Welcome back 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 21 of The Story of Yanxi Palace or 延禧攻略. This podcast is in english with proper nouns and certain phrases spoken in Mandarin Chinese.
For these episodes, we do a drama episode recap and then go into history and culture discussed in the drama.
After doing a deep dive on this episode, I realized that the plot against 璎珞 is way too simplistic and too theatrical. Good thing this took only like half an episode so you don’t think too much about it. What happened exactly?
We ended last episode with a whole rant about the Emperor’s birthday celebration and how the instruments aren’t period accurate but we turn back to the real plot at hand. Shu Gui Ren has been hoping to join 高贵妃 or Noble Consort Gao’s camp and to do so must prove herself useful. The only condition to BE useful is to get rid of 魏璎珞. And so, they use the Emperor’s birthday gift of the beautiful buddha tower with the priceless buddha relic or 舍利子 as bait.
The tower with the relic has been put in storage for 璎珞 to watch but 明玉 immediately took over that task in order to gain favor. But this was not said publicly. In any case, at the end of episode 20, there was a dazzling display of fireworks that distracted all of the maids, leaving the storage room empty. But, 璎珞 and 明玉 find upon returning that the relic has been stolen! 珍珠 the other maid who was supposed to watch the gifts reveal that she did see the outline of none other than 舒贵人 walk out of the room when she returned from watching fireworks.
I just want to say that this was rather rudimentary on 舒贵人’s part. Why do this yourself???
璎珞 and 明玉 are both extremely worried now because of what punishment awaits them if they are found to have lost the relic. But they believe that 舒贵人 probably could not have had an opportunity yet to move the relic, meaning it must still be on her person so they devise a plan to retrieve this relic.
At the main hall, the Emperor, Empress and the rest of the palace are enjoying a dance performance. 璎珞 then gives a performance herself (which I’m like, who are you and why do you know everything? In any case, 高贵妃 and 舒贵人 are looking rather smug because they think they’ve won. However, 璎珞 puts on a freaking magic show where she makes the buddha tower magically appear in the hall, amazing everyone.
But, they notice that the relic is gone. 璎珞 then follows up by saying that she purposefully declided to “move” the relic separately because of how valuable it is. She then announces that the relic was placed on 舒贵人‘s person. 舒贵人 wants to deny it but 璎珞 steps in and does some hocus pocus and just so happens to find the relic hidden in 舒贵人’s sleeve. 璎珞 immediately grabs the relic and lo and behold, it’s there!
The saga with the stolen relic is resolved and 舒贵人 and 高贵妃 can only fume their little plot didn’t work.
I personally really didn’t think this scene worked too well because there are soooo many plot holes and too many coincidences for this to work/
The whole point of this little adventure was to force 明玉 to work together with 魏璎珞 as they are now unlikely allies. FINALLY. 明玉 you can stop being so short sighted. The other point of this scene was for 璎珞 to enact on her plan to push the Empress into the limelight. The reason being is that 舒贵人 was supposed to spend her FIRST night with the Emperor which is a reward for her thoughtful birthday gift for the Emperor. But, this 舒贵人 insulted 璎珞 so she decided to take her revenge by foiling her perfect night.
Back at 长春宫, 璎珞 brings forth a dress named 洛神 dress for the Empress. The dress is so name for the 洛神 goddess which we will discuss in more detail. If you recall, the Empress painted two paintings for the Emperor’s birthday but kept the 洛神 painting instead of gifting it. She explains that it was not appropriate for the festivities. But 璎珞 and the rest of the maids in the palace persuade the Empress to change into this outfit. After she changes, they also urge her to dance because the Empress is stunning in the outfit.
Well. I think she looks great. At least very different from her usual attire.
BUT we’ll bring in some commentary about the outfit when the drama aired. From my side, despite the Empress dancing beautifully and looking fantastic, one cannot help but be reminded of the fact that this scene is eerily similar to the scene from 甄嬛传 or Empresses in the Palace when 甄嬛 danced 惊鸿舞. Complete with the long sleeves. And I’m gonna be honest, I think 孙俪 probably did a better job dancing in that drama than here. I think 秦岚 the actress for the Empress is beautiful but you could tell she didn’t have a full choreographed dance for this scene, unlike 甄嬛传。
[talk about the song playing in the background]
宫墙柳 – I have quibbles about this whole musical choice.
This breathtaking scene is encountered by none other than the Emperor who is absolutely besotted at how lovely his Empress looks. He immediately takes her inside the rooms for ahem, a closer look. 明玉 and 璎珞 are all basically giving each other high fives that their plan worked because they most definitely steered the Emperor over to 长春palace. And with that, the Empress enjoys the company of the Emperor for the evening while 舒贵人 who had prepared elaborately for her evening with the emperor was told to go home. Needless to say, she was humiliated and devastated. Awwww too bad. Honestly, she has ambition but not enough brains to really succeed in the palace.
