We return back to Ying Luo’s main question at hand – who exactly killed her sister. Fu Heng who is now quite smitten with her, brings over the documentation of who was in the palace the day Ying Luo’s sister died. It confirms that on that day, the Emperor had a banquet that invited many of the aristocracy or imperial family. It wasn’t only just the Emperor or imperial guards that were in the palace. This expands the circle of suspects for which ying luo must investigate. She is adamant to continue her search.
Next we get a cute couple of scenes in Chang Chun Gong between the Empress and her maids. One night, the Empress requests for Ming Yu to play the Er Hu but the music is too sad so 尔晴 tells 璎珞 to help cheer the Empress up. They joke and play around for a bit when the Emperor suddenly arrives. The maids depart to leave the Empress and Emperor for some alone time. The next morning, it’s so adorable to see the Emperor pout in front of the Empress saying that he doesn’t want to go to court. It’s sweet to see the regal and imperious emperor turn childish for just a brief moment. It solidifies the type of relationship that these two have together.
Sidenote – I had this hilarious thought watching this scene. I believe the screenwriter was like – hey, this is the Imperial Harem after all! We need the Emperor to show up once in a while! What’s the point of the harem if it’s just the ladies bonding! Here’s the OFFICIAL COUPLE! Pay attention!
I thought it worked pretty well because well – they are such a cute couple. It’s rare that we see such a wholesome Emperor and Empress relationship. At least for now. Let’s just cherish it ok?
But after we get all this lovey doveyness out of the way, it is time to turn back to the conflict at hand. From the very beginning of the drama, we’ve learned about Noble Lady Yu’s pregnancy and the conflicts around it. It’s been calm for a few months I guess but it’s around time for her birth so we turn back to her. The Empress, out of kindness, requests for 愉贵人 to move to Chang Chun Gong so that hte Empress can help watch over her as she prepares to give birth. One day on a visit to 愉贵人 璎珞 notices that 愉贵人 has been craving only sweets and mongolian scones or naan. This piques 璎珞‘s interest because these meals are literally the only things she wants to eat. But regardless, the Empress brings 愉贵人 into the palace.
The maids don’t understand why the Empress does this. 明玉, who gets more and more annoying with each episode, openly pouts and basically destroys the Empress’s beloved flowers to express her displeasure. 魏璎珞 also doesn’t really understand why the Empress decided to bear the risk of housing 愉贵人 in her palace. If anything wrong happened to either 愉贵人 or the child, the blame would lie strictly with the Empress.
The Empress in turn gives 魏璎珞 a very meaningful lesson. She is the Empress. The women in the Imperial harem have no family in the harem. They are alone. It is her responsibility to take care of the women in the harem. She must lead by example. If she was consumed by jealousy and played games in the harem, what would happen to the rest of the harem? It would be a complete mess! This is the only warmth that I can give them in the harem.
Pause on this – what a refreshing statement from the Empress. Too often, we only see an Empress in a drama performing “benevolent” acts towards other women because it will benefit her in the long run. Think about the Empress in Empresses in the Palace. She very reluctantly took care of 甄嬛 during one of her pregnancies, not out of the goodness of her heart, but because it was placed on her. She then spent the rest of the drama plotting to kill all the other children.
In this drama – our Empress, 富察容音 acts benevolently because it is her duty and because she’s a kind person. This is a lesson to 璎珞 and a reminder to me why when this drama came out, everyone was so enamored with this Empress. She truly is the 白月光 or white moonlight.
At this critical juncture though, the Empress has to go to a temple to pray to the Buddha with the Empress Dowager and leaves the palace in 璎珞’s hands. Even though 明玉 one of the maids in 长春宫 has been with the Empress for longer, she is too impatient and therefore the Empress entrusts Ying Luo with this task.
This of course does not sit well with 明玉 who takes this opportunity to flaunt her authority in the palace once the Empress and 尔晴, whom the Empress brought with on her trip, leave. 璎珞 decides not to engage because it’s not really worth it.
Timing unfortunately just doesn’t work for anyone. 愉贵人 unexpected goes into labor early with only 明玉 and 魏璎珞 around to help her. 明玉 -ugh, continues her stuck up ways and continues to be bossy.
News of the labor travels quickly throughout the palace. Noble Consort Gao or 高贵妃 hears of this and decides that she, as the leading consort in the palace, must set an example. We’ll talk extensively about Peking Opera in the next episode so we’ll table that for now.
