[Karen]

Hello! Welcome back to Chasing Dramas! The podcast that explores Chinese history through historical TV dramas.  This is Karen, and this is Cathy and we are back again to discuss the episode 3 of 甄嬛传, Empresses in the Palace。In the last 2 episodes, we saw that our main character zhen huan, gets chosen to be a concubine in the imperial palace of emperor 雍正.

(PAUSE)

So what next – well let’s start off with a general recap. This episode is pretty simple. We follow how the 4 new ladies (and other characters) fare in the palace.  Basically the ladies are brought to the palace and are settling in. 沈眉庄 is placed at 常熙堂。She has maids that she brought with her and can pay tips to the eunuch. 安陵容 is by herself and does not give any money. What’s worse, she’s stuck sharing a palace with the haughty 夏冬春。

甄嬛 is placed, by the grace of a meddling 华妃, to smaller and farther quarters within the palace. She now lives in 碎玉轩. She shares the space with a younger girl 淳常在, who is not even 14, who was also selected as a concubine. Blegh – Doesn’t that just make your skin crawl?

They kind of just gloss over the fact that she’s so young and is supposed to be, you know, a woman for the emperor.

Anyways, the girl is very cute, bubbly and loves to eat desserts.

甄嬛 also meets her servants. Her main maid, 瑾汐, who previously attended on former concubines, is quite kind to 甄嬛, gives her pointers on things here and there. The head eunuch is a man named 康陆海, who seems jovial enough。甄嬛 points out that she wants loyalty and solidifies it with giving 康路海 a large sum of money.

 

[Cathy]

As everyone is settling in, we see that there are plenty of gifts being bestowed upon the various new ladies including 甄嬛,夏冬春 and 沈眉庄. These gifts, which include lavish jewels and fabrics, are from 皇后 and 华妃 as they begin to create alliance within the palace. 甄嬛 accepts them but does not use them, instead she tells her servants to documents them and to put them in storage. She knows exactly what 皇后 and 华妃 are doing and tells her servants to keep quiet.

I feel bad for 安陵容 because she’is not given many gifts since her family has no connections or power. She isn’t a threat at all to anyone but also can’t be of help. She has no money either. 夏冬春 who lives in the same palace as her, sees this and does not hesitate to make fun of her for it.  夏冬春 also makes it known that she prefers gifts from 皇后 rather than 华妃. She basically shouts it from her door. Bad mistake…

To make herself feel better, 安陵容 goes to find 甄嬛 and 沈眉庄 who are at 甄嬛’s palace. Upon hearing about 安陵容’s situation, 沈眉庄 and 甄嬛 give her some of the gifts that they received and 安陵容 is very grateful. Here though, the class difference is very evident in their interactions. 安陵容 has no support, no money, and received no gifts. Despite being good “friends”, there is always going to be that distinction between her and the other two ladies.

 

[Karen]

A few days later, the entire 后宫 is presented to 皇后 in their first official 请安, or greeting. 华妃, as is her MO, asserts her dominance over all of the ladies. 夏冬春 is asked to speak and she again makes it known that her clothes are from 皇后, much to the annoyance of 华妃. 

沈眉庄 gets into a bit of trouble with 华妃 and is bailed out by 甄嬛. When everyone is dismissed to leave, 夏冬春 does not hesitate to follow 甄嬛,沈眉庄, and 安陵容 out and continues to boast.

华妃 is in the background hearing this conversation. Once she’s had enough, she steps in…and… we’ll discuss this scene.

After the encounter with 华妃, 甄嬛,沈眉庄, and 安陵容 are shell shocked by what they just experienced. They stumble to a remote corner of the palace. They don’t have time to recover before bumping into some eunuchs running away from something. 甄嬛 goes to investigate. She finds 福子’s body in a well. The same girl,that was gifted to 华妃. Yep, she’s 100% dead.

 

[Cathy]

The news of 福子’s death travels quickly to 皇后 and she’s extremely angry. Verbal jabs, she can handle, but to kill a servant that she sent, that is inexcusable. Ok you might think, why do I care about this maid right now but it’ll pay off in the next episode.

甄嬛 returns to her quarters 碎玉轩, still in a daze. Her servants are extremely excited to tell her the news that the new concubines will be able to “serve” the emperor starting tomorrow night!

They all tell her she’s got to be the first one!

 

[Karen]

皇后’s head eunuch, 江福海, goes to 华妃’s palace, ready to interrogate her about the whereabouts of 福子. BUT 华妃 turns the tables and asks HIM where she went. She simply says that she doesn’t know where she is. She acts shocked when 江福海 tells her the news that 福子 is dead.

