Intro to the Drama



This is the podcast that discusses Chinese culture and history through historical Chinese dramas. We are your hosts, Karen and Cathy. Well here you have it, due to popular demand, we are starting our discussion of 延禧攻略 or the Story of Yanxi Palace. This podcast is in English with proper nouns and certain chinese phrases spoken in Mandarin Chinese.



For this podcast, We will be using proper Mandarin to pronounce all names. We are not going to attempt to translate the names into English and we would rather not Westernize the pronunciation. We will pronounce the proper nouns as they are done in the drama. In some cases, if the noun is referring to a Manchu last name, for example, we will still use the Mandarin pronunciation.


In today’s episode, we will provide an overview of the drama and cast as well as introduce the historical individuals that the drama portrays. In future episodes, we will continue on with plot recap and historical analysis as we usually do.




We’re back in the Qing dynasty to discuss the super popular 2018 drama, The Story of Yanxi Palace or 延禧攻略。The drama stars 吴谨言 as the main character, 魏璎珞, 聂远 as the Emperor Qian Long, 秦岚 as the Empress 富察容音, 许凯 as 富察傅恒,Charmain Sheh as 娴妃。The series premiered on iQiyi from July 19, 2018 to August 26, 2018 and was a massive hit both in China and overseas. 


At a high level, the story revolves around the young maid 魏璎珞‘s journey in Qian Long’s palace first as a maid entering the palace to investigate her sister’s death but then becomes embroiled in imperial harem conflicts. Determined to avenge her sister’s death and to repay the Empress’s kindness, she ultimately takes center stage as the famed 令妃。There is an accompanying book but that came out after the drama, so this time Cathy won’t do any book differences! But don’t worry, she’s off reading a million other Chinese books that will turn into dramas.


For our intro to the podcast episode for Empresses in the Palace, we discussed a lot about the Qing dynasty. We’ll reference them but for this season, we’ll do our best to point out new items. If there are specific topics that you’d like for us to cover, let us know!




Let’s talk about our main cast – we’ll first go over the actors and actresses themselves and then discuss who they’re playing and their historical counterpart. 


吴谨言 – 魏璎珞 – 吴谨言 was born in 1990 in sichuan province and is a graduate of the Beijing Film Academy. She actually studied as a dancer for a number of years in her youth before heading to the film academy to pursue a career in acting. You could say she hit the lottery with the drama, The Story of Yanxi Palace which propelled her to widespread acclaim. However, her career has faltered a bit since then. Her subsequent dramas such as 皓镧传, The Legend of Hao Lan which was another pairing with 聂远, 我的砍价女王 My Bargain Queen and 尚食 Royal Feast, never reached the same heights as The Story of YanXi Palace. Hao Lan Zhuan and Shang Shi I tried watching or skimming through but couldn’t finish it… However, as of this podcast airing, she has another drama out with many of the cast from The STory of Yanxi Palace called 传家 or Legacy that’s currently airing and 吴谨言 is also on the hit reality tv show, Sister Who Makes Waves or 乘风破浪的姐姐 in season three to show off her singing and dancing skills. 


She plays Consort 令 or 令妃 who is mother to the next Emperor, Jia Qing. She was born in 23 October 1727 – 28 February 1775), of the Manchu Bordered Yellow Banner clan and her family was actually Han Chinese. Her father, named 魏清泰Qingtai was an official in the Imperial Household Department or 内务府. Not a whole lot was recorded of Ling Fei prior to entering the palace but she did get her start in QIan Long’s palace as a maid. After entering the palace, she quickly rose up the ranks. You can guess how much she was favored by the emperor because she birthed 4 children within 10 years, including the 15th prince and subsequent Emperor, Jia Qing. 



Nie Yuan – the Emperor – 乾隆。What can I say about 聂远。 We have watched him in tv dramas for the last 20 years. Born in 1978 and a graduate of the Shanghai Theatre Academy, he has been a staple in the business for decades. If you just look at his filmography on Baidu, it’s huge. I loved him growing up in 机灵小不懂 and 隋唐英雄传. His roles are quite varying as he aged throughout the years and for him to come back into the limelight as the Emperor was a fun and pleasant surprise. 


Qian Long, or his original name is 爱新觉罗弘历 – 25 September 1711 – 7 February 1799, the 6th emperor of the Qing dynasty. There are books and books and books written about this guy and so many dramas you can’t even keep track. It’s because he ruled for a whopping 61 years and lived to be 87 years old. One of the longest reigning monarchs in history and longest lived. Can you believe that? There’s just too much content to work with.  He actually stepped down from throne and abdicated his position to his son in order to not rule longer than his grandfather, Kang Xi. What a filial guy right? As we all know from watching Empresses in the Palace, he was the 4th son of Yong Zheng. He and his grandfather Kang Xi are two of the most famous Emperors during the Qing Dynasty which makes sense because they lived for so long. Historians say that the Qing dynasty reached its zenith during the reign of QianLong but also started to decline in his later years. Qian Long was an extremely capable leader both on horseback and in cultural matters. He led military campaigns to strengthen and expand borders but also was quite the scholar. He was knowledgeable of both manchu and han cultures and loved making trips down south to experience southern Chinese lifestyles. Peking Opera also developed during his reign. He had 17 sons and 10 daughters, of which, his 15th son took the throne. As for the women in his life, eh. This drama will show you just how many there were. By comparison, his father could only be considered as boring. 


