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 22 +23 of The Story of Yanxi Palace or 延禧攻略. This podcast is in english with proper nouns and certain phrases sp2oken in Mandarin Chinese.
For these episodes, we do a drama episode recap and then go into history and culture discussed in the drama.
We left off the last episode with the tragic death of a maid who fell from a higher floor. Her death startled the Empress Dowager, the Empress, Gao Gui Fei and Shu Gui Ren who were in the garden nearby. At first, the two other maids with the maid that died explained that they accidentally caused the tragedy due to a silly dress up game they were playing with the hint that they were dressing up as the Empress in her turn as the Goddess of the River Luo. This would look very badly for the Empress so Ying Luo cleverly turned the story on Gao Gui Fei in front of the Empress Dowager and claimed that the dead maid was trying to copy Gao Gui Fei and her opera make up instead. The Empress Dowager doesn’t say anything at this and leaves with a stern look on her face.
We start with episode 22 with Ying Luo discussing with the Empress, Ming Yu and Er Qing that given what just happened, it seemed like this was a plot by Gao Gui Fei to ruin the Empress. So, she stepped in and smeared crushed berries she picked nearby on the dead maid’s face to fake the appearance of opera make up and hide the Goddess make up to trick the Empress Dowager when they arrived. The two other maids on the scene were also too suspect in their actions after the third maid died so it’s not hard to deduce that this was all a plot by Gao Gui Fei and Shu Gui Ren to harm the Empress.
Interestingly though, we next see Gao Gui Fei’s Chu Xiu Gong being ransacked by a number of eunuchs. Well at least her opera stage is being ransacked. She rushes in shocked at the scene and demands the eunuchs stop but then, the Empress Dowager’s head maid arrives with Gao Gui Fei’s beloved opera outfits and orders them to be burned. This whole scene is by order of the Empress Dowager herself. I really appreciate this scene because it shows that the Empress Dowager saw through the little trick Gao Gui Fei enacted with the whole make up plot against the Empress and is now punishing Gao Gui Fei by taking the thing that she loves most. But also, the Empress Dowager can use the fact that a noble consort in the palace should not be singing opera which would reduce her status as a member of the palace and also cause havoc for the Emperor. At this, Gao Gui Fei is uttered speechless and heartbroken.
And it’s not like the Empress does not realize that she also caused a lot of heartache and problems in the palace. She calmly explains to her worried maids that she is not mad at them more so that she is mad at herself. She forgot her duty and reverted back to her days before marriage with that dance and outfit. She has to always remember her duty as Empress and live her life according to those expectations and rules in order to be a good Empress. She does note that the Empress Dowager no doubt saw through the plot but also didn’t press the Empress further in order to help her save face. But that does not mean the Empress cannot heed this warning.
Anyone watch the Crown? I feel like this is quite relevant now given the recent death of the Queen but in the Crown, Queen Elizabeth II was always talking about duty and that it was her responsibility to see the crown and monarchy endure. I feel like that’s quite a good comparison with what we see here with the Empress.
In any case, Shu Gui Ren heads to Chu Xiui Gong to beg for forgiveness for her failed attempts to eliminate Ying Luo. She kneels for an entire night and finally when she sees Gao Gui Fei proposes going after Ying Lou anothe way. Instead of trying to eliminate her, why not try to use her for their own purposes? There must be be some type of leverage against her they can use. Gao Gui Fei agrees with this plan and next thing we know, they get all the details about Ying Luo’s true motivation for coming to the palace from Zhang Mo Mo, the maid from the Embroidery Department that YIng Luo is close with. Under threat, Zhang Mo Mo had no option but to spill the beans.
Soon after, Ying Luo is accosted by Gao Gui Fei’s maid for a twilight meet up with Gao Gui Fei. This comes right after Ying Luo noticed that Zhang Mo mo was acting oddly when Ying Luo went to visit her. At Zhong Cui Gong, Gao Gui Fei and Shu Gui Ren introduce a witness to the events that happened that day, a eunuch who saw the whole thing unfold and also produced a royal belt that could only have been worn by the perpetrator. The belt’s owner? Fu Heng. Gao Gui Fei and Shu Gui Ren pounce on this opportunity and goad Ying Luo into taking revenge against the Empress for what she has done to protect her brother from this unspeakable act. They suggest that the three of them work together to bring down the Empress and Fu Heng so Ying Luo can get revenge. Shu Gui Ren suggests poison and gives her a pouch full of it.
