Welcome back to Chasing Dramas. This is the podcast that discusses Chinese culture and history through historical Chinese dramas. I am your host for today, Karen. Cathy and I are traveling the next couple of weeks so we’ll be swapping around who is available for each podcast.
Today we are discussing episode 15 + 16 of Yanxi Gong Lue or the Story of Yanxi Palace. These two episodes have 3 distinct topics if you will that serve to help further the development and conflict in the overall drama.
If you have any questions or comments, do let me know! Always happy to answer them,
In the last episode, we met the bawdy Prince Yi or 怡亲王，cousin to the Emperor. He tried to kill Ying Luo for 高贵妃 and 嘉贵人。Fortunately his little games did not succeed and he was reprimanded by the Emperor. At the end of Episode 14, we see that the palace is preparing for a ritual where the Emperor rewards court officials and imperial officers with meat. This meat is called 胙肉。 As explained by 尔晴, this meat is just cooked with water with no other seasoning. Often times the meat could be raw. Despite this being a “reward”, it’s not really one. Apparently, an official previously passed out from eating the meat but was beaten for his disrespect. Ying Luo takes this opportunity to seek revenge. How? She gives salt in a package to 傅恒 who she still thinks killed or humiliated her sister for the meat. If he is discovered to have added salt, he’s toast. She also bumps into Prince Yi again as well who haughtily laughs that she will never touch him.
The day of the ritual arrives and it is a grand affair. In Episode 15, the members of the imperial family, court ministers and the imperial guards are all given a slice of unappealing meat. As they’re cutting up the meat and taking a bite though, the Emperor is informed of something and each person’s plate is investigated. Turns out that this Prince Yi has added salt to his meat. The Emperor is enraged at hearing this as this act is complete disrespect for their ancestors and tradition. He has Prince Yi removed from his post and sent to be investigated. In the first 6 minutes of episode 15, Ying Luo rids herself of another meddlesome foe for it was she who spilled that there was salt in the meat. The Emperor then gives an angry speech about the importance of this ritual and investigates everyone else only to find that no one else added salt.
Ying Luo is confused and goes to speak with Fu Heng. At first she puts on an act that she was worried about him but quickly drops the facade when he confronts her. She promptly accuses him of harming her sister but he adamantly denies it. He doesn’t have evidence to help him on the contrary so he only promises that he didn’t do it or 发誓 which we talked about in previous episodes and even gives Ying Luo a knife to kill him with if she doesn’t believe him. She actually does stab him in the chest but not deep. He doesn’t dodge it and she lets go of the knife before running away.
She thought that her life was over because she couldn’t kill him and made such a terrible error in harming 傅恒. The Empress summons her in anger but instead of punishing her for injuring her brother, she is furious that Ying Luo messed with Prince Yi. Evidently Fu Heng didn’t say anything about his injury to his sister. Ying Luo is punished for what she did to Prince Yi but is also told to go give medicine to Fu Heng who was injured at practice.
Once at Fu Heng’s place, the two finally have an open discussion on Ying Luo’s sister. He says that he doesn’t know who she is but her story was heard all throughout the palace. He also denies any knowledge of why his jade pendant was with her sister the night she died. Ying Luo finally lets down her guard and is now more believing of his words. Fu Heng, that cheeky guy, takes this opportunity to press whether or not YIng Luo didn’t stab him harder because she was scared or because she has true feelings. He even grabs her hand when asking her this question. Evidently, this guy is quite smitten with Ying Luo even if she doesn’t have feelings yet or know if she has feelings yet. Their little intimate moment is interrupted by Fu Heng’s friend, Hai Lan Cha which causes Ying Luo to flee.
We turn now to 娴妃 who was given custody of the 4th prince, son of 嘉贵人. In the last episode, this was done by the Emperor as punishment for 嘉贵人‘s behavior and actions towards Ying Luo and leveraging Prince Yi to get rid of her. 娴妃 now is in charge of raising the 4th prince but the cute little bumpkin isn’t too fond of her. 嘉贵人 also constantly begs to see her son.
