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 episodes 19+20 of 后宫甄嬛传 Empresses in the Palace. It’s been sort of doom and gloom as of late, 甄嬛 just hasn’t had much luck. Today’s going to be different! We’ve got everything in these two episodes! A blossoming romance, outsmarting 华妃, and confronting a backstabbing sister! Let’s get started.
In the last episode, 甄嬛 set into motion a plot to trick 华妃. Let’s see what happens! We open with the Emperor 皇上 arriving on the scene. 华妃 is making a ruckus outside of where 沈眉庄 is banished because she thinks that 甄嬛 is visiting 沈眉庄 which is strictly against the Emperor’s decree. She’s hoping to catch her red handed and dispatch this meddling foe.
Right on cue, 甄嬛 and 敬嫔 arrive which is a surprise to 华妃. Isn’t 甄嬛 supposed to be inside? What’s going on? 甄嬛 calmly answers that she was just chatting with 敬嫔. They heard the commotion and came to take a look. Now 华妃 is the one in trouble. Since she doesn’t have a decree from either the Emperor or the Empress, she’s the one in the wrong for trying to enter into 沈眉庄’s quarters. HAHAHAHAHA
The Emperor 皇上, obviously annoyed, orders his Eunuch 苏培盛 to investigate. He comes out to confirm that no one else is in the room. 华妃 immediately kneels in front of 皇上 because she knows she’s in trouble. The Emperor 皇上 is disappointed and punishes 华妃 for this ridiculous evening by not restoring her powers to rule the Imperial Harem. He orders everyone to leave but not before 敬嫔 asks to have half of the guards removed from watching 沈眉庄, which he acquiesces.
After the Emperor leaves, 华妃 and 甄嬛 have their first one-on-one confrontation. 华妃 is absolutely livid she walked into 甄嬛’s trap. This is literally the first time 甄嬛 has won a round so she’s feeling quite cocky too. They exchange some verbal blows and 华妃 walks out in a huff.
The acting here is just so great! I love 华妃’s facial expressions in this scene. 蒋欣, the actress, does such a good job! Like how her eyes just narrow when she hears 敬嫔 add more fuel to the fire. I love the smirk that 敬嫔 gives when she hears that 华妃’s powers will not be restored. So good! 甄嬛 also has a smile on her face after this event but the MVP definitely goes to 蒋欣.
With everyone gone, 甄嬛 quickly changes into a maids dress and sneaks into 沈眉庄’s room. She’s appalled at the destitute situation that 沈眉庄’s living in. Ok – it’s not absolutely terrible but let’s face it, she probably would have died if it weren’t for 敬嫔 and the maid 芳若. 沈眉庄 has accepted the harsh reality that the Emperor 皇上 is just cold-hearted and that she lost the game. Yes, she should have known about her own body but as she also points out, there wasn’t any reason for her to fake the pregnancy. She had enough favor with the Emperor, she would have gotten pregnant at some point!
甄嬛’s time is up to talk to 沈眉庄 and she rushes out. She tries to hide from the guards and jumps onto a small boat. Who else just so happens to be on that boat? Why the handsome 17th Prince 果郡王 允礼! What a coincidence?
The 17th Prince, 允礼, agrees to row 甄嬛 back to her quarters and they set off. She sees that there’s a bunch of lotus flowers, 荷花, on the boat. They strike up a conversation about Lotus Flowers and 杜若 or Japanese Pollia. I swear, every conversation now is about flowers.
Japanese Pollia or 杜若 symbolizes love or admiration. Who does the 17th Prince like? Well the 17th Prince then comments how he’s honored to be in the presence of 西施. 甄嬛 becomes annoyed at this and they have a short conversation about this. I will talk more into this anecdote.
Anyways, 甄嬛 notices that the 17th Prince dropped a small pouch. She picks it up and finds the paper cut of herself she put on the Plum Blossom last year inside. She’s astonished. How could he have it? Does he know that it’s her? At the same time the 17th prince quotes a few lines about love from 牡丹亭. I’ll talk about this too. 甄嬛 returns the bag – she’s getting a lot of dangerous signals right here. The 17th Prince says that it’s a beloved purse, he’s wearing the scent of 杜若. Does he like her?? Does he know that the woman in the cutout is her? She quickly tells him to not show anyone this bag and to not think too much into love. Ouch. Once they get on land, she asks him to not tell anyone they’ve met. She also rejects the two times he offers to help her off the boat. She knows that being associated with him is dangerous and she wants to nip everything in the bud. She knows he’s at least attracted to her but at this point in time, she’s committed to the emperor.
