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 13-14 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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There are a couple of threads to follow in these two episodes. A primary one is the evolution of Xian Fei and the other is we meet 怡亲王 or Prince Yi.
In the last episodes, 璎珞 offered to dispose of Gao Gui Fei’s dog after it wreaked havoc during the Empress’s tea party and destroyed her lychee trees. We start off this episode with 傅恒, the handsome imperial guard and younger brother to the Empress, finding out that Ying Luo didn’t actually kill the dog, but rather, stashed it away for safe keeping. This lowers 傅恒’s alertness around 璎珞, warm ing up to her more and offers to take the dog away to be raised by a loving family. Little does he know that 璎珞 did all of this in order to lower his suspicion of her. She calls herself a bad person but we see that she’s not all bad.
Elsewhere, 娴妃’s brother has been embroiled with a corruption scandal. She only just got some money as a reward from the Empress to send to her brother for medical care as he’s been jailed and has fallen ill. But one night, the Emperor arrives to visit 娴妃。He is utterly furious because 娴妃‘s father has used the reward money for bribery! The goal is to try to reduce 娴妃’s brother’s sentence. But now, 娴妃’s father has landed himself in jail because this is something that the Emperor cannot tolerate. 娴妃 is in utter shock. Her father raised her to be righteous and outstanding. She does not believe that her father would stoop so low as to bribe anyone.
The Emperor permits 娴妃 to go to prison to ask the truth herself from her father. She does so and sadly, her father confirms that, at the pushing of her mother, he did try to bribe officials to help her brother. 娴妃’s world comes crashing down in an instant. She feels betrayed by her father for what he’s done especially given how hard she’s had it in life in the palace.
On her way back to the palace, she meets her mother waiting for her. This mother is a real piece of work and I feel bad for 娴妃 because it’s all because of her mother’s nagging that caused her father to bribe in the first place. She is a selfish woman who wants to use her family to further her position. But it doesn’t matter anymore as news comes to the mother daughter pair that 娴妃’s brother has passed away in prison. 娴妃‘s mother is absolutely distraught and yells at her daughter for being useless. Right after these harsh words, she runs towards a wall and kills herself. Poor 娴妃 in one day, she lost 2 loved ones and her world has been turned upside down.
The Empress, saddened by what has transpired, pushes the Emperor to go lightly on 娴妃‘s father to which the Emperor agrees. But, after thinking through everything that she has endured, 娴妃 wakes up the next morning, a completely new woman. As we like to joke, she is now niu hu lu xian fei. She recognized the importance of power and true strength in the palace and will take steps to secure her position. In a way, she played the game and lost.
Turns out, all of this was orchestrated in part by 高贵妃 and 嘉贵人 with the aid of 怡亲王 or Prince Yi. Prince Yi, despite being a prince, is only a cousin of the Emperor and not someone who is entirely favored. He wants to partner with 高贵妃’s family to further his career. 高贵妃 and 嘉贵人 think it prudent to use him to get rid of the current adversary, 魏璎珞.
And so, 怡亲王 partners with 璎珞’s old friend, and I say that ironically, 庆锡 the imperial guard who used to have a thing with 璎珞‘s late sister.
Meanwhile, 璎珞 starts learning to write calligraphy under the tutelage of the Empress. 璎珞’s calligraphy skills are abysmal but at least she’s learning. It doesn’t take long for Ying Luo to amass a large number of pages with her written words. She also created a rather rudimentary contraption to help secure her hand while writing Chinese calligraphy. It’s a skill that she’s learning late but better late than never.
One day, as 璎珞 is sending something somewhere, a line of guards walk by her. At the end of the line is 庆锡 who whispers to her that he knows the truth about her sister’s death and to meet him that night in the imperial garden. But just as she is thinking about those words back at her room, she realizes that one of the pages of her writing deck has gone missing.
That night, 璎珞 goes to the agreed upon spot. 庆锡 arrives and tries to drag 璎珞 off but the moment he tries to do so, she loudly yells that there’s a bad guy and for ppl to come beat him up. Immediately a huge crowd of eunuchs arrive and start kicking and beating 庆锡。Not long after, 怡亲王 arrives to break up the fight. 庆锡 hurridely tattles that it was this 魏璎珞 that was trying to seduce him. 怡亲王 immediately tries to punish 璎珞 for breaking palace rules but 璎珞 is not going to take this so easily. She says that she’s here at night to pick up some herbs for the Empress. Why else would she have brought so many eunuchs with her? There’s no way she was here to sneak a meeting with 庆锡。But it’s not like 怡亲王 cares. Just as he’s about to drag 璎珞 off, 傅恒 arrives and requests that the resolve this matter in front of the Emperor who just so happens to be playing chess with him nearby.
