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. In this episode, we’re going to be discussing Episode 21 of 后宫甄嬛传。 This time it’s one episode only because there’s quite a bit to discuss and combining episodes would have been a bit too long. Let’s get started.
This episode starts off with 华妃 summoning our main character, 甄嬛 and her friend 安陵容 to come sing for her and the emperor, 皇上。It’s a little awkward and of course intimidating. 安陵容, who is known for her singing abilities, tries her best and sings a wonderful song with 甄嬛 accompanying her on the 古琴，the string instrument we’ve talked about. 华妃 is not particularly impressed and humiliates 安陵容 before asking her to continue singing but because 安陵容 is not feeling well, she is unable to sing any more. At this point, 甄嬛 steps in and instead of singing, recites a poem with the 古琴 accompaniment. We’ll discuss the two poems/songs that are performed later on in the episode. 皇上 is more or less appeased and, recognizing that 华妃 is just asking these two ladies to perform as a means of humiliation, says it’s getting late and that they should retire.
Well actually, 华妃 spots all the eye flirting between 皇上 and 甄嬛 and immediately kicks them out.
甄嬛 and 安陵容 return back to 甄嬛’s place. 安陵容 is in tears because 华妃 is treating them like common street artists. Remember how we said that actresses, singers and performers are generally seen as lower class similar to prostitutes? 安陵容 is upset because they’re concubines, not street artists and shouldn’t be treated as such. But 华妃 doesn’t care, she loves humiliating others.
The story of this night’s events reach the ears of 皇后, the Empress, and she is actually quite impressed at how composed the quiet 安陵容 is throughout the process and decides to pay more attention to her…
It’s winter time and it’s snowing heavily at the Forbidden Palace. 皇上 is sitting with 甄嬛 enjoying a lovely winter day and the cute 淳常在 comes to visit. 淳常在hasn’t been around much in previous episodes so let me remind everyone of who she is. She is a cute girl that was selected to be a concubine and entered the palace when 甄嬛 also entered the palace. 淳常在 was living with 甄嬛 in 碎玉轩 but had to move because of 甄嬛’s fake illness. It’s been a while and she’s back hanging out with 甄嬛 and is cute as a button. She’s a little foodie and in general very naive. She doesn’t plot against people and just wants to be happy in the palace. She even brought 甄嬛 a few branches of red plum blossoms to add color to her palace. She was too young to ahem serve the emperor when she first entered the palace but it’s been 2 years.
Well what does the Emperor do? He selects 淳常在 to spend the night and is now a proper concubine. Ugh, the mentality of men back then! The Emperor is saying all this romantic stuff to 甄嬛 and immediately that night beds another woman.
淳常在 starts to receive more and more favor by the emperor and she asks 皇后, the empress, if she can move back in with 甄嬛。 皇后 agrees and she moves in, which slightly upsets 安陵容 because they were living together. Another concubine asks why, if 安陵容 and 甄嬛 were such good friends, didn’t 甄嬛 ask 安陵容 to move in together as well…to which 安陵容 has no answer. The cracks are getting bigger and bigger between 安陵容 and 甄嬛 but 甄嬛 doesn’t know any of this is happening.
Since the evening that she was humiliated by 华妃, 安陵容 has generally been staying in her palace. She has requested that her maid, 宝娟, not make her bed and we find out the reason is because 安陵容 has decided to make a voodoo doll to try to curse 华妃. She is hiding this voodoo doll under her pillow. We’ve talked about voodoo dolls before. You make a doll in the shape of the person, or in this case, decorated with an item from that person, you are trying to curse and then stab it with needles to try to curse that person. It’s strictly taboo in the palace. 余莺儿 that maid from earlier episodes, got caught with a voodoo doll and was sentenced to death for it.
A few days later, the empress comes to visit 安陵容 and check in on her because she’s been sick. Guess what, she just so happens to find this voodoo doll. 皇后 reprimands 安陵容 for being foolish enough to believe that this would even work and that if anyone other than herself found this doll, 安陵容 would be dead by now. She lets it go and 安陵容 is grateful for being forgiven. However, she is upset and wants to know who told 皇后 that this doll exists. 皇后is VERY sly and says “of course, it is one of your closest sisters”. We’ll discuss this a bit more later since this interaction is rather contentious.
I think 皇后 says some really useful stuff in this scene. She very bluntly points out that fortunes are made by taking action, seizing the opportunity. If voodoo actually worked, everybody would be dead by now. I don’t think this thought ever crossed 安陵容’s mind? Does she really think 甄嬛 just so happened to get favor because she’s pretty? No, 甄嬛 seizes each opportunity. This is a pretty rude wake up call for 安陵容.
