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 42 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.
This podcast episode consists of a drama episode recap, some contemporary commentary, and we’ll move on to discuss culture and history portrayed in these episodes.
In episode 41, we find that the imperial family is currently vacationing in Yuan Ming Yuan the summer palace for the Empress Dowager’s birthday. The former Consort Xian is now the Empress. Consort Chun has been promoted to 纯贵妃 and has 愉妃 mother of the 5th prince with her in her camp. Elsewhere, Fu Heng has jetted off to war in the Sichuan plains.
This little visit gives Ying Luo, who has been stationed here for the last 2 years, to see her good friend Ming Yu who now is under the employ of Noble Consort Chun. Except this 纯贵妃 is no longer as kind as she once was. Ying Luo, who manages to get Ming Yu alone, discovers that Ming Yu has been injured and with the help of her old friend, the Imperial Doctor 叶天士, they find that Ming Yu has been injected with numerous needles in her bloodstream that will ultimately kill her.
Now we turn to episode 42. Ming Yu finally tells Ying Luo the truth about why she was so cold to Ying Luo earlier. For the last 2 years, 纯贵妃 has treated her pretty well but 3 days ago, Ming Yu discovered that 纯贵妃’s head maid is in an amorous liaison with the eunuch who used to lead the Charcoal department the year the 7th prince’s fire broke out that ultimately killed the baby. Because this eunuch was not working that day, he was able to escape punishment. At first, Ming Yu didn’t think much of it but then, the head maid 玉壶 informed 纯贵妃 and then injected Ming Yu with the needles. They want to threaten her to remain silent.
At that moment, Ming Yu starts suspecting that the death of the 7th prince may have had something to do with 纯贵妃。
Ying Luo takes the evening to think through the events and decides that they must take revenge against Chun Gui Fei. They do not have the power and ability now to take on one of the most powerful women in the palace and so Ying Luo, after reminiscing about her past with both the Empress and Fu Heng, decides to take matters into her own hand. She, at this moment, is driven only by revenge. The next day she sets her plans in motion. She asks for help from the Imperial Guard 海兰察 and also purposefully distracts her adoptive brother 袁春望。
The next day is the Empress Dowager’s birthday and it is a grand affair. The Emperor, Empress Dowager and the ladies in the Imperial Harem are present for the festivities, as well as Ying Luo. First up for activities for the day is for the Empress to let a flock of birds go free. This is called 放生 or Life release, a buddhist practice. Mixed among the flock of flying birds soaring through the air however, is a beautifully colored one. Ying Luo presents herself to the group as the maid watching over the birds and loudly proclaims that the colorful bird may be a phoenix. She is promptly shot down by 纯贵妃. The Empress Dowager on the other hand, is quite pleased to hear this but the present audience all claim that Ying Luo is purposefully making this up and should be punished.
Ying Luo the pipes up that she has another way of proving that today is an auspicious day with another blessed sign from heaven. She bets her life that another heavenly sign will appear based on the koi fish in the pond. And sure enough, after th e koi are released into the water, they disappear for a moment before swimming in the shape of the word 寿 or Longevity. This surprises the group and with Ying Luo’s sharp wit, causes the Empress Dowager to be extremely pleased with the result, thinking these omens were signs from heaven of her kind heart. The Empress Dowager asks Ying Luo what reward she wants for this wonderful birthday gift. Ying Luo takes this opportunity to voice her request. To return to the palace and serve the Empress Dowager in Shou Kang Palace.
The Emperor immediately rejects this request. He instead says that he can’t give her to the Empress Dowager because he himself wants to appoint her as a woman in his harem. This shocks all of the ladies in attendance. The Empress Dowager thinks that Ying Luo is worthy of the 贵人 title or Noble Lady which honestly is quite high. Before anyone says anything else though, Ying Luo promptly thanks the Empress Dowager for this blessing. In this moment, she also wonders if she can make another request. She asks for Ming Yu to come serve her in the palace. This obviously displeases 纯贵妃 and you can see her eyes turn into slits to show her displeasure. And with that, Ying Luo now is noble lady Wei or 魏贵人。
In my humble opinion, this scene was rather contrived. The whole reason why the Emperor jumped in to give Ying Luo a title is because he didn’t want her to serve the Empress Dowager. He knew she was going to be up to something and to deny her access to the Empress Dowager, he decides to keep her for himself. I feel like there could have been many other reasons or ways to keep Ying Luo from working with the Empress Dowager and this was not one of the best ideas.
It is also interesting to see, of the ladies in the palace, who has it out for YIng Luo and who supports her. 愉妃 and 纯贵妃 want Ying Luo punished and do not want her back in the palace. While the new Empress and 庆贵人 don’t mind.
