[Karen]

Welcome to Chasing dramas! The podcast that discusses Chinese history and culture through Chinese TV shows. This is Karen and this is Cathy! Today we are going to discuss episode 28 of 后宫甄嬛传 Empresses in the Palace! 

This episode will be a little different. We’ll do all of analysis during the plot summary.

Let’s get started!

 

[Cathy]

One evening, 皇上 comes to visit 华妃 and shares that her brother and nephew have helped win battles on the front lines. He is extremely pleased and as a reward, her brother, 年羹尧 and her family will be promoted with extravagant titles. He even says that she, 华妃 has been a 妃, or Consort, for a couple of years and it’s time to promote her to the next rank. That’s generous of him. She is of course extremely pleased with this information. 

The next day, all of the ladies are at the empress, 皇后’s palace, for the customary greeting. The ladies curtsey to 皇后 but then also curtsey 华妃. 华妃 is surprised and people explain to her that it’s to congratulate her on her pending promotion. Of course, it wouldn’t be a fun court greeting if there wasn’t some type of verbal spat. 

华妃 asks 皇后 what type of promotion she thinks she’ll receive. 皇后 responds that above a 妃, is 贵妃, or Noble Consort. Above that is 皇贵妃 or Imperial Noble Consort. 华妃 explains that no, above the Imperial Noble Consort is 皇后,the Empress. The empress is of course like, oh, you’re interested in my royal throne?

华妃 says that well I’ve just heard that the Imperial Noble Consort, or 皇贵妃, is essentially equivalent to a Vice Empress. [Karen – Kind of like a Vice President] She then recounts how earlier in the Qing Dynasty, there was an Imperial Noble Consort who was so favored by the emperor at that time, that the Empress basically had no power or position. Basically the Imperial Noble Consort usurped the love, attention and position of the Empress. Clearly, 华妃 is trying to parallel the situation and suggest to the current Empress that maybe she should be worried. 

 

[Karen]

Let’s discuss this anecdote a little bit as it’s quite important for the rest of the episode and an interesting story overall.

Who is 华妃 referencing? This tragic love story is famous and there have been many TV dramas made about this story. One of my favorites is 孝庄秘史,for those who have extra time now and want to learn about the origins of the Qing dynasty. Another one is 少年天子 (The Young Emperor) that describes this story more beautifully. Both are older dramas that came out in 2003 but quite classic.  We were actually thinking that it might be good to discuss the events of 孝庄秘史 (The Epic of XiaoZhuang) as a drama for this podcast because it’s full of history and just very good.

(Cathy – I loved watching xiaozhuangmishi as a kid. I was obsessed with that show)

Let’s set the stage. The three characters are: Emperor 顺治, his favored concubine, 董鄂妃 (Consort 董) and the Empress, 博尔济吉特皇后 (Borjigin)。Emperor 顺治 is the first Qing dynasty emperor who ruled from Beijing as its capital. There was a ton of drama surrounding his upbringing, which is also the subject of many dramas, but he came to the throne at a very young age – at age 6. He was a puppet under his regent which he fought hard to rid of. He, as the emperor, has his arranged marriage with 博尔济吉特. They’re married very young – in their mid teens. This is very much a political marriage and things are probably fine between the two as arranged marriages can be. This woman gets promoted to become the Empress as she also comes from a very powerful family. But, not too long after, 董鄂妃 comes into the picture and is selected to be a concubine. At this point, these players are still in their mid to late teens. The emperor, 顺治 falls head over heels in love with 董鄂妃. It’s documented that she’s really sweet and kind. Given a lot of drama that the emperor suffered growing up and being from an imperial family, he probably appreciated that. In any case, 顺治 quickly promotes this woman through the ranks to become the Imperial Noble Consort, or 皇贵妃。 She was the Qing Dynasty’s first Imperial Noble Consort. As you can see, Emperor 顺治 really loved her. So much so that he was willing to get rid of the existing Empress and make her the Empress but that never happened.

The two lived in bliss for a few years and 董鄂妃 even birthed a child. The 4th prince of the emperor. The Emperor was so ecstatic, he wanted to make the newborn the heir apparent immediately. This didn’t go over too well with court but it didn’t really matter. The child, the 4th prince, only lived for a couple of months before passing away. This was a huge blow to 董鄂妃 who in her despair also passed away not too long after. She was only 21 when she died. The Emperor 顺治, could not handle the death of his beloved concubine. He fell into heavy depression and died not too long after. He was 24 when he died. There is a lot of mystery surrounding his death. In some books, they say he didn’t actually die but went to become a monk and lived the remainder of his life in a monastery. Regardless of what happened, it’s clear that he dearly loved 董鄂妃. 