One day after feeding the 4th prince some congee, 娴妃 hears that the 4th prince is ill. 嘉贵人 and 高贵妃 are both there with 嘉贵人 blaming 娴妃 for not taking care of her son properly. At this point, the Emperor also arrives to hear 嘉贵人 blame 娴妃. These two ladies put on a show that despite the faults of 嘉贵人，the 4th prince shouldn’t have to endure not being with her birth mother. 高贵妃 also chimes in that she could raise the 4th prince and have 嘉贵人 nearby to help since they’re in the same palace.
Just as they’re about to succeed though, 纯妃 arrives with the imperial doctor. The doctor diagnoses the 4th prince with him having caught a cold. 纯妃 steps in to question why would he catch a cold with so many warm blankets, clothes and blankets around him? The doctor replies that this could happen if the child is bundled up too heavily causing him to sweat and then catch cold. After some further inquiry, the wetnurse reveals that she was instructed to bundle up the 4th prince by 嘉贵人 in order to make him sick so that it would be easier for her to bring him back.
Sigh. This 嘉贵人. She’s not too smart. Her tactics are too easily revealed. And so, the Emperor has her demoted all the way to 答应 and banished to the cold palace. The 4th prince is to stay with 娴妃.
We now turn to episode 16. 嘉贵人 or now 金答应 is crying in her new accommodations in 北三所 or essentially the cold balance. She is mistreated by the servants but still has a temper. Soon after, she is visited by none other than 娴妃。 At long last, 嘉贵人 finally lets out her frustration at her predicament in life. She cries that she does not have any qualms against the Empress or many other women in the palace but she is forced to help 高贵妃 because her family has power and status that surpasses her own. She, 嘉贵人 has no choice but to help 高贵妃 because she has no support whatsoever. She only has her son. She argues that no one loves her son more than her but you have to understand she was the one to harm him in the first place to get him back. So… you decide if that makes her a good mother. Her issue is that she blames everyone but herself for her fate rather than realizing that she should take responsibility.
娴妃 isn’t here to laugh at 嘉贵人 though. She wants to know whether or not it was Prince Yi at the behest of 高贵妃 that snitched on her, 娴妃‘s, father. 嘉贵人 confirms this which is a revelation for 娴妃。 Her brother and mother’s deaths and her father ending up in prison were all due to 高贵妃. 嘉贵人 though just laughs and puts the blame back on 娴妃。 It’s because of 娴妃’s weakness and actions in the palace that caused her family to be destroyed. Triggered by 嘉贵人’s words and what her mother told her right before she died, 娴妃 finally snaps. With a long white cloth she brought with her? To be honest I don’t know where that cloth came from, she strangles 嘉贵人。 This is the final turning point for 娴妃。 She vows that she will enact revenge on every single person that hurt her in the palace. This is the type of woman who is most dangerous in the palace. On the surface she is calm, serene and kind, but underneath has so much hatred and anger just ready to be unleashed. As she explained to 嘉贵人, she was the one to invite 纯妃 to her palace. Otherwise it wouldn’t be so coincidental for her to arrive to help 娴妃 with uncovering the truth. 娴妃 is not incapable in the palace but previously just didn’t bother,. Now she has finally snapped and will make people pay.
We now move onto the 3rd part of these two series and that is the lily or 百合 relationship that was possibly exhibited in the palace. We return back to the Empress and her palace. 尔晴 despite the Empress’s indignation reminds her that it is time for the Empress to produce an heir. This is of the utmost importance for the Empress in her position. But at night, we see the Empress shivering with cold which is rather odd. Soon after, 纯妃 is invited to 长春palace and the Empress requests that only the two of them stay. Every other maid is told to wait outside. THis piques the interest if 明玉 who doesn’t understand why the Empress has ushered them away. 纯妃 returns back to 长春palace every day for up to 4 hours per visit with just the two of them in the rooms.
