Welcome to Chasing Dramas! This is the podcast that discusses Chinese culture and history through Chinese historical dramas. We are your hosts, Karen and Cathy.
Today, we are discussing the drama, 鹤唳华亭 or Royal Nirvana. The podcast is in English with proper nouns and certain Chinese phrases spoken in Mandarin Chinese. If you are new to the podcast, please do check out our website chasingdramas.com and feel free to reach out to us on twitter or instagram at Chasingdramas. If you like what you hear in this podcast, please please please do us a favor and leave us a rating on whatever platform you listen to us to!
This is the third of a 4 part series for the drama and today we will discuss the plot, characterization, and history of the first 4 episodes. We are breaking these podcast episodes to reflect the first couple of “cases” in the drama. As always, I’ll finish with a quick book comparison since the drama is based off of a book.
The case of the day is cheating at the imperial entrance exam! The imperial entrance exam is the most important exam in a scholar’s life and is a brutal marathon of an event. We will discuss it in more detail at the end of this podcast episode. For now, the key point is that this exam is overseen by court officials and is of the utmost importance to the Emperor. What happens?
In the second half of Episode 4 in 鹤唳华亭 or Royal Nirvana, we move on from the capping ceremony saga and turn to the imperial entrance exam that is coming up. This exam takes place once every three years in spring and is called 春闱. The two primary examiners are 卢世瑜, the teacher of the Crown Prince or 太子, and 李柏舟, chancellor and father-in-law to 齐王 or Prince Qi, the older brother of our Crown Prince. It doesn’t take much to realize that you have the two brother’s represented on each side. As you can imagine for an exam that determines the future of the examinees and is the pipeline of talent for the empire, there is no room for error, and particularly, no room for cheating. 卢世瑜 and 李柏舟 oversee the sealing of the exam question that 卢世瑜 mocked up which is then locked safely away before it is unsealed at the beginning of the exam. Only these two men know what the test question is.
The night before the exam starts, 太子 pays a visit to 卢世瑜 to wish him a happy birthday because his teacher’s birthday falls during the exam which means he won’t be able to celebrate it on the day. The crown prince is upset to find that his teacher wants to resign from office after the exam and burns his teacher’s resignation letter. In a sense, he’s acting as a child but it’s because he wants his teacher to remain close to him as one of his closest family.
Meanwhile, 李柏舟 is out inspecting the exam rooms. There is one room in particular where the roof has been partially destroyed.
Now let’s turn to the examinees. There are quite a number of them but there are two in particular we want to focus on at the beginning. The first is 顾逢恩, he is the cousin to 太子 and already a count. His title is 嘉义伯 which means he’s already a member of the aristocracy. As 太子 notes, 顾逢恩 technically doesn’t need to prove himself in the exam because he already has a high ranking title. We have talked about this in the Story of Ming Lan that members of nobility will be given titles and positions at court without having to pass any exam but to do so is an impressive feat. It means that the man wants to prove his intelligence and worth rather than rely on his family. This is the case with 顾逢恩。The other strapping young man partaking in the exam is 陆文普. The older brother of our female lead, 陆文昔。We haven’t seen the female lead outside of a brief interlude in the first episode but we now turn to her as she is helping her brother prep for the big day.
The examinees, all wearing the uniform given to them for the exam, head into the examination center where they are closely searched to prevent anyone from bringing materials that would help them cheat. But, we do see one of the examinees bribe an official to allow him to bring a cheat sheet. The rest get in without issue.
Let’s pause the recap here to insert the history and provide some more context on the Imperial Entrance Exam. We did this for episode 12 of the Story of Ming Lan but this is a good reminder for our listeners and new listeners.
科举 or the Imperial Examination was formally established during the Sui dynasty. It was how men were chosen to be a part of the state bureaucracy through a more meritocratic method. This was the ticket for men to rise up in the world.
In the drama, we don’t hear exactly which exam this is but i would say that it would be the 会试 or the metropolitan exam because that’s during the spring and also known as 春闱, which is explicitly discussed in the drama. 会试 or the metropolitan exam was actually added in the 明 dynasty. This exam was of course taken in the capital city. Overall, the imperial examination continued through the centuries. The final exam took place in 1905.
There are various subjects or disciplines that you can take the exam for. The most difficult is 进士科 or the 进士 discipline or presented scholar. For the 进士 discipline, test takers were required to have a thorough knowledge on Confucian classics, history, poems, rhapsodies, inscriptions, political discourse and much more. Poems and rhapsodies were actually abolished later in the 宋 dynasty as a testing requirement. The reason is that, even if someone can write beautiful poetry, if he does not know the classics, how can he govern? This is the most rigorous discipline and the one, if you score well, will give you the best chances for entering court and climbing the ranks, so much so that it became a prerequisite for high office. Well it also does offer prestige and status. After the song dynasty, the other disciplines were slowly phased out.
