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 episodes 10-12 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
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Let’s begin with the episode recap
Ying Luo has moved over to Chang Chun palace to serve the empress but with the express goal of uncovering the truth about her sister’s death. She had picked up a jade pendant from the Empress’s brother and he confirms that it was his but denies knowing a woman named 阿满. She has to do some further investigating.
The key development in episode 10 is that the Emperor meets Ying Luo and actually recognizes her as the maid who made that whole story about scratching the itch for the Emperor’s sacred tree. The encounter was quite unlucky for Ying Luo as she was explaining her view of the relationship between 董鄂妃 and 顺治. 董鄂妃 was the love of Emperor Shun Zhi’s life, the second emperor of the Qing dynasty, who passed away at a young age after the death of her infant son. She was only 21 when she died. The Emperor 顺治, could not handle the death of his beloved concubine. He fell into heavy depression and died not too long after at 24.. There is a lot of mystery surrounding his death. In some books, they say he didn’t actually die but went to become a monk and lived the remainder of his life in a monastery. Regardless, this was a tragic love story. Except, 璎珞 chimed in that she would rather the Emperor not have any feeling which was overheard by our current Emperor. He was about to drag her off for punishment before the Empress saves her. 璎珞 also thinks quickly on the spot to avoid punishment. But, the Emperor now recognizes who she is and is full of annoyance. He’s also annoyed at his head eunuch 李玉 for missing this woman during his search. Quite a hilarious scene ensues.
My one question mark in this scene is that Ying Luo says she is not very learned and hasn’t read many books but was able to whip out stories and anecdotes of previous Emperors. Does that sound like someone who doesn’t have any education???
There’s a quick scene with ying luo and fu heng where ying luo gifts a heated pouch to fu heng which can be viewed as a heartfelt gift in the bitter winter cold. In reality, it’s a way for ying luo to mess with fu heng as that pouch was made to burst. Luckily for Fu Heng and unluckily for his friend 海兰察, 海兰察 was on the receiving end of the burst pouch and burned quite badly. When Fu Heng goes to interrogate ying luo about it though, she roudnyl denies any knowledge that this would happen.
Elsewhere, 娴妃 hears word that her brother has contracted dysentery in prison and desparately needs money. Her family has none left and she unfortunately only has her annual allowance which is paltry for what she needs. The Imperial Household Department also is refusing to give her the annual allowance ahead of time for an internal audit they’re doing. Except the department has fallen under the control of Noble Consort Gao’s father which means the comings and goings of such requests are naturally told to 高贵妃. That night, 娴妃 instructs her maid 珍儿 to help sell some of her beloved jewerlry and accessories outside of the palace for money for her brother. They meet two eunuchs who are able to help bring the goods outside. But just as 娴妃 gives these two the jewelry, 高贵妃 and company arrive. Selling property from the palace I guess is a crime and 高贵妃 takes this opportunity to humiliate 娴妃. At least she only attempted to sell her personal belongings, not anything gifted from the EMperor. But that doesn’t mean anything as 高贵妃 forces 娴妃 to kneel for forgivness and also has her servants destroy the jewelry. What’s also unfair is that one of the eunuchs turned on the other eunuch and laid blame on this transaction on that eunuch. The add insult to injury, 珍儿 also claims that this eunuch and her were the ones to work together to steal from 娴妃 in an effort for 珍儿 to take the blame away from 娴妃 in front of 高贵妃. This eunuch is extremely upset at this injustice for being dragged into something he knew nothing about but was punished to 100 canings. This eunuch is one to watch and this interaction where he was the fall guy for 娴妃 will be important for the rest of the drama. In episode 11 we see him be mercilessly bullied by other eunuchs for his fall from grace. He is now responsible for waste sanitation in the palace which is the lowest of the low for eunuchs in the palace. He also does not get to eat and resorts to stealing dog food in order to survive in the palace. Poor thing. This guy’s name, is 袁春望。
Meanwhile, let’s turn back to the true star of these few episodes. 雪球- 高贵妃”s dog. 嘉嫔 who works for 高贵妃 must not allow 愉贵人 from birthing a smart son to surpass her own and therefore must find a way to prevent her from giving birth. One day, 嘉嫔 invites 高贵妃 and her dog to the garden for a walk. The Empress, 愉贵人 and 璎珞 are also on a walk with 愉贵人 feeling much better after the scares from prior episodes. Yet 愉贵人 is scared of dogs and the moment she sees 雪球, she hastily requests to leave. But, 嘉嫔 and 高贵妃 do not let 愉贵人 leave and in an instant, 雪球 jumps to attack 愉贵人 who screeches in fright before 璎珞 steps in to save her by kicking 雪球 away. 愉贵人has her wits scared out of her again and is taken away for another check up. It’s not lost on anyone of the women that 雪球‘s actions were done to harm 愉贵人’s child. This time, it wasn’t 高贵妃 who made the orders but 嘉嫔 instead. Though I am impressed that 高贵妃 knows exactly why 嘉嫔 did it. For her son, the 4th prince.
