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 2 and 3 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.
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Now that we’re in the palace we are treated to two versions of the palace. First up is Noble Consort Gao. 高贵妃. In the palace, her status is second only to the Empress and she rounded up the existing ladies in the harem. Each woman outside of her is holding her breath awaiting her scolding. But, after hearing that the emperor isn’t going to call any of the ladies to stay the night, she immediately leaves. A quick refresher on how this works. Each night, the Emperor during the Qing dynasty is given trays and trays of name plaques with each woman in the palace’s name on it. Whomever he chooses or “flips” the plaque of, spends the night with him.
Elsewhere, our main character 魏璎珞 shows off that she is not someone that will easily be bullied. That night, the young women who were accepted to become embroidery maids are sent to the small room where like 10 of them are staying. A couple of the young ladies begin bullying 璎珞 because they were annoyed and jealous that 璎珞 helped the other maid 吉祥 in the last episode and earned praise. One of the maids poured tea water on 璎珞’s blankets and dared her to tattle. In any other drama, 璎珞 probably would have just taken in and be told to let it go. But nope! In this drama, 璎珞 walks out and straight up comes back with a whole bucket of water that she then splashes on the offending maid and also pours water all over their blankets as well. For once, we quickly see a main character who is willing to push back straight from the get go. 璎珞 is not afraid to escalate and also fight tooth and nail for herself. Good for her!
But why is she in the palace anyways and with such a big temper? We get a flashback scene that reveals she’s here to discover the truth about her beloved older sister’s death. The Wei family stated that her sister died of suicide but after inspecting the body, 璎珞 clearly saw marks around her sister’s neck that suggests she was asphixiated. Her sister was a maid in the palace as well and therefore the only way to get to the bottom of why she died is to enter the palace.
The next day, the two groups of ladies continued with their respective paths. 高贵妃 randomly wakes up and realizes something must be wrong with 怡嫔 last night who said that 愉贵人 was ill. And so, with the stature worthy of a noble consort, she goes to interrogate 愉贵人 because 高贵妃 doesn’t believe that she’s actually just ill. 怡嫔 feeling that something isn’t right, rushes over to the Empress’s palace to beg for help. And indeed, when the group arrives on the scene, 高贵妃 has 愉贵人 pinned on the floor with an imperial doctor trying to force her to drink medicine. At this point, 怡嫔, trying to help her friend, 愉贵人, reveals that 愉贵人 is actually pregnant! They can’t treat her this way! A square off occurs between 高贵妃 and the Empress plus 怡嫔 who believe that 高贵妃 is trying to harm 愉贵人 and also her child. At first glance, this certainly does seem like what’s happening. 高贵妃 uses the excuse of looking after 愉贵人’s sickness to force her to drink medicine which includes 枇杷膏 or loquat cream that is supposed to help her cough but actually cause her to miscarry. But we’ve seen that too many times in palace dramas haven’t we? After the Empress’s own doctor inspects the medicine and reveals that the medicine is perfectly fine do we realize that 高贵妃 may not be that incapable in the palace. It would have been too obvious that 高贵妃 tried to kill a child of the Emperor. The point of this scene is to reveal that the Empress does not have the power or perhaps the capability to combat the likes of 高贵妃 in the palace. We are presented with an aggressive foe in 高贵妃 who now gets to punish 怡嫔 however she likes.
Meanwhile, 魏璎珞 starts to investigate exactly what happened to her sister. Her first stop is to ask 张嬷嬷 who manages the seamstresses whether or not she’s heard of 魏璎宁. 张嬷嬷 pauses but tells 璎珞 that she should not ask such things in the future. Additionally, since 宁 is a character that matches with the name of 高贵妃, the maid probably had her name changed since staff cannot have names that match their masters. This is something we’ve talked about in previous podcast episodes. Shortly after, 张嬷嬷 asks 璎珞 and another maid 玲珑 to come with her on a task. They’re to help measure 愉贵人 for new clothes because she is newly pregnant. The women head on over only to find that 怡嫔 is being punished severely outside. 高贵妃 ordered her maid to slap 怡嫔 across the face multiple times as punishment for her insolence earlier. Poor 怡嫔‘s face is bloodied and bright red. 愉贵人 rushes out to try to protect her friend but is pushed back. All of this is seen by 璎珞 who is clearly impacted as it reminds her of the relationship she had with her sister.
