Welcome 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 4 of the story of yanxi palace or 延禧攻略。This podcast is in English with pr oper nouns and certain phrases in Mandarin Chinese. For these podcast episodes, we first do a drama episode recap and then discuss the culture and history portrayed in the episode.
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Today’s episode will be rather plot heavy.
We left off episode 3 with maids all squealing about the appearance of 富察傅恒. He’s an imperial guard but also the younger brother of the current Empress. Naturally, many of the young maids in the palace would love to catch the eye of the handsome 傅恒. One of the seamstress maids, 锦绣 is no different. The episode starts with 锦绣 fallign to the ground in front of 傅恒 as he walks by hoping that this will be enough for him to notice her but 璎珞 promptly grabs 锦绣 and moves her elsewhere. They get into an argument because 锦绣 doesn’t care if she needs to become a concubine. She is willing to be one in order to marry the likes of 傅恒。 璎珞 is much more critical of these imperial guards and gives off her reasoning as to why men like 傅恒 are not worth it. These guards can have their fun and may not be reprimanded for it. Unfortunately, the maids aka women will most likely pay for it with their life.
Unfortunately these harsh words are overheard by 傅恒 who stops 魏璎珞 as she leaves to confront her about what she just said. This is the first time the two interact with each other but it most definitely will not be the last.
We next follow 傅恒 as he heads to 长春palace to visit his sister, the Empress. The moment he walks in to see her holding a locket, he grabs it and tosses it out into one of the bushes in the courtyard. This infuriates the Empress who starts screaming at him for this. The locket belongs to her son who passed away 3 years ago. While 傅恒“s action may seem harsh, the point of his visit is to help her sister walk out of her grief. The Empress has been grieving the death of her young son ever since he passed away and has neglected her duties as Empress since she does not have the willingness to manage the Palace. She has also developed longstanding frustration against the Emperor because she thinks he does not care their son has passed away. After all, she rilesl that he can have more women and more children but she cannot. She thinks he is too cold hearted.
In my view, this scene already reveals the key underlying differences between the Emperor and the Empress. They may love each other but the Emperor sees himself first and foremost as the Emperor of the Qing dynasty. The Empress, however, sees herself as a mother and a wife. Not the Empress. She is hoping for the love and care that normal families or non-royal families can have but she has not yet realized that the lifestyle she wants will never be in her grasp. Though I will say it is heavy handed for Fu Heng to just say that it’s been three years. She needs to get a grip. Depression and grief sometimes take entire lifetimes to resolve and should not necessarily be measured by time. But clearly, the Empress would have benefited greatly from having a grief counselor or therapist to help work through her grief. Something of the sort does show up momentarily.
After Fu Heng leaves, he runs into 纯妃 who is on her way to greet the Empress. He asks her for a favor.
纯妃 is the Consort who has been ill and this is the first time we see her. She is shown to be very attentive towards the Empress but not the Emperor. She generally pretends to be ill so as not to spend time with the Emperor. Soon after, a maid enters with tea but is seen to have been crying. When the Empress asks, 纯妃 steps in to explain that this maid has reached the age of 25 but has not yet been released from the palace. Her fiance does not want to wait any further. This news shocks the Empress because she feels terrible that her close maids have been neglected on this front. She, as Empress, should have released this maid so that she can be married.
This little show was planned by Fu Heng and acted by 纯妃 to help remind the Empress of the mistakes or cracks that happen when she is not running the palace. Things like releasing maids from the palace when they’re of eligible age to be married outside are under her purview. If she cannot remember such things for her personal maids, what of the other tasks that require her attention? This also shows us that the Empress is truly benevolent and a kind Empress who cares about her subjects and staff.
The Empress recognizes where she needs to improve and also finally takes a look at the box that Fu Heng brought from the Emperor to help the Empress step out of her stupor. She opens the box to find a decree written by the Emperor himself the first year he ascended the throne. He named 永琏, their son, the crown prince of the Qing dynasty. This realization that the Emperor placed so much value onto their son came as an incredible shock to the Empress. She immediately burst into tears. She thought that the Emperor did not care about their son but with this decree, she realized that in fact, he did. Enough to pronounce him as the next Emperor. The Emperor did not only lose a son but his successor as well. The Empress understands now that she wanted the Emperor to grieve the same way she does but the Emperor had his own way of grieving. She feels ashamed that she has not been taking her duties as Empress seriously and resolves to step up.
The next day, we see the Empress undergo a dramatic transformation. The ladies of the palace are called to Qing An or greet the Empress. It seems like the Empress has not been present in many of these greetings in the recent past so the group of ladies are quite surprised when she shows up. Today she looks regal and composed – just how one expects an Empress to act. The person most displeased to see this is of course, 高贵妃 or Royal Consort Gao. In attendance we also have 娴妃, 纯妃，嘉嫔, the newly pregnant 愉贵人, 舒贵人 and a few others.
