[Cathy]

Welcome to Chasing Dramas! This is the podcast that discusses Chinese history and culture through Chinese TV shows! I’m Cathy and I’m Karen. Today we will discuss episodes 32 and 33 of 后宫甄嬛传, Empresses in the Palace. The drama is currently available on YouTube for those of you who want to follow along. If you’re new to the podcast and have no idea what’s going on, please start with our intro to the podcast and intro to the drama episode. Episode 32 is primarily plot driven so we’ll quickly give a recap. There’s a lot more meat in episode 33. 

In the previous episode, episode 31, 安陵容 , with the help from the Empress, successfully re-captured the attention of the Emperor. She surprised everyone with her newly trained vocal abilities. There was a power vacuum since both 甄嬛 and now demoted 年妃 don’t have any favor by the emperor in the Imperial Harem and it looks like 安陵容 has seized the opportunity. 

Let’s start our recap from here.

It’s time for another greeting or 请安 at the Empress’s palace. The Empress is flipping over the records to see who the Emperor has been spending time with. Why it’s 安陵容! What a change in fortune.

富察贵人 , she’s the one who also had a miscarriage, and 欣常在 are extremely salty about this development. They, not very quietly, disparage 安陵容’s lowly birth status. The Empress, upon hearing this, immediately scolds these two ladies. She says, “安陵容 is able to make the Emperor happy. I’ve given you all opportunities but to no avail. What only matters right now is who the Emperor likes”

 

[Cathy]

Let’s look at 安陵容!She is now a Noble Lady or 贵人. She’s upgraded her wardrobe and hairdo. I honestly don’t really like it… On cue, she starts tearing up. Wow – I wish I had those abilities. The Empress then tries to console 甄嬛 and suggests that she visit the Empress Dowager, to which she acquiesces. I love this detail – 年妃 is not allowed to leave her palace. She’s still technically under house arrest so she’s not at the greeting but they did leave an empty seat for her!

 

[Karen]

I also want to note that you see 皇后, the empress actually is willing to step up and protect 安陵容 from the barbs of the other ladies. That’s part of the reason why 安陵容 is willing to change allegiances to 皇后。

 

[Cathy]

Right outside of the Empress’s palace, 甄嬛 is held up by 富察贵人。She’s gonna get a lot of screen time in these two episodes. 富察贵人 tries to incite a division between 甄嬛 and 安陵容. She says – “Aren’t you two sisters? You don’t have to worry about anything since even if 安陵容 becomes pregnant, you’ll still share in the glory” 甄嬛 is rightly pissed but before these two ladies have an all out spat, 安陵容 swoops in to save the day?

安陵容 mocks 富察贵人 about her walking style. -Can elaborate but whatever. She’s pretty unforgiving! I love the random eunuch that walks behind 甄嬛. I don’t know what he’s doing there.

On a dime, 安陵容 turns to 甄嬛 and immediately starts tearing up! She pleads for forgiveness about her newfound status. She’s like – it’s not my fault, the Empress ordered me. I had no choice. 甄嬛 is annoyed that 安陵容 hid the situation of her coughing illness and didn’t tell 甄嬛 of any updates. 甄嬛 barely even looks at 安陵容. You can tell that the cracks in their friendship have become more apparent.

 

[Karen]

甄嬛 next pays a visit to Empress Dowager 太后. In a surprising move, at least I think so, the Empress Dowager issues some very pointed advice to 甄嬛. She says that 1.You’re young – beauty doesn’t last for long, use it. 2. You have been wallowing in your sorrow – What about the Emperor? This time you lost your child, next time it could be your life. She’s basically saying – snap out of it!

