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 32 of The Story of Yanxi Palace. This podcast is in english with proper nouns and certain phrases spoken in Mandarin Chinese. 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!
Today we are only focusing on one episode as there’s a lot of history to unpack and we also want to give a proper farewell to someone special.
It all starts in episode 32 with the Emperor arriving with Consort Xian or Xian Fei to meet Noble Consort Gao or Gao Gui Fei who is currently watching the preparations for a performance for the Empress Dowager. The performance itself is called 万紫千红 or in the drama they call it A Blaze of Colors. The direct translation is ten thousand purple one thousand red which ultimately reflects the burst of colors where molten iron is blasted out into sky into a burst of sparks that light up the night sky. It is quite stunning and I am impressed with how the drama filmed it. As we will discuss later, it’s also called the iron flower show
However, don’t you think the first moment you see this that wow that’s dangerous. Molten iron just being splashed around and no safety measures whatsoever!
Gao Gui Fei does not care though does she. She even steps forward to look more closely at the show and begins devising how better to put on a show. But just as she steps forward by herself with her maid, one of the performers direct a burst of sparks right at Gao Gui Fei and it hits her full on in the back. The Emperor wants to protect her but is held back by Xian Fei. In the chaos, the offending performer slips away while other performers create a diversion. The imperial guards immediately tell the performers to stop and then spread out to seek the perpetrator but it’s too late for Gao Gui Fei. She has been severely injured.
The imperial guards search high and low for the perpetrator and even head to Xin Zhe Ku where Ying Luo and Yuan Chun Wang are working to see if the culprit hid there. They are not able to find anyone but Yuan Chun Wang knows what happened. He confronts YIng Luo and surmises that she must have planned to help the attacker a long time ago. She even purposefully shouted that she had no more connection to the Empress in order to prevent the Empress from being connected to anything that Ying Luo does. This does seem to be the plan that Ying Luo worked with one of the craftsmen for the performance in the last episode to carry out.
Poor Gao Gui Fei. Her entire back is bloodied by burns from the scorching molten iron. She screams that she doesn’t want medical attention either if it means that it will leave scars on her back. You do have to feel bad for this type of injury of hers. What’s worse is that, as the doctors find out, the injury isn’t just from molten iron. But it’s actually gold water. The drama explains that gold water is where feces water has been added to the mix which causes any burns be unable to heal fully due to repeated infections from the feces. This is a rather low blow if you ask me.
The Emperor goes to visit Xian Fei and explains all of this to her while also checking up on her injuries. The thing is, even though she herself is injured, you look at her smile. This was all an act on her part to showcase how much she cares for the Emperor and for him to see that she cares a lot about him. Once again in Xian Fei’s eyes, you can see her calculating gaze.
BUT it ‘s not like I’m not thoroughly enjoying this hardened Xian Fei. We find out that Gao Gui Fei has not been a good patient and therefore has made recovery pretty much impossible. The infections on her back cannot be healed. Even the imperial doctors are at a loss at what to do. It seems like Gao Gui Fei only has but a few days left.
It is at this opportunity that Xian Fei comes in to gloat her success. Gao Gui Fei is shocked to hear that it is Xian Fei who mixed in the feces water to the molten iron mixture. Though I do find it interesting that Xian Fei said that she just helped “HER” aka Xian Fei knows it was Ying Luo who was involved in retribution against Gao Gui Fei but just added the final blow. This is Xian Fei’s revenge against Gao Gui Fei for how she treated her. Not only did Gao Gui Fei humiliate Xian Fei but she also had a direct hand in destroying Xian Fei’s family. This in Xian Fei’s eyes is fully justified.
How did Xian Fei know about this though? Might I remind you that in the last episode Jin Xiu, the maid who dislikes Ying Luo oversaw Ying Luo speaking with one of the blacksmith performers and ran off. I’m assuming Jin Xiu went and told Xian Fei who then devised her own plan. She leveraged Ying Luo for this little revenge attack against Gao Gui Fei.
