Welcome back to Chasing Dramas! This is the podcast that discusses Chinese culture and history through historical Chinese dramas. We are your host for today Cathy and Karen!
Today we are discussing episode 53 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 the history portrayed in this episode.
In the last episode, well and also the beginning of episode 53, we said goodbye to two women, the evil 纯贵妃 and the maternal 愉妃。 璎珞 now has the 5th prince 永琪 under her care but also was able to see the late Empress Fu Cha receive some justice for the death of her son with 纯贵妃’s death. The thing is, 纯贵妃 was killed using a string from a kite by the Empress Na La. No one knows the truth but because Ying Luo has created kites in the past, the evident connection is that she was the one to kill Chun Gui Fei.
The Emperor visits Ying Luo at Yan Xi gong and what is she doing? Making a kite. They get into a little argument because he wants her to stop making the kite because it just looks bad for her. Instead, he wants to teach her how to play the gu qin and even gifts her a beautiful new qin. Does she listen? Nope? She doesn’t think anything of his suggestion and is adamant in continuing her kite making. This annoys the Emperor who storms off. He’s more annoyed that Ying Luo doesn’t even try to explain because it shows she doesn’t care what he thinks of her.
This little tiff between the two is immediately spread throughout the palace and 舒嫔 whom we haven’t seen in a while takes her opportunity. One night, she stops the Emperor in the garden with an excuse to observe a beautiful flower. This hella fake 昙花 or Queen of the night flow blooms in front of them and 舒嫔 uses everything she’s got to try to capture the Emperor’s attention, showering him with many praises. The Emperor plays along and says that on such a night, the should be music! What does he do? Order that the qin he gave to ying luo be extracted.
Ying Luo doesn’t give a second thought and just gives it back which causes the Emperor to be annoyed again because he wanted her to make a fuss. When by the twilight hours she doesn’t show up, he ditched 舒嫔 and shows up at YanXi Gong. That’s where they have a frank discussion about why he’s so frustrated. He knows she didn’t kill 纯贵妃 but she doesn’t care for how he thinks of her. The two make up or more like the Emperor lets go of his annoyance and that’s that! Poor 舒嫔。
The more interesting matter at hand is the silkworm ceremony. The Empress Nala is presenting this event to the Empress Dowager. However, the Empress Dowager states that given there’s been drought in the Empire and that the cost of the ceremony is high, it’s not a good look to do this ceremony this year. They can look to do it next year instead. But, the Empress Nala pushes back saying that all of the women at court have already been informed of the ceremony and the operations are already in place. If they cancel the ceremony now, it would cause gossip.
This angers the Empress Dowager and rightly so. The Empress came to ask her for her thoughts but she doesn’t actually care because she is adamant for this ceremony to take place. In front of all the servants in the palace, the Empress Dowager tells the Empress off for usurping too much power. The Empress Dowager then promptly leaves, leaving the Empress rather humiliated. She rushes out of the palace with tears in her eyes and gives only a half hearted acknowledgement of Prince He who happened to be outside.
Prince He who has had a soft spot for the Empress Nala, decides that he will step in to help her ensure that the silkworm ceremony continues as planned. After all, why was it possible for the late Empress Fu Cha to hold the ceremony and not the new Emrpess Nala? Clearly, there’s favoritism here.
Sure enough, next we see, the Empress and 舒嫔 are overlooking the materials required for the silk ceremony. While the Empress is secretly gloating that she got her way, she is immediately met with a blow as they find that Ying Luo will be using materials befitting a higher station than her current title of consort. Apparently, this was okayed by both the Emperor and Empress Dowager. Clearly, this is the Empress Dowager’s way of expressing her displeasure by purposefully elevating Ying Luo’s position to combat the Empress’s. Right now, this silkworm ceremony is the Empress and Empress Dowager’s battleground. The Empress needs this ceremony to happen in order to maintain her position of power given what happened to her father while the Empress Dowager does not want it to happen BECAUSE of what happened to the Empress’s father. The Empress Dowager wants to send out a warning of her displeasure with the nala clan.
There is someone else who is very eager for this ceremony to occur and that is none other than 尔晴. She’s been in confinement for quite some time with Fu Heng out at war but she has not exercised any restraint at all in her hateful tendencies. She wants to use this ceremony as a way to speak to the Emperor about her poor condition because if anyone will help, it’s going to be him. We will see what happens with her presence in the next episode.