甄嬛 returns to see 浣碧 is pacing around nervously. Ugh – what a two-faced snake. Time to confront this backstabbing sister. 甄嬛 essentially tells 浣碧 that she knows that all the issues that’s happened the last few months have been because of her dear “sister”. 浣碧 confesses her crimes and gets all teary eyed. She didn’t know that 甄嬛 knew they were sisters. Ugh – I can’t even.
浣碧 confesses that she wanted to improve her station in life and the best way to do so, at least in her mind, is to become a concubine. It’s clear that 浣碧 isn’t super smart because after all the things that Zhen Huan has had to endure, 浣碧 still thinks being a concubine is worth it. This entire drama is about how it is NOT. In my mind, this is also a commentary on the strict social hierarchy during this time period. The reason why 浣碧 is so petty towards 安陵容 is because she looks down on her. She thinks that as the daughter of 甄远道 (甄嬛’s father), she’s more worthy than 安陵容. If 安陵容 can win favor from the Emperor, she can too.
However, 甄嬛 coldly points out that 浣碧 is not recorded in the family genealogy so no matter what she does, she still is just a maid. She can be discarded in an instant. Didn’t she already see so many examples? 甄嬛 grand plan for her sister was to find a respectable husband from the Eight Banners and marry her off as an offical wife, not a concubine. 浣碧 would have been made a god daughter of the family, added to the family geneology, and lived a respectable life. Which is way better than a concubine! What does 浣碧 do? Throw it all away for the likes of 曹贵人? If there’s no 甄嬛, there’s no 浣碧.
We also get confirmation that 浣碧 has been conspiring with 曹贵人。 You’ll remember that a few episodes back, 浣碧 was caught by 曹贵人 burning paper money for her dead mother. That is when this relationship started and 曹贵人 essentially blackmailed 浣碧 into being an informant. Sure it was blackmail, but this also wouldn’t really work if 浣碧 didn’t comply. 浣碧 could have told 甄嬛 what happened.
This is why you have to watch this drama multiple times because that innocuous meeting of these two women a few episodes ago was the cause of the issues 甄嬛 experiences now, but the show never explicitly says it. The fans of the show definitely do not like 浣碧 but fortunately, 甄嬛 is able to stop her from causing too much additional damage. I mean I definitely don’t like her.
That’s pretty much for episode 19, but can I say, what a night! 甄嬛 delivered a standout performance! Look at all she accomplished.
She wins a round against 华妃
She confirms her suspicions that 浣碧 is the mole
She gets to see 沈眉庄
She gets valuable information that the alliance between 曹贵人 and 华妃 isn’t as strong as it seems.
Successfully flirted with 果郡王!
You go girl.
In episode 20 we start out with eunuchs coming to give 甄嬛 a very beautiful and extravagant pair of shoes made of very expensive silk. These are so beautiful and nice that many people in the palace become quite jealous (cough cough 华妃). 华妃 receives 2 rolls made of this type of silk but quickly “gifts” them to 甄嬛 once she discovers what flowers are embroidered on the silk. We’ll discuss these shoes and clothes more in depth but they are quite beautiful and nice.
I think there’s a lot of meaning behind the silk that 华妃 gives to 甄嬛. Karen disagrees – we’ll talk about it.
华妃 obviously can’t stand 甄嬛 having such nice things so what does she do? She goes to see 太后, the empress dowager. She brings 太后 a lovely cape and goes on a long discussion of how she is no longer too young and that others in the palace have much nicer things. It’s hilarious because right after 华妃leaves, 太后’s maid is like, you also think there’s too much vinegar in the air? I think it’s funny because for those of you who don’t know, in Chinese, being jealous is described at eating vinegar.
But, 华妃 gets what she wanted from her meeting with 太后. By bringing this cape made of exquisite black fox pelt, she reminds 太后 that 华妃 needs more attention from 皇上。 太后summons 皇上 and they have another long winded, round about discussion about where 皇上 should be spending time with. He agrees to spend more time with 华妃。
Now the MOST interesting line in this episode is here: 太后 says that the special perfume given to 华妃 called 欢宜香 has almost run out. The manufacturing of this perfume is very difficult, should we still continue to give 华妃 this perfume? Ladies and Gentlemen! If you’ve watched this drama already, then you know what this perfume is. We’re at episode 20 and we see hints of the true nature of 皇上 because he says, of course we need to keep giving her this perfume. 太后 doesn’t say anything and just accepts this decision. AHHH! Another reason why I love this drama and these two when they talk. There are a bunch of layers of their discussion and nothing is explicitly stated.