I do commend Gao Gui Fei though. After hearing what befalls her even if she does get better, she decides that nope. I’d rather 10000 people hate me than one person pity me. She cannot stand the thought that even if she’s healed, the Emperor will always pity her. She decides to end things on her own terms.
In front of the Emperor, she forces herself to dance one last dance. You can tell that this was an excruciating experience as her dress soon becomes soaked with blood from her back during her dance. As she falls to the ground, the Emperor and she finally have a heart to heart. She’s not blind to the fact that her favoritism from him is just that. Favoritism. Not love. He is wary of her family’s power and connections and so everything given to her always came with a hint of suspicion. Her last request is to have her mother be buried in the family shrine so that her spirit will have a place to rest. Say what you will about Gao Gui Fei, she is a good daughter to her mother.
Soon after, Gao Gui Fei adorns a lavish outfit. She does one last performance in her extravagant outfit before throwing out that white cloth. She decided to end her life on her own terms.
The Emperor fell silent upon hearing the news. He ordered that Gao Gui Fei be promoted to Imperial Noble Consort or Huang Gui Fei and her funeral be a joint effort of different ministries. He reflected upon her last words before remaining somber for the night.
Behind the scenes!
There’s some juicy behind the scenes that I want to share here regarding 高贵妃 because this is the last time we’ll see of her!
Ok, when the drama aired back in 2018, there were official photos that were posted of 高贵妃 and 魏璎珞’s sister 魏璎宁 together that raised a few eyebrows from people. In them, 高贵妃 was dressed up as a male opera singer who is seen comforting the crying 魏璎宁. The scene is set in the day time and 魏璎宁 is seen crying in 高贵妃’s embrace. The whole drama aired and we didn’t get any actual scenes between the two of them so what happened? Of course, it was cut for the final airing.
Rumors were RAMPANT and I mean RAMPANT on what this all meant. Were we finally going to get an actual lesbian relationship? Fans were trying to guess what was cut. Some theories included 高贵妃 actually thought very highly of 魏璎宁. They perhaps encountered each other when 魏璎宁 sent clothes to 高贵妃 and 魏璎宁 caught 高贵妃’s eye. When 魏璎宁 was defiled by 弘昼, she went to seek some solace with with 高贵妃 which is where fans believed led to these photos. They also thought that this must have been the reason why 高贵妃 was able to so quickly gather the evidence for 魏璎珞. 高贵妃 must have believed that it was the 富察 family who committed the crime and one of the reasons why she kept on targeting the Empress.
Alas, this was all conjecture. In an interview, the actress for 魏璎宁, 邓莎, dispelled the rumors and told us what was REALLY supposed to happen. Basically 高贵妃 was the bad guy in the photos.
So, 魏璎宁 was upset and was wandering around in the palace. I don’t know if this was after her incident or just another instance when she was sad. 高贵妃 caught wind of this and then decided to dress up as a male opera singer to “pretend” to cheer her up and console her. 魏璎宁 finally cried in her arms. 高贵妃’s goal though was not to actually be nice to the poor girl. It was so that other maids would see this scene in broad daylight, mistaken 魏璎宁 as cavorting with another man, and be punished and kicked out. 魏璎宁 didn’t get kicked out then but was beaten up by a few other palace maids, sooooo…this didn’t turn out to be a good story for 魏璎宁.
Alright, next up! In this episode, before she dies, 高贵妃 makes a brief mention her 2 younger sisters. We don’t get any real indication of their fate until the next episode when in a voiceover, it is mentioned that her two younger sisters also died. Well, I can’t remember if it was a cut scene or not but basically, 高贵妃 ordered her two younger sisters to be poisoned so that they could not enter the palace to garner favor with the Emperor. As we saw in the show, she loved her mother and her brother. She did not want her younger sisters to enter the palace and ruin the gift that she requested from the Emperor, which is a proper burial for her mother. Say what you will about the woman and killing her sisters, but at least she really loved her mother. Her father – yea, a pretty scum of a human.
Next! Let’s talk about costumes! In this drama, 高贵妃 has roughly around 10+11 costumes, depending on how you count it. That’s actually not that much compared to the other women in this drama. I was doing some research on her clothing and it’s difficult to say what’s the truth. There’s a lot of creative licenses that the drama took for the show but they also tried in many places to stay true to history. That is the same for 高贵妃. The most iconic of hers is either the pearl shawl outfit which we see her wear in this episode or else her golden opera outfit.