The following events move rather quickly as Ying Luo enacts her plan for revenge. One day, Fu Heng arrives to visit his sister and Ying Luo goes to help prepare the tea for Fu Heng and the Empress. Once the tea is prepared, Ying Luo and company head over to the main hall and meet Chun Fei whom we have not seen in quite some time on the way. She also wanted to visit the Empress but turned away after hearing that Fu Heng was already there.
But, as Ying Luo presents the tea to the Empress and Fu Heng, Chun Fei bursts into the room, smashing Fu Heng’s tea cup in the process. She reveals that Ying Luo must be hoping to poison FU Heng and the Empress because Chun Fei smelled the fragrance on her person that Gao Gui Fei uses, and found a pouch of poison in Ying Luo’s quarters.
Ying Luo roundly denies the poison and proves it by drinking the tea meant for the Empress but does finally explain to the Empress what happened to her sister. And thankfully, Ying Luo explains that she’s not blind. She sees how kind the Empress is to her and is sure that the Empress would not stoop so low as to kill Ying Luo’s sister.
However, that doesn’t mean Ying Luo isn’t pissed at Fu Heng even if she does believe he didn’t do anything to her sister. She deduced that Fu Heng must have purposefully led her astray to prevent her from knowing the truth. He doesn’t deny this but does insist he did this in order to protect her as if she continues to seek the truth, it will only result in more pain for her. But, Ying Luo doesn’t listen. I mean, with her personality? No way.
The main perpetrator is finally revealed soon after at a tea banquet the Emperor hosts with a couple of his close relatives in the imperial garden. These relatives include his brothers and a few uncles. The main guest today is the 5th prince, Hong Zhou! For those familiar with Empresses in the Palace, he was not actually shown in the drama. But in this drama, he has a rather prominent role. We also see the 6th prince, Hong Yan who, in Empresses in the Palace, was Zhen Huan’s child.
This 5th prince, Hong Zhou, is immediately shown to be an arrogant and immature man who openly punched an important court official among many other misdeeds. Many of the uncles at this party were plenty displeased with Hong Zhou’s behavior. Once his brother, the Emperor arrives, the 5th prince, Hong Zhou’s behavior further escalates. He drinks the tea the Emperor provides and promptly pretends to die of poison, scaring the rest in attendance only to suddenly sit up laughing at them in jest. The Emperor doesn’t think much of it.
That night as the royals leave, they are met with a downpour. And in the thunder and lightning of the evening, a shadow of a dead maid streaks across the palace wall, scattering the group. None is more scared though than Hong Zhou who sees flashbacks of the maid he defiled. He is reduced to a blubbering mess, falling to the ground and screaming that a ghost has come after him when Fu Heng and the other imperial guards happen upon him.
It doesn’t get past him that this must have been a set up by Ying Luo who heard that there were important royals having tea with the Emperor. Fu Heng believes that Ying Luo was the one to create the image in order to figure out who was the ultimate perpetrator. Yet he warns her to stay away. The 5th prince has the unparalleled backing of the Emperor. And says that unless Hong Zhou commits a crime equivalent to a coup, the Emperor will not punish him. REMEMBER THOSE WORDS!!!! Ying Luo doesn’t acknowledge him and just walks away.
The next day, Fu Heng meets the 5th prince Hong Zhou and tries to help YIng Luo resolve this matter. In front of the Empress at Chang Chun Gong, Hong Zhou is brought forth and admits that he changed into Fu Heng’s clothes and took advantage of YIng Luo’s sister but says that it was because he drank too much. He presents Ying Luo with a tray full of gold as compensation for what happened and even apologizes. THough, he denies killing her. To further compensate Ying Luo, he agrees to claim that he married her sister, A Man as a concubine which will give her at least some status. The nail in the coffin for Ying Luo’s quest for revenge though, is that Hong Zhou brings forth Ying Luo’s father and agrees to install him at an important post in the palace. That way, their family name will be saved and her sister can be buried with honors.
