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 episode 34 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. If you have any comments/questions, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You know, it’s funny because we watch through the drama and think that eh, maybe we can combine episodes, or that there’s not a whole lot to discuss. But then as we start the analysis and think through things more thoroughly, we end up having a lot to talk about.
And HURRAY! We are past the halfway point of the drama! Took a while but we made it!
Let’s get started:
At the end of the previous episode, 甄嬛 was thoroughly humiliated at the hands of 富察贵人 and 齐妃. Before this, she was still in a general funk due to her miscarriage. Will this incident finally pull her out of it? Let’s find out. 甄嬛 orders her servants to find some butterflies for her. 浣碧, 甄嬛’s half sister/maid, asks the handsome and charming 17th Prince for help since they both think these butterflies will cheer her up, and because butterflies are hard to come by at this time of year.
We start the episode with 甄嬛 admiring the butterflies that have been collected. She tells her servants to exchange any clothing for more firewood or coal. She also has them make a special silk cloak and provide fresh flowers for the butterflies. What is she planning?
Elsewhere we see the formerly very powerful 年妃 is now resigned to writing a confession to the Emperor recounting her misdemeanors. It’s been months since she’s fallen out of favor and hasn’t seen the emperor. She’s desperate. The Emperor reads the letter but still pushes off seeing her. He says that he hasn’t even seen 甄嬛, why would he see 年妃 who contributed to 甄嬛’s miscarriage? 安陵容, who is next to him, smiles smugly.
By now, 甄嬛 is prepared for battle – she just needs an opportunity but even she acknowledges that she must regain favor before 年妃. I really like her makeup and hair today! It’s more regal and lavish than we normally see her.
A while passes and it’s time for another new year’s palace celebration. There are few ladies missing in attendance, notably 甄嬛, 曹贵人， and 沈眉庄。The news that 沈眉庄 is late is surprising since she’s rarely late. But just then, 沈眉庄 arrives. She appeals for pardon by the emperor stating that she was admiring the plum blossoms out in the garden, specifically 倚梅园. This is the plum blossom garden where the emperor first came upon 甄嬛 it must be years ago. This piques the Emperor’s interest and who says that he also wants to go admire them. Obviously, the Empress needs to see what’s going on as well! She requests to have the entire party join too.
甄嬛’s grand plan begins to unfold.
甄嬛 is the garden waiting for them. She’s kneeling on the ground. That’s quite a commitment since it’s winter time and there’s snow everywhere. Her maid 瑾溪 hurriedly opens the jar of butterflies (that are still alive) and hides them in 甄嬛’s cloak. Once secured, 甄嬛 begins to pray – for the Emperor’s health, forgiveness for not keeping the baby etc. I’m sure she can hear the Emperor approaching. Well, everyone is approaching.
The Emperor calls out to her, for her to turn around but she doesn’t. She said – don’t come near me. My socks are wet. The Emperor is stunned at her words. This is exactly what she said the first time they met! He immediately reaches out to her but she doesn’t want to go with him just yet. She stands up and turns around.
Dun dun dun! In a flurry, the butterflies start fluttering around! Everyone is amazed. How can there be butterflies, especially this time of year? 甄嬛 replies “I don’t know”. It is a wonderful sight to behold. The Emperor is, again, stunned. Even the butterflies have heard your prayers. He immediately takes off his cloak and puts in out her – he’s smitten once again.
Ugh – the Empress seeing this development, immediately butts in. I’m so happy for 莞嫔！She’s been sick these past few months. 安陵容, not wanting to be left behind, also chimes in – I’ve been hoping and praying that my dear sister and the Emperor will resolve your issues.
What lies. The Emperor immediately waves it away and says – we’ve never had any issues. To which, 甄嬛 agrees. The Emperor immediately walks away with 甄嬛, not even glancing at anyone else.
YAYYYY! Finally! 甄嬛 is back in action!
