Welcome to Chasing Dramas! This is the podcast that discusses Chinese culture and history through historical Chinese dramas. We are your hosts, Karen and Cathy.
Today, we are discussing episode 1 of the story of yanxi palace or 延禧攻略。This podcast is in English with proper nouns and certain phrases in Mandarin Chinese. For these podcast episodes, we first do a drama episode recap and then discuss the culture and history portrayed in the episode. I totally forgot just how much history and culture is showcased in episode one of this drama so hang on tight as we share all of our research!
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In episode 1, We are back at the forbidden palace this time under the reign of Emperor Qian Long. I don’t think I can overstate just how many dramas were filmed about Qian Long or at least under his reign because it was just easy and there’s so much material about him. The drama starts with the 6th year of Qian Long’s reign and instead of following a court official daughter’s journey in the palace like we did with Empresses in the Palace or 甄嬛传, we start our journey following a number of palace maids. But just like Empresses in the Palace, the story begins on the day of 选秀. This is the grand process whereby the Emperor selects women to become concubines in his harem.
Like I said last episode, we will try our best to not repeat history or information that we already discussed in Empresses in the palace. However, in the first couple of episodes, we will have to repeat some information just to get everyone situated and remind everyone of context.
Yet, because there have been so many Qing dynasty palace dramas before Yan Xi Gong Lue and also thanks to Empresses in the Palace, (but maybe I’m just biased), we are immediately shown that women eligible for the selection process are born of higher status than the women who are maids. In any case, our main character 魏璎珞 is in a procession of maids that accidentally bump into a young woman who is awaiting the selection process or you could call her a 秀女。The woman is extremely angry at the maid，玲珑，who bumped into her and caused her dress/shows to be ruined. This 秀女 wants to punish 玲珑. Luckily, 魏璎珞, steps in and immediately quells the conflict by artfully creating a fragrant powder for the 秀女 to step on because her shoes have lotus flowers etched onto the bottom. After stepping onto the powder, each step this woman takes leaves traces of the lotus flower and is quite fragrant. The 秀女 is extremely pleased with this as it means it may bring her additional attention during this selection process and lets the maids leave.
In this one scene, we are introduced to the fact that 魏璎珞, our main character, is a quick thinker and learned. She references an interesting anecdote to appease the 秀女 which we’ll explain later in this podcast episode. We are shown that these 秀女 can be condescending and brutal towards staff but within the maids, we’re also already seeing cracks form between the young women. In my mind when watching the drama, I’m always thinking, how many episodes would this woman survive in the palace. We will see just that in a bit.
On this important day for the Emperor, it’s not just the young women who are eager to show off, but it is an important day for the existing women in the palace to assess their competition. Our serene and graceful Empress, in pale colors and minimal hair accessories, is shown as not being too bothered by this whole affair. Meanwhile, 高贵妃 is shown to be much more jealous. Her makeup is certainly more aggressive with her smoky eye and elaborate hairstyle and is in attendance to watch the young women. To be honest, she reminds me a lot of 华妃 in 甄嬛传
Shortly after, our emperor, Qian Long, arrives in full court dress. I’m bringing in my views of the world now in reiterating how important 甄嬛传 or Empresses in the Palace was to explaining Qing dynasty traditions because guess what, we aren’t even given an explanation of what the Concubine selection process is anymore. It’s just assumed that you know because Zhen Huan Zhuan or Empresses in the Palace told you. In this case, for women eligible for this process are quite young. We see them being announced at 15 or 16. Those who are not selected are given a flower.
After a couple of brutal comments towards a selection of young women that stepped forward, our rude 秀女 from earlier is called forth and leaves behind the imprint of the lotus flower on the floor. In an instant, everyone notices and calls her out. But instead of being impressed like she was hoping, she is immediately severely chastised by the Emperor for referencing a wicked woman in an effort to mimic her. She is ruthlessly dragged out of the room where not only she, but her father will be punished as well. Clearly, this court selection process is not an easy one and trying to gain favors through these paltry tricks are not going to help.
In this scene, we are shown that the Emperor is not someone to be trifled with and is quite blunt in his criticisms while his wife, the Empress is much more forgiving. 高贵妃 on the other hand is also quite critical and condescending. At least to start, this drama keeps up with what one expects the intelligence levels should be in the palace. After all, 华妃 from 甄嬛传 would have deposed of this 秀女 very quickly as well.
Meanwhile, 魏璎珞 and her group of maids are showing off their needlework to see if they can stay as seamstresses in the palace. In this battlefield, the maids also have no chill. 吉祥 who’s hand was injured earlier bled onto her fabric which rendered her work worthless. She was rather distraught but 璎珞 steps in and swaps their fabrics. She decides to help 吉祥。The end result when the inspecting eunuch arrives to evaluate each woman’s embroidery was that there were two finely crafted pieces. When one of the maids tried to expose the two women for cheating, 璎珞 shows that the two designs actually complement each other. It’s not cheating at all. The inspecting eunuch agrees and drags off the woman who cried foul. This teaches the rest of the maids that random accusations are not tolerated in the palace even for maids. In any event, 璎珞,吉祥 and a number of other maids pass their inspection and are kept to continue working in th palace.
