[Cathy] 

Welcome back to Chasing Dramas! The podcast that explores Chinese history through historical TV dramas.  We are here to to discuss the next episode of 甄嬛传, Empresses in the Palace。This is Cathy, and this is Karen.

 

[Karen]

We left the first episode on a cliffhanger. Now onto episode 2. 

Our main character, 甄嬛 is being presented to the Emperor and Empress Dowager at the Selection or 选秀 to see if she has a future in the forbidden palace as the emperor’s concubine. The entire time she’s on her knees, looking down as is required by Chinese custom. Basically, you are not allowed to directly look into the eyes of the royals when you are in their presence as a commoner. But she is asked to tilt her head up and both the Emperor and Empress Dowager sit up, shocked. 

So, what happens?  For this episode, what we’ll do is continue on with this scene, do an analysis because there is a lot to unpack, and then we’ll do a recap of the rest of the episode and additional scenes we want to discuss.

Let’s jump right back.

 

[Cathy]

After 甄嬛 lifts her head up, we see the Emperor becoming very intrigued. The Empress Dowager glances at the Emperor. You can see the gears turning in her head. She says 甄嬛’s last name 甄 is against the law.  

So the rule is that you can’t have a name that sounds like the Emperor’s name. A bit complicated here since we’ve been calling the emperor 雍正. That is his official name that we, in history, know him by. BUT, his birth name is 胤禛,甄, 甄嬛’s last name sounds like 禛, from  胤禛 the emperor’s name. By law, you could be punished for it. You need to change your name, even though the written character is different, because they sounds similar, it is still taboo.  This rule isn’t just reserved for the Emperor, it’s actually taboo to refer to your family elders like that or have similar sounding words in your name. For the Emperor, who has the Mandate of Heaven, it’s on a much grander scale. You change your name  People have been put to death for this. 

Well that’s weird, given that her father has been in court for many years and this issue never really came up. 甄嬛, who is still kneeling on the floor, says that her father got a reprieve from Emperor 康熙 himself, 雍正’s father to keep their last name because (and this is additional wordplay) their last name of 甄 sounds like 贞 which means loyal and that’s a good thing and is why this last name shouldn’t be a problem. 雍正 readily agrees, much to the dismay of his mother because she can’t rebuke this answer.  

雍正, now, obviously interested, asks the Empress Dowager, “Do you know about the legend from the Three Kingdoms Era? 江南有二乔,河北甄宓俏. The 甄 family has historically produced beauties”. 

 

[Karen]

OK, let’s translate this piece. What is he trying to say. The first half of this phrase is describing two beautiful ladies from southern China who were very famous for their beauty and marriages during the Three Kingdoms Era. The second part of the phrase is describing a beauty from northern China that is named 甄宓, who has the same last name as 甄嬛.

雍正 just used 甄宓, one of the most famous women in Chinese history as justification for praising 甄嬛, with the implication that the 甄 family produces beautiful women. Not only that but the Three Kingdoms Era is right at the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty over 1000 years ago, further pushing the link for 甄嬛 as a Han beauty. There’s this whole history for 甄宓 that we won’t get into here, but basically, the emperor is saying that our heroine is related to one of the most beautiful and famous women in Chinese history!

Another fun tidbit – the actress Ada Choi who plays the 皇后, actually played 甄宓 in a HK TVB drama from 2002. The show was called 洛神 or in English, where the Legend begins in case anyone is interested.

You can see the Empress Dowager’s disappointment, she drops her eyes but doesn’t give up, she needs 甄嬛 out. So she tells her to come up towards them. On cue, a eunuch splashes tea towards her feet, but 甄嬛 continues to walk and isn’t perturbed. We’ve got some ominous music in the background as we see how she’ll perform. Next up, the Empress dowagers’s maid drops a cat who meows loudly but 甄嬛 keeps her composure while another girl screams from fright. If you couldn’t tell, all of these were tests. The empress dowager is looking for any opportunity to dismiss 甄嬛. Both the emperor and empress dowager are watching intently.  The Empress Dowager can’t find any fault, relents and says “At least she’s composed”.