高贵妃 was a han woman so that meant that her costumes in this drama are slightly different. If you’ll notice with her clothing, they’re less form fitting that the other consorts in the drama, especially with regards to the sleeves as compared to the Empress and 纯妃 who are Manchu women. That was the case for early 清 dynasty women in which Han women and Manchu women dressed differently.
As for her hairstyle – she is one of the few in Chinese Qing dynasty dramas to not have a two pronged headpiece. This is more of a one piece headpiece or 旗头座. That style was much more popular during the late Qing dynasty, so the late 19th and early 20th century. We do have a photo right now of 婉容 who was the wife and empress consort of the last emperor of China with something similar to the hairstyle that 高贵妃 has.
Side note, there are many MANY posts of people pointing out the historical inaccuracies to this drama, especially with regards to costumes. We might focus on a couple if there isn’t much history
First up is the poem that 娴妃 recites when she first witnesses the 万紫千红show. It is the 14th of a collection of poems called 秋浦歌 or the 秋浦 ballads
Theses poems were written by the famous Tang dynasty poet 李白 in the mid 8th century when he was traveling to the area of 秋浦 which is now modern day 安徽 province. The one that is recited in the drama is the 14th out of 17 poems. It’s a standard Chinese quatrain or 五言诗 with 4 lines and 5 words.
The poem goes as such
The fire from the furnace illuminates the earth and they sky
Red sparks shine amidst the purple smoke
In the moonlit night, the hard-working smelterers
Song reverberate throughout the cold mountain valley
The poet 李白 wrote these poems during his exile from the capital city of Chang An. He traveled the empire to explore and write poems. The village of 秋浦 was known for its silver and copper mines. He actually traveled to 秋浦 3 times in his lifetime. He most likely wrote these poems around 753. During this time though, he was pretty disappointed with the ways of the Empire as he saw the writing on the wall of 安禄山’s rise and future rebellion.
Next, let’s talk about 万紫千红. It is more commonly known as 打铁花 or the iron flower show.
The history of this skill is quite long in China. There are some places who write that the skill dates back to the warring states period in China some 2500 years ago. Basically when China entered into the iron age. However, on 百科 it says that this tradition started probably in the Northern Song Dynasty. That is to say, this still has at least 1000 years of history. Please do NOT try any of this yourselves because it is an extremely dangerous skill.
Nowadays there are 2 ways to perform the show. The first one is the one we see in the drama, which is to say, the melting iron is poured onto a willow block and then struck to make the iron flowers or in our drama 万紫千红. I mean it absolutely looks gorgeous. I kind of wish that in the drama they gave us a proper depiction of the art instead of one in the night with scaffolding around because I’m watching some performances on youtube and chinese media and the shows are absolutely breathtaking.
There’s another way to create the effect and that is more of a spraying motion and “paints” the iron flowers onto a city wall. Basically you have a large wooden spoon made of willow which has been soaked in water for 3 days and nights and coated with fire proof material. Then the performer sprays the wall with the melting iron in a circular motion. This method is more recent, having a history of around 500 years and originated in the 河北 province during the 明 dynasty. There are still remnants of city walls that have the residue of iron flowers on the walls.
As of now, there’s only a handful of people who know how to perform this skill. I mean I don’t blame them, this is an extremely dangerous performance. The performers still basically wear the same clothes as their ancestors for the performance, goat skin and a wet straw hat. It’s still common to get injured or sprayed by the melting iron. For reference, the melting iron can get up to 1600 degrees celsius!
In some of the more modern performances, I do see people wearing much better fire protection but I’ve also seen people wear pretty scrappy protection. As much as it is a beautiful sight, I really do hope people protect themselves when a) performing this show and b) when watching the show. As we see in the drama, getting injured with this is no joke.
At the end of the episode, right before 高贵妃 commits suicide, she sings the last lines that Noble Consort Yang sings in the opera 长生殿 – Palace of Eternal Youth. We talked about it in episode 27 so this is a slight refresher.