More nefarious plots are uncovered by 璎珞 against 愉贵人 by Jia Pin and they decide to set traps to catch this manipulative 嘉嫔 in the act.
The opportunity arrives soon after when an imperial tribute consisting of lychee trees arrive from Fu Jian province to the Capital. These trees are a special gift from the Emperor to the Empress. These precious trees are given to 璎珞 to manage as the Empress wants to hold a tea party with these lychees as the piece de resistance.
Originally set to be a grand and pleasant affair turns into one with multiple twists and turns. Behind the scenes, 璎珞 and company are trying to catch 嘉嫔 giving harmful medicine to 愉贵人 on the day of the tea party only for 璎珞 to realize it was a trap. When she returns back to the rooms where the lychee trees are kept, she finds that the trees have been destroyed and all of the lychee are now fallen onto the ground. What is ying luo to do?? These trees are to be specifically revealed in front of the Emperor and Empress to enjoy and pick for the freshest taste possible. How will they be able to do that now?
Ying Luo again thinks on her feet. She quickly runs over to the 愉贵人‘s palace and requests her presence at the banquet. This will be important to aid the Empress in Ying Luo’s idea. The tea party continues with a number of lychee dishes but 高贵妃 and 嘉嫔 insist that it’s time to see the actual lychee tree for some fresh fruit. All of this was part of their plan and they cannot wait for this to unfurl. But shortly after, 愉贵人 arrives and takes her spot just as ying luo also arrives with one tree that is covered up. The moment they remove the covering, the dog 雪球 bursts from the tree and runs around the room much to the fright of everyone in attendance. 愉贵人 in particular is scared out of her wits again and points to 高贵妃 that her dog already scared her last month, does she want to scare her again to kill her child?
The emperor hears this and is furious to know that 高贵妃’s dog has wreaked such havoc in the last few weeks and especially today. It doesn’t help that the Empress and 纯妃 all step in to blame the owner of the dog rather than the dog itself which 高贵妃 was attempting to do. Both she and 嘉嫔 are at a loss at what to do because their plans are completely foiled now and the blame has been pushed onto them. The result is 嘉嫔 is demoted to 贵人 and restricted from leaving her palace for 3months. 高贵妃 has her income suspended for one year and told to reflect on her mistakes. The dog is also never to appear in front of the Emperor again.
The saga of the dog is now over. It’s not long before the Emperor realizes that something’s off. The entire tree was destroyed. The dog could probably only destroy the lower part of the tree there’s no way the dog could destroy the entire tree. This must be something that Ying Luo planned but recognizing that this was done to protect the Empress, doesn’t enquire any further.
Elsewhere, the Empress used a rather clever excuses of rewarding the person who gifted her her favorite birthday gift to reward 娴妃 with the much needed money for saving her brother. While 娴妃 doesn’t necessarily want to take money from anyone, particularly the Empress or 纯妃， she now has the money to save her brother. In particular, she is now indebted to 纯妃 who told the Empress about her need for money.
Let’s talk about our fluffy little Pekingese that is the center of our story! In mandarin, they are called 北京犬 or 京巴犬，又称 中国狮子狗、宫廷狮子狗. Or Lion Dog.
The Pekingese were the favored pets of the Imperial family spanning millennia. Pekingese dogs are said to have been favored by the royal family dating back all the way to the 秦 dynasty in 226BC. In the Tang Dynasty, there are clear records that no one outside of the imperial palace was allowed to breed or own a Pekingese. There are indeed records of people who tried to smuggle Pekingese outside of the palace and were tried for their crimes. During the Tang dynasty, these dogs were so favored that they were buried alongside Emperors when they died so that they would also be reincarnated with the Emperor in the next life. Because of their status as royal dogs, these were purebred dogs and one of the only dogs to remain as the “royal“ dog for that span of time.
During the 清 dynasty, these dogs were still very much favored by the royal family. The famous Empress Dowager Cixi reportedly had over 1000 Pekingese in the Forbidden Palace and had dedicated departments of eunuchs to take care of them. In the drama, the poor eunuch 袁春望 is treated like dirt compared to the dog but that’s not too far from reality. If palace maids accidentally touched a favored Pekingese, they could be sentenced to death. If normal people saw these dogs, they had to bow to them.