 

[Cathy]

Ok what’s interesting is, on first watch, you just think that the Empress Dowager is testing 甄嬛 to make sure she’s up for the task. But then why did the Empress Dowager bring up name rule? When I first watched I didn’t catch it, she does NOT want 甄嬛 in the Palace! Why? If we come back to the scene after watching the series, you’ll understand why she’s doing this. We won’t spoil this now but keep it in the back of your head

雍正, who takes cue from the empress dowager that he can continue, again quotes the poem, 嬛嬛一袅(niao3)楚宫腰 but says the next line 那更(jing1)春来,玉减香消,which translates to “but as she waits for spring the beauty withers”. That’s morbid, 雍正 says the Forbidden Palace is perfect for nurturing beauties, we won’t let you wither. That is his excuse to give her a perfume sachet and keep her in the palace. See? It’s very subtle. Using poetry to convey meaning and to make a point. And with that 甄嬛 against all her hopes, gets chosen to stay. I guess praying at the temple didn’t work.

By contrast, the poor girl behind 甄嬛 who got scared by the cat unfortunately gets punished for it. She can’t ever be considered for selection again. That’s the power of the Emperor. At first, I’m like she’s 16 what’s the big deal. It’s a huge deal because it’s a stain on her family. Her family name is ruined pretty much. Losing composure what the Empress Dowager was hoping 甄嬛would do. If she had screamed, she would have received a similar fate.

Phew – 甄嬛 is officially going to the Palace! So are three other ladies that we know of also entering the palace are 沈眉庄,安陵容,and 夏冬春. Let’s recap the episode quickly before diving into other scenes. 

 

(EPISODE RECAP)

[Karen]

The Empress and the Emperor decide on the titles to give the new concubines. 甄嬛 returns home to her parents and younger sister and she’s very sad that she has to leave her family for the palace. 华妃 gets mad about another concubine and takes it out on poor 福子, the servant girl that the empress had given her to learn manners. Didn’t we say she was dead? Yep, she’s dead. We also see our first formal 后宫 court greeting! We meet most of the ladies in the 后宫 and let’s see the fireworks go! We get our first glimpse of the 后宫 alliances! We’ll dive deep into this scene so we won’t give too much away right now. At her home, 甄嬛 invites 安陵容 to stay with her before entering the Palace so that they can prep together. 甄嬛’s father comes to give her some last minute advice on doing well in the palace and hopes that she has at least a peaceful life, which is pretty touching. But then, he drops a huge bombshell, 浣碧, one of 甄嬛‘s servants (whom she is taking to the palace) is actually her half-sister! Her father basically got 浣碧’s mom pregnant and couldn’t bring her back because she was the daughter of a convicted courtier. What a scummy thing to do, but hey, it’s not his drama so we’ll move on.

An imperial proclamation is delivered to both 甄嬛 and 安陵容 by Eunuchs from the Palace telling them what their title is and when to enter the palace. A senior servant lady is also sent from the Palace to teach the two ladies palace etiquette, which is pretty much a plot device for us to learn what’s going on in the palace.  She explains the rank system of the consorts and what it takes to be called a “娘娘”. We’ll re-explain this but essentially, there are varying ranks of concubines in the palace based on your matrilineal line, your birth banner, your wealth etc. Additionally, we find out that the emperor was previously married to his first “official wife” when he was still a prince. He was very much in love with her but unfortunately, she died while giving birth. He has been heartbroken ever since. The current empress, or “wife” is the first wife’s sister. He respects her but it doesn’t seem like there’s love.

In the palace, we also find out that 华妃in her jealousy, purposefully put 甄嬛, who 华妃 knows is of interest to the emperor, in a living spot that is isolated and destitute. When 皇后,or the empress finds out, she can only sigh and see if she can spruce up the place. 

The episode ends with 甄嬛 heading off to the palace, saying goodbye to her parents and her much younger sister (from the same mother). 

 

(First Scene)

[Cathy]

With that background, let’s go back to discuss our first scene. This scene takes place right after the selection. It’s at night, at his primary residence. 雍正 is still quoting the line in the poem that 甄嬛 used to describe her name, obviously smitten. 皇后 comes in to congratulate him on the new ladies saying that the whole palace is talking about how the emperor met many beautiful women today and that he’s very happy… 

 

[Karen]

Ugh. Can you imagine that being discussed today? How weird.

 

[Cathy]

She begins to say 甄嬛 is rumored to look like… but 雍正 stares her down and she doesn’t finish the sentence. He says 甄嬛 ‘s eyes are similar and that’s about it but doesn’t get mad. The Empress says that’s already very rare. 

Similar to whom? What’s the story there? We’ll have a spoiler discussion at the end of the episode for those that want to listen.