The exams take place once every 3 years.. For the exams, especially the metropolitan exams, they span over several days. In the Ming dynasty, examinees would be required to participate in 3 sessions each lasting 3 days for the various topics covered, which is more akin to what we see here. Many could not handle the rigor and simply passed out.
Throughout the years, there have been various changes to the examination in order to make it more fair so to speak. Essentially it’s to quash corruption and cheating. Exam takers are sequestered into exam rooms in the examination hall. They are not allowed to meet or talk to anyone. They’re stuck there basically. None of the materials they bring can have any writing on it.
Rules were set to reduce bribery, corruption, and cheating. Some measures included that the attending examiners could not be from the same county or prefecture where the exam is taking place. Names on the exam papers were covered in order to anonymize the exam papers.It’s not to say cheating didn’t happen, but yea…it was tough to cheat.
This is very relevant for these episodes because the whole case is of course about cheating! One weird thing I noticed though, according to my research the exams were held on 二月初九至十五日 of the lunar calendar; that’s around March in the gregorian calendar. Um – i don’t think it should be snowing THAT much.
Now back to the recap!
It isn’t long before the guards are alerted of fraud. All of the exam takers are pulled outside and stripped of their clothes to find evidence of cheating. Unsurprisingly, there’s quite a lot of cheat sheets. 卢世瑜 and 李柏舟 are alerted to the fact that the actual exam question was leaked. Only 2 people have seen it, and that’s only 卢世瑜 and 李柏舟 so how was this possible? After a thorough search of each examiner’s rooms, they find the exam question in 3 examinee’s rooms. Those of 顾逢恩，陆文普 and a new character 许昌平.
The men are taken to prison for questioning and the scandal has alerted even the Emperor. 太子 is of course worried about the turn of events because it involves one of his best friends and also his teacher. He wants to protect them and prove their innocence. At the prison, he also comes face-to-face with 陆文昔, our female lead who turns up to try to save her brother. Of note, 陆文昔 wears a cap with a veil to protect her face. As is customary of the time, women of gentry who were not married were not supposed to reveal their faces to men not within their family. After thorough questioning by the Crown Prince in prison and also by 卢世瑜, the Crown Prince’s teacher, the biggest suspect for how the exam question was leaked was 卢世瑜’s close servant, 赵叟（ sou3).
Who is the person most gleeful about this turn of events? It’s 李柏舟. From 太子‘s questioning, it turns out that plenty of cheating occured because 李柏舟 allowed it to happen. The goal being to push the blame of such cheating onto 卢世瑜。 But that doesn’t explain how the exam question was leaked. And indeed, it was this elderly 赵叟 that stole the question and faked the seal to make it seem like no one had opened it. The motivation for him was to steal the question for his relative, 许昌平 who was taking the exam. Problem is that 赵叟 was discovered by 李柏舟 whilst in the act of theft and told to do his bidding. The aim for 李柏舟 is of course to topple 卢世瑜 with this scandal.
At this point, the emperor and 齐王 arrive to follow up on this scandal. 齐王 gloats about the fate that befalls the likes of 顾逢恩 who will be punished for cheating. It doesn’t look good for the crown prince’s crew as they are implicated in leaking the exam question. 太子, however, wonders aloud to the group what happens if the exam question appears at the manor of 齐王? The group is stunned. How could that be? In fact, 太子 planted the exam question at 齐王’s manor because 许昌平 conspired with 齐王 to plant the leaked exam questions into the rooms of 顾逢恩 and 陆文普。 These two men are innocent while 齐王 and 许昌平 are not.
In episode 7, the examinees are released to continue taking the exam and at first glance it looks like 太子 has once again one the fight against 齐王 and 李柏舟。But unfortunately, the truth is revealed after 卢世瑜 discovers there’s a missing room number. Because there was a room that was unusable, the room numbers for the examinees was skipped by one in order to avoid that room where the roof was broken. This became a huge plothole that ultimately the Emperor also discovered. The entire cheating scandal was actually engineered at first by the Crown Prince himself. He was the one to create the opportunity for 赵叟 to steal the exam question and to lure 李柏舟 and 齐王 into the trap. And the falsified exam question replicas? Why the only person in the entier world that could falsify 卢世瑜’s handwriting that well is 太子 himself. But because 许昌平‘s instructions were to leave the leaked exam questions into specific rooms, they should have been at the wrong room due to one room being discounted. 太子 exposed himself by having the exam questions leaked in the original rooms they were meant for which means that he caused his friend and 陆文普 to unnecessarily be implicated. That plus the evidence of the duplicate document he created meant that there is ample evidence to prove that 太子 conspired against 齐王 and 李柏舟。 This is an unforgivable crime that could cost him his crown prince title. Fortunately or unfortunately for 太子, the Emperor has already decided on a scapegoat for him – his teacher 卢世瑜。To protect 太子 and keep his opponents at bay, 卢世瑜 agrees to retire from his post nad return home. This devastates 太子 but serves as a valuable lesson to him as to what he should and should not do as a Crown Prince. In the first scandal, he proved he was capable of protecting himself in political games but in this case, he showed that he shouldn’t use his intelligence to proactively attack others. This will only end poorly for him.