But before we close out the episode, there is a quick scene we want to highlight with two implications. Xiao Quan Zi secretly follows Yuan Chun Wang to the Imperial Doctor 叶天士‘s place and picks up some medicine from 叶天士. There, 袁春望 says he’ll help 叶天士 dispose of some of the medicine that isn’t fresh anymore in the market so that the funds can be used for other medical purposes. Additionally, 叶天士 gives 袁春望 a secret pouch of medicine for Ying Luo. 小全子 observes 袁春望 secretly putting this powder in a pot of medicine for ying luo and when presenting her with this medicine, 小全子 tries to stop her from drinking it, thinking 袁春望 is trying to poison Ying Luo. But instead, Ying Luo drinks the medicine without another thought. She punishes 小全子 for insubordination yet still insists she will keep drinking this medicine. This little scene is quite interesting and will be important in the next few episodes.
And with that! We will see what happens with Er Qing in the next episode!
月露知音琴 – Sound of Moon Dew Zither
This zither comes into play as the gift that the Emperor intends to give Ying Luo but she doesn’t want learn how to play. Later, Consort Shu wishes to play it. Ladies and gentleman, Ying Luo REALLY doesn’t understand the favor she has from the Emperor does she. I started researching this zither and even I was shocked at it’s history.
This 月露知音 is in the 仲尼 style with a paulownia body and painted with black laquer. There are 7 strings on the zither so it’s more of the 古琴 style instead of the 古筝 style that you hear in our intro music. This zither was created during the Ming Dynasty.
Emperor Qian Long, along with his many other hobbies, loved collecting zithers. Once he collected a bunch, he had his officials such as 梁诗正、唐侃 go through all the zithers in the royal collection and rank them. This 月露知音 was in the top 16, which reflects its quality. The 头等十六号 is engraved on the zither box to show its rank. This zither is one of only 4 that are still in its original palace lacquer box from Qian Long’s era. 2 are held in private collections and one is held in a museum in Liao Ning.
For this 月露知音, on the box, we can see the words 明制月露知音 大清乾隆辛酉年(1741)装 or Ming Dynasty Sound of Moon Dew Zither, boxed in 1741. There’s another poem that Emperor Qian Long had carved on the box.
On the back of the zither itself are some beautiful carvings. At the top, there’s a gorgeous carving of the name of the zither 月露知音. There’s also at least 2 other imperial seals from Qian Long that denote its ownership.
On the baseboard, there’s a carving of a poem that Qian Long wrote for this zither.
Here’s my translation
The moon dew and zither are one and not thre
Destroy the separation to form a bottomless basket
The ritual wine is light, the silk is pure
Who is my soulmate? Only ask the moon dew
It is one of the rarest zithers of the same quality. At auction in 2014, this Zither sold for 33M Yuan, which, depending on conversion rate, is between $4.7M to $5.5M. So Ying Luo – value what you have!
It was stored at the National Palace Museum in Beijing but I’m not sure where it is after the auction.
In this episode, 和亲王 recites a poem as he’s trying to figure a way to aid the current Empress. He recites two lines
This comes from a poem that was written by Emperor Qian Long himself. He wrote it on the 3rd anniversary of Empress Fu Cha’s death in 1751 and is pondering why he doesn’t love the current Empress or Empress nala as much.
Here’s the full poem
My translation is as such
The songs have come for your three year memorial, the time has flown by.
Is it that the new zither isn’t as good, no it’s because the relationship is not the same as with the old sword.
Hidden in the poem, there’s another idiom 故剑情深. This is very much a tragic love story and the subject of a few Chinese dramas. The Han Emperor 刘 ascended the throne after a rough childhood. He already had a wife 许平君 and logically she would become Empress. The Grand General 霍光 though, wanted to have his young daughter 霍成君 become Empress.
The newly installed Emperor wrote an edict basically stating – when I was poor, I really liked a sword. I miss this sword dearly, can you, my subjects, help me find it? This sword represents 许平君. With this edict, 许平君 became Empress for a time. This story then became the idiom 故剑情深. Or the Long Love of the Sword.
Fun fact – 苏青, our actress for 尔晴, in this drama portrays 许平君 in the drama Yunge from the Desert that also portrays this relationship. 许平君 was the beautiful and loving wife in that drama. Many viewers really liked her in that drama. Hence why it was SUCH a shock to see 苏青 in this drama be such an evil woman as 尔晴.
Anyways, back to this poem.
In the poem written by Emperor QIan Long, 究输旧剑久相投 – the sword here represents his first wife, Empress fucha.
The poem essentially means – It isn’t that the new zither or the new Empress is bad, but she’s just not the same as the original sword or the original Empress.
One – this is a touching poem from the Emperor missing his wife. Two – how would the new Empress feel if she saw this? That’s somewhat not nice?
亲蚕礼 – Silkworm ceremony
In this episode, there was tension between the Empress Dowager and the Empress regarding who will preside over the Silkworm festival or 亲蚕礼.