And that’s the end of the episode!

 

[Cathy]

So, we know that the ladies are now in the palace and getting their first taste of what life will be like for the rest of their lives. I really like this scene because [discuss]

  • You see the difference between 安陵容 and 甄嬛 and 沈眉庄. 甄嬛 and 沈眉庄 are more well versed on how to play the rules. They constantly are “tipping” the eunuchs around them. 安陵容 doesn’t have that type of money and as a result is left to fend for herself.
  • You also see that eyes and ears are everywhere in the Forbidden Palace. 夏冬春 makes herself an easy target for 华妃 because she’s literally shouting her preference of 皇后 to everyone。

The big scene that we want to discuss revolves around the official 请安 or greeting. This is the first time we see the new ladies meet the other concubines. Let’s just say…this 请安 is a life or death situation.

We’ll start with 甄嬛 getting ready in the morning. One of the new maids suggest that she dresses lavishly for the event, but 甄嬛 requests for the exact opposite. She says to dress and style normally.

An official greeting is a big deal. It’s the first impression that you make on the other concubines in the 后宫。Everyone is watching you so you have to think about what type of impression you make. I don’t think zhen huan knows that she’s favored by the emperor but she’s smart in not to show off too much.

 

[Karen]

At 景仁宫, the new concubines present themselves to 皇后. 华妃 as usual is still not there. She saunters in a little bit later. 

 

 

[Cathy]

When she does, everyone turns around to greet 华妃. There’s a funny bug in this scene, you’ll notice 曹贵人 on the top right turning around to see where 华妃 is during her curtsey. Haha, she doesn’t know when to get up.

 

[Karen]

I swear, every single time we have a 请安, drama happens. 

 

[Cathy]

Well to be fair, this is the only time the ladies all have to be at one place at the same time. When else are they going to start showing off?

Well 华妃 sits down and 齐妃 asks, “You woke up so late, are you feeling unwell?”. 

 

[Karen]

I’m watching this and I don’t know why 齐妃 even does this and provokes 华妃? She never wins against 华妃. 

华妃 responds in the most 华妃 way and says, “皇上 stayed up late reading documents so I stayed up late with him. This morning he told me to sleep in.” All of the other concubines lower their eyes because she’s boasting that 皇上 was with her. 华妃 then goes on to say “皇后,you aren’t mad are you?”

 

[Cathy]

皇后 really is the only one that can handle this situation. Well of course she can’t say, yes I’m mad. She responds “well today’s the first time we meet the new concubines. We have new sisters here, they can keep us company”. This is a subtle jab reminding 华妃 that even though you are the favorite, these new ladies might take that from you. 

夏冬春 being 夏冬春, actually says out loud to the girl next to her, “Who is 华妃 showing off to?” and of course 华妃 hear’s this. 华妃 gives 夏冬春 a dirty look. 

It’s time for the formal greeting, with the 3 kneels from the ladies

 

[Karen]

Let me explain. All of the new ladies are presented to 皇后. They conduct what is called 三跪九叩. The translation is 3 kneels and 9 bows (or kowtow). Basically, you get on your knees, kowtow 3 times, stand up, and do that 2 more times total. This is one of the most formal greetings you can do. 

In this drama, however, the women kneel, but don’t bow. Instead, they raise their right hand up to their temple three times. Apparently, this is done to substitute the bowing because back then, there was no hairspray but the concubines had hair piled high on the tops of their heads in elaborate styles. So…. what could happen when you kowtow with that elaborate hair? It falls out. Having a  bad/messy appearance is another sign of disrespect so, this was the compromise for the concubines. It was a more practical matter to raise your hand up to your temple than to bow so many times and risk your hair falling out. 

At least, this is what I read from an interview with the cultural etiquette instructor for the drama, who incidentally is also playing the imperial doctor, 温实初。

 

[Cathy]

Look at the seated concubines in the background when 甄嬛 and them are doing the formal greeting. Everyone’s yawning, looking away, whatever else. It’s quite funny. I’m not even talking about the scene where it specifically pans to them, but literally as they are performing the ritual.

The bloopers of this scene are quite hilarious because they kept having trouble coordinating everyone to have the same timing for kneeling and the hand gestures.

 

[Karen]

皇后 allows them to stand up and tells the new concubines to meet the other consorts. 

The new concubines greet 华妃 with a curtsey. She’s gonna show them who’s boss! Yay!

华妃 does NOT tell them to stand up, so they are still in their curtseys. Generally, once someone greets you, you allow them to get up immediately, as the 皇后 did earlier. 华妃 does not. 

