Hello and welcome to Chasing Dramas! The podcast that discusses Chinese history and culture through Chinese TV dramas. This is Cathy, and this is Karen. Today we are discussing episode 11 of 后宫甄嬛传, Empresses in the Palace. If you are just joining this podcast, and do not have much background on Qing dynasty history, we recommend you check out our intro episodes first to get an understanding of what our podcast is about and the setting so that you can get oriented correctly.
Now onto our episode:
甄嬛, our main character, and her friends and allies have dispatched 余莺儿 but 甄嬛 has assessed that it’s impossible for 余莺儿 to be the mastermind behind all of this. This is an exciting episode with 甄嬛 having a bit of fun terrorizing the other concubines in 后宫. If you couldn’t tell from the title, we’re going to be talking about ghosts and Chinese superstition in this episode.
And now for the recap.
News of 余莺儿’s gruesome death has reached our main antagonist 华妃. She’s luxuriously eating some watermelon and enjoying the breeze of ice cubes (which is surely a rarity especially in that day and age) in her palace. She’s confident that no one will talk about what happened or rat her out.
甄嬛 has other ideas. She wants to root out the mastermind because she surmised that 余莺儿 cannot have done this alone. How did she get the poison? How did she get this idea? It’s very elaborate and requires a lot of set up someone must have helped her. 甄嬛 discusses this thought with her head maid, 瑾溪 and it’s interesting that 甄嬛 is discussing with 瑾溪 and not her maids from home 浣碧 and 流珠. 瑾溪 has been in the palace for several years and she obviously has a few tricks up her sleeves. She is what I would say is one of the “elders” of the palace (even though she’s not THAT old) and sees things very clearly as to what matters and what doesn’t matter. I’ve thought about this, and if you’re a concubine assembling a team of servants, a person like 瑾溪 is invaluable.
In planning how to root out the mastermind, 甄嬛 and 瑾溪 decide to make a little show. This is the scary but funny part. The first victim is 富察贵人, another noble lady in the harem. She’s been featured here and there but hasn’t been mentioned much. It’s nighttime and she is heading home with her servants when suddenly, a white figure with long black hair covering the face just appears out of no where. Ooooo scary. Well all of her servants flee, screaming their heads off and she’s left by herself. The problem is she was on a chair being carried by her servants and her servants literally just drop her and run away. One of her maids is so scared, she passes out. 富察贵人 is turning around frantically hoping someone would help her but not on is around so what does she do? I mean, what CAN she do? FAINT! Which she promptly does.
The figure reveals himself to be 小允子, 甄嬛‘s head eunuch, so no actual ghost.
When 富察贵人 wakes up back at her palace, she’s surrounded by other concubines including 安陵容, 甄嬛‘s friend. The ladies arrive to the conclusion that the ghost must be the wandering soul of a wrongly accused woman who’s here to seek revenge. The only woman that sort of fits that bill is none other than 余莺儿！
Everyone in 后宫 is a bit jumpy because of all these rumors and “sightings” of the ghost. Which I must say, 小允子 gets around. 华妃 doesn’t believe in this baloney but it looks like her crony 丽嫔 does. She’s very clearly worried. It doesn’t help that Shen Mei Zhuang and all of the other concubines are pushing this narrative that 余莺儿 is here to seek revenge and saying that this ghost is only going to hurt the person that made her do all of these nasty things thus taking this away from Zhen Huan and pushing the “scariness” onto the so called mastermind behind the operation.
It’s gotten so bad that 华妃 has even had to speak to the Empress about it and ask for an exorcism to rid the palace of bad spirits.
Well one night, which is what seems like a few days passed, all of the ladies are at Huang Hou’s palace for a greeting. This includes Zhen Huan, Hua Fei, Li Pin and all the other key players. They chat briefly before heading out.
A bug here is that the greeting here is set to the evening when previous greetings are set during the day. Generally, it should be during the day but I guess for plot purposes, this has to be set in the evening.
Well, the ladies are dispersing and heading back to their respective palaces but continue to discuss the ghost. The younger concubines such as Zhen Huan and Fu Cha Gui Ren continue to discuss how scary the situation is, basically trying to make everything seem as haunted and scary as possible. Hua Fei is having none of it and leaves with Li Pin. In the following scenes, we see the figure of a ghost floating around and scaring the living daylight out of poor Li Pin.
We’ll discuss this in more detail but ultimately, Li Pin goes crazy from the scare. She starts spilling all the beans as she is trying to get the ghost to leave her alone. The Empress arrives to take Li Pin away for questioning. Hua Fei is down a main ally.
Back at Zhen Huan’s pavilion, the three friends – Zhen Huan, Shen Mei Zhuang and An Ling Rong are celebrating their success as it’s evident they planned this whole thing from the start. 安陵容 actually makes a few snarky jabs at 甄嬛 and 沈眉庄 based on the conversation she overheard. She says – hopefully I wasn’t too cruel. 甄嬛 and 沈眉庄 don’t know how to respond.