Poor Ying Luo. You know she absolutely hates Hong Zhou and is furious that she has to succumb to pressure to let him go. But she unfortunately has no choice. With that, we leave the story of Ying Luo’s sister’s death… Or do we? We’ll learjn more in the upcming episodes.
The only other scene to talk about is Xian Fei. We haven’t seen her in a while and we get another glimpse of just how crafty she can be. The Emperor came to inform her that the 4th prince, whom she had been taking care of for a while after the death of his mother, will be taken away soon to be raised by her aunt who may come to the palace. Xian Fei doesn’t object on the surface but that night, purposefully injures herself while tending to the 3rd prince so that the Emperor will see just how much effort she’s put into raising the 4th prince thereby leaving him be. We are now seeing the seamless skill that Xian Fei has in manipulating one’s heart for her purposes.
We’ll talk about the scene where, in order to get the Empress to talk to the maids, 魏璎珞 pretends to pray to the Empress and they have a whole exchange.
璎珞 asks the goddess, who is the Empress, to guide her and forgive her for any of her wrongdoings. The Empress, finally turns her attention towards 璎珞 and jokingly says – I’m not 嫦娥 and you’re not 颠当
The story that they reference is called 嫦娥 or the Moon Goddess. It was written by 蒲松龄 between the late 1600s and first published in 1740. The stories are compiled into Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio or 聊斋志异. This collection includes almost 500 stories or marvel tales that uses legends, ghosts, and the supernatural to comment on societal problems. I have never read the original collection but several pretty well known dramas and movies have been made over the years that are based off of several stories within the collection. There are several translation in english. For those of you who are interested – I recommend you to read a couple of stories.
The specific story of 嫦娥 – the moon goddess is um, quite convoluted. I read it several times but I couldn’t quite make too much of it.
Ok – to keep it short. 嫦娥 is disguised as a human. A young man 宗子美 spots her and falls in love. He asks for her hand via an old scrooge because 嫦娥 randomly just shows up to the old scrooge’s house. A year later, the man comes back to ask for her hand. However, the old scrooge doesn’t agree because he couldn’t afford the bride price.
宗子美 then meets another woman called 颠当 and they agree to get married. Another day 宗子美 encounters 嫦娥. She gives him the gold to afford the bride price. He returns to tell 颠当. Hearing this story – 颠当 agrees to be a concubine instead but later reneges and disappears with her mother. Later – 宗子美 and 嫦娥 do get married. 宗子美 laments that he never saw the likes of the famous women of 杨贵妃 and 赵飞燕. 嫦娥 smiles. Looking at paintings, she transforms into these women to uh please her husband.
One day – 嫦娥 gets kidnapped. 宗子美 tries to find her but to no avail. On another day, he meets a beggar who turns out to be 颠当 who tells him where to find 嫦娥. He does and finds out that 嫦娥 is a goddess who was punished to the mortal realm and now she must leave. Unfortunately that was too much to bear for 宗子美, who tries to commit suicide. 嫦娥 rescues him and, finds 颠当 to punish her. They find out that 颠当 is a fox spirit.
The three live together – but at this point 嫦娥 doesn’t enjoy sleeping with her husband. One day, she finds out that her husband is entangled with 颠当 who transformed into 嫦娥. As punishment, 嫦娥 causes 颠当 to have a massive headache. 颠当 immediately drags 宗子美 to 嫦娥’s bedside and bows to her to ask for her forgiveness. 嫦娥 at first doesn’t oblige. 颠当 then says, I’ll pray to her as if she’s a Bodhisattva! She then actually goes and get’s a small vase, adds water, and a willow branch and prays to 嫦娥.
This is the scene that 魏璎珞 is imitating in the drama.
Ok – the story so far is convoluted right? I had to give enough backstory because I wanted to provide information on the characters. I don’t really understand WHY 璎珞 is imitating this scene because right after what I translated in the story. The author gives us probably the like MOST homoerotic passage that I have encountered while doing research for the podcast. 颠当 proceeds to kiss 嫦娥’s feet. 嫦娥, the goddess herself, feels a little bit of lust but quickly kicks 颠当 away.
