Welcome back to Chasing Dramas! This is the podcast that explores Chinese history and culture through historical Chinese dramas. This is Karen, and this is Cathy
Today, we are discussing episode 16 of Hou Gong Zhen Huan Zhuan, Empresses in the Palace. I personally really like this episode because of the poem/song that is sung which I am super excited to discuss! Like this poem is one of the reasons why I wanted to start this podcast so we can talk about stuff like this! We are going to do a brief episode recap and do some more in-depth analysis.
Now let’s get started on this episode!
The emperor, 皇上，is currently playing Chinese Go, or 围棋 with 敬嫔. 敬嫔 is the kind concubine who rules the palace where the disgraced 沈眉庄 lives. It seems innocuous enough. The new head of the Interior Household Department (内务府), has come to ask for advice from the Emperor. You’ll recall that in the last episode, the previous head eunuch of this department, 黄规全 ran afoul of the emperor and 甄嬛 and was removed from his post and punished. This new head stops by to ask a question regarding makeup distribution for something called 螺子黛. We’ll discuss this a little bit later since it’s quite interesting.
The key piece we learn at this moment is that 敬嫔 is here to play Go is but is also here to inform 皇上 that 沈眉庄’s food was poisoned, which he thanks her for. I want to point out that I think it’s interesting that 敬嫔, who has since been relatively quiet and removed from the drama in the palace, came to stick up for 沈眉庄。And another, that 皇上 cares enough to say thank you. He says he appreciated the information to avoid drama in the palace, but, continuing on the analysis we had in the previous episode, I think that 皇上 still likes 沈眉庄 and doesn’t actually want 沈眉庄 to die.
Next, we are at 华妃‘s palace. She’s putting on hair accessories with 曹贵人。华妃 hears that 甄嬛 also received the 螺子黛 makeup and throws an absolute hissyfit. She’s upset that, again, 甄嬛 has regained favor by the emperor and decides that, in order for 曹贵人, to continue to serve her, she is going to take 曹贵人’s daughter and raise her in her palace. This sounds nice at the onset because 华妃 has better amenities in her palace, but truly, she’s keeping 曹贵人’s daughter hostage to make sure that 曹贵人 does her bidding. It’s quite cruel. It’s not just because 华妃 is a cruel person to begin with, but because she never had children and can therefore not understand what this does to a mother (at least, this is a lot of what the drama tells us to believe). All because 甄嬛 received some makeup. 华妃 even straight up says ”杀了她” – kill her.
And indeed, throughout the episode, there are instances where you see that 华妃 doesn’t treat 曹贵人‘s daughter too well – even feeding her sleeping pills to get her to stop crying at night. The maids who witness this are appalled but of course, 华妃 tells the maids to keep their mouths shut. Fortunately, one of the wet nurses tells 曹贵人 about the horrible treatment that the princess is experiencing right now. 曹贵人 is upset but there really isn’t much that she can do. Even 皇上 notices something is amiss and wants 华妃 to return the princess to her rightful mother, but 华妃 is able to keep her.
The cracks between these two women are starting to appear. Remember that 华妃 currently only has 曹贵人 on her team so causing drama isn’t the smartest move. 华妃’s quote on quote “humiliation” continues when the Emperor leaves her bedside to go and comfort 甄嬛 in the middle of the night because of a thunderstorm. The Empress 皇后, upon hearing this development, just coldly remarks – this is what she experienced and it’s time for 华妃 to get her lesson.
The rest of the episode revolves around 甄嬛 developing alliances. 沈眉庄 is out of favor so 甄嬛 is alone which puts her in a rather precarious situation. 沈眉庄 is able to pass on a message to 甄嬛 and instructors her to support 安陵容 and to push 安陵容 to receive favor. Catching the eye of the Emperor is an art unto itself and 安陵容 needs to stand out so they hatch a plan.
Preparations are made – new dresses, new hairdos. Everything needs to be planned, from where 安陵容 stands, to what she sings, to what 甄嬛 wears. 安陵容 sings her song and she successfully catches the ear of the Emperor. Karen is so excited to discuss the particular piece that is sung here so we’ll dive into that. Unfortunately, this whole plan is almost derailed by 华妃. She overhears 安陵容 singing and is about to punish the ladies for it before she’s stopped by the Emperor. 甄嬛 and 皇后 all subtly push 安陵容 and 皇上 together right in front of 华妃. Two episodes ago, 甄嬛 pledged her allegiance to 皇后 to help 安陵容’s father. 皇后 is willing to help, anything to divert favor from 华妃.
安陵容 finally becomes a real concubine after her blowing her first chance and she is over the moon about it. It means that she has a future in the palace and will not wallow away to die. 甄嬛is a little sad because she “loves” the emperor but it has to be done in order to secure her foothold in the palace. It’s a little crazy to think about, honestly. Though, 甄嬛 is not the only one a little upset by the rise of 安陵容。浣碧，甄嬛‘s half-sister/maid is quite annoyed and upset that 安陵容 is now in favor. People are noticing her behavior and 甄嬛 needs to step in to squash the pettiness before Huan Bi causes unwanted damage.
What an episode! 沈眉庄 is totally out of favor. It looks like 甄嬛 is in the clear but now new alliances need to form so 安陵容 is the new woman. Cracks are starting to form between 华妃 and 曹贵人.
There’s some cool things to discuss, so let’s start the analysis!
First off let’s talk about this mysterious makeup that 华妃 is willing to outright declare her wish murder 甄嬛. 螺子黛 – the literal translation is snail dye or pigment. It’s the ancestor to the eyebrow pencils and pens we use today. The dye is made from minerals and processed into a certain shape for use. It was quite easy to use. Just dip it in water or add some water and you can apply it to your eyebrows. In this show, you see that they look like individual snail pens!