Now, 皇后 comes in not only to congratulate the emperor, she has other business to do, namely managing the titles of the concubines coming in. She asks what title the emperor is looking to give 甄嬛. He says, let’s give her the title of 贵人 (which is a decently high rank and translates to Noble Lady)。

And I love what the 皇后’s response is. She says, that’s great. We have a Mongolian woman coming in with the title of 贵人, a Manchu woman coming in with that title as well. We will also have two Han ladies coming in with this title. The emperor asks who the other Han 贵人is, and we find out it’s 沈眉庄, the childhood friend of 甄嬛。皇后then says, the rank of 沈眉庄’s father is much higher than 甄嬛’s. Next, she says, I understand that you, as emperor, value the Han Bannered families, but inter-marriage between Mongolians and the Manchu is tradition. Would it not be too conspicuous if there were two 贵人 from the Han Banner? The emperor agrees and demotes 甄嬛 to one step below, to 常在, or first-class female attendant. 

Do you see what 皇后 did there? She didn’t outright say that she didn’t agree with giving 甄嬛too high of a title, but she came at it from a political perspective. It is unclear at this point if she’s doing this really for the sake of the royal family and maintaining balance between the banners, or for other personal reasons. 

Even though he demoted 甄嬛, he gives her an official title with the name 莞. So how it works is that generally, you are called by your rank plus your last name. If you are special, you get a more special title with a character bestowed upon you by the emperor or the empress dowager.皇后 asks is it referring to Tang Dynasty poem? 雍正 says no, I like the way she smiles (莞尔一笑). This 莞 is actually SUPER significant. There’s actually another reason why he chose this but we won’t know about this right now.

Spoiler section: 宛宛 is 纯元 nickname. So it’s super similar to 莞. Can’t remember if 皇后remembers this fact.

 

(请安)

 

[Karen]

 

So the main scene that we want to discuss is the first official 请安。 it’s the 后宫 version of attending court. What happens is that the ladies of the 后宫 are expected to “greet” the 皇后 every morning.

There is a lot of detail here. 皇后 sits at the head of the room. The other concubines sit according to their corresponding rank with the highest ranking ladies (below the 皇后) sitting closer to her.

The scene opens and 华妃 is the only one late to 请安. All of the other women of the 后宫 are already there. We currently see a total of 5 ladies in addition to the 皇后。 In the grand scheme of things, not a huge 后宫。There is one other Consort (the same rank as 华妃), called 齐妃, two who are a step below with a rank of Imperial Concubine or 嫔。They are 敬嫔 and 丽嫔。Next is a noble lady called 曹贵人 and finally a female class attendant called 欣常在。 There is also another Consort who is sick called 端妃。 So in total, one 皇后 and 7 concubines.

华妃 is late and 皇后’s servant suggest they finish the 请安 for today. The Empress holds her ground, she’s the Empress, 华妃 is just a Consort, she must come. 

Tea is served for the ladies. The ladies begin some small talk about the favoritism of 华妃. 皇后 obviously hears all this. 

Well, 华妃 struts in not too long after. Pay attention to etiquette in this scene. When she arrives, the 4 ladies who are of lower rank, get on their knees to greet her. 齐妃 who is at the same rank as 华妃 curtseys but doesn’t get on her knees. 皇后,obviously with the highest rank, does not get up at all. 

华妃 doesn’t even take time to breathe before launching her attacks. 华妃 turns around to one of the ladies, 欣常在 and says that it seems like her health is improving, coming to this 请安 so early.   欣常在 thanks her but says that even though she felt a little off in the morning, she can’t be late to meet the 皇后。 If you couldn’t tell, a slight nudge to 华妃 for being late. We find out the reason she’s unhealthy is because she had a miscarriage. Anyways, 皇后 thanks 欣常在much to the chagrin of 华妃. Everyone, at the behest of 皇后, sits down. 华妃 gives this half hearted curtsey to 皇后. 

华妃is given a cup of tea, She raises the cup and takes a whiff, only to say that this seems to be last year’s 龙井 tea. No matter how well you try to preserve tea, there will always be a moldy smell. She’s actually given her batch to her servants. If 皇后 needs new tea, she can always give her some. Her jab is that ugh, you still have this old stuff? What kind of Empress are you?

皇后 continues to smile serenely and brushes it off, she is prepared for this. She tells 华妃 that she’s also been gifted some of the newer tea by 皇上, the emperor, but has decided to give it to the 3rd prince, who is the son of 齐妃 saying that the 3rd prince liked the tea but didn’t want to bother his father for something so simple. 

