Ep 18

We continue on with the intense drama from the last episode. Noble Lady Yu gave birth to a young boy but right after birth, he is discovered to have had golden pupils and his entire body is yellow. Noble Consort Gao heard the news and immediately arrived to order that the child be buried alive as it is a bad omen for the empire. Ying Luo managed save the child and we are now in Chang Chun Palace where the Emperor has arrived to make judgement. In attendance is 娴妃 as well.


璎珞 suggests seeking medical opinion from a local doctor, one that is not from the imperial palace, to see if there are other medical explanations for why the young prince, the 5th prince at that would have golden pupils. 娴妃 agrees and suggests 叶天士, a famous doctor from 江南。 (Side note, it’s impressive they’re able to get this guy to the palace so quickly). I mean, it makes sense, why would would you not have an additional opinion for the child considering that 高贵妃 is literally suggesting killing a prince. 



In an instant, this doctor, 叶天士 diagnoses the child with jaundice. He experiences pushback from the imperial doctors who decry that this is jaundice because they have never seen a child with jaundice with golden pupils. But Doctor Ye says that this is because of illness. All that’s needed is some medicine and the child will be fine. 


Immediately, 高贵妃 jumps in to apologize for acting too rashly seeing that she didn’t know it was just jaundice. Pretty sure everyone can feel the eye rolls in the room particuarly from 娴妃 and 璎珞. The Emperor said he understood because even the imperial doctors couldn’t diagnose the young prince’s condition accurately, how can she be expected to tell the difference. But just as he was about to let her off easily, and you could see the smirk on her face as she was about to get away scott free, 纯妃 arrives. 


In the hall, 纯妃 brings forth the body of a dead man. 高贵妃 hastily denies knowing who this person is when 纯妃 asks why 高贵妃 would be scared of this body when she’s not scared of killing him. 纯妃 reveals he was the mongolian chef from the imperial kitchens that specifically cooked food for 愉贵人 during her pregnancy. Ying Luo remembered that 愉贵人 ate at least 3 pastries from this cook every day. The pastry paired with 愉贵人‘s other cravings of sweets are revealed by the doctor to be the ultimate reason for the prince’s golden pupils. It is because of 愉贵人’s diet that caused the child to have jaundice. Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem but because 愉贵人 ate too much of the pastry and sweets which left her with an imbalanced diet, thus her child suffered. 



纯妃 also reveals that she found this cook to have committed suicide right as she started investigating the meals for 愉贵人. But, she says that it’s not hard to think who is the primary instigator here – the person who is most eager to see the death of the 5th prince. 璎珞 takes this moment to recount all of the previous conflcits between 高贵妃 and 愉贵人 where 高贵妃 tried to harm 愉贵人. And today, 高贵妃 was the first to burst into the hall to try to kill the newly born child. She didn’t try to ask for doctors or to see if there was some other explanation for the child. No, she only wanted the child dead. That is too suspect. 


高贵妃 denies all of this because the body cannot be proof of her connection. Yet, unluckily for her, this chef left a note that plainly states his death was connected to 高贵妃。 At this point, 高贵妃 can only beg and cry that she was framed but the Emperor has had enough.  He orders her to be confined to her palace, not to be released until further notice. 




Everyone breathes a sigh of relief. Ming Yu, this stubborn dolt of a girl, steps forth to tattle on 璎珞. 明玉 states to the Emperor that 璎珞 gave fake orders on behalf of the Empress using the Empress’s seal. This is an unacceptable action and Ying Luo should be punished. This is quickly revealed by 璎珞 to have been a simple ruse. The box holding the Empress’s seal was holding just a ink pot. Not the actual seal itself and so the only crime 璎珞 committed was tricking the likes of 高贵妃。 The Emperor to his credit, punishes 明玉 to 50 canings instead.


Before the night is over, however, 璎珞 asks for a private audience with 纯妃. I really like this scene because this immediately helps us answer some of the plot holes from this previous scene. 璎珞 questions 纯妃 whether or not the 5th prince’s jaundice could simply be from his mother eating excessive amounts of sweets and the pastry. 璎珞 points out many plot holes in 高贵妃‘s actions. How could she be so sure that 愉贵人 would eat so many of the mongolian chef’s meals? How could she be sure that 愉贵人’s child would be born with golden pupils? And how is it possible that 高贵妃 didn’t do a thorough search of the mongolan chef’s belongings after he died? The note that was 纯妃 presented as evidence was too easy to find. This plot is too rudimentary and placed too much on chance for the likes of 高贵妃 to enact upon. 纯妃 though, only smiles serenely and doesn’t directly answer as to whether or not she was behind it. Instead, she says that children of the palace are fated to have a rough life. It is what they must endure in exchange for their life of lavishness. Princes in particular must always fight for the title of crown prince and ultimately the throne. 璎珞 does not agree with 纯妃‘s beliefs and storms off only for 纯妃 to shout that 璎珞’s kindheartedness will ultimately get her killed in the palace. 