Let’s take a second to discuss this very quickly. I don’t think anyone in the imperial harem believed for a second that the butterflies were a coincidence. At least, not the smart ones in the palace. Even the Emperor’s head Eunuch says to 甄嬛’s main maid that they’re probably now happy to be back on top now. It’s also funny that the 17th prince is part of the group that come to look at what’s going on. I never paid much attention before but I can’t help but wonder how he feels knowing that this is what those butterflies are used for.
Well this development does not sit well with many ladies in the Imperial Harem. First and foremost? 齐妃 and 富察贵人。They just humiliated her – what do they do?? Sucks to be you
It’s night – 甄嬛 reflects on her changes these past few months. She laughs at her own naivety – how could she have believed that the Emperor was THE one? True love doesn’t exist in the Imperial Palace. It seems like she’s waiting for someone. The Emperor? Right on cue, the Emperor arrives at her palace. He wants to see her!
However, she gives him all of these excuses, like she’s still recovering from her illness, it’s late, you still have court matters. She just won’t let him in! Dejected, the Emperor doesn’t summon any other concubine but instead decides to go hang out with his brother the 17th Prince.
The two brothers have a heart-to-heart about the situation. It must be pretty tough on the 17th prince – he caught those flowers for 甄嬛. But he does what any good brother is supposed to do and tries to nudge them back together. The Emperor is still not sure where the butterflies came from and the next line he says is key. He doesn’t care where or how those butterflies showed up, but as long as 甄嬛 is willing to put effort into him, that’s all that matters. I don’t believe he doesn’t think the butterflies were a coincidence either. But the fact that 甄嬛 “schemed” for this scene to happen means that she cares. It’s all he cares about. That’s why he’s smitten again. The next scene is hilarious. The Emperor’s all by himself on his bed but he just can’t sleep. Haha – it’s so cute.
It’s another day with another greeting but today it’s a little different! The Emperor arrives in full court regalia. This is very rare. There must be something important.
I love the little detail here. 年妃 is still not allowed at these greeting so her seat is still empty. When the Emperor comes, the servants just take her seat for the Empress to sit.
The Emperor is extremely solemn. An ambassador from the Dzungar Khanate (准噶尔) came to court requesting a political marriage between the Empires. We did some research on this Khanate. It’s a very distant nomadic mongolian empire that resided to the far north west of modern day China. There’s a section of Xin Jiang that is where this Khanate used to be. It has its origins from descendents of Genghis Khan and at this time was ruled by a Khan. In the 17th century, this group was established after much infighting amongst various individuals seeking to rule, and for much of the Qing dynasty, was a nuisance. Spoiler alert, this Khanate collapsed in the 18th century under the rule of the current emperor, 雍正’s son, Emperor 乾隆。
At this point in the drama, the Dzungar Khanate is still pretty powerful and wants (basically demands) the hand of a princess for their Khan in order to establish good will between the two. There has been a history of dynasties throughout China agreeing to marrying princesses off to far away places in order to secure ties so this isn’t new at all. The Empress suggests selecting a girl from one of the noble families, gifting her a princess title (or 和硕公主）and be done with it. There’s one snag though- the Dzungars only want a direct daughter of the Emperor or a (固伦公主).
This is the equivalent of an earthquake to 曹贵人. She’s the only concubine with a daughter but her daughter is still young! She can’t be sent away for marriage. The Emperor acknowledges this – if she was of age, I wouldn’t have any hesitation. Ouch.
As of right now, waging a war with the Dzungars is not politically advantageous. 年妃’s brother just won significant battles in the Northwest. There’s not enough silver in the treasury to fund another war. A political marriage is the most advantageous route.
As of whom should be selected – the Empress has an idea. What about 朝瑰公主. She’s the youngest daughter of Emperor 康熙 and your sister. She recently just reached marriageable age. She notes that the Dzungars only wanted a daughter of the Emperor. They didn’t specify which Emperor. [Honestly I think this is quite ingenious on the Empress’s part] The Emperor does some basic push back – saying she’s my sister, and so young blah blah. The Empress goes along – you’ve already put your heart and soul into the Empire, the princess is doing her duty. She’s only your sister and her mother was only a Noble Lady. Being married to a Khan is much higher than whoever she would have married. The Emperor “reluctantly” agrees.