The seamstresses head inside to help measure 愉贵人 but she is still extremely upset by what’s happened. She wonders how it’s possible that the loquat cream 高贵妃 gave her to eat was not discovered to be poisonous. It must be! That’s when 璎珞 steps in to explain that the loquat cream when using new leaves are poisonous but older leaves are fine for medicinal use. The cream must have used new leaves which would only be poisonous after repeated use and would be difficult to discover in smaller quantities. This riles up 愉贵人 who wants to bring 璎珞 in front of the Empress to explain what happened. 张嬷嬷 though actually steps in and begs 愉贵人 to let 璎珞 go. 张嬷嬷 knows that if 璎珞 goes with 愉贵人 it might mean death for 璎珞. 愉贵人 relents and lets the seamstresses return back home while she goes to see the Empress herself but is ultimately turned away by the Empress’s maid.
What is interesting is that the aunties or 嬷嬷 in this palace a strict but still protective. This 张嬷嬷 certainly went out of her way to protect 璎珞 on her first day in the palace when she clearly didn’t have to. She did however, punish 璎珞 to kneel in front of everyone once they returned. For an entire day, 璎珞 kneeled on the ground to repent for her mistake. But she doesn’t think she did anything wrong. She knows that 张嬷嬷 is trying to help her but when 张嬷嬷 came to ask if she understands her mistake, 璎珞 is adamant that what she did in saying those things to 愉贵人 was right.
张嬷嬷 then brings 璎珞 to see exactly what her fate would be in the palace if she continues talking the way she does. They head back to the palace where 愉贵人 and 怡嫔 live only to see that 怡嫔 has hung herself. The humiliation was too great for her so she decided to end her life.
You would think that 璎珞 learned a valuable lesson today after seeing 怡嫔’s death but nope. In front of 张嬷嬷 on the way home, 璎珞 openly calls 怡嫔 a coward for dying in the face of this humiliation. If it were her, she would stand up for herself even if it meant death. She would not end her life without fighting back. And that ladies and gentleman, is the stubborn character we have in this drama.
Luckily she is not only stubborn but does have a quick wit which she used to full effect in the next scene and into episode 3. After running off from 张嬷嬷, she is seen throwing small punches on a tree to vent off some of her anger. Bad luck would have it that she is overseen by the Emperor and his servant and the tree she hit? Is an important cypress tree spirit that helped the Emperor years before. How dare she hit the tree?
But before she can be dragged off for punishment for desecrating the tree, she comes up with a hilariously random story that she dreamt the tree was itchy the night before and therefore was here to scratch the tree’s back! The head eunuch 李玉 was like what the hell are you talking about, this is clearly a lie but 璎珞 just pushed back tht if the tree is an important spirit why couldn’t it come to her in a dream. The Emperor actually lets 璎珞 go to literally everyone’s surprise because uhhh what a dumb story. 璎珞 hurriedly leaves with 张嬷嬷 because yea, once the Emperor realizes that this was just a joke, he’ll definitely be angry.
And now we follow the Emperor to see what he’s up to. On this morning, we see him visiting his mother, the Empress Dowager. Yayyyy!!! It’s 甄嬛！ Not really but whatever. Same historical character. But actually though, when this drama was airing and in the comments, everyone was like hey! It’s 甄嬛！ There were sooo many expectations of this Empress Dowager so we’ll see how she fares compared to our classic character.
As with all Empress Dowagers it seems, this one is similarly urging her son to take a look at the women in his palace and also worry about his health. The Empress Dowager 太后 tries to recommend the new 贵人 who came to the palace from the court selection process called 舒贵人 by sharing the tea with the Emperor that she brought for the Empress Dowager. Problem is, the Emperor now realizes that he was duped by 璎珞 and hurriedly makes excuses to leave the Empress Dowager. After rushing back to the tree and not finding 璎珞, he orders his head eunuch 李玉 to find her but not before kicking him a few times to vent off his anger for tattling on him to his mother about his recent food intake. This is certainly one of the funniest Emperor’s I’ve seen in quite some time.
He also isn’t oblivious to what’s happening in his palace. In another hilariously humiliating move, after he went to visit the Empress and I’m assuming did some own research, he sent his servant to gift 高贵妃 a 5000 word sutra text for her to copy. This is his punishment to her for how she’s behaved in the last couple of days and in his words, via the servant, that she has too much anger right now. So far so good for the Emperor!