Rumors start flying as 高贵妃 hears this peculiar news and finds this rather odd. And then comes up with the possibility that these two women may be more than just friends. After all, 纯妃 doesn ‘t spend time with the Emperor at all but spends most of her time with the Empress. The only reason that could be is that they must have some type of forbidden and taboo relationship in the palace. So she takes it upon herself to start spreading the rumors. This woman really needs to just calm down. She’s such a drama queen.
She even takes it upon herself to have opera singers sing an opera that alludes to this forbidden relationship when the Emperor is walking by. After hearing this he is of course, furious and rushes over to Chang Chun Gong to see the Empress and catch her in the act. Ying Luo just so happens to have seen the Emperor hurry this way and runs back as well. Just as the Emperor is about to enter the palace, he runs into Ying Luo who had a bucket of water with her and spills it all over him. She loudly proclaims that it was just an accident but the Emperor doesn’t have the time for her. He storms into the Empress’s palace to find…that she and 纯妃 were just painting.
They explain that the two of them are secretly trying to prepare a gift for the Emperor’s birthday that is coming up. They wanted to create a surprise and that the idea was for the Empress to paint a painting herself for the Emperor. Except she was never pleased with any version of the painting she’s done so far and thus has been painting non stop.
This helps quell the Emperor’s suspicion and he goes off to change out of his wet clothes before complaining to the Empress that he thinks 璎珞 totally ran into him on purpose and did so because she wants to get his attention. The Empress can only smile at his accusations because she thinks he is prejudiced against 璎珞 so cannot see any good side of her. With that, the Emperor at least is happy that th rumors were fake after all and takes his leave.
Afterwards, the Empress and 纯妃 explain to ying luo that 纯妃 has been helping the Empress manage her health through acupuncture after it deteriorated rapidly post pregnancy and even worse since winter. This helps explain the sweating but often cold nights the Empress has had and we have seen. The reason that 纯妃 must help the Empress in secret is because if word got out that the Empress probably was not fit to bear children, that would be a threat to her position as Empress.
And with that, this ludicrous rumor is dispelled.
Before we jump into culture and history – I want to share a couple of real time reactions from fans back in the day for these couple of episodes.
- Consort Xian or Charmaine’s character has gone FULL Niu Hu Lu! She’s now a badass and won’t take anyone’s BS anymore. She knows how to play the game – she just didnt deign to do so. When episode 15 first came out, I remember everyone PRAISING Charmaine cause she just does EVIL so deliciously well
- This’ll be hilarious because if I point this out maybe you listeners will follow as well but by this point, I remember everyone saying how this palace drama isn’t like other palace dramas because the only one truly “fighting” in the harem is 高贵妃. In Chinese the term is 宫斗 or quite literally Palace Fighting. 高贵妃 is all – how do I get rid of my enemies, how do I make the woman have a miscarriage, or how do I win the Emperor’s favor. She’s on the correct 宫斗 path. The other ladies? Nah – they all have their own storylines, just not surrounding the Emperor which is HILARIOUS. The Empress is all serene and kind. She and 魏璎珞 have their own CP going. Chun Fei is all about helping the Empress so they have their own little CP. Meanwhile consort Xian or Charmaine’s character hellbent on revenge! Where’s the Emperor?? Poor guy – he’s off focusing on his career. I’ll continue to mention this in future episodes cause it was a running joke that Noble Consort Gao is the only one focused on 宫斗. Compare this to Empresses in the Palace where ALL the ladies are focused on 宫斗 -> we had the Empress, hua fei, 安陵容, and Zhen huan all caught up in the battle. Here? It’s just 高贵妃.
Let’s talk a little bit about culture in this drama because for once, we get to talk about homosexuality or implied homosexuality.