In other items – we are also briefly introduced to 萧定楷; the 5th prince and younger son of 赵贵妃 or Noble Consort Zhao
Before we move onto history – I do want to point out, in my humble opinion, a lot of bugs in whole case. Not to say that it wasn’t thrilling, but I sat on it a bit afterwards and kind of came to the conclusion that the players were very intelligent but the whole setup was flawed.
- For the actual exam question – i feel like it should have been a wax seal on the envelope? That would have made it MUCH hard to fake
- I know this was for plot purposes but in a regular cheating scandal, why would 赵叟 actually have to steal the paper to make a copy? He probably could have just read it, memorized it and then put it back.
- The whole room situation is kind of weird. Wouldn’t there be someone missing an exam room if everything was pushed out? Wouldn’t someone be checking DURING the exam of where people are sitting?
Again – I’m just nitpicking on the setup. The players playing the chess pieces were masters. Everyone except for the crown prince. It’s just the board that was created for them to play wasn’t as good.
Let’s now discuss history!
晨昏定省 – attend to one’s parents in the morning and evening. In episode 4, the crown prince goes to see the Emperor and formally bows.
According to the etiquette trainer for the series, they decided to have the crown prince use 再拜礼。 再拜礼 -> bow two times. This has been recorded as a formal bow in 仪礼 or the Book of the Etiquette and Ceremonial. This text was written and compiled during the Zhou Dynasty and contains information about propriety, rites, and customs of people during that time.
In the drama and the book, 太子 always asks 圣躬安和否. Is the Emperor well? But this is VERY formal? Usually it would be like – 你好么? But of course as the crown prince, he must be formal.
This is listed in the book of rites of the proper etiquette for a son. The book of rites dates back to the Zhou dynasty, over 2000 years agao.
礼记·曲礼上：“凡为人子之礼，冬温而夏清，昏定而晨省. Hence we have 晨昏定省
Let’s discuss the 3 dishes that constantly popped up for these couple of episodes and which of course, signified the resignation of 太子’s mentor and tutor.
The story goes like this – 张翰 with the courtesy name of 季鹰 lived during the early Western Jin dynasty, which ruled part of china from 265AD to 317AD. His father 张俨 was a high ranking official in the Eastern Wu kingdom. Shortly after his father died, the Western Jin dynasty conquered the kingdom. As such, he did have some amount of animosity towards this new ruling family. While talented, he was somewhat aloof. However, he nevertheless gained favor from the Emperor and rose to a high rank.
In 291 the Rebellion of the Eight Princes or 八王之乱 broke out, which was a series of civil wars with members of the royal family all vying to claim regency of the Emperor Hui of Jin who was developmentally disabled. Now 张翰, seeing this did not want to be caught in the conflict.
According to the Book of Jin, 张翰 saw the autumn winds and reminiscent of his childhood foods from the 吴淞sōng river. This is very close to modern day Shanghai. The foods included 莼菜 Watershield, 鲈脍 Weever, and 菰菜 Zizania latifolia or Manchurian wild rice. He decided that man should be content, resigned his post and retired.
He also wrote a poem called 思吴江歌 – ode to the wu river
The autumn winds pick up with the leaves falling, the weever in the wu river are the fattest
I have not returned to my home three thousand miles away, it’s hard not to look up to the sky and lament
This story is the basis for the idiom 莼鲈之思 or to reminisce the watershield and weever
In the drama, 太子 knew immediately what his teacher meant when he listed those dishes. Despite his best efforts, by the end of episode 7, the crown prince had to personally gift these 3 dishes to his teachers for his mistakes.
I’ll quickly close out on book differences. These events don’t happen in the book. 许昌平 is a mysterious man with an interesting background. He seems innocent enough here. He isn’t introduced to the Crown Prince until later in the book. The drama also needed to introduce 陆文惜 earlier on in the drama and to showcase that she is an intelligent young woman. She and the Crown Prince are attracted to each other but what comes of it? Let’s continue to watch and find out.
And there you have it! Episodes 4-7 of Royal Nirvana. We learned quite a bit about the imperial entrance exam but also about the cost of trying to harm others. If you want to watch the show and are in the US, it is on Jubao TV with english subtitles. If you want to stream it, just head on over to xumo and Select Royal Nirvana. Note! Royal Nirvana first before the special! On TV, it’s available on xfinity and cox contour. F
Alright! That’s it for today! For the remaining episodes of our podcast series, we will move onto the Archery competition case.
Thank you all for listening