With the marriage candidate settled, it’s up to the Empress to manage the wedding preparations. Suddenly though, 甄嬛 volunteers 曹贵人 to help with additional wedding preparations. The Emperor agrees but what does 曹贵人 think about this?
We find out later that this marriage is not going to be a happy one. The princess who is going to be sent off and married is in her prime. However, the Khan is in his 60s, old enough to be her grandfather. There’s really no way this marriage will be a good one. The reality is that this is just a political marriage done to avoid war. The drama doesn’t explicitly mention why 甄嬛 volunteers 曹贵人 to work on the wedding preparations, but it’s abundantly clear that 甄嬛 wants 曹贵人 to see what could befall her own daughter in the future. Her daughter, 温宜 公主 was able to escape this fate this time since she’s so young. But next time? It might be her who is sent away. 甄嬛 is probably thinking, or at least nudging 曹贵人into considering who she should ally herself with in the future in order to protect her daughter from such a fate. That’s my opinion at least.
After this scene, the Empress summons 安陵容 to reprimand her for her recent inability to win favor from the Emperor. The empress says that when 甄嬛 isn’t around, it’s easy for 安陵容 to get favor. But the moment 甄嬛 is back, 安陵容 is completely forgotten. This has to change. The Empress doles out some frankly good advice. Make friends with 甄嬛。 That way, everyone wins.
It’s another evening. The Emperor and 甄嬛 are playing Chinese Go. However, 甄嬛 does not have the Emperor stay again. He’s disappointed of course but surprisingly agrees and leaves for the night. 甄嬛’s maid 流珠 asks why? They worked so hard to get his attention again, why not have him stay over?
甄嬛 goes into describe a story about 汉武帝，a very famous emperor during the Han Dynasty and his concubine, 李夫人. We’ll discuss this more in the analysis of this episode later on. At a high lever, 李夫人 was a favored concubine who, on her deathbed, refused to let the Han emperor see her no matter how much he wanted. This was to make sure she left an impression on him. This is I guess an old tactic. The more you resist, the more you want. 甄嬛 wants to make sure the Emperor builds that lust/want for her.
There’s not much else that’s of note for the remainder of the episode. 年妃 comes to pay respects to the Emperor and the rest of the imperial harem one day at a court greeting. Initially she was refused at the door, but the Emperor decides to let her in. She says her piece and the Emperor shows some kindness towards her. After this scene, both 甄嬛 and 沈眉庄 discuss how it seems like 年妃 will soon regain favor. There’s not much that can be done especially since 年妃’s brother is still very powerful. The episode ends with 甄嬛 wanting to chat with 曹贵人. The next episode is quite fun.
The other important item to discuss briefly is that 甄嬛 is not clearly not a close friend of 安陵容’s anymore. She is very cold towards 安陵容. They’re no longer the friends they once were when they entered the palace. 甄嬛 is annoyed at 安陵容 during this period of sickness which is fair.
All right – That was a fun episode. In no time, 甄嬛 is back on top after several episodes of moping and being sad. She has bottled up her grief and learned that favor from the emperor is what is needed in order to survive in the palace, and to seek revenge.
On to the analysis.
What do we have to discuss?
Let’s get back to the discussion about princesses being selected as a political sacrifice to this Khanate. This discussion is interesting because it brings up a very interesting distinction between the different “princess” titles.
At first, the Empress says why not just have a woman from the royal family, she doesn’t have to be a direct daughter of the Emperor, be selected to wed. Give her the title of 和硕公主 and that’s it.
The discussion ends up with the emperor’s young sister being selected to be married off and they give this sister, who is a 和硕公主 the title of 固伦公主。 What is the difference?
First of all, I want to say, that I completely blame 还珠格格, or Pearl Princess, one of the OGs of Chinese dramas and an absolute classic that Cathy and I binged watched throughout our childhood, for giving us the wrong impression that the title of “princess” was called “格格“ That is absolutely false for the daughter of the Emperor to be called that. They are still just called “公主” or princess.
It turns out, as with everything else in the royal family, there are specific titles for different levels of princess.