There are a couple of legends related to the origins of the Pekingese. Most are related to Buddhism. There’s one legend in which a lion and a marmoset which is a type of monkey fell in love but the lion was too big. The two told buddha about their troubles. The buddha the made the lion the size of the monkey and that’s their descendants are the Pekingese. Not sure HOW much I buy into this one maybe the monkey is off because marmosets are indigenous to the New World and these dogs have been around for like thousands of years. Maybe the story is the same, it’s just the monkey that’s different.
The next story kind of mixes up legend and history. In buddhism, the lion is a symbol of strength and protection. Buddhism gradually made its way to China and became a popular religion. A Han dynasty emperor 汉明帝 who lived from 28 AD to 75 AD said, well, I need to have a lion too. This Emperor then asked – what does a lion look like? Someone then said – it looks like a fluffy tiger creature. This Emperor said ok – find me something like a tiger and voila – this lion tiger or 狮子犬 or Pekingese was presented to the Emperor.
Over the millenia, the Chinese often prayed to the gods and mythical creatures for good luck and protection. This includes stone lions and stone versions of a mythical creature called 麒麟 but if you look closely at these stone lions outside of Chinese homes, they resemble the Pekingese!
There’s a couple of stories on the introduction of the Pekingese to the West. Pekingese were unknown to the Western World until the 1860s during the Second opium war. The Emperor 咸丰 and his court fled the old summer palace 圆明园. One story is that an elderly aunt stayed behind. When the Anglo-French forces stormed the palace, she committed suicide. The invaders found 5 pekingese dogs mourning her body.
A British Soldier, Captain John Hart Dunne, brought the first one to survive the voyage back to England and presented the dog to Queen Victoria, who named it Looty. Other dogs were also sent back including a pair from Lord John Hay who gifted them to his sister the Duchess of Wellington.
Currently, purebred Pekingese are extremely rare, if not almost extinct. Most of the ones seen now globally are crossbreeds. However, that doesn’t mean they aren’t popular. Pekingese are apparently one of the most popular breeds in China, having lost its status as the royal dog. They are nonetheless fluffy, loveable, and great guardian dogs. A Pekingese named Wasabi won Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog show in 2021!
If you have a Pekingese, let us know, we’d love to see it!
Next up is the fruit that is the focus of these episodes 荔枝 or lychee!
The Lychee tree is native to the Southeast and Southwest provinces in China. The Canton or 广东 and 福建 provinces are the most bountiful in terms of lychee harvest. 福建 is the province where the lychee are sent from for this drama. Currently, Lychee can be found in the rest of southeast asia including Vietnam, Cambodia, and Malaysia. Lychee trees need to be grown in a tropical climate that is frost-free. It also needs a lot of rainfall and humidity, which makes sense because 广东 and 福建 provinces are literally just that.
The lychee fruit is either round or an oval shaped berry about like 5cm long and 4 cm wide. The outside is a bumpy red skin that must be peeled. Red is when it’s ripe. When it’s not, it’s more of like a green color. The lychee itself bears a fleshy fruit that is very moist and sweet. There’s an inedible dark brown seed in the center. So please watch out when eating it to not bite through the whole thing!
This is super interesting because I was reading wikipedia to start off my english notes and wikipedia says that the earliest cultivation of lychee dates back to 1059AD with unofficial records in China referring to lychee dating back to 2000 BC.
If I read Chinese baike, the first mention of the fruit or 离支 dates back to the Han Dynasty so 202BC. A rhapsody by the famous Western Han Dynasty poet 司马相如 who lived from 179 to 118 BC clearly mentions the fruit. Lychee has been an imperial tribute item dating back all the way to the Han dynasty. The Emperor Han Wu Di even tried to plant a lychee tree in the Imperial Palace but was unsuccessful.
The name of the fruit changed to 荔枝 in the Eastern Han Dynasty. Lychee has long been a part of the Chinese culture and psyche. Indeed – there are countless poets who wrote poems, ballads, rhapsodies, what have you about this fruit, from the the Tang Dynasty to the Ming Dynasty. So like – for me, if there are poems talking about this fruit in like the 800s, I kind of get the feeling the wikipedia is wrong on this? There’s no way cultivation only started in 1059AD.
In episode 11, the Empress herself recites one of these poems about lychee.
It’s written by the famous Tang Dynasty poet 杜牧。
My translation roughly goes like this
Looking back at the Li mountain from the Capital of Chang An, the scene looks like a fine silk
The palace doors at the top of Li Mountain open to reveal the splendor of 华清宫
Outside the palace a horse races through with dust in the wind, the concubine inside the palace smiles
No one knows that the lychee has arrived
What do you think about the poem? It’s kind of odd right? The last part about lychee doesn’t really make sense. What do you mean, no one knows that the lychee has arrived. But that’s like the greatness about it!