The timing of this conversation is perfect because 年羹尧 comes back after having successfully defeated the rebellion in the north west and 雍正 is hosting a celebratory meal with 年羹尧 and 华妃. We haven’t really seen scenes like this where it is more formal with officials from court. Normally, it’s just 皇上 sharing an informal meal at a concubine’s palace. In this scene, he’s eating with 年羹尧 and there’s a lot of rules. For one, you saw that for each dish that was placed in front of the emperor, a eunuch had to test it with silver to see if there was poison. Another rule is that you’re to have a eunuch serve you each bite of food you want. Technically, in the drama they don’t show this, but the eunuch is supposed to take a bite first of the food, some say to test for poison, others say it’s more of a taste test, before the emperor can eat. Because there’s this rule of having a eunuch serve you food, 年羹尧 angers 皇上 by asking 皇上’s head eunuch 苏培盛 to serve him food.
As we see in the drama, 华妃 is petrified by the audacity of her brother in asking for such things and this is where 陈建斌, the actor for 雍正, does a fantastic job. His pancake face remains stoic and he doesn’t really show anger but you can tell by the long pauses that he is not happy with how rude 年羹尧 is to him and to his head eunuch. 皇上 even dumps away his food because he’s annoyed, but doesn’t say anything. After all, they need to keep 年羹尧 happy so that he can continue to serve him.
The Empress 皇后 is stunned by the news of 年羹尧’s favoritism. This in turn has translated into 华妃’s regained favor. This does not bode well for 皇后, it could mean her own Empress position is in peril. She’s devastated to hear that the Emperor 皇上 has been spending all of his time with 华妃.
Sure enough, we see the Emperor 皇上 enjoying a night with 华妃. The episode ends with 安陵容 being summoned to sing for the Emperor and 华妃. 甄嬛 goes with her mainly to make sure nothing happens to 安陵容.
Phew – that was a lot to recap. Let’s get on with our analysis! Karen – where do we want to start?
The 17th prince compares 甄嬛 to 西施 but surprisingly, 甄嬛 does not want to be compared to 西施, one of the most beautiful women in Chinese history. They have a discussion and the 17th prince is amazed at 甄嬛’s analysis. What’s the story behind this. 西施 is one of the most famous women in China as she is on the list of the 4 beauties of Chinese history. We mentioned another of these beauties previously, 杨贵妃 and now we are discussing 西施。 She lived during 春秋时代 or the Spring and Autumn period of Chinese history around 500 BC so a looong time ago, even before the first dynasty, the Qin dynasty. There are many, many stories, books, dramas, or operas about 西施，her beauty, how she brought the demise of a kingdom and her romance with 范蠡。 It’s a big compliment to be compared to 西施 and in many of the dramas that portray her, fans are often saying things like “this actress is not pretty enough to be 西施”.
In a nutshell, during this era, there were smaller kingdoms/states and the story is that the king of 越，named 勾践 was defeated by the king of 吴， 夫差 and wanted to exact revenge against 夫差。 So, he finds beautiful women to offer to 夫差 as a way to destroy the king and the kingdom since 夫差 loves women. The King of 越 has a minister named 范蠡 who discovers the beautiful 西施 and offers her to the king of 吴。 The plan ultimately works and the kingdom of 吴 is destroyed and the king, 夫差，commits suicide. This is in part thanks to 西施。Now history isn’t super clear on this, but it seems that the minister 范蠡 and 西施 developed a romance and after the fall of the kingdom of 吴，the legend goes that the two lovers 范蠡 and 西施 go off on a boat and disappear forever to live happily ever after. Other stories say that 西施 drowned.
Regardless, you have 西施 who is exquisitely beautiful and someone who is considered a destroyer of a kingdom. In this drama we’re watching， 甄嬛 comments that people always discuss 西施, this beautiful woman for having caused the downfall of a kingdom, or else blame the king of 吴 for being seduced. 甄嬛, however, wonders why no one pays more attention to 范蠡 because he was the one who sent his lover 西施 as tribute. No matter what, that is extremely cold hearted and even though 西施 decided to forgive this action and be with 范蠡， the feelings and relationship after having been sent away must not be the same as their original relationship.
This is an interesting view because 范蠡 has a pretty good reputation in history as being a good military advisor so 甄嬛 being critical of 范蠡 is a general deviation of opinion. No one really ever talks about 范蠡 in this manner so it’s understandable that the 17th prince is impressed by 甄嬛’s explanation.
The next thing I want to briefly discuss is the two lines of song that 果郡王 says right after this conversation.