As Ying Luo packs up her things back in her rooms, no one is actually too happy for her. Ming Yu is upset that Ying Luo did this for her and Yuan Chun Wang is upset that Ying Luo reneged on her promise to stay with him in 圆明园。 He is also even more upset that she is going to “marry” the Emperor aka 弘历。 It’s important to remember that each time 袁春望 refers to the Emperor, he calls the Emperor by his actual name which is quite a no no. It caught both our ears when we saw this episode. In any case, 袁春望 is utterly destroyed that 璎珞 is leaving him and tells her that from that moment, they are no longer related and vows to seek revenge. I do feel bad for this guy. He has abandonment issues and life has treated him poorly. Too bad his relationship with Ying Luo is not enough to offset Ying Luo’s love and relationship with the late Empress.
That night, the Emperor requests the presence of Ying Luo. In an upgraded outfit and hairstyle, Ying Luo walks over to the requested location with Ming Yu to meet the Emperor. She is forced to wait out in the cold for over 2 hours and he also requests that he meet her at 长春仙馆, the residence of the late Empress. It’s not difficult to deduce he’s trying to insult her. She doesn’t take the bait. Outside, she drinks tea and eats pastries. When she is finally told to see the Emperor, she undresses to show her mourning outfit. In front of the Emperor, she states that she is going to remain in mourning for the full 27 months to remember the late Empress. The Emperor at this point still thinks she is just a gold digger but cannot refute her actions here so he lets her go.
At the end of the episode, the Emperor questions Hai Lan Cha as to how Ying Luo was able to make the koi fish in the pond swim in the longevity sign. He doesn’t hide the truth and shares that Ying Luo asked him to place food in that shape for the fish to eat. From here, we realize that Ying Luo planned this all along. Her path to revenge as a woman of the Emperor has started.
With this episode, 魏璎珞 is on a path of revenge! Why does that sound so familiar! Well, because it is! She first entered into the palace to get revenge on the death of her sister 魏璎宁 and now, she decides to join the Emperor’s harem to seek revenge for the Empress!
When the drama first came out in 2018, I remember viewers saying, wait, how will the drama play out because we know that 魏璎珞 eventually enters the palace at some point. People were dreading a true-love story between the Emperor and 魏璎珞 because that’s not historically accurate. The drama also faced fierce competition between Ruyi’s Love and the Palace, which was airing at the same time, and of course Empresses in the Palace.
The reason why this drama captured the audience’s attention is because this drama is focused primarily on revenge rather than romance. Unlike its competition RuYi’s love in the palace where the two main characters go through romance, for the bulk of this drama, Ying Luo primary motivation is revenge which is more satisfying to watch.
Exactly, right now, she’s returning to the palace with the sole purpose of bringing down 纯贵妃, the Emperor and honestly the Empress Dowager are her paths to get there.
Let’s move on to some history! It’s important to frame timing for this drama because there’s plenty of historical inaccuracies right now with regards to the Ying Luo’s time in the palace
Today’s focus is actually 魏璎珞。
魏璎珞 was born in 1727年10月23日 in 北京, China into the Han Chinese Booi Aha of the Plain Yellow Banner by birth. Wiki has it wrong that she was born into the Bordered Yellow Banner. Her family was promoted or 抬旗 into that banner after she became consort. 魏璎珞 as a name is just created for the show. As with Empress Fucha, we typically don’t know the full names of women in history. We’ll just use 魏璎珞 because everyone’s familiar with that name.
Putting timelines in perspective, she’s 16 years 乾隆’s junior and not much is known of her earlier years. What we do know is that she was selected to enter into the palace at some point under what is called the 小选 or the small selection. We’ve talked about the selection before, typically the 选秀 that we think of is also called the 大选 or the big selection. This is where women from the 8 bordered banners are selected to enter into the palace as concubines or consorts for the Emperor and imperial family. The small selection is for women from the Booi Aha to enter into service in the Palace as maids for the various palaces. Typically, the women were of course of Manchu descent. The women of Han descent were much lower on the ladder – which is where we find 魏璎珞 as she is of han descent. But, as we said before, just because 魏璎珞 came from the Booyi aha caste, that didn’t necessarily mean that her family was poor or didn’t have status. Her father and ancestors held positions in the Imperial Household Department or Guards. So she didn’t show up in the Imperial Palace with no connections, it’s just that her connections or relations cannot compare to those of, for example, the Empress.
During the 小选, she must have caught the eye of the Emperor. However, due to her young age, she did not “serve” the Emperor, so she was sent to serve as a palace maid for Empress 孝贤, which is our Empress 富察. There aren’t any records of her time spent in 长春宫, which is the Empress’s palace.
When the drama begins, we’re in 1741,6 years into 乾隆‘s reign. 魏璎珞, at this point, is around 14, which could conceivably be when she enters the palace.
In history, 魏璎珞 becomes a Noble Lady or 贵人 in 1745 or the 10th year of 乾隆’s reign. That makes her around 17 or 18. Please note, that in the drama, she doesn’t become a noble lady or 贵人 until 1750, which is where we are in the drama right now.