Hua Fei however is incredibly angry at her palace and is discussing next steps with her remaining ally – Cao Gui Ren, another noble lady who actually has a young daughter. Cao Gui Ren is much smarter than the other person, Li Pin and is able to explain to Hua Fei that this whole thing must have been a prank but calms her down by pointing out that Li Pin is now a madwoman. How can you take the words of a madwoman seriously?
So Hua Fei’s next move is to inform the Empress Dowager of what happened the previous night and that Li Pin is ill. Much to the surprise of all of the concubines, the Empress Dowager comes to Huang Hou’s palace during the court greeting, escorted by Hua Fei, to explain that she, the Empress Dowager will question Li Pin. Everyone from Zhen Huan, Shen Mei Zhuang to Huang Hou’s face falls. The only person smirking now, is Hua Fei.
The Empress Dowager quells the situation and discusses it with Huang Hou. Li Pin has now gone insane and is being moved permanently by orders of the Empress Dowager, to the Cold Palace or Leng Gong, which we discussed last episode. It’s where unwanted concubines are sent. Everyone knows that Hua Fei was the mastermind behind everything but the Empress Dowager decides not to pursue this and punish Hua Fei, much to Huang Hou’s disappointment.
In the end though, while Hua Fei hasn’t been punished, she is down an ally which must hurt. To add insult to injury, Huang Shang has decided to strip her of her authority to assist Huang Hou in managing the Imperial Harem. Obviously, she is furious.
It’s late at night and we see Huan Bi, Zhen Huan’s maid but also half-sister burning paper money in a secluded corner of the gardens. Well it’s not THAT secluded because who should find her? One of Hua Fei’s allies, Cao Gui Ren. It’s forbidden to burn paper money in the palace because it’s very bad luck. Why is it bad luck? Because you only burn paper money for dead people. Huan Bi explains that it’s her mother’s death anniversary and wanted to send her some money in the afterlife. We’ll discuss this bit further but this is strictly against the rules. Cao Gui Ren will not give up the opportunity to use this as leverage against Zhen Huan… It’s very clear that Cao Gui Ren is the brains of the operations for Hua Fei, not Li Pin and we are now seeing that exhibited.
There is a brief scene where Zhen Huan and Shen Mei Zhuang are enjoying a nice time with Huang Hou and Huang Shang. They are going over accounting books and Shen Mei Zhuang is able to showcase her management skills. Hua Fei is outside and wants to speak to the Emperor but is refused at the door. She walks back to her palace in a huff and starts plotting with Cao Gui Ren again as to what she needs to do next to regain the favor of the emperor.
That’s all for episode 11! It’s a fun episode and a breeze to get through but there is so much interesting stuff to discuss! All this mention of ghosts, exorcism, and burning paper money to go over! Plus there are some interesting themes are character studies to do as well.
Let’s get started on the analysis.
In this episode – we see again, that the Empress Dowager AND the Emperor are keeping Hua Fei happy and not punishing her. All of the ladies in Hou Gong are disappointed when the Empress Dowager steps in but in the language that she uses to appease Huang Hou – she is saying things like, unfortunately Huang Shang likes Nian Geng Yao (Hua Fei’s brother). Remember he is a very decorated and capable general? It is clear that the Empress Dowager stepped in this time to make sure nothing happened to Hua Fei. Li Pin, though she wasn’t the main culprit, is sufficient to take the fall for plotting against Zhen Huan. The Empress Dowager and the Emperor see the big picture while Huang Hou does not. However, the additional punishment of stripping Hua Fei of her “xie li liu gong zhi quan” which means her power to help manage the imperial harem is definitely a slap in the face to her and a warning that she needs to watch herself.
Let’s get into some Chinese religion and superstition!
Historically, the Chinese aren’t religious in the same sense as Western cultures. Different religions flourished in China and the popularity of certain religious ebbed and flowed with the different dynasties. However, the Emperor’s power always reigned supreme and no religion nor religious entity could usurp that power. The Emperor derives his power from the Mandate of Heaven and he is the chosen one. During 雍正’s reign, Buddhism and Daoism were still the main religions in the empire but there was significant Muslim population and a growing Christian population. This doesn’t even include the local beliefs and traditions in all parts of China.
Ghosts – the Chinese believe in the afterlife. There are different types of ghosts and spirits and your spirit could still be connected to the human world after death depending on the circumstances of death. In this episode, a white figure with long hair and white face starts haunting the ladies of 后宫. This type of ghost is a 冤魂, or a ghost who’s been wrongly put to death or murdered, so basically a vengeful spirit. Because the person did not die peacefully, he or she cannot be reincarnated into the next life. The vengeful spirit stays in the human world to seek out the person that wrongly murdered that person or find a kind hearted person to acquit his/her crime. In Chinese culture, there’s yin and yang. Women represent 阴 which is dark. As such they are more resolute and more likely to turn into a vengeful spirit. That’s why in Chinese culture, most 冤魂 are women. Maybe it speaks to the fact the low status that women have in society?? I guess men are just like – well I’ve been murdered, it’s ok?