She instead has a conversation with 皇后 and says, “The jade that the Imperial Household Department sent this year isn’t very good. They aren’t very clear. It’s harder to get good jade anymore.”  She’s ignoring the other women on purpose.

皇后 doesn’t even miss a beat and responds “华妃, at your age, you don’t need jade. So the ones that the Imperial Household Department sends you will be newer jade. Besides, with someone like you, where else are you going to get better jade?” 

华妃 seizes the opportunity to respond “Of course you’re right, jade is a bit old for me. I don’t deserve to wear it. 皇后, if you don’t think it’s beneath you. I’d like to give you my pair of earrings.”

皇后 does not take the insult. She says “I just received a set of Eastern Pearls, that I had made into earrings. If I accept your earrings, wouldn’t that be too extravagant? 皇上 would get mad.” She then gently reminds 华妃 that the new concubines are still kneeling and only then does 华妃 tell them to get up.

 

[Cathy]

Ok let’s really dissect what just happened here. 华妃 compares the new ladies to the jade, saying that they aren’t very good. 皇后 responds by saying of course they can’t compare to you.  华妃 then takes the comment as another comparison on jade itself. Jade is usually worn on older ladies and makes the jab to 皇后 saying that she’ll gift them to 皇后 since she’s older and deserves them, 皇后 does not accept her gift but instead mentions Eastern Pearls. She won’t take jade because of them. This may not seem like much, pearls, what’s the big deal?

 

Well Eastern Pearls are actually very valuable. They are difficult to find, highly regulated on where they can be picked, and only sent to the royal court. Certain Eastern Pearls are restricted so that only the Emperor, Empress, and Empress Dowager can wear them. Even with 华妃’s wealth, she cannot wear the Eastern Pearls. 皇后 won’t stoop down to wear jade if she has the Eastern Pearls. If you look at 皇后’s earrings in this scene, she does seem to be wearing pearls, whereas 华妃 is wearing jade. 

I will have to give my props to 皇后. She knows she can’t compete with 华妃 on certain things so she responds in the way she can, with power bestowed upon her by rank and title. Things that 华妃 no matter how much favoritism she has, cannot have. 

 

[Karen]

华妃, annoyed, now directs her ire to 夏冬春. She asks who it is and 夏冬春 greets her. She’s brash, and actually looks at 华妃 straight in the face. Notice 颂芝 in the background chuckling? She’s laughing at her. 

 

华妃 comments on 夏冬春’s appearance. The fabric must be very expensive! She responds yes, this was a gift from 皇后! I wore it specifically for today! 华妃 says at least you are a grateful person and 夏冬春 gives her thanks. 夏冬春 is such a dumb girl. She doesn’t think she’s done anything wrong and gained the favor of the Empress. You haven’t even established yourself and you are now openly flaunting your allegiance to 皇后! This is a sure way to make enemies. Are you sure 皇后 will have your back?

 

[Cathy]

华妃 next turns on 沈眉庄 and 甄嬛. She asks for them and they greet her. Notice, they don’t look directly at her. Their eyes stay down. 华妃 treats them much more seriously. They are legitimate threats. 华妃 comments on the simplicity of 甄嬛’s attire. If 甄嬛 wore something extravagant, similar to 夏冬春, she wouldn’t be left off the hook so easily and would have most definitely been criticized for flaunting her wealth and interest from the emperor. 华妃 continues to say “皇上 has an eye for selecting beauties”. This puts both 甄嬛 AND 沈眉庄 at the disadvantage. Now the other concubines know exactly who to target.

 

[Cathy]

Now 沈眉庄 tries to appease the situation. She comments on 华妃’s beauty saying that she’s the true beauty of the palace, we are only fireflies, how can we compete? Her choice of words is terrible because she uses the idiom 国色天香 to describe 华妃’s beauty and 华妃 immediately latches on this and uses this as ammunition. 

 

[Karen]

What’s the big deal? 国色天香 is an idiom used to describe a stunningly beautiful woman. The direct translation is “National Beauty, Heavenly Fragrance”. This describes a peony flower and who does the peony flower represent? As the National Beauty, it is the EMPRESS!

沈眉庄 just inadvertently used a phrase reserved for 皇后 on 华妃.  This could be disastrous. 皇后, if she wanted to, could punish her for it. 沈眉庄 does not have a response and it looks like she’s in deep trouble. 华妃 has landed a blow.

