[Karen]

Welcome to Chasing Dramas! This is the podcast that discusses Chinese history and culture through Chinese TV dramas. This is Cathy, and this is Karen. Today we are discussing episode 14 of 后宫甄嬛传, Empresses in the Palace. We talked about dances and princes in the last episode, we’ll talk about some Tang dynasty history in this episode at the very least.

Thanks to all of you who are joining us and listening to us on this podcast, we really appreciate all of your support! If you are just joining us, and don’t know what this drama is about, we recommend checking out the intro to the drama episode first to get more information on the background of the show and the main characters.

In today’s episode, the trio of 甄嬛, 沈眉庄, and 安陵容 are pulled into the political machinations of the Imperial Court. How do they handle these situations?

Let’s start again with Princess 温宜’s birthday banquet. 甄嬛 just dazzled everyone with her 惊鸿舞 but 华妃 suddenly starts to feel faint. 

 

 

[Karen]

She starts tearing up and shares that this dance makes her very emotion and says it reminds her about the story of 梅妃. This story is quite interesting and we saved the discussion from the last episode so we’ll talk about it more later on. The end result is that 华妃 is getting back in favor with 皇上, much to the chagrin of most people at the party.

The party ends but as people leave, 甄嬛 chats calmly with 曹贵人 and calls her out, in a nice way, that the card asking her to dance 惊鸿舞 was in 曹贵人’s hands the entire wasn’t it?  曹贵人 doesn’t deny it and hints to 甄嬛 that she should focus more on her friend, 沈贵人’s pregnancy.

Privately, the two back at their quarters, 甄嬛 and 沈眉庄 discuss the days events. They all agree that 曹贵人 is someone to watch out and someone not to be trifled with.

 

 

[Cathy]

Later on, 甄嬛 heads over to see 皇上,the emperor. While waiting outside, she overhears a discussion between 皇上 and a couple of his government officials. They in a heated discussion about the battle in the Northwest where 华妃 ‘s brother is currently the commanding general. 

The officials are heard recommending that 华妃 be forgiven for any misgivings in order to placate her brother on the front line. 甄嬛 overhears this and understands that there’s nothing to be done. So when she actually sees 皇上, she also recommends that 华妃 be given back her authority to help manage the imperial harem with 皇后, the empress, to which, of course, 皇上 agrees and then asks to see 华妃 for the night. 华妃 is gloating and very happy about being back in favor with the Emperor. But you see? For 皇上, managing 后宫 has a lot to do with managing 前朝, or ruling affairs. Why did she actually win back favor? Her 

We next cut to a scene at night with 皇后 alone with her maid, 剪秋。 It’s quite sad because we find out that 皇后 actually had a son but unfortunately, her son died. She said her son was smarter than the current oldest son, the 3rd prince and becomes very sad. Her maid, 剪秋, tries to cheer her up by saying that 皇后 will still be able to bear children, but 皇后 says that she knows her body. She’s well past the age of bearing children (she’s over 40). There will be no more children for her. Here, is also the first time we hear that she was 庶出 born, while her sister, who was also married to the emperor, was 嫡出。 This means that her sister was born of the primary wife of their father. She herself was born of a concubine. She is of a lesser status than her sister. Something that is very important to her and something we will discuss in later episodes.

 

[Karen]

The rest of the episode revolves around drama involving 安陵容 and her father. It turns out, her father, who is a government official, was involved with military incident where supplies were not sent to the front lines for 华妃’s brother, 年羹尧. 安陵容’s father has been captured and is awaiting his sentence. It’s quite a big scandal. She begs her friends 甄嬛 and 沈眉庄 for help and says that 沈眉庄’s father actually has the authority to reduce the sentence or make the problem go away. 沈眉庄, trying to be a good friend, tries to see if she can talk to 皇上 about it, but is stopped at the door by 皇上’s head eunuch, 苏培盛。

沈眉庄 learns some crucial information. 安陵容’s father’s superior, was executed for his crimes. She wants to do something but is persuaded by 苏培盛 to NOT get involved. Why? A few reasons – 皇上 does not like women involved in court affairs especially military matters. This will reflect poorly on 沈眉庄. Second, this issue directly involves 年羹尧, 华妃’s brother. Helping 安陵容 will cause 沈眉庄’s father to become an enemy of 年羹尧. This could directly affect her father’s standing in court especially if 安陵容’s father is guilty. Third, if 华妃 found out that 沈眉庄 tried to help, she’ll tell her brother to try a have 安陵容’s father executed. It’s a lose lose lose situation. 

 

[Cathy]

These are all valid arguments but all 安陵容 does is continue to cry. Ok – true, what else can she do. 甄嬛 has an idea – the Empress 皇后!They hurriedly go to the Empresses quarters only to find that she already went to see the Emperor. How nice of her.

There’s a quick scene with 华妃 and 曹贵人 discussing 皇后’s actions. 华妃 snidely comments that no one will be friends forever. She makes it clear that she wants to rule 后宫 with an iron fist. This confirms that 沈眉庄 should not have done anything. She’d be going through hell right now if she did.