Later on, we see 皇上 meeting with his trusted advisor, 张廷玉, who describes the arrogance of 年羹尧, 华妃’s brother, when he returned from the battlefield. The details that are provided by 张廷玉 give further evidence that 年羹尧 does not respect the authority of the emperor and sees himself as the ruler instead of the emperor. 华妃 is also fretting about her monthly allowance. What she receives from the palace is nowhere near enough and she needs more money to pay, bribe, whatever she does to keep her lavish lifestyle. Her maid suggests this brilliant idea that 华妃 should accept “donations” for her to put in a word with her brother 年羹尧. What a wonderful idea! She’s not discussing anything related to court, all she’s doing is telling her brother to meet them. Easy enough!
The episode ends with a feast where everyone in the palace is in attendance as the 17th prince returns from a trip to central China. Even the empress dowager is at the meal. There is an exchange about how expensive and nice 华妃’s clothes and hair decorations. When it gets to be too much, the empress dowager excuses herself
Let’s go back to the beginning of episode 21 where 安陵容 and 甄嬛 are performing for 华妃 and the emperor.
安陵容sings a song called 菩萨蛮 (man2)。菩萨蛮 is actually a style of song and originated in the Tang dynasty, A Tang emperor, 唐宣宗 (around 840 AD era) really like this style of song and the lyrics were updated by scholars and poets of that time. This particular song describes a young woman who is waking up from slumber, getting up and fixing her hair, makeup and getting dressed in new clothes. In this process, the song expresses her longing for love. The lyrics are quite exquisite and more difficult to explain compared to some of the other poems we’ve looked at.
This song isn’t, as 华妃 notes, as um, “lovey dovey” as she would like and is instead reflective of a more somber tone, one of longing. 华妃 is a total mean girl in this scene because she’s saying, why can’t you sing with love. Is it because I’m here with the emperor? Which…She knows the answer to that. It’s humiliating for 安陵容。
So 甄嬛steps in and recite another poem with her 古琴 accompaniment when 安陵容 is incapable of singing.
Again, this drama uses poetry and song to convey feeling. The first was with 安陵容， and now 甄嬛。 甄嬛 recites a poem called 鹊桥仙·纤云弄巧 by a Song dynasty poet – 秦观。This poem is referencing the famous valentine‘s day story of 牛郎织女。I don’t think we will be discussing this story in this drama so let me give a brief overview – this is one of the most famous love stories in China. Essentially there’s a fairy named 织女， which directly translates to seamstress or weaver, who lives up in the heavens. She secretly comes down to earth where mortals lives and marries 牛郎, or a cow herd.
Their marriage angers the heavenly father and they are punished, separated forever. But, their love is so moving that magpie birds build them a bridge such that the two lovers may meet on the magpie bridge every year 7th day of the 7th Month – or valentines day. The title of the poem that 甄嬛 recites, is named after this magpie bridge. Given this context, this poem describes the annual meeting of the two lovers but the last two lines are the most important. The last two lines are: 两情若是久长时，又岂在朝朝暮暮, which translates to, if love is meant to be long lasting, one does not need to be together every day.
These two lines are definitely famous for describing long distance relationships and pops up a lot in dramas where there’s hardships along the way. 甄嬛 is reciting this poem while looking DIRECTLY at 皇上, which I take to hint that, you may be spending time with 华妃 now but it’s alright because of our love will last. We do not have to be together every day. You should see the look on 华妃’s face. I don’t think she really understands this poem but when 甄嬛 says these last 2 lines, 华妃is looking between 甄嬛 and 皇上 and doesn’t necessarily like what she’s hearing/or seeing so she hurriedly ends the evening. Clearly, 华妃 feels that spending all day and all night with the emperor is the only reflection of love. That was fun wasn’t it? I’ve heard those two lines everywhere but didn’t realize it was from this poem. You learn something new all the time with this drama!
Finally, I want to discuss 皇后 and 安陵容 In this episode, 皇后 has decided to use 安陵容 as her pawn or more accurately, 皇后 has decided that 安陵容 is worthy of being her pawn. This is one of the first times we start seeing just how manipulative 皇后 is. She knows that 安陵容 has a voodoo doll and could have punished her for it but decides instead to pretty much blackmail her into being part of her team. Now, 皇后 never states who told her about the voodoo doll and we the viewers are never told this either. 宝娟，安陵容 ‘s main maid cries indignantly that it wasn’t her when 安陵容 accuses her of telling 皇后。 Instead, 宝娟 suggests that it was another maid, 菊青。 The problem with 菊青 is that she was given to 安陵容 by 甄嬛 literally in the first couple of episodes. So the seeds of doubt and distrust are sown. It’s unclear who ultimately betrayed 安陵容。 I still think it’s 宝娟。 There are a lot of theories about the fact that 宝娟 was probably given to 安陵容 by 皇后 the moment she entered the palace. Regardless, 安陵容 now starts to resent 甄嬛, much in part due to 皇后. 皇后 is a master manipulator and we start seeing that now.
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.