This is definitely an oversimplification of the drama that happened. The key points to remember are that the Emperor loved this concubine and even wanted her to supplant the existing Empress. Indeed, after her death, the concubine was memorialized as an Empress tho she was never one in life.

Back to our current drama, you can see why bringing this story up is actually a threat to the current Empress. 华妃 is goading 皇后。皇后 retorts with a long explanation that even if the position of the imperial noble consort is that of vice empress, she will never be the formal empress. 

Hopefully that makes sense.

 

[Cathy]

it’s clear though that 华妃 and her family don’t know how to balance all of this power and has let their arrogance get to their head. This is clearly exhibited in this next example.

There’s a whole reason why the Emperor doesn’t want 隆科多 to meet the Empress!

One late evening, the concubines in the palace are told that the Empress is suffering from terrible migraines and the ladies must come help tend to her illness. 甄嬛 along with a few others head over to the Empress’s palace. Once there, they see the Empress in a lot of pain but there is no imperial doctor in sight. It turns out, 年羹尧, 华妃’s brother and mighty general, has asked for the doctors to come see his wife who was ill during the day and were not allowed to return back to the palace. Thus, there is a shortage of doctors in the palace. When asked if anyone told the Emperor of the Empress’s condition, the Empress’s maid says that the Emperor is currently with 华妃 and so she didn’t want to bother them. In the end, the Empress spent a restless night without doctors because 年羹尧 needed them.

We’ve recently been focusing on different different concubines. This episode is no different. Our focus this time is 齐妃. She constantly affirms her low IQ and EQ throughout the episode. The first example happens here. 齐妃’s fussing about and orders the servants to wake the Emperor. This is a big deal! The Empress is not feeling well! How can there be no Imperial Doctors on hand? The Empress, hearing this, immediately commands her servants to NOT go. Oh it’s not worth it, this is normal. I don’t want to worry his majesty. Everyone else knows to keep her mouth shut except for 齐妃. Can’t she tell, something is up?

 

[Karen]

The next morning, 华妃 hears this news and quickly tells her servants to tell her brother to send the doctors back as she prepares breakfast for the Emperor. The thing is, you see that even though 华妃 cares a lot about power and money, she really does love 皇上。 She notices what he eats and where to place food because it seems like he didn’t like a certain dish. She prepares his favored tea every night even though he may not visit her. She just doesn’t know how to love in a nicer way…  One that does not involve murder and corruption.

While she’s preparing breakfast, servants stop by with new clothes for her upcoming promotion. However, the clothes are for the Imperial Noble Consort (2 steps up), not the Noble Consort (1 step up). 华妃 is extremely pleased by this because she feels like it means that the emperor wants to promote her to Vice Empress. The emperor, who has woken up by now, sees this scene and is most definitely not pleased. 

I wonder who sent those clothes though. Is it indeed the emperor?  Or was it someone else.

At court later that morning, many court officials report the audacity of 年羹尧 for being so rude and ignoring court etiquette and rules such that the Empress does not have a doctor when she needs it. 年羹尧 is being pummeled by these reports/criticisms. Everyone is looking for punishment by the Emperor but the Emperor, doesn’t get too mad. He instead actually commends 年羹尧 for being so thoughtful of his wife’s illness. That’s perplexing isn’t it?

 

[Cathy]

Later that day, 甄嬛 is able to speak to her childhood friend, the imperial doctor, 温实初 to get a better understanding of what the protocol is in the imperial harem for seeing doctors. It turns out that even if there are not enough doctors in the palace at night, it is still possible to request doctors to come into the palace. Though that process will probably be cumbersome and alert everyone in the palace. Still, it can be done. 甄嬛’s maid says maybe the Empress didn’t want to bother everyone with her illness which is why she didn’t call for the doctors but 甄嬛 makes a good point by saying if the Empress really didn’t want to bother anyone, why did she tell all of the concubines to come tend to her. That’s begging for everyone to be talking about this and cause drama. 甄嬛 is guessing that this act was on purpose.

 

[Karen]

After watching this, i’m wondering if 皇后 even actually had migraines to begin with or if all of this was a show. She found out that the doctors were told to tend to 年羹尧’s wife and decided to fake all of this in order to incite anger at 年羹尧 and 华妃 for their arrogance. 

Later on, 甄嬛 is enjoying some quiet one-on-one time with the Emperor in his study. He asks what she’s reading and she says she’s reading a story from the Spring and Autumn Period. She thinks the story is very relevant to the politics of today. Let’s dive a little deeper into this tale.