The implication here is that 纯妃 did something medically to 愉贵人 to cause this illness and set a trap for 高贵妃。 We for the first time also see just how ruthless 纯妃 can be. 



The rest of the episode revolves around the aftermath of this saga. 愉贵人 is obviously happy to see that her son is healthy and alive and even more pleased to hear from the Empress that she will be raised to the level of 嫔 which means that she will have control of her palace of 永和宫。 This is great news for 愉贵人 that she is able to raise her son with some more freedom.


Meanwhile, 高贵妃 is sulking in her rooms, refusing to eat or speak to anyone. At court however, 高贵妃‘s father 高斌 is presenting his ideas on how to protect against flooding through levees in the empire to  the Emperor. 乾隆 is mightily impressed with 高斌’s proposal but warns that this will cause uproar at court due to the high cost and expansive nature of the project. 高斌, to his credit, does not shy away from his responsibility to manage and build levees. He says that his primarily duty is to the empire and he is not afraid of the backlash as long as he can provide for the Qing dynasty. This greatly moves the Emperor and allows 高斌 to see his daughter while she is in confinement. 


He does visit 高贵妃 but instead of a heartfelt reunion of the father and daughter pair, 高斌 is extremely cold towards his daughter and mocks her for being useless. He reminds her that he has other young and beautiful daughters at his disposal implying that if 高贵妃 loses her usefulness to him, it doesn’t matter. He has others to take her place.


This sets 高贵妃 off and we actually develop a little bit of pity. If there was any way for her father to push her to focus on the Emperor again, it was certainly his little speech because immediately after he leaves, she is ready to turn her sights back to the Emperor again. After all, she needs his attention in order to remain in power in the palace.



One night, the Emperor passes by her palace of 储秀宫 and hears 高贵妃 singing. Inside, she is dressed in a splendid outfit and singing Chinese opera. The opera she’s performing is 贵妃醉酒 or the Drunken Concubine. We’ll discuss more in the history section. The actress for 高贵妃 actually trained with opera masters to perform this scene. 


This immediately attracts the attention of the Emperor and 高贵妃 while tipsy, pushes herself into his arms and cries about her misfortune. It turns out that she an her mother were attacked by water bandits while out with her father who was managing flood waters as an official. 高贵妃 was only 5 but was rescued by local fishermen after floating in the water. Her mother was not so lucky and only remnants of her body were discovered. Due to the implication of what happened to her mother prior to her death, the Gao family refused to include her mother in their ancestral hall. And within a year, 高斌, 高贵妃‘s father married Madame Ma and had more children with her to use as pawns. With this heartfelt explanation, the Emperor also lets down his guard and forgives 高贵妃.


The episode ends with the Emperor ahem, spending the night with 高贵妃. It looks like her fortunes are restored.



Let’s turn our attention to some pop culture!


Our 五阿哥 is finally born! This means that he is the 5th prince! After this episode, I remember everyone posting memes such as – OMG, Empress! It’s your 五阿哥! In the next life, he’s your husband!


Haha – this is because, in Pearl Princess 3 or 还珠格格 天上人间 – the third part of the wildly popular Pearl Princess drama, 秦岚, the actress for the Empress marries 五阿哥 or the 5th Prince. Everyone on the internet was also like – see, I knew nothing would happen to this prince because there would be no Pearl Princess if he died!


The next piece I remember was everyone posting how the Emperor is handling all of the Imperial Harem affairs. He’s participating in “palace battles” instead of the Empress. That’s because the Empress either a) has been MIA like for this event or b) she just isn’t bothered to resort to all these schemes. The Empress is just busy building relationships with the other women in the harem.




To start with history, I’m going to briefly jump back to the Mongolian flatbread that “caused” the jaundice.



I was reading an article saying that this might be a slight bug from the screenwriter because 愉贵人 from history is from the 科尔沁 or Horqin tribe of the Mongol Bordered Blue Banner. Growing up, she probably wouldn’t have eaten these Mongolian Flatbreads but items that more resemble filled pancakes. However, this is just a tiny nitpick that I personally cannot verify. Regardless – everything looks really delicious so I’d love to try it out some time.




Next – let’s discuss 高贵妃’s father – 高斌. He’s a rather cold hearted man, who basically threatens 高贵妃 that if she doesn’t figure out a way to regain favor, he’ll send his other daughters into the palace.