Back at the court selection process, the Emperor only agrees to keep one young woman, 纳兰淳雪 because she has three ear piercings which is a reflection of maintaining manchu customs. We’ll talk about this later on in the drama but this one thing caught the Emperor’s eye for its importance to their heritage. Right after her, the Emperor walks off, leaving the Empress to manage the remainder of the event. 高贵妃 seeing that the Emperor left, saunters off as well.
After the event and at back at each woman’s respective palaces, we first turn to the Empress’s palace. Her maid 明玉 is furious on behalf of her master for how Noble Consort Gao disrespected the Empress. The Empress’s other maid, 尔晴 is more understanding and tries to calm 明玉 down.
Shortly afterwards, a number of maids appear with a plaque with the words 敬修內則 and a painting of 太姒诲子图 or Lady TaiSi Instructing Her Son. Once these are received, the Empress’s face immediately hardens and turns away. The maids accept the painting but leave the Empress for some peace and quiet. We learn that the Empress is currently still grieving the death of her son, the 2nd prince. According to historical reports, this second prince 永琏 passed away 3 years earlier at the age of 8 and was the first born son of the Empress. She has become much colder towards the Emperor after her son’s passing and their relationship has not yet been restored to their original state even though it is evident that the Emperor cares dearly for his Empress. The Empress is also shown as a woman who does not want to play the games of the imperial harem and seeks peace rather than engaging in the games. While the Empress does not say anything about the received painting, the maids speculate what they think the gifted painting means.
It seems though, that the Empress is not the only person to have received a painting. Elsewhere at 高贵妃‘s palace, she is fuming because she received a 西陵教蚕图 or a painting of Lady Xi Lin and the Silkworms. But, she is calmed down by another combine, 嘉嫔，who tells her that the Emperor gifted 12 paintings to women in the palace. Each with their own meaning. It’s not specifically to humiliate one woman or another. 嘉嫔 then goes on to list a whole list of paintings which is going to kill us to research and translate but we’ll try our best. 高贵妃 is calmed by hearing this and evaluates her next steps.
Elsewhere, we are introduced to 娴妃 played by Charmaine Sheh who has also received a painting but is pestered by her mother who wants her to rise even further in the palace. 娴妃 ignores the verbal abuse by her mother and instead prays for her husband, the emperor, and his good health. This shows us that she is currently a conflict avoidant and caring woman even if her husband does not spend too much time with her.
But what is it with these paintings? Why did the Emperor gift all of these out? His head eunuch poses the question to him only for the Emperor to reveal that he sent them as a prank! He knows that with such a gift, all of the women will be racking their brains to figure out exactly what the deeper meaning is which will leave him with some peace and quiet. It was all just a joke! Woww Emperor. Wowwww.
The episode ends with Noble Consort Gao calling a meeting with the ladies in the harem to discuss the latest comings and goings. The most important information from this scene though are the two people who are missing, 纯妃 and 愉贵人。We will see more of them later.
Before we jump into the history of the drama – let’s talk about why the first episode drags us, the viewer in so quickly!
First – we’re introduced to 魏璎珞, our heroine. Unlike MANY other dramas, she isn’t a 傻白甜 or a silly, sweet, and innocent girl. She comes right out of the gate with her claws swinging. She came into the palace with a mission and she’s not to be trifled with! How many times have we seen the innocent woman rise up to become the calculating scheming woman? Basically every time. This is a breath a fresh air to see 魏璎珞 be a badass in the first episode.
Second – we are introduced to the other established women of the Imperial harem and their various characterizations. The beautiful and serene Empress! She’s just so lovely. Side note, I LOVE 秦岚 (the actress for the Empress’s) voice. It’s so soothing. I’ve begrudgingly loved it SINCE her role as 知画 in Pearl Princess 3. That character was SO deliciously evil. I’m so happy to hear her voice here. We also have Noble Consort Gao who just does her thing and of course Charmaine Sheh who also isn’t bothered with the newcomers in the selection. I’ll be completely honest, even I don’t remember all of the palace maid names and concubines. So, it’s TOTALLY ok if you don’t either.
Third – we have an emperor who is HANDSOME. 聂远 was and is a very handsome guy. In the past, we haven’t had many “in their prime” depictions of emperors. The dramas are either of the Emperor in his late 40s or 50s and just “older”, so we didn’t REALLY understand why the women fell so heads over heels for Emperors. With 聂远, yes, I get it. He was in his late 30s when he filmed this drama but he still looks great. Sorry 雍正 from Empresses in the Palace, your son here has you beat. This is I think also one of the rare chances where I hear 聂远’s real voice. It’s usually dubbed so that’s a double treat here.
Lastly – we get the plot really quickly. 魏璎珞 is on a mission. She’s in the palace. That’s it. We want to see what’s happening so episode 1 comes to a quick conclusion
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. In this drama, we see the harem from the eyes of a maid. So we see how difficult it was to survive as a lowly palace servant rather than a woman from a high ranking family.