 

[Cathy]

The story of 郑伯克段于鄢 which translates to Duke Zhuang of Zheng Defeats his Brother Duan at Yan comes from 左传 or the Commentary of Zuo. The book originates from the Spring and Autumn Period, published in the 4th century BC. This book is a historical chronicle of the Spring and Autumn Period from 722BC to 468BC. It is considered one of the classics in Chinese culture and a primary work for later generations to learn Chinese history. The book recounts battles, assassinations, royal intrigue, amongst many other stories. As such, it was not particularly suitable for women to read. This is again highlights 甄嬛’s uniqueness.

I tried reading the story. It’s surprisingly short but incredibly dense. This was apparently the style back then. Even reading the baidu notations of this, there’s over 70 annotations for this barely 700 character story. Random characters appear in the story which makes it extremely hard to follow.

The story goes like this.When the Duke Zhuang of Zheng was born, his mother had a difficult birth with him so the Duke was not favored. So much so that his name even means “difficult birth”. Instead his mother favored his younger brother Duan. As such, his mother continuously plotted for her younger son Duan to seize the throne over this older brother. Talk about favoritism Nevertheless the Duke ascended the dukedom after the death of his father. 

His mother requested a fiefdom for Duan, the younger brother, to which the Duke reluctantly agreed. All of his courtiers were skeptical of this request but the Duke waves away their concerns. The Duke continues to indulge his younger brother with his heart’s desire. After arriving at his fiefdom, Duan immediately began stockpiling weapons and fortifying his fortress. News of this reached the Duke and his courtiers. They all begged him to take precautions and actions against Duan. The Duke does not, stating that there’s no proof of a planned rebellion. He then says this famous phrase. 

多行不义必自毙

The wages of sin is death (Bible)

Translation: He who is unjust is doomed to destruction. This phrase is incredibly famous.

 

[Karen]

I did not know this phrase came from this story and has its roots back to the 4th century. That’s fascinating. 

子姑待之

Just wait and see

After a short while, the Duke is called away for business to another state. Seizing this opportunity, his mother quickly dispatches a message to Duan ordering him to invade the capital city of Zheng. She’ll open the gates for him. Duan successfully invades the city but the Duke was prepared for him. He orders his courtier 吕 to attack the city with 200 carriages. The people of the capital city also revolt against Duan. With nowhere to go, Duan retreats to the city of Yan. The Duke has a final confrontation with Duan at the city of Yan. Defeated and humiliated, Duan flees to the nearby state of Gong 共. Hence why he’s called 公叔段。

I’ll quickly gloss over the rest of the story. The Duke banishes his mother and declares he’ll see her in the next world. After a while, he regrets the declaration. He orders a tunnel to be dug so that he can see her and they mend their relationship. That part to me is a bit wild.

 

[Karen]

The main lesson 甄嬛 points out here is that the Duke just let his brother and his mother continue on with their schemes and indulge them in order to lure them into a false sense of security. The Duke, however, was always aware of their plots. He indulged his brother until everything erupted and it was easy to destroy them in one fell swoop. If his brother Duan and his mother were content with their lives, nothing would have happened to them. But they weren’t and plotted the rebellion. Which is why, back to 甄嬛, both she and the Emperor write the same phrase. 

多行不义必自毙 子姑待之 – He who is unjust is doomed to destruction. Just wait and see. 

The Emperor is very much in tuned to Imperial Court and the arrogance of 年羹尧. He won’t act yet because it’s not the right time. He’s waiting for a fatal mistake to take him down. In order to do that, they need to continue to indulge this arrogance. Only until then, is it possible to remove all  remaining supporters. 

This story will be referenced again later in the series but for a different purpose.

 

[Karen]

Moving on, 华妃 receives her promotion edict. Contrary to the previous signals, she’s only promoted to 贵妃 or Noble Consort not 皇贵妃 or Imperial Noble Consort. She’s hugely disappointed and the eunuchs say that the previous outfit was sent in error.. She barely waits one second before she lashes out at her servants.

Don’t think we need this.

Upon hearing the news, 沈眉庄 storms into 甄嬛’s palace to discuss the news. I love how 沈眉庄 refuses to refer to 华妃 as 华贵妃. She’s like not on my watch. 甄嬛, after her discussion with the Emperor, is much more relaxed. She even brings up another anecdote from the previous reign. A concubines father was only the subordinate of the famous 鳌拜. He was still sentenced to death. What do you think will happen to 年羹尧? She’s giving 沈眉庄 hints of what most likely will happen to 华贵妃.