What about Ying Luo? As she’s heading off with other seamstresses to send clothing, she is dragged off secretly by a nearby imperial guard 庆锡 who used to be her sister’s lover. 璎珞 is super pissed that this guy didn’t protect her sister at all which resulted in her death and he’s all like if you need help just let me know. Yea right, who needs this kind of guy. The fact that they’re talking though was seen by 玲珑 one of the seamstresses who immediately went to snitch on 璎珞 with 方姑姑 the maid who also manages these seamstresses. They angrily arrive to try to catch 璎珞 and the mysterious guard which is taboo in the palace but 璎珞 cleverly manages to get herself out of the situation and helped 庆锡 escape. She does, in this carfuffle, learn that her sister’s name was changed to 阿满 and that she was expelled from the palace for some mistake she made.
We’ll end off the episode with 李玉, the Emperor’s head eunuch, searching high and low for the maid that tricked the Emperor, aka 璎珞. He has every single maid in the palace repeat the same lines that 璎珞 said to search for her. Luckily, while 李玉 was investigating the seamstresses, 2 new concubines in the palace just so happen to also stop by. They were the new concubines from episode one. 张嬷嬷 craftily helped 璎珞 leave with these two concubines so as to escape the investigation by 李玉. So far, it seems that 璎珞 is safe. As they’re walking, all of the maids are squealing in delight because the handsome 富察傅恒 has walked by. We’l see more of him in the next episode.
Let’s turn our attention to the history for these episodes! We’ll start with some references from episode 1 because we couldn’t cover everything last time.
The first topic is on the paintings that the Emperor “gifted” the concubines.
十二宫图 – ugh. Yu ZHeng. WHYYYY did you put all of these painting in here? So much additional work for us! Haha. But it’s all good because we’re learning stuff too! The Emperor gifted 12 women in his palace these paintings and apparently, this was true to history that Qian Long did this. We will only talk about the paintings that are mentioned in the drama. Each of these paintings honestly can be a whole drama in it by itself so I’m going to just keep it short and simple and focus on the 3 paintings explicitly gifted to the 3 women in the drama.
The first one is 太姒诲子图 or Lady Tai Si teaching her sons. Lady Tai Si was wife to the King Wen of Zhou or in mandarin 周文王. She is a legendary woman who probably lived between the 11th and 12th century BC. Her sons include King Wu of Zhou – the founder of the Zhou Dynasty. She was renowned for her beauty, wisdom, and work ethic. She was also an upstanding role model for her simple life and taught her sons to be virtuous men. The Emperor Qian Long in this drama gifted this to the Empress as a reminder of Empress’s duty to her people and to try and have her come out of her stupor from the death of her son.
Next is 西陵教蚕图 or The Xi Ling Madame Harvesting Silkworms, which is the one sent to Noble Consort Gao. This is about Léi Zǔ also known as the Xi Ling Madame. She was the legendary wife to 黄帝 or the Yellow Emperor. Legend has it, she discovered silkworms when She is known as the silkworm mother and the goddess of silkworms. On the surface, I would have the same question as Noble Consort Gao – what does the emperor want me to do? Go and grow a bunch of silkworms? Nah – the Emperor basically wanted her to go back to more primitive or original times. This is also a knock on her as a reminder to focus on running the palace instead of trying to wreak havoc in the palace.
The next one is 徐妃直谏图 or The Persuasions of Consort Xu. This is gifted to Consort Xian or Charmaine’s character. Consort Xu was a married to Emperor Tai Zong 李世民 of the Tang Dynasty. So think early 7th century AD. Consort Xu was very educated and intelligent. While married to the Emperor, she often persuaded him not to enter into military campaigns but to focus on the prosperity of the Empire instead. The underlying meaning that the Emperor 乾隆 had for this concubine was a reminder of Loyalty.
Unfortunately – the only one that survives till today is the one gifted to 钟粹宫 or 纯妃 with the one 许后奉案图. We don’t see that painting in episode 1 – the rest of the paintings in the drama are just what the production team decided upon as we don’t have the originals to compare to.