This poem is a very subtle but scathing commentary on the lavishness that Emperor 玄宗 bestowed on his beloved concubine 杨贵妃. For his concubine, the Emperor spend countless wealth to please her. The line – no one knows that the lychee arrives isn’t taken to be literal. The Concubine knows, the Emperor knows, and the rider knows. But the world doesn’t know. The world DIDN’T know that the Emperor “wasted” all this money and effort to get a smile from his concubine.
The Emperor stopped paying attention to state matters which led to a revolt led by 安禄山。 The Emperor, court ministers and this favored concubine had to flee. The Emperor forced 杨贵妃 to commit suicide as a way to appease everyone’s anger. In the end the revolt was quashed but the Emperor would lament the death of his love. The Consort died in 756, the author of the poem 杜牧 lived 802年－852年. He lived in the aftermath of the rebellion and surely had a lot to say about the Emperor and his lavish spending that ultimately led to the demise of his reign.
Now back to this drama. The Empress’s point was that the 唐 emperor had fast horses race the lychee fruit to the capital, how did Emperor Qian Long do it here?
If you just listened to what I said about the poem, there would have been absolutely NO way that the Empress would have dared to recite this poem in front of the Emperor. This poem was basically a jab at saying that the Tang Dynasty Emperor was a terrible guy, who for the one smile of his concubine, basically destroyed his Empire. Emperor 乾隆, who in this drama so far, was all about solidifying his empire, wouldn’t have been too happy with an accusation like that.
Hm – maybe he would have been fine with it? Maybe he thought – well the Tang Dynasty emperor was an idiot and wasted his time on the concubine. I’m better than him because not only can I have the lychee sent via canals, but my Empire also won’t fall!
What do you think? I’m on the camp of – the screenwriter picked a wrong poem to quote.
This whole scenario isn’t true to history but here just for our enjoyment. In the Qing Dynasty archives, there’s clear documentation that in the 25th year of Qian Long’s reign, 20 lychee fruits were presented to the Emperor as tribute. The fruits were then gifted to the Empress dowager, then the rest of the Imperial Harem. We’re currently only in the 6th year of Qian Long’s reign so that’s like a bug. That meant that even 15 years later, the Empress herself could only get like 1 or 2 fresh lychee fruits.
However, there are records in the Qing Dynasty of trying to transport whole lychee trees but that wasn’t super successful.
Historically – Lychee was only introduced outside of China to Myanmar in the late 17th century and then onwards to India and then hawaii in the 1880s and 1890s.
For those of you who have never had it, please try it out! It’s a delectable treat. The flowers bloom in the spring and the fruit is harvested during the early summer. I typically see them available in June and July. We’re recording this episode in August and it’s already kind of rare to find delicious lychee. I have a really good friend who LOVES lychee so I try to always make sure I have some if I know she’s visiting.
Lastly – let’s discuss the saying that the Emperor 乾隆 quotes when he asks who will take the blame for the destruction of the Lychee.
The translation is as such
The tiger and the rhinoceros fled from the cage, the jade tortoise was destroyed in the box. Who’s fault is it?
This originates from 论语 or the Analects of Confucius which as a collection of sayings and ideas that are attributed to Confucius and his contemporaries. This was first compiled roughly around the warring states period between the 5th and 3rd century BC and was finalized during the Han dynasty.
This particular phrase comes from Chapter 16 or 季氏 of the Analects. The premise is that the Ji Clan from the Kingdom of 鲁 wants to invade a neighboring smaller country of 颛臾. Confucius’s disciples come to him to discuss the potential battle. Confucius roundly chides his disciples for allowing this to happen saying that they must find a way to stop the battle. He then says the phrase 虎兕出于柙，龟玉毁于椟中，是谁之过与？basically as a way to say – if those who want to fight end up destroying something, it’s the fault of those who could have prevented the tragedy.
I’m SUPER oversimplifying it. There’s also a lot more to this chapter – it’s quite dense. If we have some Confucius scholars here please chime in. This chapter reflects Confusius’s aversion to warfare, instead trying to find alternate ways to solve the issue, whether that’s through reallocation of wealth or land.
In the drama, the Emperor uses this to chide 高贵妃 by saying that the issue with the dog is because she is the owner. I guess the whole thing makes sense but the whole Confucius anecdote obviously flew over everyone’s head except for 璎珞.
I feel like the drama did sort of square it that 璎珞 only knew a couple of lines from the Analects but I also felt that they needed her to speak up to round out the whole scene.
Ah well – 魏璎珞 better watch out because she got the favor the Empress but now the Emperor is kind of annoyed at her!