But…that doesn’t happen. 甄嬛 resolutely refuses. One of the biggest criticisms lodged against 甄嬛 in general is that she is very stubborn. She’s focused, perhaps rightly, on her sorrow but the Emperor doesn’t see it that way. When the Emperor DOES drop by to see her, he immediately leaves once he sees her napping, still holding some baby clothes that she previously made, crying in her sleep. He’s heartbroken too and doesn’t know how to handle it. Now it’s the Emperor’s turn to visit his mother, the Empress Dowager. He’s irritated at her and also at himself. In a quick 180 from the earlier conversation, the Empress Dowager quickly dismisses 甄嬛. She tells the Emperor not to see her anymore.

 

[Cathy]

Side note – WHY IS HE SLOUCHING! He looks so freaking tired.

 

[Karen]

After the Emperor leaves, the Empress Dowager’s maid asks why she did that. The Empress Dowager replies, it’s better for both of them to have some time apart. Then she gets to the real reason. As the Emperor, he can have favorites but he cannot love anyone. That is too dangerous. 年妃 lost favor, if 甄嬛 becomes the next 年妃, the balance in the Imperial Harem will be broken. 甄嬛 also needs to learn to quote on quote “soften up”. It’s a life to be a concubine in the imperial harem. 甄嬛 needs to learn what it means to be in the Imperial Harem.

Let me take a second to discuss the Empress Dowager. She is an absolute MVP. In the Chinese fandom, she, and the emperor are considered the ultimate bosses of the imperial harem. I’d say the Empress Dowager is actually THE big boss. She does not seem engaged in the affairs of court of the harem but she knows all. She also has to balance her own relationship with the Emperor. It is not shown in this drama but historically, this Empress Dowager very much favored her other son, the now banished 14th Prince over the Emperor. This is something our Emperor, 雍正, is acutely aware of.

A cabinet minister, 隆科多, requests an audience with the Empress Dowager but is denied. Pocket this information. We’ve heard his name come up a few times already trying to seek an audience with the Empress Dowager or sending her gifts. We’ll learn more about this relationship later.

 

[Cathy]

Back with our main character, 甄嬛 and her maid 瑾溪 unexpectedly wander upon the sickly 端妃’s palace. She is the sickly consort who is at odds with 年妃. We found out that she’s always bed-ridden thanks to 年妃. The ladies pay her a visit. Just what I, personally as an audience needed. An objective 3rd party to analyze the situation for 甄嬛. 端妃 does just that. She says – 年妃 only just gained control of the Imperial Harem, she wanted to set an example. Why would 年妃 want anyone, especially you, to have a miscarriage? All the responsibility will directly be traced back to her.

甄嬛 still wants revenge but then here’s what 端妃 says. I’m not rushing, why are you rushing? Evil will always get her comeuppance. I think 甄嬛 at least absorbed some of this information because she questions her Imperial doctor friend 温实处 whether there could have been something else that caused her miscarriage other than the fragrance from 年妃’s palace.They brainstorm everything from food, medicine, her earlier ailments but come on! Think wider! What are you putting ON your body. Again, this is just because we have the power of hindsight.

As the 甄嬛 heads back, the Emperor and 安陵容 catch a glimpse of 甄嬛 leaving but he doesn’t call her. He’s still not ready to see her. 安陵容 performs her role as the meek, obedient concubine perfectly. The Emperor even comments on it. He wishes 甄嬛 was more like her. But one comment from 安陵容 reveals her ambition. She playfully asks – who do you like better, me or 甄嬛? The Emperor airily replies – at this point you! He doesn’t think much of it but I think this shows us the audience that 安陵容 has been, is, and always will compete with 甄嬛.

Now, at this point, 甄嬛 has fallen ill. It’s more over a fortnight but the Emperor still hasn’t come. Without favor from the Emperor, 甄嬛’s entire palace has also fallen from its previous grandeur. 安陵容 has a maid send over a few peach blossom pastries, but as 流珠, the maid, rightfully points out, she hasn’t come once since 甄嬛 has fallen ill. What kind of “sister” is she?

The two maids 流珠 and 浣碧 come up with a plan. 浣碧 will try to deliver word to the Emperor’s eunuch’s of 甄嬛’s illness. The next day the eunuch 苏培盛 does indeed deliver the message but the Emperor won’t budge. He’s waiting for her to step out of her slump or as he sees it, her stubborn phase (need another word).