In front of the group, she gives out her orders as Empress. 高贵妃 cannot help but to rebuke the Empress’s orders, namely the fact that 怡嫔 who committed suicide is to be buried respectfully. Concubines who commit suicide is tantamount to a crime itself and generally should have their families punished, not given a proper burial. But the Empress says that she announced 怡嫔’s death as succumbing to illness. Who said anything about suicide? She then presses the rest of the ladies. Who do they agree with? Her, the Empress? Or 高贵妃？ All of the ladies voice the agreement with the Empress, much to the fury of 高贵妃 who fumes about it back at her own palace with 嘉嫔 at her side. There are so many parallels to 甄嬛传 between 高贵妃 and 华妃 and 嘉嫔 with 曹贵人。
After this court greeting, the drama does take a few moments for 纯妃 to interact with 娴妃 so that we get a sense of the characters of these two women. Long story short is that 娴妃 is known throughout the palace for her kindness and does not like to choose sides between the Empress or anyone else. She likes to stay in her own lane and spends most of her time focused on the Emperor. 纯妃 on the other hand, is quite the mystery. 娴妃 does not fully understand what her motivation or drive is in the palace as she doesn’t pay much attention to the Emperor but does focus on the Empress a lot. When asked further, 纯妃 skillfully deflects the question before the two part ways. She will remain a mystery for qutie a bit longer.
We’ve spent most of the episode with the powerful ladies in the palace and now we close off the episode by returning to the maids. 玲珑 is a maid that consistently wants to rid the palace of 璎珞 since she’s jealous of 璎珞。 She let slip to 高贵妃’s maid that it was 璎珞 that notified 愉贵人 of the poison in new loquat leaves. This immediately spells trouble for 璎珞 as that night, she is dragged off to 储秀宫 where 高贵妃 awaits her. But, 璎珞 being the quick thinker that she is, recognizes she may be in trouble and therefore feigns retardation in front of both 高贵妃 and 嘉嫔 when questioned about the loquat leaves. She speaks extremely loudly and even asks about the bowl of lotus rice balls in 高贵妃’s hands. The group are so shocked to see how weird this girl is behaving and so 高贵妃 gifts the bowl to 璎珞 and also another 6 bowls. She is able to leave with the 7 bowls to finish but at least she still has her life.
The first piece of history is to discuss the 正大光明匾 and the selection of Crown Prince. This revelation in episode 4 finally made the Empress realize that her husband truly loved their son.
So what does this mean?
The 正大光明匾 or the Righteous and Bright Plaque is placed squarely above the throne in 乾清宫or Palace of Heavenly Purity. This palace is in the Forbidden Palace in Beijing. It is the largest of the three halls in the inner court and served as the Emperor’s audience hall during the Qing Dynasty.
In the Qing Dynasty, starting at the end of reign of Emperor 雍正, the Qing Emperors would secretly place an Imperial Edict behind the 正大光明匾 or Righteous and Bright Plaque. This Imperial Edict clearly stated the heir and successor to the Qing Empire. There were 2 copies of this edict. The one hidden behind the plaque and one that was with the Emperor at all times.
When the Emperor died, the Ministers would concurrently take the hidden edict from behind the plaque and the edict carried by the Emperor to compare the contents. Once confirmed of the validity of the Imperial edict -> basically making sure the two had the same contents -> the Ministers would declare the new Emperor.
The reason for this action is because Emperor 雍正, himself the victor of a decades long bloody struggle to seize the throne while his father was alive, wanted to avoid the usual political plotting, securing of factions, and harem infighting that was all too familiar to him.
Let me remind listeners that the Qing Dynasty didn’t have the custom of declaring the crown prince who was the son of the Empress. That custom was called 立嫡立长 -> or the declaring the crown prince the first born son of the Empress. He was to be called 太子. Let’s recall the drama Royal Nirvana, the crown prince was not the eldest of the Emperor’s sons, but he was borne to the Empress so he was crowned 太子 or the Crown Prince.
During the reign of Emperor 康熙, 雍正’s father, he did crown the second prince who was the Empress’s son as Crown Prince. However, the Crown Prince disappointed his father so much that he was deposed of his title twice! Without a Crown Prince, the rest of 康熙’s sons plotted for the throne. This of course resulted in 九子夺嫡 or the Nine Lords’ War. To the victor the spoils and 雍正 in the end imprisoned or killed many of his brothers. We discuss this much more at length in our Empresses in the Palace series.
