the 4th prince. How great is it that they are now mother and son. In this drama, the 4th prince’s birth mother was a lowly maid that the emperor spent a drunken night with. The emperor was reprimanded by his father and thus, that disdain extended to his son. The emperor is reminded of that drunken night, and the reprimand by his father.
We all recall that the 4th prince first met 甄嬛 several years back way back in Episode 12 at the Summer Palace as a young boy. She was the only one who showed any kindness towards him. Most of the other women ignored him. Over the years, the 4th Prince has not forgotten 甄嬛.
And nowwww onto meeting public enemy number 1. 皇后, the Empress. The next day, 甄嬛 changed out of her more formal attire and into her Consort garb. Her hairstyle instead of using 旗头 is now using 钿子。 This is my all time favorite look of hers. The design is exquisite and pairs very well with her lipstick. We’ll discuss what 钿子 is at the end of the episode. After this show aired, many people were inquiring about what this hair decoration was.
The two share some pleasantries before the formal morning greeting with the rest of the harem in order to keep up appearances. 甄嬛 gifts 皇后, the empress, buddhist beads, which could mean nothing, or could be a hint to the Empress to do more good. She also helps place flowers in the Empress’s hair, a custom called 簪花。 This seems innocuous enough but I have a feeling the empress did this to establish dominance over 甄嬛. Regardless of her favoritism, 甄嬛 still has to serve her, the empress and place flowers in her hair, not the other way around.
The real attack from the Empress comes when the other ladies arrive for the formal greeting. Immediately, the Empress asks 敬妃 to bring Princess 胧月 to see her birth mother and that after 甄嬛 gives birth, 敬妃 should return the princess to her mother. For those of you that need a refresher, 敬妃 has raised Princess 胧月 since birth at 甄嬛’s request as 甄嬛 left the palace. She has never met her daughter and misses her greatly. Even though 敬妃 and 胧月 are not blood related, there has to be a strong bond between the two. The empress knows that taking 胧月 away will cause some drama between 敬妃 and 甄嬛 which is exactly what she wants. Very sneaky but effective.
I want to take a moment to speak about who is now at the court greetings. 华妃 and her posse is now gone. In this scene, we see 端妃 who seems to have made a full recovery from her previous illness, 敬妃，the 2 ladies who support the empress, 安陵容 and 祺嫔, and 1 new concubine, I think it’s 康常在。 Not sure where 沈眉庄， 欣贵人 and the other new concubine, 贞嫔 are but oh well. There’s been quite the change in membership at this morning court greeting.
Later that day 沈眉庄 , 甄嬛’s best friend, stops by for a visit. The two friends are happy to be able to see each other again. This type of friendship is so rare and refreshing in the palace. Here, they discuss how the Imperial Astronomers halted 甄嬛’s progress back to the palace. 甄嬛 responds by saying that they need to have their own people in that office. 沈眉庄 suggests a suitable alternative and with that, they are expanding their influence within the palace.
The next visitors to come see 甄嬛 cause a rather heartbreaking scene. 敬妃 brings 胧月, 甄嬛’s daughter to come see her birth mother, and drop her off. 甄嬛 is incredibly emotional at seeing her beautiful daughter, who is supposed to be 3 years old but looks more like 5 or 6. Understandably though, 胧月 is confused as to whom this new woman is and why everyone is telling her to call this new woman her mother. She has a loving mother, 敬妃. Tears and confusion ensue as 胧月 refuses to hug 甄嬛. 敬妃 is also struggling with giving away her “daughter” even though she knows her daughter’s birth mother has returned.
Fortunately, 甄嬛 understands that her sudden return causes too much change for her daughter and requests that 敬妃 continue to look after 胧月, at least until she gives birth. This calms everyone down. Deep down though, 甄嬛 knows who is the real culprit of this disastrous reunion. It’s not the Empress, it’s the Emperor. 皇上 refused to let anyone speak about 胧月”s birth mother, thus causing this confusion. 甄嬛 views 皇上 as the root cause of her pain today, adding fuel to her hatred of him.
