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 6+7 of the story of yanxi palace or 延禧攻略。This podcast is in English with proper 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 or else the drama if the episode is light on history.
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We are reminded that while there’s plenty happening in the palace, Ying Luo’s primary motivation for being in the palace in the first place is to discover the truth about her sister’s death. She makes some headway after rather directly questioning Zhang Mo Mo who manages the seamstresses in the palace. It turns out that Ying Luo’s sister was caught one night after having an amorous relationship with someone. Despite her saying she did it willingly, she was punished to 50 canings and expelled from the palace. Zhang Mo mo further explained that sadly, Ying Luo’s sister hung herself of shame but was shocked to hear that Ying Luo reveal someone actually murdered her sister. She then produces a jade pendant she retrieved from her sister’s belongings. Zhang Mo Mo reluctantly reveals this pendant belongs to Fu Cha Fu Heng. And now, 璎珞 has more clues and another target. For now, she suspects that Fu Heng was the one to potentially rape her sister and cause her death.
We next turn to the concubines in the palace and see first hand just how little the soft spoken 纯妃 wants to see the Emperor. It appears that every night or at least often enough, she takes cold baths in order to make herself sick. And, on the occasion that the Emperor DOES visit, she tries all manner of things to push him out. This time, she raises her concerns about how disrespectful 高贵妃 is towards the Empress and wonders why the Emperor condones this behavior. 纯妃 skillfully raises her concerns about the Emperor’s predicament at court which infuriates the Emperor. As we all know, women in the palace are not to discuss or involve themselves with affairs of court. The Emperor sternly remindsd 纯妃 of this rule before storming out. 纯妃 exhales a sigh of relief while the Emperor also recognizes this was just another ploy for 纯妃 to alienate him. It’s rather odd that she would do this because all women in the palace want the attention of the Emperor but not her.
In any case, the Emperor heads over to the Empress’s residence of 长春宫 ot let off some steam from what just happened. She tries to console him that 纯妃 isn’t purposefully behaving this way (even though we think she is) and changes the subject. The Empress proposes that the various palaces in the palace start cost cutting. There’s been too much lavish spending recently and will create wasteful behaviors if not reigned in. She wants to lead by example first by cost cutting first and foremost in her palace. The Emperor doesn’t have much to say to this and agrees. This cost cutting measure comes in handy for 璎珞 later on.
The big event that the seamstress maids now have to work on is creating a phoenix robe for the Empress for her birthday. Ying Luo has been given the role of lead for this project which, as expected, causes many of the other seamstress maids to pipe up in indignation. Chief among them is 玲珑 who must capture this opportunity to sabotage 璎珞。Her method involves the valuable peacock thread that 璎珞 is supposed to use for creating this phoenix robe for the Empress. As 璎珞 describes in the drama, this peacock thread uses peacock feathers as well as gold and silver thread mixed together for a beautiful thread.
Ying Luo spent days creating this phoenix robe with the peacock thread and also alternated with the naive and simple-minded 吉祥 to watch over the robe and thread. One day though, Ying Luo finds that 吉祥 had come to find her and immediately recognized that something must be off. Indeed, after she rushes back to their main workstation, the robe has been slashed into pieces and the valuable peacock thread has also been stolen. I mean, it’s not hard to deduce who did it but the ladies don’t have time to think about the culprit for now. The Empress’s birthday is just around the corner and they have to create a robe or else the entire group of seamstresses will have to be sentenced for negligence. [Why didn’t they realize this to begin with???]
Under immense pressure to somehow save the seamstresses and the robe, 璎珞 finds an interesting substitute for the peacock thread and again spends sleepless nights making final touch ups to the recreated robe.