The episode ends with 浣碧 encountering 安陵容 who is on her way to see the Emperor. Look at how much the times have changed! 安陵容 is being carried on a litter! Not as elegant as the one 年妃 used to have but way better than most every other woman in the harem! 安陵容 hears 浣碧’s request to talk to the Emperor about 甄嬛 but she obviously won’t do it. She even tells her own maid, she will only speak up when it’s advantageous to do so.

 

[Karen]

We start off episode 33 with 甄嬛 still bed-ridden. 甄嬛 has a surprise visitor, the wife of 敦亲王 or the Emperor’s 10th brother. We’ve seen her before in previous episodes. Her husband has the reputation of being very aggressive but she is rather kind. She doesn’t stay long but does bring a valuable ginseng as a gift which is quite nice of her. We won’t see much of her in the future but this is an important gift.

We turn next to the Emperor. The Emperor doesn’t go see 甄嬛 but instead spends some time with 安陵容。He reads from Mencius while she gently massages his legs. He sighs as he’es reading and asks for her opinion. Judging by her face, 安陵容 has no idea what he’s talking about. She immediately grabs the tea instead. Well now, the Emperor then reminisces of happier times with 甄嬛. If she were here, we’d have a lovely discussion about Mencius. He asks 安陵容 – I heard she’s fallen ill. Have you seen her?

安陵容 hears this and immediately thinks “Oh no! He’s missing her.” Of course she doesn’t want the Emperor to see 甄嬛! Part of it is because she also hasn’t seen 甄嬛 so she needs to steer the conversation a different direction. She immediately says, as you know my sister’s illness is really due to some unresolved issues. Well the Emperor doesn’t want to hear that – he even says the phrase 近乡情更怯!That we’ve discussed in the last episode about how one gets nervous being too close to home.  He is still afraid to see 甄嬛. 

Um, can we also give some props to the Empress? She said the exact same thing in the last episode. She knows her husband so well.

安陵容 then makes an interesting request. On behalf of 甄嬛, she asks if the Emperor would allow 甄嬛 to see her family members. Pretty innocent right? At first it looks like the Emperor will agree but then he gets annoyed. I don’t want 甄嬛 talking to her family, this will only make her feel worse. He rebukes this request. 

Then 安陵容 performs the obedient mistress perfectly. She says, please let me know if I make any mistakes. I’ll change. I only know that you, the Emperor, are always right. For the Emperor, oh boy! What lovely words! He’s very pleased with her attitude and forgets all about 甄嬛。He even gifts her all of the 蜀锦 from this year’s batch! If you recall, this is the silk brocade we discussed episode 19 + 20. The fabric is really expensive and difficult to make. Previous batches were given to 甄嬛, now they’re given to 安陵容。 Poor 甄嬛. How the tides have turned. Her plan to have the Emperor see 甄嬛 was botched by 安陵容。

Do you see how in this conversation – 安陵容, at the first hint of the Emperor losing his resolve against seeing 甄嬛, immediately subtly pushes the conversation in such a way that the Emperor then decides not to? Where did she learn all of this! This is not the 安陵容 we knew! Or is it?

This entire time, everyone, including the Emperor believes that 安陵容 and 甄嬛 are best friends. They all assume that they are on the same team. The two people on said team at this point, definitely do not think that.

 

[Cathy]

甄嬛’s maids 流珠 and 浣碧 are once again bored and upset about their current situation. No one comes to visit anymore since 甄嬛 is out of favor. It’s in these times though, that it becomes clear who are your true friends – 沈眉庄 and 敬妃. 安陵容, psh, she hasn’t bothered to visit at all. The two ladies agree they need to find someone who could help put in a favorable word with the Emperor for 甄嬛 but who? 浣碧, 甄嬛’s half sister/maid has an idea…what about the 17th Prince!