The Gao Family were Han Chinese. They were members of bao yi class or household people of the manchu. They were originally from northeast china. During the reign of emperor 雍正,高斌 rose to an official of the Imperial Household Department and gained favor. He was then sent out of the capital to the southeast of china to manage commerce and trade in the provinces. His daughter was married to the then prince 弘历. When 弘历 became Emperor, he did favor his daughter and shortly granted her the title of Noble Concubine. Due to the favor of 高贵妃 – the whole family was gifted a manchu name of 高佳.


高斌 was indeed in charge of building levees and dams to manage river flow and prevent more disasters along the Yellow River. He was quite successful and did gain the confidence of the emperor. This is the first time that we see him so I wanted to give some background information on this man. We’ll discuss more in future episodes.



Lastly, we want to discuss Chinese Opera! We get a dazzling rendition of 贵妃醉酒 or the Drunken Concubine from 高贵妃 at the end of this episode. 


First let’s do a little introduction on Chinese Opera. We discussed this in episode 22 of Empresses in the Palace. Chinese opera or 戏曲 is a form of musical theater dating back thousands of years. It’s an amalgamation of various different art forms including dance, singing, acrobatics and comedy. The stories used for Chinese Opera range from legends, to local folklore, to history.


The style the 高贵妃 is singing in is actually called 昆曲 or Kun Opera. It is a traditional style of Chinese opera that originated in the 14th century near mount kun in 苏州. It dominated the Opera scene for hundreds of years up until the 18th century. It is often called the mother of all chinese opera. The accompaniment is typically a bamboo flute. Kun Opera influenced many other Chinese musical theater styles including Peking Opera. 


Beijing Opera is the most famous of Chinese Opera, also known as the national opera, but there are a variety of different types of Chinese opera from the different regions of China. They include SiChuan Opera, Cantonese Opera, Yue Opera etc. Peking Opera got its start in the late 18th century during the reign of 乾隆 around 1790. 


Peking Opera began when the Four Great Anhui Troupes (south central China) came to perform for Emperor Qianlong’s 80th birthday party. That type of opera is called 徽剧 and became extremely popular. The opera form incorporated aspects from other opera including styles of singing, stories, martial arts and melodies.


Now how does one differentiate the two? For the uninitiated, it might at first seem quite similar. The differences aren’t as striking as let’s say between Peking opera and Chuan Opera or Yue Opera. Kun Opera or 昆曲 is a style of singing whereas Peking Opera more denotes a location. The style of singing in peking opera is called 北京皮黄. It’s quite different. In Kun Opera – when the performer sings, there’s usually accompanying movement. For Peking Opera, the performer usually stands. 


The reason why I bring up both Peking Opera and Kun Opera is because in this drama, they combine both to create this performance of 贵妃醉酒.


贵妃醉酒 Drunken Concubine recounts a story from the love affair between Noble Consort Yang of 杨贵妃 and her relationship to the Tang Dynasty Emperor 唐玄宗. These events occur around the mid 8th century AD. We talked about this pair previously in our episode about Lychee. Indeed Noble Consort Yang or 杨贵妃 is one of the most famous women in chinese history, which is why legends or stories are constantly told in various forms.


The story goes as such – one day, the Emperor 唐玄宗 informs Noble Consort Yang that they will have a date together. He wants her to set up a small banquet for the two of them at the hundred flower pavilion to enjoy the flowers and drink wine. The next day, Noble Concubine Yang arrives for the banquet and waits for the emperor. But the Emperor does not come. A eunuch comes to inform that the Emperor has instead gone to another concubines palace. When Noble Concubine Yang hears of this, she drinks wine to drown her sorrows and jealousy, hence the story, the Drunken Concubine. 


The story of the 贵妃醉酒 Drunken Concubine has been around since the early 9th century. Variations of the story have been passed down and performed as plays or operas throughout the centuries. Ok – so here’s where we have like a whole Peking Opera and Kun Opera combination. This Peking opera was only composed and performed in 1914 by the famous Peking Opera and Kun opera performer 梅兰芳. It has since stayed in the repertoire for the past hundred years. 


In the drama, the style of singing that 高贵妃 is singing is in the style of Kun Opera. It can ONLY be kun opera because well, Peking Opera wasn’t invented yet. However, the lines that she sings and the drinking wing from the cup are from the Peking Opera 贵妃醉酒. The accompaniment is still with the 二胡 and the clothing  and headdress are more reminiscent of Peking Opera rather than Kun Opera. This whole scene, while lovely to the Chinese Opera uninitiated, is a bit jarring to those who are more familiar with the topic. I fall in the former camp. I only found out about these differences after conducting research on the topic for the episode. 


I still highly enjoy the performance here though. Kudos to the actress 谭卓 for nailing the scene. I can tell that she put the work in to get the Kun Opera movement and style right.

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