It’s the day of the Empress’s birthday and all of the ladies are in their formal wear presenting their gifts to the Empress. Most of the concubines brought thoughtful gifts for the Empress but then Noble Consort Gao appears, conspicuously late I might add, and reveals her gift as a pure gold Child Gifting Guan Yin statue. Immediately the Empress’s face drops as this is essentially a slap in the face to her. This statue is given as a prayer to wish for more children. The Empress is still mourning the loss of her son and therefore this is quite a touchy subject. Noble Consort Gao is clearly insulting the Empress with this gift. ALl of the women present could see how disrespectful this is to the Empress but the EMpress cannot do anything but accept this gift with a smile. Unfortunately for Ying Luo, the Empress is now in an extremely bad mood. She is left waiting outside, preparing to present her robe as a gift and then purposefully tries to delay her presentation because she says she’s waiting for something. Just as she’s about to present her gift after not being able to delay any further, the Emperor’s gift arrives and she breathes a sigh of relief.
The Emperor gifted the Empress an intricately modified clock that now is actually a makeup box but accurately tells time. There’s a little spot for the cuckoo to pop out to announce the time as well. Such an elaborate and thoughtful gift certainly brought a smile to the Empress but what was more satisfying is that Gao Gui Fei loudly announced she wasn’t feeling well and haughtily leaves the hall as she was jealous of the Empress for receiving such a grand gift. Jia Pin also leaves to follow 高贵妃.
That part was hilarious cause she was SO pissed.
At long last, 璎珞 finally presents her robe to the Empress. It’s not lost on the crowd that the thread used is not the usual gold, silver or peacock thread. But, 璎珞 skillfully explains that the thread used animal fur as a way to reflect the Empress’s wish to reduce the extravagance in the palace and also remind everyone the hardships their ancestors underwent in order to establish the Qing dynasty. This does bring another smile to the Empress’s face and she accepts Ying Luo’s explanation. The Embroidery Department is given rewards for their good work, much to the disappointment of at least one seamstress.
Yet, that night, 璎珞 does not return back to the Embroidery Department. Instead, she kneels in front of the Empress’s palace and reveals her deception that day to both the Empress and 尔晴。 She explains that she had to use the fur thread because the peacock thread was stolen and had no choice. THe Empress said that she knows something must have been off but didn’t want to expose 璎珞 in front of the crowd and for something unpleasant to happen. She then presses why 璎珞 kept on delaying her presentation. 璎珞 reveals that it was to leverage the Emperor’s gift which will cause the Empress to be much happier which then will mean she won’t be AS displeased with Ying Luo’s gift.
The Empress does shout that this is too bold for a maid to use the Emperor in such a way and Ying Luo is adequately scared but does find that Ying Luo is quite amusing. It takes bravery for Ying Luo to come up with such an excuse and is quite intrigued by this maid. As punishment, the Empress orders Ying Luo to create another outfit for her but then, because the Empress thought Ying Luo was so interesting, orders Ying Luo to be moved over to serve in her palace.
We learn that Ying Luo proactively revealed the truth to the Empress with the express hope that she will get to move over to Chang Chun Gong in order to get closer to 傅恒 to discover the truth about her sister.
The remainder of episode 7 revolves around finding the culprit for who actually stole the peacock thread. Like I said, it’s not hard to deduce that 玲珑 was the one to do it. Yet, sadly, before they have enough evidence to raise that she was indeed the thief, she managed to trick the naive 吉祥 on her birthday into grabbing a package in the department. Unfortunately, the package just so happened to be the peacock thread that was stolen and the moment 吉祥 picked up the package, she was caught by 张嬷嬷 and 吴总管, the eunuch responsible for the Imperial Household Department. Despite 张嬷嬷“s pleads that there must be a mistake, 吴总管 orders 吉祥 to be beaten to death.
If 吉祥 was the main character – she probably would have been saved by a dashing Imperial bodyguard. Alas – she’s just a minor character and bites the dust. I honestly was very surprised that they killed her off so quickly. I thought she’d at least stay for half of the series and have like a growth plot where she becomes a head seamstress or something. Good on the drama for showing us the real stakes of being in the palace.
璎珞 is internally devastated but doesn’t show it to the rest of t he seamstresses. You know who does show her “devastation”? 玲珑. She’s over there crying her eyes out and saying all sorts of things like – omg, I’m so sad she died. I’m so bereft. Like – whatever, we know what you did.
