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 episode 40 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.
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This podcast episode consists of a drama episode recap and we’ll move on to discuss culture and history portrayed in these episodes.
Episode 40 is incredibly heavy and is an important turning point in the drama. Ying Luo’s support suddently disappears and the Empress finally goes on to seek peace. We begin this episode with seeing the Empress absolutely hysterical at seeing her poor son, 永琮 the 7th prince dead in her arms. In the last episode, a fire broke out in his rooms and he tragically passed away.
The Emperor tries to come and console her but his words are more insulting than comforting. He wants her to pull herself together and not forget who she is. She cannot handle these words and point blank demands from the Emperor to tell her who she is. He answers “You are my wife. You are the Empress of the Qing dynasty”. These words absolutely break her. It’s not explicitly said but it’s because she has no personal identity left. There’s no 容音 only 皇后 or Empress. She cries out that she has not done a single bad thing in her life, why does she deserve for life to treat her this way. To which the Emperor has no response.
The Empress goes ballistic at this point, screaming that she wants to see her son. She cannot accept that he has also gone. The Emperor has no choice but to tie and gag her and leave her in her palace. As she lies there, the Emperor utters perhaps the most cutting words to her. He reminds her what her role is and that she does not have the luxury of backing away from her duty. She has to remember what her duty is. She responds that in her life, the only thing she has left is her duty.
The message that the Emperor views his duty to the empire above all else is hammered home in the next couple of scenes. He originally wanted to personally oversee the 7th prince’s funeral proceedings but pressing military news takes him away. He orders for Fu Heng to meet him in the palace to discuss next steps and admonishes him for visiting his sister. The Emperor views this as a sign of weakness in the face of a pending national defense threat. He makes it very clear to Fu Heng that he expects Fu Heng to be his loyal and useful court official and that he does not care if all of the women in his palace perish. He, the Emperor, will always be Emperor and has a job to do for the people of his empire.
This to me was an extremely important point 最是无情帝王家。 The most cold hearted and unforgiving place is in the imperial family. The Emperor isn’t wrong in his view. He has the entire empire to manage. He has to have his wife be there for him. She’s not wrong either. She has been reduced to nothing but a title and a role. She lost herself as Empress.
That afternoon, Er Qing shows up to chat with the Empress. We don’t know what she says but after Er Qing leaves, the Empress tricks Ming Yu away to give her some space and the Empress, dressed in white and walking around just barefoot, climbs a palace roof. She laments the mistakes she’s made in life – hoping for true love in the palace when love does not exist in the palace and the fact that she was not able to protect her two sons. Finally, she steps forward off the roof and returns to being just 富察容音. Not the Empress. She jumps from the palace roof and ends her pain.
The next day, Ying Lu o, who had been tricked into leaving the palace to tend to her father, returns to the palace and sees it decked out in white. She cannot believe what happened and her worst nightmare comes true. The Empress, her biggest support and bright light in the palace, has gone.
The funeral proceedings had begun and Ying Luo changes into an all white attire. The Emperor arrives and tells Ying luo to dress the deceased Empress so that she passes on worthy of the title of Empress. This causes Ying Luo to get into a verbal spat with him about what the Empress actually wanted vs what the Emperor thinks she should want as Empress.
The Emperor is not in the mood to entertain her mood and promptly orders for her to be put to death. Ying Luo is to accompany the Empress to the afterlife. The rest of the servants are stunned but dare not incur the wrath of the Emperor at this critical moment. However, Ying Luo is ultimately saved by the Empress.
The Emperor retracts his orders after seeing the only request left by the Empress which requests that the Emperor save Ying Luo and allow her to leave the palace. The Emperor stares coldly at this piece of paper and sheds a single tear which he promptly wipes away. He is saddened to see that the Empress did not leave a single message for him. She must have hated him so dearly to not leave him anything.