 

[Cathy]

华妃 says that if the 3rd prince likes to read and is a good student, then she’s sure that 皇上 will gift everything to the 3rd prince and smirks while 齐妃 scowls. The reason behind this is that the 3rd prince, even though he is the oldest, is not the smartest person and not the favorite of the emperor. Implicitly through this conversation, we find out that the 1st and 2nd princes, are no longer alive. 皇后 says that because the 3rd prince is the oldest, and the 2 younger brothers are still small, the emperor will obviously place his hopes on the 3rd prince. I also want to note that Princes are addressed primarily by their birth order. Even if a prince dies, the birth order does not change. That’s why 3rd prince is the oldest, but will not be called the 1st prince.

华妃 shifts the conversation to the fact that 皇上ascended the throne very quickly and not much was done in terms of renovation. She says it was a pity that 皇后must live in her current palace called 景仁宫. She’ll pick a day to come help 皇后 refurnish her palace to be nicer and let her live more comfortably. Here, 华妃 is disrespecting the 皇后 by implying her home is too modest and that she needs 华妃 to help with renovations, further undercutting the authority of a 皇后。

But instead of being offended, 皇后 has another rebuke. She serenely and calmly says that the emperor just came to power, everything should be simplified. The renovations can be discussed at a later date. Thereby, calmly not accepting help from 华妃 and also implying that having a modest palace is fine/accepted. 华妃on the other hand, says that she feels bad that her own palace, 翊坤宫 is so extravagant. She feels self conscious every time she comes to see 皇后 and her less extravagant palace.

Here, 齐妃 chimes in, obviously annoyed that 华妃made all these jabs earlier about her son and her lack of attention from the emperor. She says that 华妃 lives in 翊坤宫 which was where the previous emperor’s favored consort 宜妃had previously lived. Of course, the living space is going to be different. 皇后 then says that 宜妃 had lots of sons so the previous emperor definitely favored her. 

At this point, 华妃 decides that it’s getting late and she needs to leave. Like what? We’ll explain in a bit She just sat down. She gets up, curtseys to the 皇后 and leaves quickly. 丽嫔, one of the ladies in the group, shoots a glance over to 曹贵人 and also gets up to leave shortly after. 曹贵人 doesn’t immediately leave and waits to be dismissed with the other ladies. So, here, you see the women partitioning off into factions. 丽嫔 is a follower of 华妃. 曹贵人 is evidently as well. HOWEVER, 曹贵人 isn’t as brash. She hedges her bets and doesn’t leave to follow 华妃 until everyone else is dismissed. 

Once the ladies leave, 剪秋, 皇后’s main maid comments on 华妃’s brashness. She then says that they’re palace is the best because 皇上 personally bestowed it to her. 

It’s a completely different story outside. 华妃 is livid that 齐妃 and 皇后 used the comparison. The previous occupant 宜妃 did have a lot of sons, but the sons also committed treason and led to the downfall of their mother. How dare the Empress curse her in this way! See these aren’t outright insults, there are anecdotes! If you don’t know them, you’ll be viewed as an idiot, but if you do, you get the insult.

丽嫔 is walking next to the carriage and tries to assuage 华妃, saying stuff like she’s not the favorite, you are. She can’t do anything to you.

华妃’s servant 颂芝 also adds, our palace 翊坤宫 is the only one that has the word 坤。The same word that’s in 坤宁宫, which is where 皇上 and 皇后 were married. You see how much the Emperor values you? The Empress doesn’t even have this privilege!

华妃seems mollified and much more pleased with this answer. 

Look at all the meaning you can get just from one word! For both 皇后 and 华妃the servants have huge sway on their master’s opinions and moods. It really is how you frame it!

 

[Cathy]

But how fantastic was this scene? You can tell how quickly some of these ladies think on their feet. Each one knows the hierarchy of the 后宫, but they are all vying for attention. Subtle words have huge implications. 

华妃 is annoyed by 欣常在, the first woman she greeted when walking in, the one who had a miscarriage and said she didn’t dare be late to greeting the 皇后, Well, 华妃 remembered this, and told the eunuchs that 欣常在 was still unhealthy and therefore, cannot be presented to spend the night with the emperor. Even though, when the emperor hears this, he is able to see right through this, he does not alter her actions. Poor 欣常在.

What we learn in this episode is that the 后宫 has eyes and ears everywhere. 皇后 and 华妃  know everything about the new ladies even though they weren’t at the Selection. They even know what the ladies are like to the servant ladies that teach etiquette. This is a first sign that you have to be exceedingly careful about what you say and do to others and the servants. Additionally, we find out that one of the current ladies of the 后宫 just had a miscarriage. Hmmm….