In this drama, everyone calls 皇帝 大猪蹄子. The literal translation is Big Pig Feet. It’s actually used to describe a man who is womanizer and plays the field. Basically if you have the guy who’s currently with one woman and constantly pines for another, then he’s a 大猪蹄子. Basically all the Emperors are 大猪蹄子. Since this drama came out, people have started calling 雍正 from Empresses in the Palace a 大猪蹄子 as well.



秦岚 – Born in 1979 in LiaoNing Province, she got her big break in playing 陈知画 in the third part of Pearl Princess. That came out in the early 2000s.  I cannot tell you how conflicted I was at that time watching 秦岚 play 知画. She was soooo beautiful and poised in that drama but her character was just awful. How dare 知画 come between 小燕子 and her husband? Ugh. 


She was absolutely gorgeous.


Anyways, 秦岚 grew in popularity after her next popular role in the remake called Dream Link or 又见一帘幽梦 in 2007. She was great in that role. The whole plot of that drama was ridiculous but the scenes in Provence, France were nice. She’s since been in dramas and films here and there but nothing too popular until her role as the Empress in The Story of Yanxi Palace. This was a career changer for her as everyone fell in love with this kind-hearted, beautiful and serene empress. Her career has taken off since then, helping her land many leading roles which is challenging for women in their 30s. I would say that the entertainment industry has become more accepting of older women particularly because they still look absolutely gorgeous. I’m personally really happy for her because you want to see people do well.


In the drama, she plays 富察容音, the First Empress of Qian Long. Born in 1712, she died in 1748 at the age of 37. True to history, she was the older sister of 傅恒. She married the Prince 弘历 in 1727 when she was only 15. When her husband ascended the throne in 1735, she was naturally crowned Empress.


She came from the powerful 富察 of the Bordered Yellow Banner or 镶黄旗. We see quite a bit of it in the drama but her family was very important to the founding of the Qing Dynasty and a member of the aristocracy. Empress 富察 had a loving relationship with her husband, was well respected in court and surprisingly the Imperial Harem, and also managed to have great relationship with her mother-in-law. Which we will joke and call 嬛嬛 because that’s 甄嬛 from Empresses in the Palace! She had 4 children in real life but only one princess survived to adulthood.


While her husband, Qian Long, was very much a 大猪蹄子  or a player, he truly did love and respect his first wife. When she died, he was quite bereft and bestowed her the posthumus title of 孝贤 or Filial and Virtuous.


Funnily enough, she wasn’t really front and center in many dramas. If you think of Pearl Princess or 还珠格格 and 如懿传, the focus isn’t on her. In the former, she’s already dead. In the latter, she’s kind of the antagonist. This is really the first drama that puts Empress 富察 in the spotlight. When the drama came out, everyone called her 白月光 or the white moonlight because she was so loving and caring. Frankly, she was awesome.


佘诗曼 – 辉发那拉·淑慎 or 娴妃


Next up we have the lovely Charmaine Sheh or in Mandarin 佘诗曼! She is a hong kong actress who has had a VERY illustrious career. She was the runner up to the Miss Hong Kong pageant in 1997 and signed a contract with TVB in 1998. TVB is the main Hong Kong TV network and they had so many hits over the years. I watched a TON of TVB dramas when I was a kid. I don’t really speak Cantonese but I basically learned it from watching these dramas. Charmaine was of course the star in many of them. This includes The Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre from 2000, War and Beauty in 2004, Maiden’s Vow in 2006, and Can’t buy me love in 2010.


The TVB drama called War and Beauty is also a palace drama and is set in the 1800s. It is considered to be THE origin of palace dramas. It is absolutely fantastic. I recommend everyone go watch it. Charmaine plays one of the main characters and she plays her role so well.


Back to this drama. She plays 辉发那拉·淑慎 or 娴妃. This character becomes the Emperor Qian Long’s second Empress. She is one of the antagonists in the story. It’s quite a tragic story and Charmaine acts the character very well. In recent years more and more Hong Kong actors have turned to the mainland to act and Charmaine was one of them. Ada Choi in Empresses in the Palace was another. Charmaine did experience another wave of popularity after this drama and quite frankly outacted Tiffany Tang or 唐嫣 in 燕云台 or The Legend of Xiao Chuo.


Charmaine also looks amazing! She was in her mid-40s when she filmed this. I want to look as good as she does when I get to her age.


As for the the character she plays, she portrays Hoifa-Nara Shushen or the Hoifa-Nara tribe. There’s debate over her maiden name and which Nara clan she came from so in this drama, she’s Hoifa-Nara Shushen or the Hoifa-Nara tribe whereas in  Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace, that character is based off of Ula-Nara Ruyi/Qingyingor the Ula-Nara clan.