In episode 16, Consort Chun and the Empress become very close. Consort Chun applies ancient chinese herbal practices on the Empress in hopes of helping the Empress heal her body so that she may conceive again. This of course means that the two are together in a room for long periods of time with no one around. Rumors begin flying around in the palace that the two become really close.
News reaches Noble Consort Gao. Please pay attention to what Gao Gui Fei says – what can be strange about two women? It’s not as if…
She doesn’t say anything more.
Ok – I’ll pause here. This is and probably will be THE closest that any Chinese drama comes to naming lesbianism. But pay attention because not once is it named, it is just heavily implied. Homosexuality or anything remotely referencing non-heterosexuality is heavily censored in China so the fact that this rumor becomes a plot point in any drama in China made my jaw drop when I first watched it.
In Chinese history, there were written accounts homosexuality but much more in reference to gay or bisexual relationships than lesbian relationships. There’s a term in Chinese called 断袖 or cut a sleeve which is specifically used to reference gay relationships. This term is often used in Chinese dramas when the female lead pretends to be a man and gets close to the male lead. Then people will say oh are you a 断袖 which means gay. Now that’s a story for another time.
Back to lesbian relationships. They’re a bit more hush hush in Chinese culture, but that didn’t mean lesbian relastionships didn’t exist. Lesbianism was just kind of VERY discretely accepted, especially in the palace where there’s only 1 man, women often did turn towards one another to satisfy sexual desires.
In this drama, we only get half an episode of implied lesbianism which is more than I ever dreamed of in a Chinese drama so it was quite refreshing to see.
From a historical perspective, let’s discuss the 分福吃肉 ceremony or share prosperity by sharing meat.
The origin of this ceremony is as discussed in the drama. The founding Khan of the later Jin Dynasty and Qing Dynasty left his family at a young age. He and his loyal followers survived by boiling meat in water. Once the Manchus conquered China and established the Qing Dynasty, this custom was upheld and continued throughout the centuries as a reminder to the later generations to never forget the hardships their ancestors suffered.
The sacrificial meat in question is pork – specially 2 black male pigs. The butchering must happen in front of the spiritual tablets. At the same time there’s praying from the devout and ceremonial music that’s played by the shamans. Each part of the pig has specific uses for the ceremony. The innards are placed onto a spiritual pole to feed the crows which are revered in Manchu religion. The pork meat is cut into squares and called 胙肉.
The palace where all of this happens is 坤宁宫 or Palace of Earthly Tranquility . If it sounds familiar, it’s because yes, it’s typically where the Empress resides but mainly for Ming Dynasty and early Qing Dynasty Empresses. During the reign of Emperor 雍正, the Empress moved out of 坤宁宫 to live other palaces so that 坤宁宫 was left as mainly a Palace for ceremonial rites. If we recall, in this drama, the Empress lives in 长春宫 and in Empresses in the Palace, the Empress lived in 景仁宫。
During the Qing Dynasty, 坤宁宫 had daily sacrifices. These daily sacrifices required 2 pigs. For grand sacrifices, such as ones to celebrate the new year, they required 39 pigs. Each year, around 1000 pigs were sacrificed for this ceremony. A ledger noted that for a full year, the cost for these pigs was around 15000 taels of silver!
Now, it might seem like a tough meal but it was a real honor for ministers and officials to be allowed to eat this meat. This meant that they were viewed as “important”. There are folk legends that when ministers died, they had their families create banners stating that they ate meat at the Palace of Earthly Tranquility cause you know, it was such an honor.
But I guess for ministers and members of the royal family who had to eat this pretty regularly, it was a bit of a challenge. There was no flavor to the meat, and as was described in the drama, sometimes the meat was raw. Some ministers would quietly add some flavor to the meat by adding some sauce to the serviette so that they could use the knife to add flavor onto the meat. Of course – the Emperor himself could decide when and whether or not to make a big deal of his subjects cheating.