As a distraction from the chaos, 沈眉庄 and 甄嬛 go visit the Empress Dowager. This is a fantastic scene as you see that the Empress Dowager is testing 甄嬛. Every word coming out of the Empress Dowager’s mouth has veiled meanings and 甄嬛 just has to roll with the punches. Luckily our girl 甄嬛 is adept enough to take the hits.
Right off the bat, 甄嬛 kneels in a formal greeting to 太后。太后 does not allow her to get up, as is customary. Instead, she starts questioning 甄嬛. This is a power play right here. She is reminding 甄嬛 of who wields the most amount of power in the imperial harem. 甄嬛 may be the Emperor’s favorite, but she still has to bow down to 太后.
Now let’s analyze this conversation. The first question from 太后 as 甄嬛 is kneeling is: Are you comfortable living in 永寿宫? 甄嬛 responds, 永寿宫 is overly extravagant, I am uncomfortable living there. This is the correct answer. You can see the slight nod of approval by 太后. 太后 would have been displeased if 甄嬛 said she enjoyed living in 永寿宫 because it would mean she is greedy.
Next, 太后 just ignores 甄嬛 while she’s kneeling and turns to 沈眉庄 who is feeding her medicine and they have a short conversation about how bitter the medicine is. All the while, the pregnant 甄嬛 is patiently kneeling on the floor. My view here is that 太后 is testing 甄嬛’s patience. Fortunately, 甄嬛 doesn’t complain. 太后 asks 甄嬛 to finally get up and serve her as she is rinsing her mouth. 甄嬛 does so dutifully. All the while, 太后 is evaluating her abilities.
太后 praises her abilities to serve other people. No wonder why the Emperor always missed her. 太后 says that 甄嬛 must have learned to seduce the emperor for her to return. 甄嬛 immediately kneels back down again and says that with the Emperor’s visit, she is actually in panic.
太后 is skeptical. 甄嬛 is pregnant and has the attention of the emperor, how can she be panicked? 太后is assessing 甄嬛’s attitude and motives in coming back. She’s trying to understand if 甄嬛 purposefully orchestrated a meeting with the Emperor in order to regain favor.
I love this. 太后 is one smart cookie. She knows all the tricks in the imperial harem to get the attention of the emperor and doesn’t want drama prone people to return to the palace.
To 甄嬛’s credit, she does well with so much pressure on the spot. Of course she orchestrated the meeting with the emperor but only half lies as to how she and the emperor met. 甄嬛 says that her meeting with the emperor wasn’t a chance encounter. She explains that she was in poor condition after giving birth to her daughter and had to move to another mountain peak for health reasons. When the emperor saw that she was not at gan lu si, he went to visit her.
That appeases 太后 because it shows that she wasn’t trying to “accidentally” meet the emperor for any reason. The meeting was more of the emperor’s volition. Plus, I’m sure 太后 heard stories of how they met and wanted to see if 甄嬛 would lie.
The next question is the real question 太后 has for 甄嬛. She says, you were so adamant in leaving when you did, even leaving your newborn child. How is it that you are willing to mend the relationship with the emperor and even have his child again?
This is rather a pointed question. 甄嬛 pauses in her response. 沈眉庄 even tries to step in but is ruthlessly cut off by 太后. She wants to know why 甄嬛 is back.
甄嬛 slowly responds. She says she understands now that the Emperor is the ruler of an empire, not just her husband. She doesn’t hate the emperor for what happened to her father, just the people who wrongfully accused him. She left the palace because she thought the emperor had no feelings for her but upon seeing that he went to visit her, she realizes that he does still have feelings for her. Now she’s back in the palace, she just wants to be a good concubine and serve the emperor.
Look at that response. How can you find an ulterior motive with that?
太后 sighs, accepting her answer, and allows 甄嬛 to stand. Not before playfully chiding 沈眉庄 for not reminding her to let 甄嬛 stand. We all know that 太后 wanted 甄嬛 to kneel, but by saying this and playing the old, senile woman, 太后 is able to prevent eavesdroppers and 甄嬛 from being overly upset at the scene.
You can tell that the earlier conversation was indeed an interrogation. 太后 herself says she doesn’t want another problem woman in the harem. After asking all of these questions and realizing that 甄嬛 isn’t back to cause trouble, isn’t back for power, revenge or welath, her tone immediately softens. She also provides 甄嬛 with a seat.