Born in 1718, she was granted the title of consort Xian or 娴妃 in 1738. She was elevated to the rank of Empress in 1750 after the death of Empress 富察. She had 3 children 2 sons and 1 unnamed daughter. 


She died in 1766 at the age of 48. The Emperor really despised the Empress at that time because she was buried only with the honors of a 皇贵妃 or Imperial Noble Consort and NOT the Empress. She was not even buried with her husband but next to another IMperial Noble Consort.


In pop culture, everyone remembers the evil Empress from Pearl Princess or 还珠格格. Growing up, in my mind, Empress = bad at least Qian Long’s empress. Unfortunately in this drama, she is still the antagonist.




Next, let’s briefly talk about 许凯 the actor for 富察傅恒。


Born in Guangdong China in 1995, his role as 富察傅恒 was his breakout role. He was only 22 or 23 when he filmed it. Since then, he’s been in several dramas such as The Legends, Court Lady, and Ancient Love Poetry, and Royal Feast. None have really lived up to the hype of this drama though. He’s still pretty young and has a bright career ahead of him. 


富察·傅恒 was born in 1722. He became a senior court official and minister during the reign of Emperor Qian Long. He held many positions at court including an imperial guard, as we see in the drama, rising to the Minister of the Ministry of Revenue, all the way up to a position of the 1st rank. He also led the troops in the Sino-Burmese War in the 1760s. He died of Malaria in 1770. In folk culture, the most interesting stories do revolve his son 福康安 and the wild rumors that this man was actually the Emperor’s son. 



We cannot talk about 延禧攻略 without also discussing 如懿传, RuYi’s Love in the Palace. It is the sequel to Empresses in the Palace and has pretty much the same cast of characters as 延禧攻略 but tells a very different story. 如懿传 certainly suffered from having premiered shortly after The Story of Yanxi palace purely because audiences were confused about the similar plotlines and characters or also fatigued by the same story. But, it cannot be denied that 如懿传 is a highly artistic creation on its own. That drama is also extremely long and details the journey of 青樱 who then changes her name to 如懿 in the palace and her relationship with 乾隆。In this drama, 如懿 is 娴妃 and a subsequent Empress but also true love of the Emperor. Essentially the relationship lines between the Emperor and various women in Ru Yi’s Love in the Palace was flipped compared to The Story of Yanxi palace. While the Story of Yanxi palace can be considered a successful revenge drama where viewers are pleased with how much 魏璎珞 is able to push back and stand on her own, Ru Yi’s Love in the Palace can only be considered a beautiful tragedy. We saw in Empresses in the Palace how hard it is to find true love in the palace and that theme continued in Ru Yi’s Love in the Palace. I can’t tell you how much I cried watching Ru Yi’s Love in the Palace. That’s just fair warning for whoever might be interested in watching it. But don’t let that put you off. The drama’s production is fantastic as the cast spent over 200 days filming. Every one of the women in the palace were absolute beauties. The main female lead is of course, 周迅, who has won numerous awards for acting and is a force to be reckoned with in the Chinese film industry. My favorite actress in the drama is my personal bias 李沁 who plays the cold but fiercely loyal 寒香见. [xx]




Let’s move onto the costume, make up, and style.


When we watch the drama, we’ll see that it looks somewhat different from other Qing Dynasty dramas. It also looks different from Empresses in the Palace. All of these dramas take liberties in how they want to dress the characters and the certain aesthetic that they want to achieve. For this drama, there are certain choices that are more historically accurate and then there are others that aren’t. Top of mind would actually be all of the earrings that we see the ladies wear! 


As always, we’ll do our best to point them out. 



Removal of the Story of Yan Xi Palace and RuYi’s Love in the Palace.


In 2020, both the Story of Yan Xi Palace and RuYi’s Love in the Palace were officially censored by the Chinese government and taken off the web. They were taken down from the platforms of iQiYi and Tencent. In recent years, the Chinese government has limited what type of dramas can air in China, what time they can air, and on what platform. A big bucket of that included historical dramas or costume dramas and especially palace dramas. It’s rumored that there’s a couple of reasons for this. 

  1. The palace dramas often show opulence and scheming – something that the government believes will impact society and actually be a detriment to society
  2. A lot of the palace dramas beautify Emperors or people of the past – which is not always good and um don’t reflect socialist values
  3. These palace dramas became more and more commodified


I won’t say if any of these points are right or wrong. I’ll just say, AS a result. We’ve seen basically NO palace dramas since 2020. If you were wondering why, this is the reason why. Empresses in the Palace has been spared this purge so, in China, you can still see it on Youku.



That is it for our first introduction to the Story of YanXi Palace!


In future episodes, I’ll touch on the pretty famous screenwriter and producer 于正. He’s quite as famous / popular as the actors and actresses themselves. The drama itself is on youtube.



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