尔晴 though was quick to pick up on the fact that what happened tonight was not by chance. This must have been planned for a long time by 璎珞 because the outfit was tailored specifically for the Empress. Tonight was just the opportune night to bring it out because 舒贵人 was too obnoxious. Aww. How sweet is 璎珞. She absolutely adores the Empress and did everything she could to help her gain favor.
Well with the success of the Empress that night, the entire palace is abuzz with how beautiful she was and everyone is hoping to copy her style. Complete with clothing and makeup. 舒贵人 is of course, furious with how her special night turned out and goes off to complain to 高贵妃. 高贵妃 gives 舒贵人 another chance to be useful and turn this around in their favor. Uh oh. Once again, these ladies are up to their palace tricks while literally no one else is.
One day, 璎珞 is told to accompany the Empress as well as Empress Dowager who has finally returned to the palace to go for a walk in the gardens. YAYYY we have the Empress dowager back! Agak 甄嬛 is back now! 高贵妃 is also in attendance as wel as 舒贵人. They partake in their leisurely stroll and the Emperss Dowager is shown to be a kindly woman. But despite the smile, her words carry quite a bit of weight as she compliments the Empress. The group of ladies are enjoying some time in a gardens when they hear a scream nearby.
Immediately, 高贵妃 instructs her maid to check it out and she bolts off. 璎珞 sensing something was off, drags 明玉 to chase after the maid. It’s cute. Seems like 璎珞 and 明玉 are friends now!
明玉 blocks the other maid from heading to the scene of whatever happens and Ying Luo runs over to find a maid’s body on the ground. Evidently, this maid fell from one of the floors above. Two maids, with the painted flower makeup in the middle of their forehead that invokes the Empress’s look, rush to the ground. Ying luo places a handkerchief over the deceased maid’s face before the Empress Dowager and company arrive.
The two maids kneeling on the ground now next to their friend’s body tearfully cry that this was an accident. They were all just playing because they were playing a dress up game that originated in Chang Chun Palace but they didn’t realize they would cause such a mistake. The Empress dowager gives a side-eye to the Empress who can only hold her breath. This looks bad for it means she is the reason behind this poor girl’s death if this were true.
璎珞‘s alarm bells went blaring and she interjects that from the looks of her makeup, the deceased made was probably trying to dress up as the Noble Consort Yang or 杨贵妃 and fell accidentally. As to why this maid would dress up as 杨贵妃，璎珞 skillfully turns the suspicion onto 高贵妃 who has been singing 贵妃醉酒 or the Drunken Concubine which features the Noble Consort Yang.
The look of shock on 高贵妃’s face is hilarious. She’s like WHY DID THIS TURN TO ME?
Ying Luo totally then insults Gao Gui Fei by emphasizing all the reasons why this is plausible. It’s because Gao Gui Fei constantly sings opera in her palace. All different kinds of opera that may be even better than the professional opera singers out there. Under the back and forth between 明玉 and 璎珞, 高贵妃 is backed to a corner since the Empress never dressed up as 杨贵妃. To prove her point, 璎珞 removes the handkerchief covering the dead maid’s face and reveals a face smeared with red and black paint. This is typical of opera signers at the time to paint their faces.
高贵妃 and 舒贵人 are in shock as to why this would be the case and The Empress Dowager just gives these two ladies a side eye before sternly saying 回宫 or return.
The episode ends with 高贵妃 and 舒贵人 foiled one more time in their plot to get rid of 魏璎珞 and 璎珞 asks the Empress to interrogate the remaining two maids to figure out exactly what happened.
Luo Shen 洛神 is also known as the “Goddess of the River Luo”. She was also called Consort Mi 宓妃. Legend has it, she was the daughter of the mythical emperor Fu Xi 伏羲. She drowned when crossing the river and then transformed into a river deity. She guards the rivers and is prayed to for safe crossings. In Chinese culture, she is also known for her beauty.
She was first mentioned in the Verses of Chu or 楚辞 which began roughly in the 3rd century BC. That anthology was first created by 屈原.
Perhaps the most famous is Cao Zhi’s 曹植 (192-232 CE) rhapsody of Luoshen 洛神賦. It is a rhapsody that describes a fictional encounter between him and the goddess. They fall in love but have to tragically depart. There is an accompanying series of paintings by the painter 顾恺之that depicts the rhapsody. The surviving rendition is a copy from the 宋 dynasty. This series is currently in The Palace Museum in Beijing.