螺子黛 were imported from Persia and extremely rare and expensive. Only members of the royal family and court could have access to this. In this episode there are only 3 that are available for the ladies in 后宫 this year, much less than the normal 20+ in previous years. There are historical records of ladies using 螺子黛 dating all the way back to the 隋 and 唐 dynasties in the 6th and 7th centuries.
In the scene where the Emperor is delegating who should receive the dye, he comments that 华妃 favors 长眉 (long brows) whereas 甄嬛 favors 远山眉 (mountain brows). If you look carefully at 华妃 and 甄嬛’s eyebrows, the way they style their eyebrows really is different so again kudos to the crew for making the differentiation. We mentioned before that the 远山眉 style was crucial to 甄嬛 getting back in favor in the last episode. A little fun fact – there are still records of what 远山眉 looked like from the Tang Dynasty. So if any of you ladies want to try them out, you can find them online.
All other ladies in 后宫 use 铜黛 or copper dye. It was made out of copper carbonate and had a greenish hue. 皇后 is the Empress and obviously deserves one. 甄嬛 is a lowly noble lady – she typically would not get to use this. There are other higher ranking consorts that technically should deserve this. 华妃 is one of them. By giving 甄嬛 a 螺子黛, 皇上 is signaling to the rest of 后宫 that 甄嬛 is still very much in favor. 华妃 did all of this scheming, getting that doctor, faking 沈眉庄’s pregnancy. Only 沈眉庄 is out but 甄嬛 looks very much still to be a threat. Of course 华妃 is pissed!
And it’s time to finally talk about this wonderful poem/song – 金缕衣. Yay! Can you tell how excited I am?
The composition of this song is really pretty and in the drama, everyone is praising how lovely 安陵容’s voice is. We must thank the wonderful 姚贝娜 for being the singing voice for 安陵容.The beauty of 安陵容’s voice is itself enough to capture the interest of the emperor, but the real beauty of this scene is the poem that she sings as well. The song is called 金缕衣 and there are many layers to this poem.
金缕衣 – what is it? Do NOT google translate 金缕。 I tried and Google translate translates it to “Witch”. Um…not sure what Google Translate is thinking about there. It’s actually means golden thread and 衣 means clothes, so the poem’s name is “Golden Threaded Clothes”.
The full poem is this:
This poem is from the Tang Dynasty, about 1000 years before the Qing dynasty and this poem is quite famous, especially the last two lines. It gets referenced a lot in various ways be it books or dramas. So what does this poem mean? I really like this poem in general not just because the song that 安陵容 sings is very catchy and beautiful so you learn pretty lyrics, but because it is a great reminder of focusing on the important things in life.
Broad strokes translation is this: I urge you to not value the wealth and riches of the Golden Threaded Clothing, I urge you instead to value your youth and capture that time – just like flowers on a branch which require you to pick at the right moment. Don’t wait until there are no flowers left on the tree and pick empty tree branches.
Pretty good poem right? Again, I really like this poem and this song. I practice calligraphy a lot by reciting this poem as it is a great reminder of what is important in our lives.
Now, when 皇上 hears this song, he is not only listening to the amazing voice that 安陵容 has, but he also listens to her lyrics. The lyrics are telling him to capture what’s in front of him instead of letting it slip away. So of course, he is enamored with 安陵容 and asks her to stay behind, to sing to him and to have her spend the night and become a real concubine.
Another reason why I love this scene is also because of the interaction with 华妃。 华妃 hears the beautiful song and in her fit of jealousy tries to punish 安陵容 and 甄嬛 for singing about flowers, which is inappropriate. She knows that 安陵容’s voice is beautiful and could pose a threat, but also she just wants to punish 甄嬛 because she hates her. I’ve missed this the first couple of viewings of the drama because I didn’t fully understand the poem yet, but in this scene, 华妃 is showing once again, that she is not well educated. She recites the line “花开堪折直须折“ and says that generally, 花， or flowers are an analogy for women. To sing such a song, are you hoping to attract unwanted attention? Even 甄嬛 says that this poem is called 金缕衣 and tries to explain the true meaning of the poem, not that 华妃 truly cares and tries to punish these ladies until 皇上 steps in.
In just one scene, we get many, many moving parts. Isn’t this fun? I thought it was fun.
Before end the episode, I want to point out that it’s very clear to us that 甄嬛 and 沈眉庄 may treat 安陵容 as a friend, but 安陵容 is not truly a friend or “sister” to the two ladies. Why didn’t they help her gain favor earlier? Why now, only after 沈眉庄 has fallen from grace? It’s not to say that these two ladies are mean or disingenuine to 安陵容 because they do send her stuff and spend time together, but they don’t view her as their true equal. And it’s fair because 甄嬛 and 沈眉庄 grew up together and have a much stronger bond than with 安陵容。It’s just that, 甄嬛 and 沈眉庄helped 安陵容 gain favor when it was convenient for them.
Additionally, we’ve said previously that 沈眉庄 isn’t as good at defending herself from verbal attacks by the likes of 华妃，安陵容 is no different. When 安陵容 and 甄嬛 were accosted by 华妃，安陵容 did not really know how to defend herself whereas 甄嬛 was able to more easily deflect the things 华妃 was saying. The key character trait for 安陵容 is to be 卑微 which is a result of her poor background and upbringing.
Now 安陵容 is a real concubine. 华妃 really really wants to kill 甄嬛. What is up with 浣碧? Stay tuned for the next episode.
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 email@example.com. We look forward to having you with us in the next episode.