Turning of the Tides
Welcome back to Chasing Dramas. This is the podcast that discusses Chinese history and culture through historical Chinese dramas. We are your hosts for today, Karen and Cathy.
Today we are discussing episodes 30+31 of The Story of Yanxi Palace. This podcast is in english with proper nouns and certain phrases spoken in Mandarin Chinese. If you have any questions, please reach out to us!
In this podcast episode, we’ll do an episode recap and then move onto history. If you have any questions or comments, please reach out to us!
In the last 2 episodes, we followed Ying Luo work hard labor at Xin Zhe Ku, the department of hard labor. This creates an opening for those wanting to harm the Empress as she now doesn’t have such a protective servant helping her. What’s more problematic is that the Empress is pregnant as well which makes the women of the palace even more eager to strike.
We return to the family feast the Empress Dowager organized for the Double Ninth Festival. It’s quite dark out and one of the maids brought over a plate of deer blood for the Empress’s hot pot. But she didn’t want to eat it so the maid retreated. But as she stepped back, she dropped the plate of blood. Immediately a swarm of bats appear out of no where, apparently attracted by the fallen plate of blood which looks so fake it’s rather disturbing. Anyways, the bats attack the ladies indiscriminately and it’s absolute chaos. The result is that Gao Gui Fei takes this opportunity to push the Empress down a railing so that she falls unconscious. Gao Gui Fei herself slams her arm into a pillar to pretend that she injured herself while trying to save the Empress.
But it was too late to prevent harm to the Empress. She is brought back to her palace and tended to by a number of doctors. She has a large bruised forehead and is now unconscious. The Emperor is absolutely distraught at hearing what happened and stays at her bedside but the Empress is now left in precarious health. It’s unclear when she’ll be healthy again or even wake up.
Elsewhere, Xian Fei impresses the Empress Dowager as she took charge of the situation with quick thinking and leadership poise while the bats were attacking. Xian Fei managed to keep some semblance of order until the imperial guards arrived. After the chaos subsided, the Empress Dowager was so impressed with Xian Fei that she decides to give more power to Xian Fei. With a power vacuum now present in the palace given the Empress’s state, Xian Fei will now easily fill that role.
Ming Yu who feels terrible about not having been able to protect the Empress from such an unfortunate attack and goes to find Ying Luo for help at Xin Zhe Ku. I do feel bad for Ming Yu who was not equipped to handle a million bats attacking the group. Ying Luo already has a gut feeling after hearing it was Gao Gui Fei that first found the Empress that it was probably she who orchestrated this whole thing.
And yep – it was her that planned the attacking bats. She injured herself in order to steer any and all suspicion away from her. She is absolutely relishing in her victory against the Empress despite the pain she placed upon herself.
What is surprising is that when Ying Luo is dragged by Ming Yu to go check on the Empress, Ying Luo suddenly turns extremely cold towards the entire staff of Chang Chun Palace. In front of all of her old colleagues, she states that what happens to the Empress is none of her business any more. They are no longer connected after the Empress banished her so she, Ying Luo should not have to bother thinking about the Empress whatsoever. This angers all of the other maids at Chang Chun palace. Fu Heng, who is impatiently waiting for news about his sister, is also similarly rebuffed when he tries to talk to Ying Luo. She wants nothing to do with them because her current life is indeed extremely harsh.
Shortly after, Ying Luo is goaded into sending milk over to Chu Xiu Gong where Gao Gui Fei lives by Jin Xiu which she accepts. Gao Gui Fei is of course still ecstatic at the fact that the Empress has met her downfall and even more pleased to see the likes of Ying Luo act as her lowly servant. Despite Gao Gui Fei’s injuries, she humiliates and even steps on Ying Luo’s hands as Ying Luo prepares a bath for Gao Gui Fei using the milk she brought. Luckily for Ying Luo, it is at this point that the Emperor arrives to visit Gao Gui Fei. He happens upon a disheveled looking Ying Luo with clear injuries on her hand. She is dismissed by Gao Gui Fei but then is followed by the Emperor because he could tell something was amiss. He followed Ying Luo in the pouring rain to see her hunched in a corner of the garden next to some rocks looking dazed.
The Emperor is furious at Ying Luo’s respectful greeting to him, looking pitiful in the rain and angrily throws her his umbrella but not before telling her to get out of his sight. This is an interesting scene to me because it shows that the Emperor cares about Ying Luo though even he might not know why he cares about her. He returned to his study but paced for a hot second before turning around and stomping back to where Ying Luo hid in the garden. He remembered just how injured she looked. But by the time he went back to her hiding place, she had gone, leaving the umbrella behind. He’s annoyed that she didn’t accept his kindness which is fair but he also forbids anyone to use milk for bathing ever in the future. It’s an expensive and lavish habit to keep. This is implicitly punishing Gao Gui Fei for what she did to Ying Luo even if he wasn’t blatant about it.