愉贵人 gives birth to a son but unfortunately the child is born with “golden” pupils. It just gets worse and worse. 高贵妃 arrives at this time. According to royal tradition, if any child has “golden” pupils, the child must be put to death as the child was viewed as a bad omen. 高贵妃
News also reaches Consort Chun and Consort Xian, who are playing Chinese Go. They hear the news and make their moves. Consort Xian decides to head over to the palace to provide some assistance. Consort Chun interestingly makes a detour somewhere else. We won’t know what until the next episode.
Back at 长春宫, 明玉 is being a complete um I’ll put it nicely, idiot. She blatantly orders everyone to stay out of these affairs. In her mind, it’s a done deal because well, the child has golden pupils. Disobeying Noble Consort Gao meant also disrespecting Manchu ancestors.
Noble consort gao orders for the newborn to be buried alive. 魏璎珞 stands in to try to save 愉贵人 and her son, giving a rousing speech. I know that 魏璎珞 slapped 明玉 earlier to wake up her but in that moment, I wanted to do the same because everything 魏璎珞 says is true! If they don’t do anything, it’s disrespecting the Empress. Only the Empress has the power to pass judgment.
Wei Ying Luo can’t stand it anymore and runs off to try and find a solution. She quickly returns back with a case holding the Empress’s seal and orders everyone to stand down. At this point the Emperor and Consort Xian arrive, to which they agree to allow the Imperial Doctors to inspect the child.
The Imperial doctors come back and say that they’ve seen children with Jaundice but never one with golden pupils. This implicitly agrees that the child is a bad omen and can’t be cured.
Upon hearing this, 愉贵人 becomes devastated as her last hope has failed. 高贵妃 haughtily demands for the child to be executed. In a last ditch effort, 魏璎珞 seizes the child and claims that the Imperial Doctors might not be aware of certain ailments. Surprisingly one Imperial Doctor agrees that he might not know.
The episode ends with 高贵妃 doubling down on her arguments to kill the child, 魏璎珞 trying her best to plead her case that outside doctors might have a cure, and the Emperor hesitating on a decision.
Phew! That was an intense episode! I already sprinkled a little bit of current pop culture in today’s recap so let’s move onto history because there’s a LOT of it.
First up is the instrument that 明玉 plays.
It’s called the 二胡. I’m surprised that we haven’t seen this instrument in our 2 previous dramas so we’ll take the time to discuss it here. 二胡 is a 2 stringed bowed musical instrument that originated during the 唐 dynasty, so the 7th to 10th century AD. It evolved from the 奚琴 which might have originated from the Xi people from northeast china. There is heavy proto-mongol and non Han Chinese influence in the development of the instrument.
In the Song dynasty, a similar instrument was called the 嵇琴. The name 胡琴 was also used. . Hu means barbarians. 胡 from 胡琴 translates to instrument of the barbarians. This was the common name for all instruments played by the tribes to the north and northwest of china.
By the time of the 明 and 清 dynasties, the 胡琴 became popular across the empire and gradually became used as an accompaniment instrument for operas. The name 二胡 is a more recent name. 二 is 2 for the two strings and 胡 is for the 胡琴 or hu instruments.
The 二胡 can commonly be found as accompaniments for various chinese operas. This also meant the development of various types of 二胡 to fit the different styles of operas. Nowadays, one can see 二胡 played individually, in a group, or as part of a chinese orchestra.
It is often called the Chinese violin. Anecdotally, as a solo instrument, I feel like every piece I hear it played is a sad song, similar to the sentiment in this episode. In an orchestra though, it’s often a highlight of the piece cause you can really give the instrument a solo section to jam out.
The Erhu has a long thin vertical neck made of wood, typically rosewood. There are two big tuning pegs at the top. Two strings are attached from the pegs to the base. At the bottom is a small sound box which is covered with python skin on the front end. The shape is usually hexagonal or octagonal. The quality of the python or snake skin directly affects the quality of the instrument. A small loop of string 千斤 is placed around the neck and strings to act as a nut as it pulls the strings towards the skin. It’s basically like a small bridge and acts kind of like a bridge on a western violin. The horsehair bow is never separated from the strings. So for a violin, the bow is placed on top of the strings but for the 二胡, the bow is essentially a part of the instrument. The bow passes through the strings.
Listeners – Neither Karen nor I play the 二胡. I play the violin so I can compare the playing methods but can’t really comment on the music. One instrument – the 古筝 is enough!
The instrument is very lovely and there are some great pieces out there. I remember walking down the streets of old 北京, yes that still exists, and yes it’s touristy, but you’ll see some old guys just playing the 二胡. My mom interestingly is a huge fan of Mongolian 胡琴. The Mongolians and other minorities still play folk music using their instruments and those are great too. Find some clips on youtube if you’re curious!