The funny thing is, even though his subjects ate basically raw or flavorless meat, the Emperor himself was allowed appetizers and soup to go along with his meal! There’s a record of Emperor Qian Long’s, so our Emperor, meal early in his reign in which there’s clearly soup and some other greens that went along with his sacrificial meat. Things got much better in the later 清 dynasty in which salt was given to the ministers so that it wasn’t AS terrible.
There were some crazy stories about this ceremony and sacrificial meat though. Apparently during the reign of Emperor Yong Zheng, some eunuchs dared and succeeded in swapping out the sacrificial meat to sell outside the palace walls. It got so bad that the Emperor decreed that if anyone got caught selling or swapping the meat out, they would be subject to 40 canings.
There’s another guy, 阮元, who was 76 and retired. The year was 1839 This was during the reign of Emperor 道光. During one of these ceremonies, the Emperor suddenly remembered this retired minister and gifted this sacrificial meat to him. Well, his son was at court. This son had no choice but to accept the meat, quickly wrap it in salt, and sent it immediately back to 扬州. Ladies and Gentlemen – that’s like 1000 kilometers. The journey took 17 days. Because this was sacrificial meat, the retired minister brought his entire family out to receive the gift and had it boiled and eaten on the spot. It was a great honor but apparently the whole family had to wash their meal down with a bunch of water due to how salty it was.
Fast forward to today – eating white pork meat is still a custom that lives on. If you head to 北京, it’s a famous casserole pot dish called 砂锅白肉. It’s quite good because obviously there’s flavor and all of that. There’s a restaurant called 和顺居 that’s been open since the days of Emperor 乾隆 which specializes in this dish.
快雪时晴帖 or The Bright Sky after Fast Snow Calligraphy by 王羲之. This is the gift that Noble Consort Gao gifts the Emperor.
This was written by the famed calligrapher 王羲之. We already discussed him in one of our Story of Ming Lan Episodes but here’s a refresher.
Born in 303–361 during the Jin Dynasty, he hailed from the famous 琅琊 Wang family. 王羲之, is sometimes known as 书圣 or the Master Calligrapher! He was indeed a master calligrapher, especially of running script or 行书. His most famous work, or at least to me is 兰亭序 pr Preface to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion written in 353. The calligraphy script in question for this drama is 快雪时晴帖 or The Bright Sky after Fast Snow Calligraphy. This was written in 王羲之’s later years. It has 4 lines with 28 words and is about a jovial greeting towards family and friends in the bright sunlight after a heavy snow. The calligraphy itself uses a mix of running and regular script. It is really a beautiful work.
This piece of calligraphy, along with the other 2 named in the drama which includes 王献之的“中秋帖” Autum ，王珣的“伯远帖” and Boyuan, were bestowed the name 三喜贴 or the Three Rare Scripts by Emperor 乾隆.
Another reminder to our listeners that unfortunately, no original work from 王羲之 has survived. But this one is probably the one that comes up for debate the most as an original work. In regards to this particular work, during the Northern Song Dynasty – 11-12th Centuries AD, they believed it to be an original work. However, nowadays, it’s widely believed that this piece is a very good replica from the Tang Dynasty.
The history of ownership of this piece is also quite astounding. It was first gifted to the Tang Dynasty Prime Minister 魏征 and then was gifted to a family of scholars in the northern song dynasty. By the time of the Southern Song Dynasty, the work was gifted to the Emperor. It passed through the hands of calligraphy collectors and royal households until it finally was acquired by Emperor 乾隆 in 1746. The current drama still isn’t there in terms of timeline but I’ll give it props for correctly placing this calligraphy as a treasured collector’s item in Emperor 乾隆’s collection. This piece was placed in the Beijing Palace Museum in 1925 but was transferred south during World War II. In 1949, the Chinese Nationalist Party brought this to Taiwan. This timeless work is now found within the National Palace Museum right outside of Taipei. Man – had I known about this when I visited the museum a few years ago, I should have taken some pictures! However, I don’t know how often this goes on display so maybe check if anyone of you are interested in seeing it in person!