颠当 the fox spirit is seducing another woman! Karen – what do you think? Is it subtle? I don’t think so – my jaw kind of dropped when I read the original text. It’s like quite obvious?
This also goes back to our previous discussions on how this is probably one of the first major dramas to reference lesbian relationships. We mentioned before that there were mentions of lesbianism in chinese literature, especially in Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio but I didn’t expect to read one for the drama.
The timing in the drama could be an anachronism. We’re in the early 1740s and the stories were written in the late 1600s. However, I SERIOUSLY doubt that people like the Empress are reading these stories. I don’t think the Empress would have taken very kindly to what 璎珞 did – with regards to praying to her because uh – the literal next lines in the story would then be 璎珞’s character 颠当 uh trying to seduce the Empress who is 嫦娥 in the story. Also 颠当 is fox spirit, who are known to be seducers. I think the sentiment is fine to have 璎珞 try to cheer the Empress up but the usage of this story is probably HIGHLY inappropriate.
Tying this back to pop culture – there’s a reason why the Empress and 魏璎珞 have so many couple shippers. The drama supports them as a couple! Haha – I mean look at the texts they’re referencing! I won’t recount the rest of the story but if you can find a version of it in english – I highly recommend doing so.
三清茶 – Three Clear Tea
In episode 23, Emperor 乾隆 invites his brothers and other relatives for tea. We are introduced to 三清茶 – Three Clear Tea. The Emperor informs us that it’s brewed using snow water with the Longjing tea along with 梅花、松实、佛手. This means plum blossoms, pine nuts and the fingered citron. It’s also called the buddha hand – that’s the literal translation. I don’t think I’ve ever had a buddha hand but it really looks like many fingers! The ingredients give a soothing aroma.
Now – I’ve never had three clear tea but I think I have all of the ingredients except for the buddha hand. Perhaps I’ll brew it this winter? But I really don’t know how snow water makes a big difference.
The recipe is true to history and is one of Emperor 乾隆’s favorite teas. He was the one who invented this tea mixture. Over the years – he had multiple banquets just to feature this tea during the first month of the new year. Indeed, there’s a whole poem that he wrote in 1746 that’s dedicated to this tea.
The name for the tea – three clear tea is also a lesson / warning that the Emperor wanted to give to his ministers. 清 means clear but the three clears that he names for this tea is 清廉、清正、清民 – which means honesty, clarity, and openness to the people. He wants his ministers to be upstanding people and not corrupt.
We are introduced to the 6th prince – 弘昼! He’s an absolute scoundrel. At the gathering with the Emperor, 弘昼 recites a poem before faking his poisoning.
It goes as such:
金樽吟 – the golden goblet hymn
My translation roughly goes like this.
There are many uncertainties in the world, nothing is clear. Why not enjoy the wine and enjoy life? I’ll drink from my glass until I am drunk, then I won’t be bothered by the worries of the world. It’s rare to find a true friend in the world. Why not invite them for good wine and for a good time?
This poem was indeed written by 弘昼 and probably his most famous. It is also dubbed as his “savior” poem. In this poem, 弘昼 informs the world that he has no ambition. He’s simply enjoying his life and the pleasure of drink. Rumor has it, that this poem reduced a lot of suspicion on him from the Emperor. It doesn’t do well for the Emperor to have ambitious brothers of the same age. Emperor 乾隆’s older brother and 乾隆 didn’t get along due to this reason. 弘昼 lived a relatively long life because he smartly avoided politics.
In the last stanza – 推杯换盏话古今, the 换盏 means to swap the drinking cup. In terms of the poem, it’s more in reference that the group continuously drinks and refills the cup. In the drama, though young prince 弘曕 responds to hearing this line – oh is there really poison in the cup?
I don’t think this really matches the essence of the poem cause the swapping of cups isn’t about actually swapping cups. It’s to refill. But that’s just a nitpick. I can brush it off as the young prince is too young to know better.