皇后 returns to tell the ladies that she wasn’t able to secure his release. It all seems hopeless for 安陵容 but is it? 皇后 won’t help and not get anything in return. She and 甄嬛 make some major decisions and 安陵容’s just sitting there not understanding any of it. But man, this scene is such a masterclass in metaphors and double meanings. We’ll dive into this scene. 

 

[Karen]

甄嬛 then goes to see 皇上. She’s deduced that both the Empress 皇后 and 华妃 have talked to 皇上 about 安陵容’s father. She gets “jealous” that 华妃 came and this amuses the Emperor. This is all to 皇上’s appetite. Surprisingly 皇上 asks for her opinion about the matter. 苏培盛, the Emperor’s head eunuch just told 沈眉庄 not to discuss government affairs. 甄嬛 obviously does not walk into this mine. What she does do is discuss historical precedent. She says the wisest and most revered Emperors in history often used the carrot and the stick approach to gain the support of their subjects. They’d punish the superior but show mercy to the subordinates. She then says, I don’t know much about the government but historically, it’s been in the empire’s interest to separate the military and the courts. 

雍正 is mightily impressed. She doesn’t talk about current politics but uses history to discuss the current issue at hand. With that, he decides to set a new trial for 安陵容‘s father. Yay! 

 

[Cathy]

The next day, 安陵容 is still crying! 剪秋 comes in to tell the news that her father has hope! 安陵容 comes to the conclusion that the only one who can actually help is 皇后. I don’t think she knows what 甄嬛 did for her. 

The episode ends with 浣碧, 甄嬛’s maid/half sister, uh em, barging in on 甄嬛 and 皇上. She draws attention to herself by placing the lotus flowers and lotus leaves that she picked for 甄嬛. She receives some praise from the Emperor for her ingenuity. 甄嬛’s over there observing this conversation. What does she think?

 

—-

 

[Karen]

Alright, that was the recap. Now let’s get into our analysis.

First up is – 梅妃 

So! Who is this 梅妃 and what is the significance of her existence!?

She is actually an interesting character and is actually quite tragic. 梅妃’s real name is 江采苹 (which is debatable)。 She was born, according to historical archives, in 710AD, so about 1000 years before the setting of this drama. She was one of the favored concubines of emperor 唐玄宗. He was an emperor during the Tang dynasty. The Tang dynasty is another very famous dynasties in Chinese history. This emperor, however, is not known for the great things he’s done, but rather, for more tragic things. OK – he did some really great things in his youth and the early years of his reign, but he really let it go in towards the end…

Now 梅妃, was what you would call 才女。According to Baidu, she’s one of the 帝王后妃把大才女 which means she is one of 8 main 才女 who were women of emperors/kings. What is a 才女? 才女, we’ve alluded to before, are women who are incredibly talented in all manner of things. They must be able to read and write and generally know how to write poetry, sing, know how to play instruments and understand music, play Chinese go, dance. Basically talented in all manner of things and are what you would call “accomplished” women. So basically in pride and prejudice – accomplished women.

梅妃 was selected to enter the palace at a young age and the moment she entered the palace, the emperor at that time, 唐玄宗, his real name 李隆基, was smitten with her. She quickly rose up the ranks and became one of the highest ranking concubines in the imperial harem, a difficult feat because there were thousands of women in the harem. She absolutely loved plum blossoms which is why, even though her name is 江采苹 (ping), her title is 梅妃, which translates to Consort Plum Blossom.

She was famous for her plum blossoms, and also, the dance 惊鸿舞。She was beautiful, talented and much loved by the emperor. That is, until the appearance of 杨贵妃。 杨贵妃 is one of the most famous women in Chinese history. If 梅妃 is considered one of the top 8 talented concubines, 杨贵妃is one of the 4 beauties of Chinese history. 杨贵妃, who’s real name is 杨玉环 was renowned for her beauty. There are many, many books, plays, operas, dramas, and poems made about her and her story with the emperor. Which means that when she came into the picture, the talented and aging 梅妃 lost favor.  This was evident even in her title. 杨贵妃 is the tile of noble consort。 梅妃 only is a consort. Drama in the imperial harem led to 梅妃 being banished into the Cold palace, the 冷宫。

In our current drama, 华妃 tearfully says that when she sees 惊鸿舞, she can’t help but be reminded of 楼东赋, what does she mean? 楼东赋 more or less translates to East Tower Song. This 楼东赋 was written by 梅妃 while she was abandoned, and lost power, stuck in the cold palace. She wrote this in order to try to regain some favor from the emperor.  She laments her lost favor and the past happiness that was shared but is now gone because the emperor favors 杨贵妃. She even evokes a man named 司马相如, who wrote a very famous song for an abandoned empress in the Han Dynasty. 梅妃 wrote this piece and gave it to her emperor, 唐玄宗. 

It was not a happy ending. Even though this song was very touching, 梅妃 never regained favor. While she was stuck in the cold palace, there was a rebellion against the emperor where he had to flee the palace and only took a few people with him. He took 杨贵妃 but abandoned 梅妃。 The palace was sacked. When he returned, she was found dead. What’s sad is that he abandoned 梅妃, but the more favored 杨贵妃 was forced to commit suicide while on the run. So what did he gain? What did he lose?