To avoid this type of political struggle, Emperor 雍正 decided that in his lifetime, he would never select a crown prince while alive. The new Emperor would only be selected after his death. This is how our current Emperor 乾隆 came to rule. The custom of secretly hiding an Imperial Edict with the selection of the heir lasted for 4 emperors – 乾隆、嘉庆、道光、咸丰. Emperor 咸丰, who died in 1861, had only one son, and Emperors 同治 and 光绪 had no sons, so there was no more need to hide an Imperial Edict.
Back to this drama – the Empress finally realizes how much the Emperor loved their child when she saw that he placed their son 永琏’s name as heir behind the Righteous and Bright Plaque. The Emperor was in his prime and didn’t need to clearly state an heir, but he did so, showing the Empress and us the audience that he did have high hopes for their son.
This is true to history. Emperor 乾隆 did place the hidden edict behind the plaque in 1736, the first full year of his reign. He ascended the throne in 1735. 乾隆 and Empress 富察’s son 永琏 died in 1738 when the boy was 9 years old. The Emperor was deeply distraught and saddened by this news. The wording of the edict is exactly as was shown in the drama so kudos to the show for replicating that. However, unlike the drama, the edict was declared when 永琏 died. He was buried in accordance with the customs of a crown prince and his posthumus name is of a crown prince.
35 years later, in 1773, Emperor 乾隆 placed another hidden edict in behind the plaque. That wasn’t taken out until the year he abdicated in 1795.
That was a lot of talk about successions and heirs. Let’s move onto costumes!
Today I want to introduce a discussion on shawls capes because we finally have all of the main female concubines in one scene! Why I say introduce is because we’ll see different examples throughout the drama so I’ll highlight them when I see them. The focus is on episode 4, the scene where all the ladies greet the Empress. We see noble consort gao or 高贵妃 wearing a pearl shawl or cape. We’ll see this pearl shawl show up quite a few times.
The purpose of this pearl shawl is to showcase the lavish and extravagant lifestyle that 高贵妃 lives. She’s the only one in the drama that wears this. This costume draws heavily from history but not of the exact time period.
Empress Dowager 慈禧, who effectively ruled the Qing dynasty for 47 years, from 1861 until her death in 1908, loved pearls. Like LOVED pearls. There are surviving photos of the Empress Dowager wearing variations of pearls. From bangles, to earrings, to shawls, pearls were EVERYWHERE. She had a pearl shawl which served as the inspiration for the one we see in this drama. Definitely look it up because it’s quite cool to see. Now, I don’t really know how many pearls make up the shawl we see in the drama but I saw one estimate for the one worn by Empress Dowager 慈禧 to be around 3500 pearls. There’s apparently one pearl dress that consists of 32K pearls! That’s CRAZY! It is basically a priceless artifact.
The funny thing is, when the drama first aired, everyone was like – why is 高贵妃 wearing either
- A pearl fish net or
- The same shawl that 猪八戒 or the Pig wore in 西游记 or Journey to the West
It is certainly out of place with the other ladies of the palace but hey, she wears what she wants! I’m still chuckling about the Pig reference because I remember watching that episode when I was younger and I was also like Wow, the resemblance is uncanny!
Lastly for today, I want to discuss something called a 压 or my translation is a clothes holder. I know it’s a terrible translation. If we have any fashionistas who can help correct me, I’d be very grateful.
Take a look at episode 4, Consort chun and Consort Xian are having a conversation while walking. On the right, beneath their collars, they each have a jade accessory dangling from the second knot of their garment. That accessory is the 压襟. They are accessories that basically hold the woman’s clothes in place or to protect the garment from flailing if there’s wind. The reason is because traditionally, women’s clothes weren’t really form fitting and honestly pretty loose. The accessory essentially prevents the clothes from fluttering too much in the wind.
Now with this information, look at all of the women, especially concubines in the palace. They all have a 压襟 dangling on their right side. 压襟 were first used during the Tang dynasty – so think 7th century AD and of course widely used in the Ming and Qing dynasties. Typically, the 压襟 are comprised of 3 parts during the Qing Dynasty for Manchu women. The top section typically contains a silver hook or a silk knot that can neatly hang from the second knot of the garment. The middle section is the main accessory. It has to be relatively heavy so that it can keep the garment flat. This could be jade, ivory, carnelian, silver etc. The bottom section is then typically a tassel or maybe a small bell. In the drama – the Empress uses her buddhist beads as her 压襟, which was also fine. It’s relatively rare to see this shown in dramas – we didn’t see it in Empresses in the Palace so kudos to this drama for this accurate depiction.
And that is it for today’s episode! Hope you guys learned something today! Just a couple of notes that I am still figuring out what intro music i want to learn and play for this drama so let me know if you have any thoughts. I do have to spend time learning it. Haha.
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Thank you all so much