He says 情不知所起，一往而深，生者可以死，死可以生.
This comes from the song 牡丹亭 by 汤显祖. It was written in the Ming Dynasty. These two lines roughly translate to Love can start from anywhere, deep and lasting. The living can die for love, and dead can come back for love. Very touching right? 果郡王 is on the boat expressing his views of love. He’s willing to die for his loved one.
Awww he’s so in love.
甄嬛 hears this and finds the paper cutout from his pouch. She puts two and two together and is like oh no oh no! Mayday mayday! I need to stay away from him! 果郡王 is already in love with the woman from the cutout. She definitely doesn’t dislike him but she knows nothing can come of it.
These two lines from the poem encapsulate their relationship completely. It cannot end well…
What else do we want to talk about –
The shoes that 甄嬛 were gifted by the emperor! These types of shoes called 盆底鞋 or pot bottom shoes we haven’t really discussed but is a staple for Qing dynasty dress. Women in the Han dynasties before this Manchu ruled dynasty did not wear these shoes. I remember watching 还珠格格 20 years ago and being so fascinated with these types of shoes. As you see in the drama, the shoes have a very thick heel in the middle of the shoe and that was the style of shoe for the royalty and the wealthy.
There are photos of women in the royal family from the Qing dynasty wearing these shoes. I haven’t tried them on but I feel like it would be an interesting experience. Pretty much every drama now that is set in the Qing dynasty requires women to learn how to wear these shoes to be more realistic with history. In interviews, 陶昕然, the actress for 安陵容 would say how at the beginning of shooting the drama, all of the women were struggling to walk in these shoes and would roll their ankles constantly. But by the end of the filming, they’d pretty much learned to fly with them on. Quite funny I guess.
There are varying reasons why this shoe style became popular including: 1) women wanting to increase their height, 2) giving space so their clothes don’t drag on the floor, 3) the thick soles and materials of the shoes provided insulation during the cold weather times. Something interesting is that Manchurian women did not historically bind their feet as the Han women did for centuries, so another supposed reason for these shoes is to achieve the look of women who had their foot bound, but did not.
In any case, these lovely shoes are made by a special fabric called 蜀锦. What is it? 蜀锦 is expensive silk fabric or brocade made from the 蜀 region which is present day 成都, or more broadly, 四川. This type of fabric has more than 2000 years of history and is distinct from silk fabrics from other places in China. There are 4 major types of 锦 from 南京的云锦、苏州的宋锦、广西的壮锦一起，并称为中国的四大名锦
The 蜀锦 is extremely expensive, extravagant and technically demanding to make. Fortunately, you can still get 蜀锦 now though it is very rare. I was watching a documentary about this type of brocade and it’s funny because they literally quote this drama in describing this brocade. It takes months to finish a piece of fabric but the end result is exquisite.
I also want to talk about something specific with this brocade. 华妃 receives two rolls of silk. At first she’s extremely pleased and quite happy with the embroidery. She doesn’t recognize the flower. However, once 曹贵人’s maid states what it is, the ladies immediately want to discard it. The flower is none other the 夕颜 or 牵牛花. Where have we heard this flower before? In episode 17! 甄嬛 and 果郡王 允礼 had a lengthy conversation about this flower. It only blooms once at night and is therefore viewed as unlucky by the 华妃. She wants to throw it out but 曹贵人 tells her to “gift” it to someone else. Who else to give it to? 甄嬛 of course – something to match her shoes.
Ok – 甄嬛 receives them and doesn’t say anything. She extremely suspicious about the gift from 华妃 and she does recognize the 夕颜花. I don’t think she thinks anything more about it. Here’s my hypothesis, 果郡王 wanted to send 甄嬛 the brocade but he couldn’t send it directly to her. So he sends the brocade to 华妃. I believe he knew that he would transfer them to 甄嬛 because of the flower’s meaning. This is super roundabout but he’s a very smart guy. I mean who else knows about that flower? Too much of a coincidence. Right??
Let’s finish this episode with a little chat about 年羹尧. This episode is just a highlight reel of everything 年羹尧 does that annoys the Emperor. Can I say this? 年羹尧 may be a brilliant general but he is extremely stupid with politics. He’s too cocky, he thinks his military power is enough to get a seat at the table. He repeats the Emperor’s statements that they are one family. Are they though?? Well the Emperor certainly makes it seem like it. This is where 年羹尧 is dumb – power is the most important thing to the Emperor. No one is reading the signs on the walls – not 年羹尧, not 华妃, and not 皇后.
We’ll see where this storyline goes.
That’s it for this 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