Despite his sadness, he gives his official decree for the Empress’s death which masks over her suicide and instead says she died of illness. This was done to save face for the Empress and we’ll talk about this more in a sec. As for YIng Luo? She is ordered to watch over the Empress’s portrait in Yuan Ming Yuan, never to return to the Forbidden Palace. And that’s where we are at now. A new status quo. Ying Luo is joined by her adoptive brother Yuan Chun Wang in Yuan Ming Yuan. We’ll see the next chapter of Ying Luo’s life unfold in the next episode.
Before we move onto history, let’s debate this a little bit. Duty vs individual identity. That’s the main theme for this episode and why the Empress was so distraught. She felt like her entire life was just being secluded in a cage that was made up of rules and restrictions. That’s the true tragedy of Fu Cha Rong Yin. She lived in a time where she could not love and also you could say there were not enough medical advancements to save her life and that of her beloved children. A lot of the things we saw in this drama were done for dramatic effect and we’ll explain the true timeline of Empress Fu Cha’s life but I think this drama did a rather good job of portraying a kind hearted and deserving Empress that ruled over the harem with grace and poise. This is a nice change of pace from previous Chinese palace dramas, and even in the comparative drama, RuYi’s love in the Palace 如懿传。 It is interesting to see the storylines from these two dramas that have the same backdrop but rather different outcomes. The focus on duty here also again reminds me heavily of the crown where the show emphasized how Queen Elizabeth the 2nd and her family had to suffer and give up a lot of happiness due to the restrictions placed on them as royals.
In this episode we say goodbye to our beautiful Empress, our 白月光. Or White Moonlight. She was the 白月光 in the drama to 璎珞 and honestly to me. In history, was she really a 白月光？Unfortunately most of what we know about Empress 富察 comes from historical records and honestly poems from her husband, the Emperor but from what we have, she most definitely was a 白月光 to Emperor 乾隆
We did an intro to her character during our Intro to the drama episode but I do want to spend the bulk of our time this episode to discuss the historical figure that is Empress 富察 and her impact to Emperor 乾隆.
Born in 1712 to the powerful 富察 clan of the Bordered Yellow Banner or 镶黄旗, the Empress grew up in a very wealthy and powerful aristocratic family. Her father was 李荣保, who was a military commander of 察哈尔. In the drama, the screenwriters gave her the name of 富察容音, with 容音 as the first name but this is only for the drama. Unfortunately for most women in Chinese history, we don’t not know her first name.
We’ll just call her 富察氏.
When 富察氏 was 12, her father passed away. However, her father had two powerful brothers, 马齐 and 马武。They had a very close relationship to Emperor 雍正, so much so, that when 马武 died in 1726, Emperor 雍正 had his son 弘历 attend the funeral. This was a very high honor because in the 13 years of Emperor 雍正’s reign, the 4th Prince 弘历 only went to this one Minister’s funeral. Every other funeral he attended was a royal family member.
You could say that Emperor 雍正’s close relationship with the 富察 clan laid the groundwork for the marriage between the Prince 弘历 and 富察氏. The two married in 1727 when 弘历 was only 17 and 富察氏 was 16. Now, as a reminder, in Chinese culture, the age of a person will skew older because they count the time in the womb as a year. So in the gregorian calendar, we view that they married probably at around age 16 and 15 respectively but in Chinese accounts, it’ll be age 17 and 16 instead.
The two were happily married. 富察氏 was praised by the then 熹贵妃 for her obedience and warmth as a wife. The couple welcomed a daughter in 1728. Unfortunately this daughter died shortly after in 1729. 富察氏 gave birth to a son, 永琏, in 1730 the second prince. The name of 琏 was gifted by Emperor 雍正 himself. 琏 represents a vessel used specifically in the ancestral temple to hold millet. This is also a very powerful word for a name as this basically means someone who will hold the future of the ancestors. This is not unlike the name 永琮 for the 7th prince that we discussed in the previous episode.