和硕公主 – This is the title for a daughter of the emperor that is NOT by the empress. 庶出。
固伦公主 – This is the title for a daughter of the emperor that is BY the empress.
Did not know that before doing this research. It’s funny because I’m reading up on the different princesses and let’s just say – DANG. Because of this “harem system” where there are lots of wives, and in turn, lots of children, there are SO many princes and princesses. I honestly have no idea how people kept up with all the relations. This is different from western society. But the act of sending princesses off for marriage is not new. Many beautiful and sad stories depict this harsh reality.
In this drama, the princess that is sent off to marriage is made up. So is the princess that 敬妃 mentions as precedent (蓝齐). However, it is true that throughout the Qing Dynasty, daughters from the royal family were commonly married off to different princes throughout the Empire.
When 甄嬛 and 沈眉庄 leave the Empress’s palace, 甄嬛 states two lines from a poem, lamenting the sad truth.
The poem is called 代崇徽公主意. The full poem goes like this.
It was written by the Tang Dynasty poet 李山甫. My translation of the poem is as such – Golden accessories adorn her hair, she departs her homeland but does the emperor even ask about it? If sending one woman can guarantee peace and manage the stability of a nation, it’s unknown when it’s time to use generals
A pretty grim but accurate take on the status of women. Heqin has usually been used as an appeasement strategy. In this patriarchal society, this was the norm.
Princess 崇徽 was not actually from the Imperial Family. Her father was a general. Her name and birth are not known. She had an older sister who already married the Uyghur Khagan but when she died, the Khan demanded her hand in marriage. I’ll say his name in Mandarin – 牟羽可汗. I don’t quite know how to pronounce it in English (Bögü Qaghan). She was granted the title of Princess upon her marriage to the Khagan in 769AD. The Khan was killed in 780AD and there are no more records of the princess after that, although her daughter plotted and succeeded in killing a Khan.
Earlier on the episode when 甄嬛 pushes the Emperor out of her palace and prevents him from staying over, she recounts the story of a Han Emperor and his concubine. What is this about?
This Han emperor is the famous 汉武帝。 He’s the 7th emperor of the Han Dynasty and was alive around 156BC to 87BC. He’s very famous because he expanded China’s borders at that time by fighting the Huns, he established the silk road and changed many policies in China. His stories are well known in history and there are plenty of Chinese dramas that depict his life. One of our first introductions to this emperor is the drama 大汉天子, the Prince of the Han Dynasty that came out, wow 20 years ago. That was one of the dramas Cathy and I were obsessed over.
汉武帝， this Han emperor is famous not only for his miltary and political exploits, but for his imperial harem as well. There are lots of stories about his empresses that are subject to many plays, stories, books, and of course TV dramas we enjoy today. The concubine that 甄嬛 refers to, is the beautiful and famous 李夫人，or Concubine 李。 I personally, from a history perspective, do not like her because she supplants the wonderful Empress in favor. You can blame TV dramas that portray the wife really well. Plus, the more I read about 汉武帝, this Han Dynasty emperor, the more I realize that while he was a great emperor, he was probably not too great to women. Discarding them for new/younger versions.
The whole reason this Concubine Li came to power is because she’s young and beautiful. At this point, the Emperor, this 汉武帝 is middle-age and became smitten with her beauty. In history, this Concubine Li was well known for her beauty and is depicted this way in the history books. Unfortunately she fell ill. She, on her deathbed, refused to let the Emperor see her not matter how much he wished. The reason is that she didn’t want him to see her faded beauty now that she is sick and weak. She wanted the emperor to always remember her at her prime. She passed away not long after. True to her prediction, the Emperor would remember fondly. Through this, it’s clear that this Concubine 李 is acutely aware of what she brings to the table in the relationship and what her ultimate value is. For me, this level of self awareness is quite rare in anyone so I must commend her. Even though, again, I don’t like her a whole lot.
甄嬛 recounts this story in order to explain why she pushes HER emperor away. It’s to establish this “want”. As the English idiom goes, distance makes the heart grow fonder.