At this point, 沈眉庄 comes to visit 甄嬛 who is STILL in a funk. 沈眉庄 bluntly points out – you care too much. You still love him very much. I wonder what you’ll be like when you’ve completely stopped loving him. 沈眉庄 then rightfully lays out 安陵容’s two faced nature. When 沈眉庄 and 甄嬛 had favor, they helped 安陵容. They shared their gifts and pushed her to favor. Now 安陵容 has the favor – what has she done? 沈眉庄 has completely lost hope and faith in the Emperor but she desperately tries to pull 甄嬛 out of her funk.

 

[Karen]

This is why I love 沈眉庄. She’s a modern woman. She was burned and resolutely decided to let her affections go. She is not going to pretend affection for the emperor because she’s been hurt before. From that one experience, she knows to back off and she clearly understands her position in the imperial harem. She is nothing more than a tool. Her integrity again is what fans love about her. She is that chrysanthemum flower she loves so much.

For 沈眉庄, she knows she has to find support since she’s pretty much not willing to turn back to the emperor. Her best option is not with the Emperor or the Empress, but with the Empress Dowager. The Emperor’s mother. 沈眉庄s smart in understanding that in all of this, the person who could keep her safe, or at least, help her keep her current position is 太后。As we find out, 沈眉庄 has been spending much more time with the Empress Dowager, helping feed her medicine and taking care of her. The Empress Dowager likes 沈眉庄 a lot. She wants 沈眉庄 to focus more time on the Emperor but, 沈眉庄 does not care whatsoever. 

 

[Cathy]

It’s night, 甄嬛 is still moping around. Her two maids ask if she wants to play the gu qin – the traditional Chinese instrument we’ve discussed (hint – she doesn’t). Suddenly, they hear a faint flute melody. It’s the famous 长相思 (did we discuss this?). 流珠 and 浣碧 goad 甄嬛 to investigate, so she takes 浣碧 with her. More like 浣碧 leads her to a secret meeting place, haha. Who is playing the flute?  Why it’s the handsome the 17th Prince 果郡王.

When she finally approaches him, he immediately dispenses with all formality. The first thing he says? You look thinner. That’s very direct. 

 

[Karen]

Um it’s so obvious that he likes her isn’t it? He cares so much about her! When you see them together, they are a much more fitting pair than 甄嬛 vs the Emperor don’t you think?

 

[Karen]

甄嬛 remembers her own position and responds 帘卷西风,自然是人比黄花瘦. A line from a famous FEMALE Song Dynasty poet 李清照. The first female poet we’ve talked about on this show! The poem is called 醉花阴. The line 甄嬛 recites 帘卷西风,人比黄花瘦 describes a young widow who misses her husband and her feeling of loneliness without him. At this point, she, the widow, is even thinner than young unmarried women. I’m not entirely sure why the comparison between a widow and an unmarried woman is important? I guess maybe unmarried women are seen as very thin? But essentially, 甄嬛 is describing that yes, in her heart, she’s sad and lonely. Thus, it makes sense she is so thin. 

 

[Cathy]

甄嬛 thanks the 17th prince for saving her the day of her miscarriage. She’ll repay his generosity when she’s able. Notice how she slightly backs away from him? He’s disappointed at her slightly cold response. He then even more boldly claims – I wish you well because you are…a kindred spirit to me. Phew thank goodness that he stopped there.

 

[Karen]

Um the term he uses is 知己。 It’s really hard to have a good English translation. The direct translation is knowing yourself. In general, a 知己 is someone that knows you really well and is a true friend. 

 

[Cathy]

She chides him for secretly meeting her maid but then asks him why he’s in the Palace and why he’s playing this piece. He doesn’t care much about 安陵容. He tells her – I played this piece hoping to alleviate some of your sorrows. The piece represents my feelings. 长相思 – which directly translates to “longing”. He says that you are longing for someone. I am too.

IS THAT THE EQUIVALENT OF A confession of love?