In 1731, the 富察氏 gives birth to another daughter. So taking a look at history, within 4 years of marriage, 富察氏 gave birth to 3 children. This I believe reflects how much 弘历 favored 富察氏 at that time, and, to a certain extent, I believe also shows how much 弘历 wanted legitimate children. We don’t see any of 富察氏’s daughters in the show.
In 1735, 弘历 ascends the throne as Emperor 乾隆. 富察氏 becomes Empress at the age of 24. The ceremony didn’t happen until the second year in 乾隆’s reign as was customary to wait until after the mourning period of the previous Emperor. We’ll call 富察氏 the Empress now. The ceremony was a grand affair and her husband threw every positive superlative he had towards her in the official edicts and records. I’m reading them and my head is swirling at just the sheer volume of praises. It’s quite funny.
In the early years of 乾隆’s reign, the Empress sewed a silk pouch with lilies. We can still see it today, it’s in the Palace Museum in Beijing. This was a prized possession of the Emperor’s who kept it until the end of his life.
In episode 19 of the drama, the Emperor contracts a skin disease and the Empress decides to take care of him at risk to her own health. This is historically accurate. She moved to a small room outside of his sleeping quarters and took care of him for around 100 days. This again goes to show the deep relationship that they had.
In 1738, the second prince 永琏 dies. The Empress gradually becomes more and more reclusive. At this point, 2 of her three children have died. She only has her one daughter with her.
In 1746, the Empress gives birth to the 7th prince, 永琮, which is what we saw in the last episode. The boy dies of smallpox on Lunar New Year’s Eve 1747. This was a major blow to the Empress, as we see in the show. After her son’s death, the Empress had a dream in which her son was taken away by a daoist goddess from Mount Tai or Tai Shan. The goddess is 碧霞元君 but that’s not super important.
In 1748, the Emperor had already scheduled a trip to the east of the empire. Upon hearing this from his wife, the Emperor decided to change the itinerary of the trip to go specifically to Mount Tai to pray to this goddess. As a man who didn’t really believe in Daoism, this was a grand gesture from the Emperor.
Unfortunately this was a trip that ended in tragedy. The trip began in the 2nd month of the New Year with a packed itinerary. The Emperor and Empress did go to Mount Tai to pray to the goddess. Once the whole retinue arrived in 济南, the Empress fell ill. Seeing that his wife was ill, the Emperor decided to stay in 济南 for a few days. But the Empress, not wanting to hold up the retinue, told the Emperor to continue on their trip by boat. Unfortunately for the Empress, who was not really better, fell further ill on the boat. She really didn’t tell anyone until it was too late. Only a few days later, the Empress died on April 8th 1748 or on the 11th day of the 3rd month on the 13th year of 乾隆’s reign at the age of 37.
This was a tragic blow to the Emperor. In the drama, we unfortunately get a portrayal of a rather cold emperor, who was sad but also disappointed at her death. In history, the Emperor was utterly distraught. From a timeline perspective, Ru Yi’s love in the Palace or 如懿传 manages to portray the Empress’s decline more accurately as in she falls ill and passes away while the royal entourage is out traveling.
The funeral was so protocol-defying that the main Prince overseeing the funeral literally had to go and reference a Ming dynasty book of rites on the protocol. Typically for the death of an Empress, only the officials in Beijing need to participate in the funeral and adhere to mourning protocols. For Empress 富察, Emperor 乾隆 went way further. He not only stopped court for 9 days, he also ordered all officials from the empire to adhere to the mourning protocols during the mourning period. No marriage or parties for 27 days and no cutting of hair for 100 days. This just didn’t happen for Qing Dynasty empresses so like I said, the funeral officiant had to reference a Ming Dynasty book. This just didn’t happen because basically the Qing Dynasty wanted to keep Ming Dynasty customs at arms length.