Anyways, rumor has it that if the vengeful spirit or 冤魂 finds the person that killed her, the spirit will suck the life out of the person and cause his death. The phrase is 冤魂缠身, which literally means attached by a spirit. These are considered evil spirits because of their supernatural abilities. The 阴 of the ghost will drain your 阳 and cause your death. In reality, it could be that the person is just racked with guilt and they attribute negative things to a ghost. This is what happens with 丽嫔。She believes in this and is paranoid that the 余答应’s ghost has come back to avenger her death. No one is “clean” in 后宫， so many are paranoid. Which is why I find 富察贵人’s response – I didn’t kill anyone so hilarious. Of course they all jump to that conclusion
Exorcism – So you there’s an evil spirit floating around. Let’s talk about how you combat these evil spirits! Well the first thing to do is pray! We see 皇后 and 华妃 in one scene praying to 2 figures, one in green and one in red. They are Mongolian gods – 喀屯诺延 (Ka Tun Nuo Yin). We’ll see these two in other scenarios for more formal rites and rituals. If praying doesn’t work, then you get monks to perform the equivalent of an exorcism. Each type of ghost requires different rituals. You can also bring in a Daoist monk or Buddhist monk to perform the rituals.
Burning of paper money – Huan Bi, Zhen Huan’s half-sister/maid is getting in trouble for burning paper money. Why? What is it? And why is she doing it?
Well this practice is something the Chinese have done for centuries and one that people still do today. Living people burn paper money to provide currency for people in the afterlife. The money or currency isn’t real and is instead specialized paper that is meant to be burned, but it’s to represent money for the dead to use. The wealthier you are, the more paper money you can buy and subsequently burn for your loved ones to use in the afterlife. People still burn this stuff for their deceased loved ones today in East Asia and generally you burn it in front of their grave or else a shrine. You can burn money for them at any time, but people do this generally during the death day commemoration as Huan Bi is doing in this scene, or else in China during Qing Ming Jie, or the Tomb Sweeping Day. This Qing Ming Jie, or Tomb Sweeping Day is a national holiday in China and gives an opportunity for people to pay respects to their ancestors and, sweep their tombs. This includes burning paper money for them.
So why is it taboo in the palace? Well, because it is remembering a dead person and you don’t want that type of negativity or mention of the dead in the palace. The palace needs to be regal, despite how um… cold and brutal we know it is. We also mentioned how superstitious everyone is in the palace. It is bad luck to be commemorating the dead if they aren’t royal or on a specified day because you might attract other bad omens.
So as you can see, Chinese culture is deeply superstitious. Even now, there is still some of that.
Enough of ghosts and spirits – let’s talk about one prominent feature in 华妃’s palace. Ice!
There are two scenes in 华妃’s palace where ice is prominently featured. There are records of buying and selling ice all the way back to the 唐dynasty some 1400 years ago. The main clientele for ice was of course, the rich and powerful. Ice vaults were built underground some 4-5 meters deep, so around 16 feet. Straw would be placed on the ground. Depending on where you are, ice would be transported from the north to these vaults. Ice was mainly cut from frozen lakes. It was important to also have thick blocks of ice as they wouldn’t melt as easily. They then are lowered into the vault and sealed with dirt and more straw. When summer came, they would open the vault for consumption. Now each vault could only be opened once so people pre-ordered their ice and came to pick it up once the vault was opened. In the palace, there were special lead and tin containers that could keep the ice frozen for a longer period of time.
Once again, no one else in the Palace is shown with ice. This speaks to how powerful 华妃s family is and just how rich she is. Everyone else just has their servants fanning them during the day.
Additional things I want to discuss:
Li Pin – We never really went in depth on this character and this is the second to last time she shows up so I wanted to discuss her in more detail now. This character isn’t very big but still, there are some interesting insights. First off, I remember when this drama first came out, people were very critical of the actress who played Li Pin because the word Li means beautiful. Apparently in the book, and I haven’t the read the book, she is supposed to be one of the most beautiful women in the palace. Having been appointed the title of Li Pin must mean she is a beauty. But, in this show, she’s…alright? The fans were very critical of her hair decorations. For most of the episodes she’s featured in, she has a big old orange chrysanthemum flower as the main decoration on her head dress that isn’t the most flattering.
She is also not the smartest person on team Hua Fei. That title falls to Cao Gui Ren. Li Pin was an easy opponent to dispatch but her fate, of going insane in the palace and being discarded so easily, is one that is very common in the Imperial Harem. As of now, Zhen Huan and co have removed 2 opponents.
That’s it for this episode! It looks like 华妃 has lost some favor and she’s busy plotting with 曹贵人 to find a solution. 甄嬛 needs to watch out because 曹贵人 now has leverage with 浣碧. We’ll find out what happens next!
Thank you so much for listening. Hope you enjoyed this episode as much as we enjoyed discussing it! As always, if you have any questions/comments, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to having you with us in the next episode.