璎珞’s work product falls drastically to the point where 张嬷嬷 has no choice but to offer the next opportunity to make a robe for the Emperor up to 玲珑. 璎珞 of course doesn’t want to lose that to 玲珑. The two ladies agree on a bet. The winner’s robe will be sent to the Emperor.
One night 璎珞 tries to catch 玲珑 as the thief. 璎珞 tries to get 玲珑 to confess her crimes but 璎珞 doesn’t have enough evidence to pin it on her. I swear – does 玲珑 sleep at all? I feel she’s paying attention to 璎珞 every night. It must be exhausting. Sure enough – the night before the deadline, 璎珞 goes to sleep late and 玲珑 walks out of their sleeping quarters to do some shady stuff. We don’t see what she does though.
On the final day of the bet, Ying Luo wakes up late to see her work product switched. Ling Long stole YIng Luo’s completed outfit and presented it as her own. This was already brought over to the Emperor. Ling Long thought she would finally win this time but unbeknownst to her, Ying Luo had another trick up her sleeve. When the Emperor put on the outfit, he cried out in pain. Everyone in the palace freaks out to see that there was a needle left in the fabric that pricked the emperor. The Emperor is furious of course for such carelessness. Ling Long is taken away by 吴总管 but not before crying out that the outfit actually came from 璎珞. She is dragged off – her punishment, 80 canings and exile, never to return to the Beijing.
The first poem that I want to discuss is 虞美人. This is the poem that the Emperor brings ups in his discussion with 纯妃. The author of the poem is 欧阳修. Born in 1007, he was a politician, calligrapher, and poet during the Northern Song Dynasty. He passed his imperial entrance exams in 1030 and that started his career as an official. He was a crucial member at court for 3 Emperors.
The poem – The Beauty or 虞美人 is a ci. Ci is a type of lyric poetry. The whole poem goes like this.
My rough translation is of this – in the long white days, the Ambergis scent wafts from the incense burner. The wind gently moves the golden luan bird at the top of the curtains. The mountains on the panel screen slowly get darker. After waking from an afternoon nap, there’s still some remnants of pillow imprints. The 花钿 has also fallen. The highest towers can’t reach the sky. No matter how far one looks, one cannot see far. The spring sun mocks the melancholy person. The grass turns green. This scene only further adds to the yearning of ones beloved.
The Ci or poem is about a woman who is missing her beloved. She has nothing really to do during the day. Even during the sunny spring season, there’s an air of sadness as she waits for her beloved to return.
Back to the drama – the Emperor says that the Beauty plays with the fire and incense ash to write out her feelings. I didn’t really get that from this poem. Perhaps the Emperor was trying to get a response from 纯妃 to see if she was pining for someone, him perhaps? Unfortunately 纯妃 responds quite neutrally and successfully enrages the Emperor into leaving. She is thinking of someone but not him.
Next up is the gold peacock thread which is the main plot point of the episode! Gold peacock thread is a lost art from China. In 1958, archeologists unearthed a gold peacock threaded dragon robe that was worn by Emperor 万历 of the Ming Dynasty who lived from 1563－1620. There are photos of the gold threaded dragon with peacock feathers. Even after over 400 years, the needlework looks stunning. Apparently, some team tried to replicate the dragon robe. They gathered fallen peacock feathers and finally created a 300 meter thread to ultimately make a 17 meter robe. The whole process took 5 years. Now what about the golden thread? How does that work? This is also very difficult. First – the gold must be melted and then ground to a very fine consistency. Then, the gold needed to essentially be melded into the silk thread. Now I’m not a seamstress so apologies if I very much simplified the process. According to an early 清 dynasty book called 阅世编, one single foot of a peacock threaded fabric was worth 50 taels of silver. That’s a LOT of money. For comparison, one could comfortably buy a whole house in Bejiing with 20 taels of silver. The fabric was extremely rare which made it of course very valuable.
In the book – 红楼梦 or Dream of the Red Mansion, there is a clear reference to a 孔雀裘 or a peacock cloak. The cloak was threaded together with peacock flowers. The book was first published in the middle of the 18th century, so right around the time of this drama. Through the contemporary book, we can see that peacock thread was used for the aristocracy.