Now in the drama – I can’t really tell the exact painting that the drama is referencing. It was too quick of a shot in episode 20, so I can’t provide a comment. However, let’s discuss the costume that the Empress wears in episode 21.
Honestly – when this episode came out, everyone, including the actress herself, ridiculed the outfit.
Well – why? I’m reading some comments and they’re quite hilarious. Some say her hairstyle looks like half a croissant, there’s 3 HUGE flowers added, and it just looks tacky! The actress 秦岚 herself posted a photo comparing herself to Peppa PIG because she thought they looked similar.
But! Joke is on all of us because someone posted online the comparison between the Empress’s outfit in this episode with a Yuan Dynasty painting depicting Luo Shen. The hairstyle is surprisingly similar. There might not be the whole flowers but the hair? Yes – it’s in a similar shape.
As for the outfit – in the drama, 魏璎珞 previously asked to use 辑jí里湖丝 or 辑丝 to make a piece of clothing for the Empress, which turns out to be this 洛神 outfit.
辑里湖丝 comes from the village of 南浔 in the 浙江 province of China. It is considered one of the most prestigious of silks. Historically, the golden and yellow robes for the Emperor could only use 辑丝. 9 robes by Emperor 康熙 were specifically ordered from this area and using this silk. Indeed the village became immensely wealthy throughout the centuries due to the silk business. According to Baike – by the end of the Qing Dynasty – so early 20th century, this village was was amongst the wealthiest in China.
The original names for this type of silk originated all the way back in 602 AD. It grew in popularity during Ming Dynasty and reached its peak in the Qing Dynasty. So the fact that this type of silk is used for the Empress here is very era appropriate.
Next – let’s talk about the 花钿 or plum blossom makeup. We discussed this during our Mulan episode and also a couple of episodes in Empresses in the palace. The origins of this actually come around this time during the Song Wu Dynasty in the south. One princess 寿阳公主 was sleeping and flower petals landed on her forehead. She couldn’t peel them off but after 3 days, they finally washed off but left 5 petal marks on her forehead. Her maids and other ladies in the palace thought it looked lovely and all wanted to mimic the style. The Plum Flower style was born. It was very fashionable to draw flower shapes on one’s forehead and it persisted well into the Tang Dynasty and Song Dynasty.
Lastly, the collar or 云肩 that the Empress wears definitely has more of a Miao minority influence rather than the traditional han influence, let alone Manchu influence. We will talk about 云肩 or cloud collars in the future, maybe during an episode when there’s not much history to discuss.
Next up – let’s talk a bit more about the Chinese opera that is featured in this episode.
When 舒贵人 goes to find 高贵妃, 高贵妃 is singing again from The Drunken Concubine or 贵妃醉酒. We discussed this at length in the last episode.
She sings – 独坐皇宫有数年，圣驾宠爱我占先。宫中冷落多寂寞，辜负嫦娥独自眠
This roughly translates
Sitting idly in the palace for several years
I had the Emperor’s favor first
The palace is cold and lonely
He has left 嫦娥 or the moon goddess to sleep by herself
These lines come directly from the Peking Opera version of the Drunken Concubine. The later lines that she sings when 舒贵人 takes her leave also come from that opera.
魏璎珞 lists 2 other opera names when trying to clear the Empress’s name.
She names 长生殿 and 霸王别姬 as other two.
长生殿 – Palace of Eternal Youth was written in 1688. It was primarily acted as a Kun Opera. The first half again recounts the love story between the Emperor 唐玄宗 and the concubine 杨贵妃 but it is also a criticism on the lavishness of the palace and the Emperor’s dismissal of his Empire, leading to the An Shi Rebellion. The second half is a fantasy in which the Emperor is very remorseful for the love. He finds her soul. Both repent for their sins. Their love touched the gods and they were allowed to meet again in the moon palace.
Again – another story about 唐玄宗 and 杨贵妃. This is much more era appropriate for the drama. Indeed this Kun Opera is the inspiration for the Peking Opera the Drunken Concubine. The author’s story is absolutely crazy. I’ll just end with that he died by drunkenly drowning in a river!
Lastly, let’s discuss 霸王别姬 or farewell my concubine. This is a complete anachronism. The Peking Opera debuted in 1918 and recounts the tragic love story between 项羽, the King of Western Chu during the Chu–Han Contention period of China and his beloved concubine 虞姬. The opera draws heavily from history and another MIng Dynasty opera.
This opera is very famous opera and was written by the creator 梅兰芳. This is not to be confused with the possibly more famous movie in the West, the 1993 film farewell my concubine directed by 陈凯歌. It is a REALLY good movie. I recommend those who have never seen it to do so. It’s not a light movie so just be aware but it really does give a good depiction of Chinese opera and life during the early decades of the 20th century in mainland China.