The history of the 亲蚕礼 is very long, dating all the way back to the Zhou Dynasty, some 2500 years ago. To learn more about the Silkworm festival, we of course have to talk about the history of sericulture.
Agriculture and sericulture or silk farming were the pillars of Chinese society dating back to the thousands of years. There were various gods and goddesses that the ancient Chinese prayed to for good harvests for the year. Legend has it, Leizu (Chinese: 嫘祖; pinyin: Léi Zǔ) discovered sericulture, and invented the silk loom. She also known as Xi Ling-shi (Chinese: 西陵氏), who was a legendary Chinese empress and wife of the Yellow Emperor.
Historically, the silkworm festival was always led by the empress. She would lead the women in the imperial harem to pray to Leizu and feed the silkworms to promote the custom of sericulture. The Emperor, on the other hand, would pray to 先农, the god of farming. In Chinese, there’s the phrase 男耕女织, which means Men Farm Women Weave. With the silkworm festival, it makes a clear delineation of roles between a man and woman. Women will weave and silk is what they used to weave, hence why the silkworm festival is led by women.
The silkworm ceremony is clearly mentioned in the Rites of Zhou or 周礼. This ceremony was held every year. In the spring, the Empress would lead the women to the north to perform the rituals.
In the Ming Dynasty, there were alters built in the north parts of Beijing. During the Qing Dynasty, the 先蚕坛 The Xiancantan (Altar to the Goddess of Silkworms) began construction in 1742 and completed in 1744. It is located at the northeast part of the Beihai Park in Beijing so it isn’t located inside the Forbidden City. The first ceremony was held in 1744. It was subsequently renovated in 1748 and 1837. When the Emperor would go pray to the agriculture gods at Tian Tan, which is a much more famous tourist site, the Empress would come here instead. 先蚕坛 is still standing and one can go visit it. There, you’ll see a plaque with Emperor Qian Long’s handwriting.
According to rituals set during the Qian Long’s reign, the ceremony was held during the 3rd month of the year. The Empress and her retinue would fast 2 days in advance. Then, they would head to the 先蚕坛 or Altar to the Goddess of Silkworms wearing official court dress to offer sacrifices to 嫘祖.
If silkworms had already hatched, then the mulberry ceremony would be held the next day. If not, then the mulberry ceremony would be delayed a few days. For the mulberry ceremony, it was necessary to select the candidates to perform the rituals, prepare the fields, and prepare the hook and baskets.
The Empress used gold hooks, and concubines used yellow baskets with silver hooks; others used red baskets with iron hooks. On the day of bowing to mulberry, the queen holds a hook in her right hand and a basket in her left hand, and picks mulberry leaves first, singing a song about picking mulberry leaves. The other women followed her lead. Then, the silkweavers chopped up the mulberry leaves and fed them to the silkworms. After the silkworms formed cocoons, the silkweavers selected the best ones and presented them to the Empress, who then presented them to the emperor and empress dowager. Then on another auspicious day, the empress and the silkweavers went to the weaving room to reel some silk and dye it into colors such as vermilion, black, yellow that would be used for embroidering sacrificial clothes.
There’s a beautiful series of paintings that were probably painted by Giuseppe Castiglione and others that portray these rites. In the paintings,we can clearly see the Empress, who resembled Empress Xiao Xian or Empress Chu Cha, performing her duties. The paintings were presented in 1749 but the Empress had already died so they probably were commissioned by the Emperor more as remembrance of his beloved late wife. These paintings are currently housed in the National Palace Museum in Taipei.
In the drama, the previous Empress did talk about the 亲蚕礼 in past episodes but it really wasn’t a highlight so we didn’t talk about it.
Lastly – Er qing says these two stanzas as she’s basically torturing a maid. Ugh, what else is new.
The poem was written by the Tang Dynasty poet 白居易 and comes from the Poem 后宫词. Or the Imperial Harem Ci.
This basically translates to – The favor comes in drops, can it spread across a thousand doors? The three thousand women in the palace have rouged faces, how many will not have tears come spring?
So this poem is really a critique on the promiscuous nature of the Emperor and the sad and desolate lives of women in the palace. These women in the palace constantly show their most beautiful self in hopes of gaining favor with the Emperor and becoming a favored concubine. But this is mostly futile.
This is an apt critique but um, I don’t think it works here for 尔晴 because you never had favor and also 傅恒 is not a promiscuous guy! He’s not sleeping around with many women. He has no eyes for anyone at this point, so like who is dressing up for him and who’s he discarding? I think this is a miss from the screenwriter as this poem doesn’t really fit this scene.