In this episode, the Emperor heads to 长春宫 and eats some pastries with the Empress. In adherence to etiquette, the Empress doesn’t sit to eat with the Emperor. This is true to history. The Emperor always sat alone at the table. The servants, or in this case, the Empress would be the one 布菜 or placing the selected food onto the Emperor’s plate for him to then eat.
In addition – for 清dynasty Emperors, they can only eat 3 bites of any one dish. This was of course to prevent poisoning. Even if the Emperor really enjoyed the dish, tough luck because 3 bites is all he was going to get. It would then go back into rotation and not be served for some time. This becomes a small little plot point later on in the drama when someone tries to persuade the Emperor to eat more than 3 bites.
I went down a rabbit hole on how much food was allocated to each level in the imperial harem, what holidays they could eat in a room with the Emperor, and how many dishes were with each meal. Let’s just say that there was an archive that recorded the agenda, food, and habits of the Emperor. This archive included over 12,000 recorded days from Emperor 康熙 in 1671 to the last Emperor 溥仪 in 1910. So there’s a LOT of detail available on the Emperor’s daily habits.
This is the bread that 愉贵人 had such a craving for! It essentially is just mongolian flatbread. It’s pretty traditional – the ingredients include flour, milk, shortening, and some salt. I’ll talk about it a little bit more in the next episode because I found a pretty interesting article on geography with regards to this bread and where 愉贵人 is from.
Regardless – you can still find this type of bread if you venture over to the mongolian steppes. Inner Mongolia is a province in China and people have posted about eating these.
Seal script 篆书
In the episode, the Empress teaches 璎珞 a word. 后 which, in this context means Empress. The script she uses however is 篆书 or Seal Script. Now, we’ve discussed 楷书 which is standard script and briefly 行书 or Running script in the last episode. Here we will discuss 篆书.
This is an ancient style of writing that evolved during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States Periods or 春秋战国, so 8th century BCE, but probably a little bit later than that. It evolved from the Zhou Dynasty Bronze script which evolved from the earliest of chinese writing, oracle bone script.
The name zhuànshū, according to wikipedia, means ‘decorative engraving script’. It was coined during the Han dynasty. There are several different styles of Seal Script such as Large Seal Script or Small Seal Script. Different states during that period had independently evolved writing scripts. Small Seal Script was the formal script of the state of Qin and became the unified script after the Qin conquered the other states.
I personally enjoy learning more about these different texts because I can trace written language from thousands of years ago to the words we use today. In the drama, we see the word 后, which is made up of the mouth and the hand. The modern day word or regular script word looks a little bit different – the hand covers the mouth on the left rather than the right, but that’s one of the words that I can probably recognize if I had to read it. The written words seem much more flowy? It’s hard to describe but the strict lines in regular script aren’t really there in Seal script.
It is currently practiced as a form of calligraphy. People really do like to use it for formal occasions and it’s often used on seals, hence the name seal script.
Ok – that brings us to the last topic. The golden pupils.
Why was 高贵妃 able to promptly “dispose” of the child after seeing that it had golden pupils? Was there really a tradition in killing these children? Unfortunately yes.
The practice for the Manchu royal family dates back to the days of the Jurchen tribe before the founding of Qing Dynasty. The Jurchen tribes were in constant warfare with neighboring tribes and clans so they were very wary of outsiders. If a baby was born with pupils different from the normal dark brown, then the tribes deemed that the baby was an evil omen and a threat to the prosperity of the tribe. They basically viewed deviations from the norm as evil.
The royal family paid close attention to newborn babies. They were very superstitious and believed in reincarnation. Any omen could mean prosperity or devastation. For the royal family, this was even worse because it “jeopardized” the legitimacy of the royal bloodline. They can’t have children or a future emperor with different colored pupils! That was a bad omen because they believed the child will destroy their world. So, whenever a child was found to be born with pupils that weren’t normal,then they were usually killed. Sometimes it did involve live burial. This wasn’t just for the royal family, apparently regular families did this too.
I read an article that made a point that men with different colored pupils did basically destroy the Qing Dynasty. It just wasn’t really homegrown. The Eight-Nation Alliance, filled with Westerners, laid siege to Beijing in the 19th century. So in a way – I guess this prophecy or superstition proved true? Just not in the way the Manchus thought it would.
Well on that sad note – that is it for this episode! Man – kind of a debbie downer episode. Next week’s episode will be just as gripping and then we get kind of a respite from all the craziness of childbirth.