甄嬛 swoops in and saves the day and says “皇后 rules over us like the moon shines brightly over the earth. 华妃’s stunning beauty is like a shining pearl. We cannot compete” 甄嬛 in quick succession uses 4 idioms. 母仪天下,明月光辉 to describe 皇后. 母仪天下 is the phrase to describe 皇后 as it literally means, being the mother of the empire. She still uses the same 国色天香 for 华妃but says that it’s like 明珠璀璨 (a flashing pearl)。This doesn’t quite elevate her to the status of Empress and the use of 母仪天下 trumps everything else. This gets 沈眉庄 out of her bind and she’s grateful for it.

 

[Cathy]

皇后 is impressed. 华妃 is too but not in a good way. 甄嬛 just exposed herself as a quick thinker and one who is educated enough to keep up with 华妃. This is not the type of attention she wanted. At least 甄嬛 has the comment sense to NOT look up during the exchange. 

皇后 wraps up the proceedings. Reminding the ladies to focus on having children, not get into squabbles of jealousy, and to support each other. Haha, that’s not happening. 

 

[Karen]

甄嬛,沈眉庄,and 安陵容 leave together and right outside, 夏冬春 catches up to congratulate 甄嬛 and 沈眉庄 on being able to cater to both 皇后 and 华妃. She insults 安陵容 some more, asking 沈眉庄 and 甄嬛 why they even bother giving stuff to the servants. 

夏冬春 does not understand the whole value of keeping your mouth shut in the Forbidden Palace. Anyone could be listening! Of course, who is? 华妃 and her entourage walk out of 皇后’s palace to this scene and hears everything but the other ladies don’t notice. 

夏冬春 is still going on and on “saying my family doesn’t need this stuff. 沈贵人 sure knows how to bribe people”. 甄嬛 gets mad and wants to say something but is stopped by 沈眉庄。

 

[Cathy]

You… can’t bring up your family in any situation like this. There will always be someone with a more powerful family. She may have been a big fish in a smaller pond, but now she’s just a minnow in the 后宫。Indeed, 颂芝, 华妃’s servant, sneers to say the 夏 family can’t even lift a shoe compared to us. 

 

[Karen]

I don’t know what happens with 安陵容, maybe it’s because she’s with her friends, but she finally grows a backbone and initiates a conversation. This part is quite clever.

She praises 夏冬春’s family for being a highly decorated military family. 夏冬春 takes the complement and rubs it in saying, we’ve been courageous for generations. Nothing like your lowly family. 

安陵容 then apologizes again for what happened at the selection. 甄嬛 turns around because she doesn’t quite get what 安陵容 is trying to do. Well 安陵容 continues, “I went back to reflect on my actions, and then I realized. It must be because you come from a decorated military background, you must be well educated in both letters and military acumen. No wonder you were so imposing. You truly represent your family”

 

[Cathy]

The phrase 骁勇 means strong, brave, imposing. This is generally positive but only for males. It could be negative since it means all you have is strength and not brains. It has a negative connotation to females because females are not supposed to be “strong” or “imposing”. They need to be meek and demure. This is an insult to 夏冬春 that she’s masculine and has no brains. 

夏冬春 doesn’t even realize this. She plays right into the insult and accepts the praise, saying “Of course, this is my family tradition!” 

Everyone around her starts giggling. They all get the insult but 夏冬春 doesn’t. 华妃 can’t take it anymore. How can someone in the palace be so dumb? And at the level of a First-Class Attendant? She signals for 周宁海, her head eunuch, to take care of her. 

 

[Karen]

At this point, 夏冬春 sees everyone laughing and figures it out. She’s furious and lifts up a hand, looking to slap 安陵容。 甄嬛 stops the first attempt but she tries again. This time she’s stopped by 周宁海, the head eunuch。He grabs her arm and forces her to kneel.

It’s time for 华妃 to um…how should I say this… make her grand entrance. 

 

[Cathy]

She saunters over and says – “The autumn views in the imperial garden are usually beautiful but someone has broken this tranquility”

夏冬春 has the gall to say, “安答应 was disrespectful, I just wanted to punish her a little bit” 

Wow, that is not what you should say…

 

[Karen]

华妃 responds “Are the Empress and I no longer in 后宫? When did the xia family start running hou gong? You need to start handing out punishment? I don’t think you can handle the burden”  Oh my goodness, look at her eyes. They are literally shooting out daggers. 夏冬春 overstepped her authority. In a strict hierarchical society, this will not be tolerated and 华妃 does not. She’s had enough with this girl and this gives her the opportunity to dole out a punishment.