As a quick reminder to our listeners, because we haven’t discussed the levels in the Imperial Harem for quite some time, here are the ranks in the Imperial Harem.
The lowest is 官女子 – these women would still serve or work in the palace.
Next we have 答应 or second-class female attendant
Then we have 常在 or First-class female attendant.
And then we have 贵人 which is Noble Lady – this is where 魏璎珞 finds herself.
For all of these titles, there is no limit to the number of women at this level. Once they are promoted further, to the level of 嫔, there are strict limits on the number of women who can be at these levels. It is also at the level of 嫔, where women can then call themselves 本宫 because they run their own palace.
In this current drama, 魏璎珞 immediately receives the title of 贵人 which causes a stir with the women in the Imperial Harem because 魏璎珞 skipped like 3 steps to become a 贵人. This is historically accurate, well we don’t have any records saying anything else, because her first recorded title is 贵人 in 1745.
In contrast, 魏燕婉 from 如懿传 or Ruyi’s love in the palace, she started in the palace as a maid and was given the title of 答应 and slowly moved her way up in the palace. In that drama she also was in the palace as the Emperor’s woman for much longer than we see Ying Luo in this drama. I do find it funny to see the depictions of various dramas for historical women. Most if not all of them wrong.
Speaking of, this gets us into a little bug in the drama. 魏璎珞 cleverly refuses to spend the night with the Emperor by saying that she still has to adhere to the 27 month mourning period for Empress 富察. However, in history, the new Empress Nala would not have been crowned Empress until AFTER the 27 month mourning period, which we discussed in the last episode. So, technically, this wouldn’t have been a good excuse. However, timelines with regards to 魏璎珞 for this drama at this point are completely thrown out the window so we’ll let this slide. In 1750, 魏璎珞 is only 23 or so.
We started focusing more on costumes in the drama so let’s continue here! We get a splendid scene of all of the women in the Imperial Harem wearing what is called the 吉服. This is one step below in formality compared to the 朝服, which is what we discussed Empress 那拉 in the previous episode. Unfortunately we don’t get full body shots of any of the characters except for perhaps the Empress Dowager.
吉服 translates to literally Luck Attire. This is worn for more formal occasions such as birthdays or celebrations at the ancestral temples. 吉服 was not unique to the Qing dynasty. We just have a pretty clear visual representation of the differences. In the Qing Dynasty, we think of it as the outer jacket that all of the ladies are wearing in this scene. It is typically black or a navy color with the circle on the chest, two smaller circles on the shoulders, and two circles between the waist and knees. Please note that the women also wear this collar. Which is period appropriate as well. For this drama, the costume designers did quite a bit of research to replicate several 清 dynasty 朝服 and 吉服 for this drama. If you compare what the ladies wear in this episode, it is formal but not AS formal as the Empress’s court attire in the previous episode.
I read that what 纯贵妃 is wearing is called the 蝴蝶菊花团纹 which translates to Butterfly Chrysanthemum. We can see both in the large circle on her chest. However, I can’t quite make out what bird it is. As for the Empress, she has dragons on her chest. It’s the same for the Emperor. The other women in the Imperial Harem mainly have flowers for their embroidery, which fits their rank. For this scene, this is the Empress Dowager’s most formal attire that we see in the drama. I couldn’t find a historical counterpart, but someone online compiled this list and called it a 黑底金线绣花吉服. Which translates to Black Base Gold Thread Flower Attire. We don’t see the normal dragon here. The Empress Dowager is allowed to wear dragons.
We’ll see these ladies wear 吉服 separately but this is one of the grand affairs where the Imperial harem is out in force standing together. Please pay attention to the headdresses of each of the ladies too. I feel like they are slightly more formal, with more gold, 点翠, and jewels. Please compare what the ladies are wearing here to, let’s say, the next episode. We discussed 钿子 in episode 36+37.
On a side note, I rather like 魏璎珞’s current maid outfit. It stands out but not too much.
Lastly – just a super quick note on the two locations mentioned in this episode. 九洲清晏殿 was indeed the Emperor’s sleeping residence while at 圆明园. It became the primary residence for the Emperor during the reign of Emperor 雍正. It then became the favored residence for Qing Dynasty emperors. Emperor Yongzheng actually died here. It is located on a small island on the southside of Yuan Ming Yuan. Looking at a map, it is right after the entrance and a small lake. 长春仙馆 is located very close to it, just to the southwest of 九洲清晏殿. Unfortunately 九洲清晏殿 was destroyed during the second opium war in 1860 but the remnants are still visible at that location.
The park itself is absolutely massive. After 2 hours of walking, I gave up and rented a bike to get around. I remember thinking, how on earth did people travel in this park? As I’m saying this, of course they didn’t. The maids and eunuchs did, everyone else had carriages or palanquins.
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