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 22 of 后宫甄嬛传! This episode on the surface is pretty straightforward but there are a TON of interesting snippets to discuss especially when the ladies of the imperial harem go to the opera! So let’s get started.
Episode 22 is more centered around 华妃’s corruption and the continued arrogance of 年羹尧, her brother who is a decorated general。It’s nearing the New Year and 华妃 needs money, lots of it, to buy more clothes, jewelry and gifts. 华妃’s scheme of accepting bribes has been pretty successful but she needs even more money! One gentleman by the name of 赵之垣 is willing to send 50,000 taels just for a meeting.
50,000 taels! Taels is a form of measurement for money used in ancient China. It’s usually with silver. Silver is definitely way more valuable than bronze coins and truly only the rich could use it. I went down the rabbit hole of trying to figure out how much that is in today’s money but it’s very difficult. You can convert it to dollars but that doesn’t really measure the purchasing power of what you could buy. The base measure is based on how much grain or rice you could purchase. There was a huge range but let’s just simplify and say that this 50,000 taels is over $1M USD. That’s a LOT for just a conversation.
年羹尧 does indeed meet this 赵之垣 and requests an audience with the Emperor who just so happens to be playing Chinese Go with the 17th Prince so 年羹尧 has to wait outside for his turn. The Emperor wins the game of Go to which he says “I need to painstakingly place all the pieces in the right place in order to win the game”. Foreshadowing much?
The 17th Prince 果郡王 leaves the Palace and sees that 年羹尧 was waiting outside in a chair (which, is a big no-no). 年羹尧 sees the 17th Prince but doesn’t even get up to kneel – another huge sign of disrespect. The 17th Prince brushes it off though, he reminds his own servant that living under the radar is the only way to survive with this Emperor. Look at what happened to his own brothers.
During the audience with the Emperor, 年羹尧 requests for 赵之垣’s position at court to be restored. It’s obvious that the Emperor doesn’t want to but he relents after several back and forths. This really frustrates 皇上 since 年羹尧 is about to have more power than him! But what can he do? It’s not the time, he needs to put all of the pieces in place. He asks for 甄嬛 opinion when she comes in. Once again, she quotes a Song Dynasty poet to answer the question. I’ll discuss this part later too.
华妃’s extremely pleased with all of the “donations” from 赵之垣. The man apparently said one sentence and convinced her brother to change his mind. What was that sentence? 300K taels will be sent to the General and 100K taels will be sent to 翊坤宫. Now who can refuse that? Bribery and corruption at its finest.
Elsewhere in the palace, 安陵容 and 甄嬛 have been working on separate projects. Unfortunately, they are both working on the same thing, a night shirt/or pajamas more or less for the Emperor. These two ladies making the same thing at the same time separately for the emperor? What could possibly go wrong? The Empress 皇后 arrives in 养心殿 to clear the accounts with the Emperor. She bluntly points out that 华妃 is overspending her allowance. Something must be fishy with where she got all the money because it’s way over what was ever given to her. The Emperor acknowledges that he has an inkling of where she’s getting the money from but he’ll let it pass and pointedly tells the Empress to let it go as well. At this point the two night shirts are presented to the Emperor.
A few days later, 淳儿, the cute, bubbly and young concubine is showing off her makeup to 甄嬛 and 安陵容. The ladies are joking around and somehow get to a conversation about what the Emperor looks like in bed. Rather a personal discussion don’t you think? He noticed 淳儿 staring at his nightshirt and graciously says he’ll cut out the Golden Dragon Emerging from the Clouds pattern and gift it to her. He puts on a nightshirt that has a Two Dragons fighting over a Pearl pattern on it. The Emperor proceeds to say he likes this one, it’s more comfy. Shall we guess who made which one? Yup, the one that was cut was from 安陵容and the other one is from 甄嬛. 淳儿 just unknowingly insulted 安陵容. Ouch. 安陵容’s face is not very pleasant and takes her leave.
甄嬛 realizes that something 淳儿 said must have offended 安陵容. She brings out a very precious pair of Hetian Jade [earrings?] to gift 安陵容 to appease her. 瑾溪 delivers the gift and all seems fine. 瑾溪notices 菊青, a maid outside crying and tries to comfort her. This is overseen by 宝娟 which confirms her suspicious that 菊青 is a spy for 甄嬛. You’ll recall that in the last episode, 宝娟 pushes 安陵容 into thinking that 菊青, who was gifted to 安陵容 as a maid by 甄嬛 was done so purposefully and is spying on 安陵容. I really don’t think this is true but it doesn’t matter because it’s how 安陵容 perceives the relationship/
Back inside, 安陵容 is being all petty about the gift that 甄嬛 gives her. She even says 甄嬛 and I are both concubines of the Emperor. Why is it that I have never received such a rare gift from him? She’s so jealous of 甄嬛. Here’s where I think she really gets it wrong. She uses the idiom 平起平坐 which means equal footing. Ok yes, they are both concubines of the Emperor but they are definitely not equal. 安陵容 has no background, no real education, and she doesn’t have the favor of the Emperor. How is she equal? She looks down on 淳儿 because she’s young and has no real talent other than being a foodie and is angry at how flippant 淳儿 was just now, openly insulting her needlework.