Here is the literal killer line. “The maple leaves aren’t red enough this year” to which 颂芝 chimes in “I heard maple leaves need to be bleached with blood to be really red”. “Oh really? Let’s gift 夏常在 a 一丈红 then. We’ll use her blood to bleach the maple leaves in my garden.” 

 

[Karen]

夏冬春 and us don’t know what that is and is cold heartedly explained by 周宁海, 华妃’s head eunuch, “This is a form of palace torture. A long thin wooden stick (called 杖)  is used to beat your lower body until everything is reduced to a bloody mess.  The red (or 红)from far away looks amazingly beautiful. That’s why it’s called 一丈红.” It’s also a word pun, the 丈 is a unit of measurement. That’s pretty accurate as with the stick, you are reduced to a pile of red.

夏冬春 hears this and slumps to the ground. She is petrified. What a terrifying punishment and one that is so severe too! She starts begging 华妃 for forgiveness but it’s too late.  She is dragged away for this punishment to be executed. If this doesn’t kill her, at the very least, she will be disabled for the rest of her life.

 

[Cathy]

That’s crazy! The title of 一丈红 seems quite pretty actually but the real meaning is so brutal. People may be familiar with medieval torture chambers in Europe, but the types of torture and punishment techniques the Chinese had were equally if not more brutal. 

华妃 turns to the remaining ladies and reminds the rest of them that just because you 3 aren’t punished doesn’t mean you are off the hook. Go back to your palaces and reflect on your actions.

安陵容 is scared out of her mind and her knees give way. I mean I would be too!  Someone just got killed in front of their eyes!

Holy crap! We thought 夏冬春 would be a bigger character in this drama. It’s only episode 3 and she’s killed off! 华妃 just showed us exactly what she’s capable of! She was pissed off that 夏冬春 was openly aligning with 皇后. She needed to get rid of her. 夏冬春 did herself no favors by being so stupid. Word travels about everything you do. She did not have the clout to protect herself. As a lowly First Class Female Attendant, how are you going to compete with a favored Consort? And one with a powerful brother? You can’t. You flaunt it, you die. 

 

[Cathy]

What a welcome. This is as much a warning to the new concubines as it is to 皇后. 华妃 can do whatever she wants to the people in the palace. 

Funnily enough, later on in the episode when 皇后 finds out about 夏冬春’s fate, she doesn’t really care about. She even agrees with 华妃. Like I said earlier, 夏冬春 didn’t even get assurance of protection from 皇后. 华妃 didn’t have any reservations to serve out her punishment. 

后宫 is a cruel place. It’s truly life or death.

 

[Karen]

I also want to note that the actress who plays 夏冬春 is named 颖儿。 She’s actually quite well-known in the Chinese entertainment industry, at least when this was being broadcast. She had acted/even headlined more dramas than, for example, 安陵容 and 沈眉庄. Therefore, when this drama was airing, everyone was completely shocked that such a big name actress would be killed off within 3 episodes of a 76 episode drama. This shows the unpredictability of the characters in the show. You’re kind of wondering now, who will live and who will die.

Remember how during the Selection, 皇上 told 甄嬛 how he would not let her, as a beauty, wither and die in the palace because it is a place that nurtures beauty? Just one episode later we see that that was complete BS!

 

 

[Cathy]

So what happens next? We mentioned this earlier in the recap. Pretty much the 3 ladies, 甄嬛, 安陵容  and 沈眉庄 walk away shocked and scared. They come across some servants running away from something. 甄嬛 being brave, goes to check it out and finds the dead body of 福子 in the well. She is further shocked and they each scurry back to their quarters, absolutely scared of what happened that day. 

In the next episode, we see how 甄嬛 handles this situation.

 

[Karen]

I also want to note and emphasize here that even though we’ve been saying how 华妃 has been brash and ruthless, she is also smart. She is able to pick up on tiny details, such as the mistaken phrase used by 沈眉庄. 华妃 can turn conversations around very easily and insult people in the most passive aggressive way. Yes, she benefits from having a powerful brother, but she’s no walk in the park either. She knows how to solidify her power in the 后宫 and is ruthless when needed. Perhaps more than necessary, but she isn’t dumb by any measure. There is a reason why she is able to survive and attract the attention of the 皇上

We also see in this episode that 沈眉庄 is not quite as adaptable as 甄嬛. She can’t get herself out of her bind. To be fair, I don’t think many people could. 安陵容 is no pushover either. She showed that she could handle herself in front of 夏冬春. She just doesn’t have a family to back her up.

 

That’s it for this episode. The drama was confined to just the ladies today, let’s see what happens when the new concubines because available to serve the Emperor.