皇珐玛 – in Episode 3, the Emperor refers to his grandfather as 皇珐玛.珐玛 is the Manchu phrase for grandfather so this usage is correct. We rarely hear this used in Qing Dynasty dramas as they often just state the previous Emperor’s title or call him 爷爷. 爷爷 means paternal grandfather but that’s the 汉 phrase. 珐玛 is the correct usage here.
碧螺春 – 吓煞人香
Let’s talk about the tea 碧螺春! This comes up in discussion in episode 3 between the Emperor and Empress Dowager. The current name is 碧螺春 or Green Snail Spring. This tea has a history of more than 1000 years and has been sent to the Imperial Palaces as tribute since the Tang Dynasty. It is one of the ten major teas in China. It is a green tea that is harvest primarily in the 洞庭 mountains near Lake Tai in the Southeast region of China.
The original name, as mentioned in the drama, was called 吓煞人香 or Scary Fragrance Tea. Legend has it, a nun was walking around in the mountain and plucked a couple of the leaves to make tea. The aroma was so strong that she said the Fragrance is so strong that it is scary – hence the name Scary Fragrance Tea. During the reign of Emperor Kang Xi, so think late 17th century to early 18th century, he thoroughly enjoyed the tea but thought that the name was uncivilized and thus gifted the name of 碧螺春 or Green Snail Spring. Green for its bright green color, snail for the shape the leaves make as they’re curled like a snail, and spring for the season that they’re harvested.
碧螺春 is a very popular tea to this day. There are seven grades to rank this tea. True to its name, it has a very vibrant color and is quite aromatic. I’ve never had it fresh to drink near Lake Tai or 太湖 because well, I’ve never been. However, for another type of Green Tea – 龙井, I did have the pleasure of sitting next to 西湖 to drink fresh green tea. It was such a relaxing experience! If you’re able to buy some of this tea – I highly recommend trying it.
When watching this scene in the drama, I was immediately reminded of Pearl Princess. There was a small plot point in the drama that highlights Emperor 乾隆’s love for 碧螺春 so this tea has always been in my brain as a great tea to drink.
Lastly – let’s discuss the job of 御前侍卫 or Imperial Guards! Imperial guards as a job or role was established during the early years of the Qing Dynasty.
As mentioned in the drama, only Manchu and Mongolian bannermen were allowed to become Imperial guards at the age of 18. Their job was to protect the Forbidden Palace, the Emperor and the Emperor’s family. There were the Guard Corps who protected the imperial palace, the vanguard who marched ahead when the emperor left the palace and the imperial bodyguard, who protected the emperor.
We’ll focus on the Imperial Bodyguards or 御前侍卫. They were primarily from the upper three banners which includes 镶黄、正黄、正白 or Bordered yellow banner, plain yellow banner, and the plain white banner. These Imperial Bodyguards were of course in charge of protecting the Emperor. There was an Imperial Bodyguard office that managed the overall management of guard shifts, guard selection, practices, and promotion of guards. Even amongst the Imperial Bodyguards, there was a strict hierarchy and a corresponding rank for the level with the top being a 1st rank officer. These roles were highly coveted because at the highest level, they gave the officer direct access to the Emperor. On the flip side, the Emperors only picked those he knew were loyal to him to become his personal bodyguards. These men were allowed to have swords in the Imperial Palace, which in any other dynasty, was NOT allowed. They were also paid pretty well – hey if you’re paid well, you won’t be bribed to uh kill the emperor?
This Imperial Bodyguard role was quite frankly a good way to give jobs to bannermen. If they all didn’t have jobs, they probably wouldn’t have been bored and maybe plotted uprisings. This route offered them a possibility for promotion, wealth, and riches. Note – these men didn’t have to take the Imperial Entrance Exams to get their role. BUT by this time, there were martial arts exams that one could partake in from humble beginnings to become an Imperial Guardsmen. A relatively high percentage of officers started with roles as Imperial Bodyguards and then were promoted to other formal court roles. Others were promoted to official roles in the military. 富察傅恒 was one of them.
Now for Chinese dramas, having Imperial Bodyguards is another common trope. Similar to in Empresses in the Palace with Doctors. These Imperial Bodyguards fall in love with the maid or the concubines in the palace. Why these IMperial Bodyguards? Well – they are the only men wandering around in the Palace! Otherwise, it’s just eunuchs and the scandals aren’t QUITE as salacious with eunuchs.