[Karen] – Discussion
Let’s remind everyone that 安陵容 is only a 1st Class Female Attendant, the same as 淳儿. What is 安陵容 angry about? That she received favor first? She sneers at the gifts that 甄嬛 sends her. 甄嬛 doesn’t care about her, she just cares about 淳儿 and 沈眉庄, and is only sending her gifts to make her feel better. On one hand, yes that’s true but honey, did you not forget that 甄嬛 also just got humiliated by 华妃 because of you? She volunteered to go with you in the last episode when she did not have to! Ugh, 安陵容’s only looking at what she wants to believe. There is some truth to what she says about 甄嬛. I don’t think 甄嬛 even realizes the biases she has but 安陵容 shouldn’t be making enemies with her friends.
I guess all this crying over the night shirt was for naught because we find out that the Emperor is not even wearing 甄嬛’s shirt, instead favoring an old one from his deceased first wife 纯元皇后. Some more foreshadowing?
The ladies of 后宫 are invited to go to the Theater! They are watching Opera. This opera right here is Peking Opera. There’s a lot of sniping back and forth between 华妃 and 皇后. The usual stuff. 甄嬛 comes to the rescue 皇后 after seeing her begin to lose the battle. 安陵容 then pipes up to say something and is roundly humiliated by 华妃. Once again 甄嬛 has to come to the rescue but I’m not sure 安陵容 appreciated that. We will go in depth about Peking Opera
The episode ends with all of the women in 后宫 paying their respects to the Empress Dowager 太后 for the LaBa Festival.
That was a lot of information – let’s start off with our analysis
Let’s talk about the conversation between 甄嬛 and 皇上 after he has the unpleasant audience with 年羹尧。In giving her opinion, 甄嬛 paraphrases from 朋党论 or Discourse on Factions written by 欧阳修. 欧阳修 was a Song Dynasty historian, poet, calligrapher, politician, and writer. He is one of the Eight Masters of the Tang and Song [karen – which I didn’t know was a thing but here you have it]. We’ve already talked briefly about 苏东坡 in previous episodes. This was written in 1044AD as a proposal to the Song Emperor. 欧阳修discusses elite politics and the importance of factions. Gentlemen have a responsibility to uphold moral principles while 小人 or despicable men merely aim for profit. He argues that throughout history, dynasties thrived when the Emperor listened to these gentlemen.
甄嬛 says 小人同利之时，暂相党引成为朋党。等到见利而争先，则极力相争，which basically means that when these 小人 or despicable men have the shared profits, they will have temporary alliances or 朋党. But once they have to compete for profit, they will turn to fight each other. Basically, 甄嬛 is saying that the Emperor shouldn’t have to worry about such people because they will be their own demise. The Emperor is very pleased with this answer – he shouldn’t be too worried about 年羹尧.
What’s important here is that this is the 2nd time 甄嬛 uses other historical writings to discuss current politics. Unlike the previous time, she is now directly quoting political texts. She is getting bolder and bolder with her ideas, however, is that good for her? We’ll see. Remember that women in the imperial harem, or women in general, are not supposed to talk about politics, but here she is making rather bold suggestions. We also get to learn about this Discourse on Factions!
Next we want to discuss is Chinese Opera! The ladies of the imperial harem are watching some Peking Opera/Beijing Opera. Bear with us as there’s a lot to take in. First let’s do a little introduction on Chinese Opera. Chinese opera or 戏曲 is a form of musical theater dating back thousands of years. It’s an amalgamation of various different art forms including dance, singing, acrobatics and comedy. The stories used for Chinese Opera range from legends, to local folklore, to history.
Today we’ll talk about Peking Opera or Beijing Opera. Peking Opera got its start in the late 18th century during the reign of 乾隆, who is our current emperor’s SON, around 1790. So this scene right here is an anachronism – we are currently in the 1720s. I will give them credit, they don’t state that it’s Beijing Opera.
Beijing Opera is the most famous of Chinese Opera, also known as the national opera, but there are a variety of different types of Chinese opera from the different regions of China. They include SiChuan Opera, Cantonese Opera, Yue Opera etc.