This level of sadness is what 华妃, in this drama, was trying to hint at. She wanted to tell the emperor, 雍正 that she is reminded of how poorly 梅妃 was treated with this dance, and even recited a few very sad lines from the song. This all leads 雍正 to reconsider her punishment.

As we mentioned earlier, 甄嬛 saw right through the ploy of 惊鸿舞 and the subsequent mention of 楼东赋。 华妃 is notorious in not to read or to understand history. She even says so herself so the fact that she was able to recite lines from this song, means that someone must have trained her. That’s why 甄嬛 says so point blank to 曹贵人。Without this ploy of 惊鸿舞,华妃 would not be able to discuss 楼东赋 and bring pity onto her current situation.

 

[Cathy]

We just had our history lesson but this episode is all about politics so let’s dive into it!

We again see here that 沈眉庄 and 安陵容 specifically are too green and easily manipulated when it comes to politics, building alliances, and double meanings. We already talked about 沈眉庄 earlier and how she really was saved by 苏培盛, the head eunuch.

I now want to deep dive into the conversation between 皇后, the Empress, and 甄嬛. The two ladies 安陵容 and 甄嬛 go to 皇后’s palace to ask for her help but she’s not there. I will hazard a guess that 皇后 knew the two were going to see her, which is why she went to 皇上 first. She is basically already owed a favor from the two ladies. Now, 皇后 already went to talk to 皇上 but she comes back to say there’s nothing to be done. Is that really the case though? 甄嬛 thanks 皇后 for helping the ladies and asks what they can do for her in return. This is exactly what 皇后 wants to hear. She directs all of her conversation to 甄嬛. 安陵容 is of no importance right now. She literally just sits there and I don’t think she understands anything.

皇后 then says – there’s turbulence in 后宫 and I’m getting up in age. If you can understand me, I’d like for you to take some of my burden. With that, her maid 剪秋 picks up the incense burner and brings it forward. 皇后 says – the dead ashes are suddenly burning again. That’s no good. 甄嬛 stares at the incense burner for a few seconds. She then brings her tea cup and pours it over the ashes. She responds by saying – we concubines in the 后宫 rely on you the Empress for our livelihoods. It is our duty and our privilege to alleviate your burden. 

Karen – did you understand the whole thing about the incense burner? No? 

Well 皇后 is referring to 华妃!华妃 was out of favor and she basically rose from the ashes and is now back in favor. 皇后 needs the support from the younger concubines to take her down. 甄嬛 understood what this meant, which is why she doused the ashes with the tea. With this action – 甄嬛 has now pledged her support to 皇后。

 

[Karen]

甄嬛 then quotes some lines from a three kingdoms era poem  – 月明星稀,乌 (wu)鹊(que)南飞,绕树三匝za1,终于有枝可依. Here’s the translation – in the moonlight, birds are flying south. They fly around a tree three times and finally find a place to land. In the context of 后宫. They have been the birds flying aimlessly around. But they have finally found a tree that they can support and be supported. The tree is obviously 皇后.  皇后 is very pleased with this answer. 甄嬛 understood her. 皇后 then finalizes the alliance with a warning. She says – remember there’s always only one tree. The others are just flower petals. Make sure you know who are the flowers and who are the trees. Again, she’s the tree and all the other flowers including 华妃 are just that, flowers. 安陵容 is just sitting in the back looking perplexed. 

How cool was that! The entire conversation was coded! Not a word was said about 华妃 but everyone except for 安陵容 knew that she was the topic of conversation. How does this help 安陵容’s father in anyway? 皇后 even said nothing could be done? But it is because she went to talk to 皇上 that 甄嬛 was later able to persuade 皇上 to grant a new trial. It had to be a one two punch. 皇后 could have easily also just stayed away from this entire situation. She threw 安陵容 a bone and hooked 甄嬛.  A pretty good deal if you ask me. 

Finally, let’s talk about the quote on quote lesson 安陵容 learns at the end of the day. 剪秋 gives her the news that her father has been granted a re-trial. 剪秋 tells her 皇后 pleaded for his case to 皇上. She does mention that 甄嬛 did too. In her mind, 安陵容 has learned the true nature of her friends. 沈眉庄 won’t stick up for her. 甄嬛 will. But the only person that has any real sway in the palace is 皇后. 剪秋 is also such a manipulator – she says you know if only 沈眉庄 wrote to her father earlier to help out, you wouldn’t be in such a state. 

Hello! 沈眉庄 tried and if she had sent the letter, her father would be dead. No one obviously told 安陵容 about this but I also don’t know if 安陵容 would have cared. 

Look at that, it seems 安陵容 is now team 皇后 and the cracks are really beginning to form between 安陵容 and 沈眉庄. 

Let’s end with just a note on the final scene of the episode. 浣碧, 甄嬛’s half sister/maid, knows exactly what she was doing, walking in on 甄嬛 and 皇上. She is trying to catch 皇上’s eye. 甄嬛 needs to watch out. This might not turn out well…

 

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 chasingdramaspodcast@gmail.com. We look forward to having you with us in the next episode.