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. 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. Eunuchs have been employed by imperial households for thousands of years. They were very quintessential to palace life.
Women 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.
A quick recap on the ranks in the Qing Dynasty. 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. 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, 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. 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).
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.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. 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 – in this drama our own 魏璎珞 rises from the ranks of a maid BUT lets just say her motives aren’t purely about the Emperor.
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 Duchess of Cambridge, but her name is Catherine. 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 高， I will be called 高妃。But, if I am given a title of, for example, 纯， I will be referred to as 纯妃。 I hope that makes sense.
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. 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 in small groups. The emperor and empress 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. To that point, it is HARD to catch the eye of the emperor so that’s why women try all manner of tactics like we see in the drama, which brings us to 2 specific topics.
For listeners of Empresses in the Palace, I hope this is just a quick recap. For the others, hopefully this will clear up some questions you might have.
The first is 步步生金莲 which is a negative anecdote. The one poor / evil woman up for selection was foolish enough to believe that the lotus flowers from her shoes would catch the eye of the Emperor. Alas, she was dragged away and thoroughly dismissed.
So what is the story behind this? 步步生金莲 means a golden lotus behind every foot. The story comes from the scandalous relationship between consort 潘 and the Southern Qi Emperor 萧宝卷. This guy ruled from 498 to 501. You know something’s wrong when he only ruled for like 3 years. Anyways, this guy 萧宝卷, elevates this woman 潘玉奴 to the rank of a noble consort. He’s a terrible ruler – he orders for his subjects’ homes to be destroyed so that he can build new palaces for his beloved consort. He even ordered holy items from buddhist temples to be melted and recast as accessories for her. With the new palaces he built, he had golden lotuses built on the floor and had his concubine, Noble consort 潘 walk on the golden lotuses so that each step would be a golden lotus. That’s the origin of the story 步步生金莲.
From then on the phrase 金莲 or golden lotus has been used to describe women’s feet.
As for the Emperor? He did SUCH a terrible job killing subjects and spending lavishly that in 501, he was overthrown by another family member. This guy 萧衍 yǎn killed 萧宝卷, Noble Consort Pan and many other courtiers. 萧宝卷 was so hated by contemporaries that they stripped him of his Emperor title and left him as 东昏侯 or my translation Eastern tyrannical marquis.
It’s no wonder why the Emperor 乾隆, who wanted to be remembered as a positive ruler, threw a fit and chucked that woman out. I mean, i would too. That woman was basically saying she wanted to pull the Emperor into depravity!
Listeners! Please pay attention to the earrings that all of the ladies wear in this first episode! Notice how the Empress and all of the concubines have three ear piercings for each ear? That is very much true to history! This is an old Manchu tradition that dates back to before the Qing Dynasty, so think before 1644.
The phrase is 一耳三钳 or one ear, three rings or three dangles. Manchu girls had their ears pierced when they were babies and kept wearing the earrings until old age. In earlier years of the dynasty, it wasn’t clearly stated how many piercings women had to have, so if you look at portraits, some empresses or concubines had 4 to 5 piercings in one year. One ear piercing on the other hand was a han trait. In a quick search on Baike, the chinese equivalent of wikipedia, it states that our Emperor 乾隆 commented on the criticality of keeping this tradition. Indeed, apparently to this day, manchu women from the northeastern provinces of China still uphold this tradition and have 3 ear piercings。
Indeed one of the women in the selection process caught the eye of the emperor because of her decision to keep the 3 piercings on each ear. Now lets look at the ladies in the drama because each woman wears different types of earrings based on her rank.
At this point, in episode 1, our main heroine 魏璎珞 only has one earring. We don’t even see rings on the rest of the ear. That’ll change in a couple of episodes.
Let’s now take a look at the Emperor’s harem – all of the women have 3 piercings. The dangles themselves though denote rank. The women wear 东珠 or Eastern pearls. These pearls are extremely rare and known for their size and beauty. It’s usually 2 pearls on one dangle. Only the Empress and Empress Dowager were allowed to wear the rarest of these pearls. Imperial Noble consorts and Noble Consorts such as 高贵妃 were only allowed to wear pearls of subsequent ranks or tiers. As for the rings themselves, they were made of gold, silver, copper etc and that denoted rank.
There’s a beautiful painting of the Empress with her 3 sets of earrings and dangles. You can clearly see the pearls in the painting so kudos for this drama to bring this to life.
From a drama perspective, many productions didn’t require women to have 3 piercings so the women didn’t do it. There were interviews with the cast where they discussed their decision to agree on this. It looks great on them! There ARE dramas that did have women have 3 piercings such as Ruyi’s love in the palace and even before, but they didn’t do it in Empresses in the Palace.
There’s still a ton of history to discuss, namely about the paintings that each of the ladies receive but we’ll leave that for the next podcast episode.
That is it for today!
[ DO NOT COPY for transcript]