 

[Cathy] 

Another 请安 or greeting! Another example of how foolish 齐妃 is! I’ll quickly highlight 华贵妃’s coiffure and hair accessories have all been upgraded to reflect her new rank. So have 甄嬛 and 敬妃’s who were all recently promoted.

齐妃 literally throws herself out there to be chewed out. She’s like – oh even if someone gets pregnant, if it’s only a daughter, that doesn’t mean much. 华贵妃 immediately retorts – even if someone has a son, if the son is intelligent but dull, it doesn’t matter because if you recall, her son, the 3rd prince is not well liked.

甄嬛makes the mistake of responding to the Empress and says it doesn’t matter if her child is a boy or girl. If it’s a girl, I’d like for her to be as cute and charming as 曹贵人’s daughter. 华贵妃 immediately seizes this opportunity to deride 齐妃 even more. ”Even 莞嫔 wants a daughter over your dunce of a son”. 

齐妃 without even a pause turns to 甄嬛. She says – How is it that you become pregnant but then immediately 富察贵人 has the miscarriage? Did your child kill her child?

The words she use is “克死“. I don’t think there’s a direct translation but it’s extremely superstitious and has a very negative connotation. She’s saying the arrival of your child killed the other child. This must be a demon child. The Empress quickly stops her from continuing to make a fool of herself. 齐妃 is a hot headed person. She didn’t even pause to let these slights pass. She had to get the last word. She made a laughing stock of herself.

 

[Karen]

Later, the Empress and 齐妃 have tea together where the Empress chastises 齐妃 for her behavior.  Pay attention here to a masterful performance by the Empress. She’s casting her net and will claim her prize in the next episode. 齐妃 is just too dumb to realize this. The Empress first consoles her into saying don’t worry about 甄嬛’s unborn child. Your son is the eldest, there’s no way her child can usurp her. 齐妃 seems mollified by this but then the Empress throws a wrench into this. Well – 甄嬛 is very much in favor. She’s also from the Han Banners with a similar background to you. You never know, she might be able to rise to the same rank as you. 

Then the Empress brings up the story of Emperor 顺治 and his beloved Consort 董鄂妃 that we discussed earlier. Her punchline though is – the Emperor immediately wanted to make him the crown prince. Unfortunately the baby died in infancy. I wouldn’t want that on anyone but it would have been better if he was not born. She’s all repentant – I shouldn’t be talking about such a sad story! Forgive me! What a performer!

The wheels begin to turn in 齐妃’s mind. She cannot have 甄嬛 successfully have the baby. Well what is she to do? 安陵容 comes to give the solution! 安陵容 bumps into 齐妃 admiring some Nerium Oleander flowers. 安陵容 “helpfully” tells 齐妃 to not stand too close as they are poisonous. She then drops this useful bit of information – thankfully there aren’t any of these flowers near 甄嬛’s palace. This is very poisonous to her unborn baby. 安陵容 takes her leave and the wheels start turning a bit more in 齐妃’s mind. 

安陵容 comes to visit 甄嬛 at her palace. They exchange some pleasantries. One of 齐妃’s maids arrive with water chestnut pastries for 甄嬛. I love that the camera pans quickly to 安陵容. She knows exactly what will happen. 

 

[Cathy]

There are two options right now. 安陵容 can either not say anything or warn 甄嬛. For my first viewing, I honestly thought 安陵容 wouldn’t say anything, but she’s on team 皇后 or the Empress. There’s a bigger prize the Empress wants. 

安陵容 makes a big show of it. Don’t eat it! Something’s not right! She then miraculously deduces that the pastries contain Nerium Oleander. She then explains the poisonous properties to 甄嬛. 甄嬛 is stunned – why would 齐妃 do this? 安陵容 responds – she’s jealous! Your child could usurp her son’s position! 甄嬛 wants to immediately tell the Emperor but 安陵容 persuades her with a different option – first confirm the poison before the next step.

The episode ends with 齐妃 still anxiously waiting for news of 甄嬛’s “death” or “miscarriage”. She doesn’t receive this news, instead, she is summoned by the Empress for a “chat”.

Again – how dumb can you be? You send a poisonous plate of pastries and don’t even conceal the fact that you were the one to send those pastries. Even if 甄嬛 ate it, literally everyone can trace this back to you and you will be punished for it. Do you not think people will realize that the miscarriage happened because of you? What will happen to your son in this case? It’s been a while since we’ve had to deal with such an idiotic plot.