太后 even kindly says that 甄嬛’s outfit is a little too bland now that she’s a consort. 甄嬛 responds that since she spent time as a nun, she doesn’t like too much decoration. I thought this was hilarious because it’s like she is SO elaborately done up right now. Do you not see that eyeliner and smokey eye? How is this light on decoration? She’s also more done up than some other consorts of the same title so I have no idea what 太后 means.
The conversation concludes with 太后 providing some clear words of advice. First, 甄嬛 is to forget or pretend that her stint at the temple ever happened. Second, she asks 甄嬛 to guide the emperor in harem matters so as not to cause more drama. Theres are all pretty reasonable. Lastly, she pointedly tells 甄嬛 to respect 皇后。 I thought this was really interesting. I’m not sure how much 太后 knows in how much 皇后, the Empress, has sabotaged 甄嬛 but 太后 probably feels that 甄嬛 is smart enough to see how malicious 皇后 is. 甄嬛 just says she is very grateful for everything the Empress has done for her.
The episode ends with 沈眉庄 and 甄嬛 leaving 太后’s palace，being carried in chairs by eunuchs. As they’re discussing 甄嬛’s daughter, one of the eunuchs accidentally slips on the rocks in the road. They realize that it’s only day 2 back in the palace and someone already wants to strike 甄嬛. Who is it? We’ll find out in the next episode.
Alright. That was the recap for episode 56. I am just very happy that 甄嬛 is back now ready to kick ass. We do feel sorry for the 17th prince as he sends his love back to be with his brother but we wouldn’t have such an interesting second half of the drama to enjoy!
There’s not a whole lot of culture to discuss in this episode but we do want to highlight the 钿子。
钿子 – the literal translation is tin but this is actually the hairstyle that 甄嬛 now dons for the rest of the series. The 钿子 is sort of like a net made with black velvet, satin over a copper, bronze or silver web. It’s not a hat, just something to pin the hair. 甄嬛 isn’t the first person in this series to don this hairstyle. When we first meet 敬妃 while she was still 嫔， she had this hairstyle. Look back at the first couple of episodes of this drama. 曹琴默, an ally of 华妃, also donned this hairstyle when she had more power.
It’s a manchu hairstyle that originated even before the founding of the Qing Dynasty. Women often used pearls as ornaments. During the Qing Dynasty, styles changed and these 钿子 became more and more extravagant with all sorts of new additions. Jade, Gold, Silver, and Coral became common ornaments. There isn’t one single style per se because so many women had so many different variations.
After doing some basic research, I found out that 甄嬛’s hairstyle this episode is actually not historically accurate. It’s actually supposed to envelop the back of the head. It’s the back of the head that will have most of the ornamentation, not the front as we see here. The women in the drama 演戏攻略 or the Story of 演习 have more accurate hairstyles.
In this drama, we’ve seen 6 women wear the 钿子 hairstyle. They include the the Empress Dowager, Empress, 甄嬛 here, 敬妃, 端妃, and 襄嫔 before she died. In this drama, you could say that it is used to differentiate between the higher ranked concubines but I think this was just more character preference. For example, 华妃 never used this type of hairstyle.
I want to end the episode on a quick conversation about the Empress Dowager 太后 and her behaviour this episode. 甄嬛 doesn’t know the extent of the role the Empress Dowager played in helping her return to the Palace, but we the audience do. The Empress Dowager’s first priority is grandchildren. The Empress Dowager just needs 甄嬛 to birth a son. Of course,The Empress Dowager didn’t agree to this simply because 甄嬛 was pregnant. She needed someone to balance the Empress’s power in the Imperial Harem. The Empress has killed too many of the Emperor’s unborn children. She’s not just some old lady – she’s the Empress Dowager. That’s why she put on this little show for 甄嬛. This encounter was a warning to 甄嬛 – play your part, don’t get any crazy ideas. As much as the Empress Dowager currently dislikes the Empress, they are from the same clan. The Empress Dowager, no matter what, will always prioritize the Empress over 甄嬛. Let’s keep this in mind for future episodes.
That’s it for this episode!