Peking Opera began when the Four Great Anhui Troupes (south central China) came to perform for Emperor Qianlong’s 80th birthday party. That type of opera is called 徽剧 and became extremely popular. The opera form incorporated aspects from other opera including styles of singing, stories, martial arts and melodies.
There are 4 types of characters in Peking Opera, Sheng (male character), Dan (female character), Jing (painted face male role), and Chou (male clown role). On stage in the drama, we have the Dan (female character) and Sheng (male character). During this time period, only men could perform in Opera. I can’t quite tell here but that would be another anachronism if the person playing the Dan is a female.
In this scene, the audience can request pieces and stories for the troupe to perform. This scene is great because concubines are using the opera pieces they select to again start sending veiled, or not so veiled messages.
Let’s take a look. When they enter, 华妃 snags the first pick. 刘金定救驾 – it’s the story of a Song Dynasty female general who protected her country from invaders. 华妃 uses this to signal – oh, my brother just came back from the front lines, our family is important to the stability of the Empire. She then goes and orders two more operas 鼎峙春秋 and 薛丁山征西 – two more war stories. Obviously she wants to rub it in everyone’s face and remind them just who she is.
The Empress 皇后 doesn’t even blink and asks see 劝善金科 and 瑶台. The first piece, 劝善金科, is a story with roots about Buddha’s disciple Maudgalyāyana (apologies for the pronunciation). The story is about his filial piety and devotion to his mother, saving her from the preta world. The second piece 瑶台 then refers to the celestial palace of 瑶台. Both of these stories are about kindness and doing good which obviously is a jab at 华妃. I also think 皇后 selects these two operas to mock 华妃’s lack of children.
Later on, 华妃 brings up 薛丁山征西 again and says we can’t talk about 薛丁山 without discussing 樊梨花。What’s the significance here. 薛丁山 is a fictionalized character based off of a Tang dynasty general. 樊梨花 is his wife and also a very popular historical figure. She’s a general, a brilliant strategist, heroic, basically every awesome adjective. However, she is a little hot headed. 薛丁山 divorces her three times due to misunderstandings and jealousy. He also has two other wives so that complicates things. And you have to remember that “divorce” in China was a huge no-no back in the day and meant a lot of terrible things for the woman to be “divorced” so the fact that she was divorced multiple times is fascinating.
华妃 uses this story as a jab at 皇后 to say this woman couldn’t keep her husband. I don’t want someone who’s heart isn’t with me. 皇后 icily responds – the wife is the wife, no matter how many times she was divorced, 薛丁山 still came back to her because there would be no three divorces, if the husband 薛丁山 didn’t marry 樊梨花 three times. No concubine can take that position of being the wife away from her.
[Karen] If you couldn’t tell, 皇后 is trying to hint that no matter how powerful 华妃 is, she is still just a concubine while she, 皇后 is the main wife. Nice. 华妃 – immediately fires back. Well that only worked since 樊梨花 was the daughter of a head or first wife. If she was the daughter of a concubine, she wouldn’t have been able to do anything. This time, it’s a jab at 皇后 since she also wasn’t born from the main wife and was instead, the daughter of a concubine. This really hurts 皇后 and she doesn’t have anything to say.
Fortunately, 甄嬛 comes to the rescue, she requests to watch 南柯记. It’s a story about a ranger/man who meets 3 beautiful ladies outside of a temple. They are here to find a husband for their princess and they select the ranger. He weds the princess and spends 20 happy years with her, living in luxury. Ok – I’m skipping a lot. There’s a lot of drama within these 20 years. He gains power and money and fame, depending on how the story is told. But All good things can’t last and he loses everything due to some enemies at court. He’s awoken from his dream, realizing that none of the last 20 years happened. Everything was in his mind which is devastating. There’s a heavy buddihst theme to this story and he eventually gives up everything and becomes a buddha. 甄嬛’s point here is that, the higher you go, the harder you fall. No one will care about your parentage or your previous wealth, it will all just be a dream…I’d say that’s a pretty apt description and warning for 华妃.
The Empress smiles to acknowledge 甄嬛 as she is thankful for the clever idea and support. 安陵容 then piques up to make a comment about love between two people which is quickly shut down by 华妃. Once again, 甄嬛 comes to the rescue but I don’t think 安陵容 really appreciates this.
PHEW – are you exhausted by all of these stories? This exchange at the opera was quite tiring for us to research too actually. We knew a few of the stories but not everything so it’s interesting and fun to piece together the deeper meaning behind each of these opera titles and I appreciate that once again, the insults are hurled in a very concealed way.
That’s it for this episode – episode 22. Thank you all so much for joining us and we look forward to having you with us in the next one. If you have comments or questions, please let us know and reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org!