She immediately stops there. Of course she knows what he means. Remember that he’s single still. He hasn’t married anyone yet which is quite rare for someone his age and status. This is dangerous. She quickly takes her leave after this. On her way back with 浣碧, she chides 浣碧 for having secretly met the 17th Prince. She’s reproaching her as a sister, not a master. She guessed they’ve met based on the way 浣碧 greeted the 17th prince. It was a general greeting, not a formal greeting. 甄嬛 reminds 浣碧 that both of their situations are precarious, it would not do well to meet.

[Cathy] – What do we have for the rest of the episode.

[Karen] – A couple of things.

  1. We find out that the Empress, 皇后, has been requesting that 安陵容, who is her ally now, drink some type of medicine. If you couldn’t tell, this is actually a birth control type medicine that is being used to prevent 安陵容 from having children. This honestly is quite ridiculous. One of the primary reasons women in the imperial harem exist, is to have children. The empress is actively trying to prevent that. There’s nothing 安陵容 can do because 安陵容 needs the Empress to survive in the palace so she has to drink it. The maid who brings the medicine also watches 安陵容 drink it so she can report back to 皇后。
  2. 沈眉庄 is fed up with 甄嬛 moping around and drags her to visit the Cold Palace, 冷宫。 A refresher for everyone that 冷宫 is where concubines in the imperial harem are banished if they are out of favor or if they have been punished. It’s a dark and destitute place. 甄嬛 sees some of the women there. One of the ladies is 丽嫔。 We haven’t thought about her in a long, long time. She was an ally of now 年妃 and was involved in working with another concubine to poison 甄嬛。 She became scared due to a “ghost”, became insane and was banished to the cold palace in episode 11. Feel free to go back to listen to that episode if you need a refresher. There’s just a glimpse of her in the Cold Palace but it’s clear she’s in a terrible state. There’s another woman in the group that 沈眉庄 points out to 甄嬛。The woman is the woman who used to live where 甄嬛 lives now. That lady also had a miscarriage. This is the woman who suffered due to the musk hidden in the palace that 甄嬛 discovered back in episode 4. She never made an appearance but is shown now, completely insane too. 甄嬛 is utterly grossed out by the situation but 沈眉庄 explains that this woman was banished because she was so distraught after her miscarriage that she confronted the emperor. He got mad and banished her as a result. It’s a warning to 甄嬛 that she might share the same fate.
  3. The last push that finally gets 甄嬛 out of her funk is actually done by the idiotic 齐妃 and 富察贵人。 齐妃 is the mother of the 3rd prince who previously tried to poison 甄嬛. 甄嬛 accidentally bmped into 齐妃 while out on a walk with 富察贵人。 富察贵人 goes off on 甄嬛, which technically isn’t allowed because she’s of a lower rank than 甄嬛 but the 2 ladies gang up on 甄嬛。 齐妃 is angry she can’t see her son anymore. 富察贵人 thinks it’s 甄嬛that caused her miscarriage. The end result is that 甄嬛 is punished quite heavily. 齐妃 orders a maid to slap 甄嬛’s face repeatedly, to the point that she’s bleeding. She’s also ordered to kneel for 2 hours. 甄嬛 takes the punishment without much of a fight. Instead, she’s in a daze for most of it. When she returns to her palace, however, she asks her maids to find butterflies and make up. The episode ends with 浣碧, 甄嬛’s maid asking the 17th prince for help retrieving butterflies.

 

Phew – a lot of plot happens in these two episodes. We see a whole myriad of concubines! From 端妃, to 齐妃, to 丽嫔! 富察贵人 had a lot of screentime, mostly belittling 甄嬛.

 

[Cathy]

Time for our analysis: 

Let’s start off with the book that the Emperor reads when he’s with 安陵容. He quotes from 孟子 or Mencius. Mencius is one of the most famous Chinese philosophers who lived during the Warring States period from 372BC – 289BC. The dates aren’t totally clear of his birth. He is a 4th generation disciple of Confucius. In China – his status as a philosopher is only second to Confucius. People will refer to their teachings as 孔孟。During the Yuan Dynasty, he became known as the Second Sage. His writings focused more on the humanity and benevolence of people. 