In front of the Emperor, 庆锡 claims that 璎珞 has been trying to seduce him for a while and asked him to meet her at the garden tonight. He, 庆锡 set up a trap in order to catch her because he knows this is against palace rules. He even brings out evidence that she was the one to ask him out. He produces a letter that he claims he wrote her to meet him tonight. 璎珞 takes one look at the note and is able to loudly say that that note is fake. She produces her own evidence which is her wad of papers with her own calligraphy writing. There are a couple of holes in 庆锡‘s plot. First, Ying luo has numbered all of the pages with her writing and just today, she noticed the 28th page has gone missing. Second, the paper that was used to write the note for QingXi uses an entirely different, much more expensive kind of paper than what she has been using. And lastly, her writing has improved in the month since she wrote that 28th page. If they compare her writing today vs the writing on the page that was stolen, there should be vast differences. This means that she must not be the one to have written that note.
Seeing that the truth is about to be revealed Prince Yi and Qing Xi immediately start blaming each other for the events of the evening. 璎珞 continues further to suggest that this is not as simple as trying to harm a lowly maid. Given that she works for the EMpress, this was a plot to question the Empress’s abilities to rule and perhaps remove her from power. Realizing that the stakes now just got a lot bigger, The Emperor orders 100 canings for 庆锡 and he is to be removed from his post and investigated. 璎珞 is told to return back to the palace and practice writing 100 more times.
After everyone leaves, the Emperor turns his ire to Prince Yi. The Emperor even lands a couple of pretty harsh kicks on this cousin. (Honestly, this Emperor likes to kick ppl too much. Which is certainly a no no.) After much pressing, Prince Yi reveals that it was 嘉贵人’s father who asked Prince Yi for help to get rid of this maid given that 璎珞 was the one to cause 嘉贵人 to get demoted. This infuriates the EMperor and immediately order that 嘉贵人’s son is taken away from her.
We’ll end the episode recap there as the rest of the episode links directly onto episode 15 and we’ll discuss that in more detail.
Before we talk about history – let’s discuss a little bit about pop culture related to these couple of episodes.
We now have the initial form of 令后 cp -> Consort + Empress CP! In China, people love to pair different characters with characters and form CPs or couples with each other. 魏璎珞’s future title is consort 令 so right now it’s 令后 cp. Everyone LOVED the relationship between 魏璎珞 and the Empress because it’s so wholesome! The Empress is kind of like the big sister that 魏璎珞 lost. This is one to watch in the upcoming episodes because I remember reading the comments saying – who needs the men, can the ladies just get on with their lives?
We also of course have the competing couple of 魏璎珞 and 富察傅恒 but that’s a little bit more hidden right now.
Lastly – let’s talk about Charmaine’s character. 娴妃. In history, nothing like this happened to her family, so this is all for the drama. Moving past that, we now get the beginnings of niu hu lu xian fei! Tie this all back together to Empresses in the Palace! She needs a little bit more pushing but 娴妃 begins her turn to the dark side. Charmaine does an amazing watch and it’s GREAT to see!
First up is the discussion from between 魏璎珞 and the Empress towards the end of episode 13. 魏璎珞 is practicing calligraphy and quotes
This quote comes from 资治通鉴外纪 which is a derivative of Comprehensive Mirror in Aid of Governance. This was also a historiography that was compiled by the northern song scholar 刘恕 and was published in the late 11th century. This includes history of the Zhou Dynasty.
The story is essentially what the Empress discussed during the episode. The King in question is King Wen of Zhou or 周文王. He lived from roughly 1152 to 1056 BC. Hey, I don’t think he lived like 100 years. Wikipedia has him listed at having died at the age of 62 but baike noted that he died at the age of 97. Both places do have him like the full 100 years as a rough estimate. Maybe he did live that long!
Anyways 周文王 was posthumously granted the title as the found of the Zhou Dynasty. In Chinese culture and legend, he is one of the most famous kings, to the point that he is named the culture king. Many hymns in the Classics of Poetry or 诗经 praise the legacy of this King Wen of Zhou.
The story is as such – The King Wen of Zhou was out in the wilderness and spotted a skeleton lying on the ground. He asked his guard to bury the skeleton. The guard said – this is a skeleton that no one wanted. To which the King responded, the owner of the riches of the world, is the owner of the world. The owner of the land of a country is the owner of the country. As such, I am the owner of this skeleton. How can I let him or her lay out in the open? The land and its people are the responsibility of the King. This story is to paint the King as a benevolent ruler.
I will say – this phrase is a really good phrase to practice calligraphy. The characters aren’t hard and it’s a great way for 璎珞 to learn from the Empress the ways of the world.
铁帽子王 – Iron Capped Prince!
In the drama, the Empress often tries to persuade 魏璎珞 to be wary of 怡亲王 or the Prince of Yi because of his status as a 铁帽子王 or an Iron Capped Prince. What is this?
Well, in the 清 dynasty, sons do not automatically inherit their father’s title of the same rank. The rank will be downgraded a level for each subsequent descendent. As a favored son of an Emperor, typically, the son would be awarded the status of 和硕亲王 or Prince of the First Rank. This Prince’s son would be downgraded to the title of Prince of the Second Rank, or 郡王. He wouldn’t inherit the title of 亲王. Of course there would only be one son who inherits the official title. It’s somewhat tough luck for the other sons who do not inherit titles but might be granted some other courtesy titles.
If we compare to the English aristocracy, think of it as if Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex’s son Archie doesn’t inherit his father’s title but can only be granted the title of Marquess. This is just an example because I know that Prince Harry declined titles for his children but this is just a what if scenario.