Meanwhile, Ying Luo, having been out in the rain and suffering numerous injuries, passes out along side one of the corridors of the palace. It is at that moment that Xian Fei’s procession happens by and she, in an off handed comment, asks for a doctor to tend to Ying Luo. I don’t think Xian Fei even knew who this maid was but was kind enough to call for a doctor to check up on her. As one of the eunuchs who helped drag Ying Luo off the main road noted, Ying Luo must thank Xian Fei for her kindness. No other person in the palace would help the likes of Ying Luo in her current state. This is an extremely important fact to remember.
Both Ying Luo and the Empress are sick which gives Xian Fei the opportunity to fully showcase her skills.
At the end of episode 30 and onto 31, we turn to Xian Fei’s management abilities. After being given authority to manage the palace in the Empress’s stead by the Empress Dowager, Xian Fei has come up with a number of new ideas to help reduce waste in the palace and garner more funds. Her management style is starkly different from the Empress’s who focused on cutting costs whereas Xian Fei is identifying new ideas for growth.
She does also suggest to the Empress Dowager with Gao Gui Fei sitting to the side that she plans to set up a porridge tent or equivalent to a soup kitchen for recent flood victims that have escaped to the Capital. Xian Fei enjoys the full support of the capital, much to the chagrin of Gao Gui Fei and sets off to do her task. Though I do greatly appreciate Gao GUi Fei seeing through Xian Fei’s act. Her line that Gao Gui Fei can see through actors very easily was quite on the nose. As we know, Xian Fei is not the innocent and uncompetitive lamb we’ve met at the beginning of the drama.
The day of charity arrives and Xian Fei oversees the hungry crowd. The palace staff that help out in giving food come from none other than Xin Zhe Ku. Ying Luo is too ill to join but Yuan Chun Wang watches with his beady eyes as flood victims at first orderly get food but then shortly after turn into a mob.
A number of disgruntled refugees start making a scene, arguing that the amount of food is not nearly enough to feed the crowd and they start getting violent. As Xian Fei and company are about to get overwhelmed, Yuan Chun Wang forcefully steps in and slays one of the troublemaking refugees. I think this is a little overboard to be honest. Like a eunuch can just kill someone out right on the streets? Ok? His reasoning is that he can tell these people causing a scene are not actually refugees. Their shoes are in too good condition for them to be refugees traveling from far away.
Hong Zhou, the Emperor’s brother, arrives at the knick of time with a number of soldiers/guards to create order in the crowd.. Hong Zhou originally wanted to skip town and watch over his mother’s grave for 3 years but was pushed back by the Emperor. The Emperor knows that Hong Zhou pretended to play dumb for years but is furious that even after the Emperor ascended the throne, Hong Zhou never focused on giving back to the Empire. After these harsh words, he accepts Xian Fei’s invitation to help out at the charity event and thus, arrived like a knight in shining armor.
This entire scene gave both Yuan Chun Wang, Xian Fei and Hong Zhou an opportunity to shine. Yuan Chun Wang, in front of both royals, clearly pointed out the individuals inciting a riot which Hong Zhou then promptly had captured. Yuan Chun Wang also pointed out that there are many people in the crowd pretending to be refugees hoping to get free food. That’s why the crowd is so big. Xian Fei immediately understands the predicament and orders that in order to receive food for the day, the receiver must work. This immediately thins out the crowd because only those that are truly hungry with no where else to go, aka refugees and flood victims, would want to make such an exchange. Everyone else who doesn’t want to do labor will naturally fade away.
And so, a successful day of charity is concluded. We see that Xian Fei is extremely capable at management and she has the unparalleled skill of understanding human nature.
As for Yuan Chun Wang, he is given the post as head of Xin Zhe Ku by Xian Fei. A substantial promotion from his original role.
In the next episode, we will turn to Xian Fei guiding the Emperor, who heard of Xian Fei’s successful exploits today to check out the birthday gift that Gao Gui Fei had been putting together for the Empress Dowager to disastrous results. But that will be for next episode.
The only other main point to bring up today is that Fu Heng has directly rejected Er Qing’s affections. She mentioned that the Emperor wanted to pair them together for marriage which Fu Heng promptly refused. Er Qing is dazed by this response but the person who is equally distraught at this news is none other than Chun Fei. She has been tending to the Empress’s bedside during her illness and is shocked to hear that Fu Heng is interested in marrying Ying Luo. We will see more of that storying line later as well.