The 平金法 is the type of embroidery that 魏璎珞 uses to begin her embroidery for the ceremonial robe. It is one of the traditional types of embroidery from china. It is a Suzhou Silk Hand Embroidery Art. The 平金法 uses gold thread to primarily embroider flowers and waves.
Avalokiteśvara -> avalokiteshvara
观音 is a bodhisattva (baaduhsaatvuh) associated with compassion. She is the East Asian equivalent of Avalokiteśvara from Buddism.
Songzi Guan yin is a manifestation of Guan Yin. SongZi translates to Child-giving. She is primarily venerated as a fertility goddess. In Chinese culture, people prayed to her for hopes of having children. Usually portrayed in statues and painting as a reclining white-robed young woman with a child sitting on her lap. In the drama, Noble Consort Gao gifts a gold version of this GuanYin. Everyone’s face turns white when they see this gift because it’s a big slap in the face to the Empress. She’s been mourning the death of her son and has barely come out of it. Noble Consort Gao has the gall to say – I’m still young but you aren’t! You should get going with a son. Man – I wanted to slap her in the face!
Today people still pray to Songzi Guan yin at different buddhist temples.
Let’s discuss the emperor’s gift to the empress. It wasn’t a clock but a makeup box. The eunuch 李玉 has a line that says, it’s not proper to gift these things during one’s birthday, hence why the Emperor ordered the clock office to change it to a makeup bock.
We briefly talked about clocks in Empresses in the Palace so let me give a refresher. The first records of clocks in China actually date back to the Ming Dynasty in 1602. Clocks grew in popularity during the Qing dynasty. The most famous collector was actually Emperor 乾隆, our current emperor. One of the clocks in his collection sold at auction for roughly $7M in 2010.
The Chinese were very superstitious and strove to avoid back luck from every aspect of their lives. This included language, gifts, and customs. One of the big no-nos was to gift a clock. This is because of the homonym of the word for clock. 钟 = clock. 终 = end, which could also mean the end of one’s life.
To gift a clock 送钟 sounds exactly like 送终. Which means to attend to a dying person, or to pay one’s respects at a funeral. That’s a terrible homonym. Which is why in China, one never gifts a clock on one’s birthday. I feel like this custom has relaxed somewhat but in more traditional families, you bet that this is still adhered to.
In the drama, the eunuch never outright says 送钟 because that would have been a pretty disrespectful or essentially wishing her death. All he says is – it’s not proper to gift these THINGS. So yes – words are VERY important for this context.
发誓 – swearing oaths
Lastly – I want to discuss the concept of 发誓 or swearing an oath. In the drama, 玲珑 swears oaths left right and center to gain the trust of the other women and throw them off her scent as the thief. This drastically backfires on her when she swears that she was the one who sewed the Emperor’s robes.
In China – 发誓 or swearing an oath is something that is taken very seriously. In dramas, you’ll see characters swearing oaths of love or fealty. I feel like it’s the self-induced punishments are typically quite intense. It’s not your usual – I swear on my mother’s grave. Not to say that that isn’t a bad punishment, but let’s take a look at what 玲珑 swears the oath in front of 吉祥 – she says, I swear on the heavens that if I lie, I’ll die a horrible death. Some other people go even further and say I will be drawn and quartered or struck to death by lightning a la 天打雷劈 or 五雷轰顶, or I won’t be reincarnated.
The reason why 吉祥 was so quick to believe 玲珑 – apart from her naivete, is because no one just willy nilly swears an oath. This was serious stuff. Sometimes, people swore in front of their elders or in the family shrine to declare duty, fealty, what have you. 玲珑 used this to her advantage, first against 吉祥 and again towards the other seamstresses. She swore that the Emperor’s robe was hers and the others believed her. Notice how 魏璎珞 didn’t swear? That was a big factor in the other’s decision. Of course, 魏璎珞 figured out that 玲珑 was lying scoundrel and used her oath against her. Typically in dramas, if a character reneges on his or her oath, she gets punished some way. Think karma. 玲珑 got caught here – so maybe it is karma. Moral of this story – don’t make oaths you can’t keep!