Back to the drama and iron-capped princes. In the 清 Dynasty, there are 12 iron cap princely peerages which meant that the title could be passed down to subsequent generations without being downgraded. This means that a 亲王’s son would also be granted the title of 亲王. Compare this to Downton Abbey – where the Earl of Grantham’s heir will still inherit the title of the Earl. Please note that even if a Prince was convicted of a crime, the peerage would not be abolished, instead, the peerage would pass to another descendent.
These iron capped princes enjoyed more privileges than even a normal Prince of the First rank. This includes of course first 世袭罔替 which means the title isn’t demoted and sons automatically inherit the title. It also includes a special house or manor for the family and a basic salary of 10 thousand taels of silver and 10 thousand hu of rice. If you are ever in Beijing, some of these princely houses are open to the public.
The first 8 were granted to sons and family members who were directly involved in conquest of China and were descendents of either 努尔哈赤 or 皇太极. The founder of the Qing Dynasty and the second Emperor of the Qing Dynasty respectively. Some famous princes include 代善, 多尔衮, and 多铎。They all enjoyed Imperial Tablets / Plaques found within the Imperial Ancestral Temple. We talked about this in episodes 8-9 as being a big deal.
This brings us to 怡亲王 – or the father of the current 怡亲王 was the first Iron Capped Prince to be granted by Emperor 雍正. This 胤祥, who was the 13th prince, son of Emperor 康熙 and one of Emperor 雍正’s biggest allies. He was one of the few princes who allied with Emperor 雍正 during the Nine Lords War. For his services, Emperor 雍正 granted him the title of 怡亲王, making him the 9th iron cap prince. There were only 3 more iron caps granted after this.
Let’s now turn our attention to the 怡亲王 in this drama. His name is 弘晓 and was the 7th son of 胤祥. What’s interesting is that he wasn’t the first born or born from the main wife and inherited the title when he was only 8, which is when his father died. There’s some speculation that 胤祥 deliberately chose this because this would reduce some wariness from the Emperor. If he chose a more established son, the Emperor might purposefully find ways to strip his family’s power.
Nevertheless – that still happened. During the reign of Emperor 乾隆, our Emperor, in 1739, 弘晓’s older brothers were caught in the middle of a palace scandal and punished. 弘晓 or the Prince of Yi was only allowed to be an Imperial Bodyguard – similar to what we have in the drama. After a couple of years, he was demoted from that role by the Emperor because apparently he didn’t have a small knife with him while praying to the ancestors. THis is a little different than in the drama but let’s just say, he had a rough time.
What’s worse! Emperor 乾隆 even gifted one of the residence that was previously gifted to the first prince of yi to 富察傅恒. This prince of yi’s family then had to move out and find someplace else to live.
After this the Prince of Yi or 弘晓 turned his attention to the gentlemanly arts. He made quite a name for himself as a writer and poet. He enjoyed reading more common books and was close to some of the most famous writers of the day. He also had a prized collection of books. There was an attempt at archiving them and a preliminary list had the number at over 4500 books. 弘晓 died in 1178 at the age of 57.
The title of the Prince of Yi was passed down to 8 generations with 9 princes. The last prince of yi died in 1948.
Finally let’s talk about 宣纸 or Rice Paper!
This is a kind of paper that originated from China and is used for writing and painting. Paper 纸 is one of the 4 treasures of the study or 文房四宝. The 4 include brush, ink, paper, and ink stone.
The most famous rice paper is called 宣纸 and comes from 安徽 province specifically 泾县. This is the rice paper used as planted evidence against 璎珞. Indeed, 宣纸 comes from the Xuan Prefecture in which the Jing County resides. 泾县 is famous for its production of 宣纸. The moist climate and various flora make the perfect location for paper production. This tradition has lasted to this day. The primary tree used for paper production is 青檀树 or Pteroceltis. It is endemic to China and the fiber from its bark is used to make the Xuan Paper. In 2015, there were around 300 companies producing various types of 宣纸 totally around 800 TONS of paper.
The first records 宣纸 dates back to the Tang dynasty when it was listed as an Imperial Tribute item.
Xuan paper has been greatly favored as paper of choice for millenia. Countless Chinese books and paintings used this type of paper. It makes a ton of sense that they did. The paper has a smooth surface, is pure, and has a clean texture. It’s also very resistant to corrosion, moth and mold. There are pieces of art and books that have survived millenia on this type of paper.
In episode 13, we also see the Empress’s maids cutting, ironing, and indeed spraying water on the paper. Typically what happened was that the 宣纸 or rice paper comes in large sheets. They then need to be cut or resized to the desired length. Of course, there are some that are pre-cut with lines. Ironing was done to help smooth out some of the creases. That’s also the same with spraying water. When I first watched episode 13, i was like, why are the spewing water? Well – that’s the reason!
We do have quite a stack of 宣纸 at home to practice calligraphy. We aren’t super fancy to know all the different elaborate types of rice paper but there is a marked difference in some of the paper we use. If ever you get the chance to find some rice paper, check out where it’s from!