Now onto history!
We’re gonna dig a little bit more deeply into the banquet and the little creatures involved that led to the Empress’s unconscious state. These were also flashed at the end of episode 29, but because episode 30 is the main focus of the banquet, I’ll talk about it here.
First up – let’s talk about the hot pot or 火锅 that is specially prepared for the Empress! Unfortunately in this scene, we don’t really see the Empress eat anything but we do see a beautiful display of mushrooms and of course venison blood.
What is hotpot! It basically is a cooking method where you have a large pot with soup or broth as a base and let the broth come to a boil. Then you add a variety of sides into the soup until it’s cooked to your heart’s desire. Then you pick out the food from the pot, dip it into whatever sauce you’d like and voila! That’s hotpot!
The Chinese have had records of hot pot dating back over 2000 years ago. More concretely, historians believe hot pot became more popularized during the Three Kingdoms period between 220-280AD with the advent of copper hot pots.
Hotpot flourished throughout millenia and by the time of the 清 dynasty, it became very popular not only with normal people but also with the royal elites as well. Indeed, our Emperor 乾隆 REALLY enjoyed hot pot. There are records that during one year, Emperor 乾隆 had some form of hot pot as a meal for over 200 meals! That’s a LOT of hot pot!
Let’s see what he had – in the spring, there was pickled cabbage hot pot and venison tendon and duck hot pot. In the summer, he had yam and duck hot pot and even swallow’s nest hot pot! There are records that in 1783, Emperor Qian Long held a hot pot banquet that had 530 tables! Emperor Qian Long also loved traveling to the Southern parts of his Empire. Wherever he went, he also brought hot pot with him and added different flavors to his hot pot meals. This is what happened with the addition of swallow’s nest to his hot pot rotation.
In the Palace Museum in Beijing, they still have some of the silver pots that were used by the Emperor. What’s fascinating is that hot pot was also available to the palace maids. There are records during the qing dynasty of palace maids saying that they basically ate 3 months of hot pot
The one that we see in the drama is a pretty traditional Beijing copper hot pot. Typically it would be a red copper pot with a clear water base on a charcoal flame. In the north, it’s more called a 涮锅 and more meat heavy, specially with lamb.
Different regions have different styles for hot pot. Perhaps the most famous from china is the 四川 or Chongqing hot pot – famed for it’s spiciness and mala flavors. If you’ve never had hot pot, please try it out! You can try all different types of flavors with all different sides from vegetables to meats to noodles! It’s always a good time. Karen and I just went to haidilao in NY earlier this month, and it was great!
Let’s also talk about the food in question – venison or deer blood. In chinese culture, deer blood has medicinal and nutritional properties. It was typically reserved for the royal family. Now, typically blood for eating is coagulated, which is why in the drama you see the deer blood in blocks or cube shaped forms. In certain areas of china, coagulated blood is commonly eaten with hot pot but it’s mainly pig blood
Next up – I’m going to talk briefly about the bats. The whole plotline of bats is just a convenient little interlude conjured by the screenwriter. In China, there are no bat species that feed solely on blood. There are 3 species but they all reside in South America. Those are of course the vampire bats. So unless 舒贵人 was able to have her family take a boat or trade with the modern day Central Americans and South Americans, the whole bat being attracted to and attacking people is just here for plot purposes. There are indigenous bat populations in China, namely the Rickett’s big-footed bat, but they surprisingly eat fish and bugs. The Rickett’s big-footed bat actually did live in buildings in Beijing but they are more commonly found in the southeastern and southern parts of China. Beijing is quite north comparatively.
Lastly – let’s briefly talk about 北京护城河 or the Moat of the Forbidden City. For the drama, we don’t actually see the moat but basically this is where Consort Xian has to set up the soup kitchen.
Construction of a canal into the city that would become beijing began in the late 12th century. The actual moat or what is known as 筒子河 Tongzihe formally began construction during the Ming Dynasty under the reign of emperor Yongle in 1420. The moat encircles the Forbidden City and is only 20m away from the palace wall. The moat was built mainly for military defense, fire prevention and drainage of rainwater. The moat system in Beijing was pretty complicated as it had outer, inner, imperial and palatial sections. Unfortunately today, there isn’t much left of the moats but the city of Beijing is trying to preserve and rebuild parts of the moat in efforts to preserve its history. What’s crazy is, Beijing is such a massive city right now, that on a map the current remnants of the moat seems pretty small. But when you go to the Forbidden City or the Palace, that in it of itself is huge. So it’s kind of a different perspective on the size of the moat and of the Palace itself.