The quote mentioned in the drama is this – 

入则无法家拂士,出则无敌国外患者,国恒亡.

It comes from the writings of Mencius, specifically the piece 生于忧患,死于安乐. It’s quite  famous. While I didn’t know it’s entirety, I’ve heard bits and pieces from the entire piece. Here’s my translation of the quote – if a nation does not have ministers or courtiers who follow the rule of law, if there aren’t foreign issues or equally powerful foreign powers, the nation will often lead to self destruction.

Mencius’s overall message is 生于忧患,死于安乐. Those who suffer through hardships will live, those that are content with peace will die. Our Emperor 雍正 takes this to heart. A ruler cannot be content, he always needs to be on his guard. 安陵容 of course doesn’t get this – I doubt she’s read Mencius.

 

[Karen]

In the last episode, the Emperor listed out the qualities he wanted in a woman. The one I remember the most is, she can’t be too smart but also not too dumb. We’ve seen quite a few women in these two episodes. Shall we kind of rank them?

On the not too smart side – we have 丽嫔, she’s already banished. 齐妃, the mother to the 3rd prince and I’ll put 富察贵人 here too. Making enemies in such a blatant way is not the smart way to destroy someone. I’ll also put 年妃 here.

On the smart side, there are quite a few ladies – we have 沈眉庄, 甄嬛, 安陵容, 曹贵人, 敬妃, 端妃. The MVPs? The Empress and Empress Dowager! These two ladies know all

How can anyone be in the middle? You’ve got to be smart enough stay alive! Well, i guess the only ones are perhaps 欣常在 or 敬妃 but then they don’t get much favor. I don’t know what you’re thinking but no one who can survive is unintelligent.

 

[Cathy]

Lastly, I want to analyze the differences of our three ladies 甄嬛, 安陵容, and 沈眉庄 right now, especially their attitudes towards the Emperor and to one another.

沈眉庄 has completely shut herself away from the Emperor. She’s not even broken hearted, she just doesn’t care. She scoffs at trying to gain favor from the Emperor and instead has resigned her fate to spend time with the Empress Dowager.  Let’s not forget though, the only reason why 沈眉庄 has the backbone to do this is because her father still holds a powerful enough position at court. She does treat 甄嬛 still as a sister though. This is a true friendship.

安陵容 has successfully captured the attention. She has molded herself to be the meek, subservient woman that the Emperor wants. How is it that she can do this so easily? Well, there’s the Empress’s influence but also I think it’s because there’s no true emotion between her and the Emperor. She simply views her actions as a way to gain favor. She’s ambitious. She doesn’t care who or what she has to turn into, as long as she receives wealth and riches. She’s willing to align herself to the Empress, even drink the birth control to secure her fortune. Who cares about 甄嬛? I can say she’s my friend but i will NOT let the Emperor see her.

Lastly, let’s talk about 甄嬛. She’s a mixed bag right now. She’s in a tough situation but I also think most of it is her own fault. Yes, she lost her child. It’s devastating, but as 沈眉庄 rightly points out. 甄嬛’s attributing her feelings for the Emperor as love. She loves the Emperor and is expecting the Emperor to treat her with “love”. Honey, that will not happen in the palace. Look at what the Empress Dowager said! The Emperor, especially in such a patriarchal society, will not wait for you. He will move on. On the other hand, she’s also pretty arrogant. I think deep in her heart, she looks down at 安陵容. She’s never treated her as a full equal, but also why would she? She hasn’t known her for that long. Compare this to her relationship with 沈眉庄. Throughout all of this, 甄嬛 does not reach out to 安陵容. I don’t think she deigns to do so. She can’t believe 安陵容 has risen so high and she has fallen so low. I hope her encounter with 齐妃 and 富察贵人 finally snaps her out of it.