长生殿 – Palace of Eternal Youth was written in 1688. 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. So this scene right now is aT the end of the first half of the opera.
The story of 唐玄宗 and 杨贵妃 is a constant motif that runs throughout the scenes we have with 高贵妃. She views herself as the tragic character of 杨贵妃 but unfortunately Emperor 乾隆 in this drama definitely does not see himself as the Emperor 唐玄宗.
Another point of comparison for Gao Gui Fei is actually with Li Fu Ren who was a concubine for Han Wu Di. We talked about her during our podcast series before but Li Fu Ren was ill and did not let Han Wu Di see her on her deathbed because she wanted him to always remember her beauty and be filled with regret for not being able to see her. I’m reminded of Li Fu Ren with Gao Gui Fei who wanted to die beautifully and be remembered as such than to die a painful death and wallow away with age.
Which leads us to finally talking about the historical counterpart of 高贵妃.
Posthumously granted the title of 慧贤皇贵妃 or Imperial Noble consort 慧贤. She came from the 高佳 clan and was a member of the bordered yellow banner. However, as we discussed before, her family previously was of han descent in the 包衣 class. Due to her favor with the Emperor 乾隆, her entire family was lifted to the status of manchu people. She was the first Noble Consort or 贵妃 and Imperial Noble Consort or 皇贵妃 of 乾隆’s reign.
It isn’t really clear when was born, probably around 1711 or right around then. She died on Feb 25th 1745. 高贵妃 first entered the palace as concubine to serve the then 4th prince 弘历. She was then promoted to 侧福晋 in 1734, basically the second rank under the main wife. When Emperor 乾隆 ascended the throne in 1735, her whole family was lifted to the status of manchu people and she was granted the status of 贵妃 with the title of 慧 which means intelligent.
She fell ill in 1745. 2 days before her death, the emperor granted her the title of Imperial Noble Consort or 皇贵妃 but she didn’t survive for the actual ceremony.
There unfortunately isn’t really much on her apart from the praises of her during her promotion ceremonies. However, the Emperor must have really liked her because he wrote many poems about her and reminisced about her lifetime. Her funeral was extravagant with many more prayers performed by the monks and lamas than was required for an imperial noble consort.
She did not have any children. There are official portraits of her in the proper gold gown and black hat. I do wish we saw a shot of this during the show but alas, all we got was the black formalwear.
In the drama, 高贵妃 dies of suicide. This would have been an absolute no no because the family of women who commit suicide in the palace were severely punished. Which is why it was a pretty good incentive to NOT commit suicide. I know this was for drama purposes but let’s just keep that in mind.
In the 1730s, her father 高斌 was also appointed an official post to manage the rivers in the southern parts of China or 河道总督. This is true to history as we see in the show. 高斌 also served as the Minister of Personnel or 吏部尚书 and Grand Secretary of Pavilion of the Imperial Library 文渊阁大学士 in the 1740s before falling into disgrace in the 1750s and ultimately dying in 1755 on the job.
Last piece on 高贵妃 – the drama needed a bad guy so they chose her to be the first “bad” guy that we meet in the drama. I highly doubt she would have been evil if the Emperor cared this deeply about her especially years after her death. So listeners, please don’t let this drama color your perception of the true to life version of her.
With that – let’s give a round of applause to her actress 谭卓! Born in 1983, she started acting in 2009 with a film called Spring Fever 春风沉醉的夜晚. Since then, she has been in various films, dramas, and stage productions, focusing more on films rather than dramas. I would say her breakout role was probably this one in The Story of Yan Xi palace. She certainly turned a lot of eyes with this role. She doesn’t really follow the typical “pop” idol route and prefers to vary it up with modern and period pieces. I thought she did admirably here in 延禧攻略 and is probably one of the top 3 actresses in my book for this drama. Her gravitas really did shine throughout the drama and it was obvious that she put the work in for this role especially during her opera scenes.
高贵妃 – you were a pretty annoying character but in the end, you knew exactly who you were and I commend you for it.