Emperor 乾隆 also lashed out at many officials who didn’t obey the mourning rites. Basically, funeral tables were dirty or if anything was written wrong, the Emperor just handed out punishments. Some officials were even killed over these offenses. In the drama, they basically just glossed over the funeral AND when they talk about it later in the drama, the Emperor was like – I had to show strength or else the officials in the Empire would fall. However, I don’t think that’s really the case. Just take a look at the punishments to the officials – it almost seems as though the Emperor wanted everyone to show the same respect that he felt for his wife. Ru Yi’s love in the Palace or 如懿传 also has some great scenes depicting the lavish nature of the funeral and the Emperor’s anger at the Empress’s death.
Similarly, in the subsequent days, months, and years, whenever there was an official remembrance ceremony for the Empress, he would personally attend the ceremony. Unfortunately in this drama, we don’t get much of the aftermath of the Empress’s death because she’s not the main character. I just wanted to give a little bit more color to this woman.
When the Empress died, her posthumus title was granted as 孝贤纯皇后. 孝 means filial and 贤 means virtuous. The Empress actually requested this title for herself when she was alive and this was granted by the Emperor.
Now – onto some other snippets after the Empress’s death and her impact on the Emperor.
I’ve mentioned this before that Emperor 乾隆 wrote over 40 thousand poems. There’s a general consensus that the poems reminiscing his wife are among his best. If you guys are interested, I can talk about a few of them including 述悲赋,
Some other facts. The couple was gifted 长春仙馆 in 圆明园 or the old summer palace in 1729. We hear of this palace later in the drama. Almost 70 years later, Emperor 乾隆 still wrote to reminisce about the happiness of this marriage and the palace they lived in.
After the Empress died, 乾隆 never celebrated another concubine or Empress’s birthday. He held grand celebrations for his mother the Empress Dowager, but nothing for any other woman in the Imperial Harem.
Since the Empress died in 济南, in all of his subsequent trips to the eastern part of China, 乾隆 refused to step foot in the city, as that was the city where she had died.
When Emperor 乾隆 abdicated at the old age of 86, he took his son, the new Emperor 嘉庆 to pay their respects to the tomb of the Empress who had died almost 50 years ago. This is all in stark contrast to Emperor 乾隆’s towards his next Empress.
There’s quite a lot of debate online right now on just how much the Emperor truly loved the Empress. It’s quite true that the Emperor had a lot of women in his harem and a lot of children. I do think that we don’t can really use our modern sentiments to judge the Emperor.
Let’s also say goodbye to our beautiful actress 秦岚 from this drama.
秦岚 – got her big break in playing 陈知画 in the third part of Pearl Princess. That came out in the early 2000s. She was absolutely gorgeous in that drama. We constantly joked earlier about the 5th Prince 永琪 when covering this drama because everyone was like – you can’t let 永琪 die! He’s your future husband!
As we discussed in the intro to the drama episode, she’s since been in dramas and films here and there but nothing too popular until her role as the Empress in The Story of Yanxi Palace.
She has had a steady output of dramas over the years. There’s a drama that came out this year called Legacy or 传家 that features 秦岚 and 聂远, the actor of 乾隆, as a featured couple. There, their fate is much happier than what we see in this drama. The comments for that drama were all like – YAY my Emperor and Empress couple are finally together in a drama.
Cathy of course also posted a review of Dr. Tang on our website.
Some closing thoughts for this are that:
秦岚 really did a great job portraying 富察容音. In behind the scenes videos, both 秦岚 and 聂远, spent time discussing the relationship between the Empress and Emperor and altered some of the script so that they relationship between the Emperor and Empress seemed more natural and close. They really wanted to show a loving relationship.
In the drama, I think they really succeeded with the Empress, not so much with the Emperor but hey the Emperor needed to rule a country.
What I will say, is that one of the biggest draws of this drama was also the fact that this wasn’t your typical palace drama in the sense that the main character 璎珞 doesn’t try to gain favor with the Emperor at any point when the Empress was alive. She was really just trying to serve the Empress, who she viewed as an older sister. 令后 cp still has a huge following. People are still posting a lot of fan videos of the Empress, the Empress and the Emperor, and the Empress and Ying Luo.
What do you think about the Empress? Feel free to let us know!