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 36 of 后宫甄嬛传, Empresses in the Palace.
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In the last episode, the Emperor had to deal with some pressing court matters involving his brother the 10th Prince that were resolved with some unconventional methods suggested by the main character 甄嬛. 甄嬛 acquired a new ally and is starting to scheme against everyone. Let’s start off from here.
甄嬛 gets word that the Emperor is furious again at the 10th Prince 敦亲王 so she goes to see him. More like she’s been called by the eunuchs because they have no idea what to do. This time the 10th Prince requested for his long deceased mother Noble Consort 温僖 to be granted the title of Noble Dowager Consort which is a promotion and to be re-interred in the Royal Mausoleum with the other consorts. Unfortunately, this 温僖贵妃 died young and had a falling out with the previous Emperor 康熙. That emperor even decreed that she would not be interred into the Royal Mausoleum.
This puts our current Emperor in a bind. By agreeing to the 10th Prince’s demands, he can appease the military generals but this also represents a direct action against his father. An act against filial piety. As the Emperor, who should be the model of filial piety, this puts him in a vulnerable state.
The more frustrating part is that as soon as the 10th prince sent his request, 年妃’s brother, the general 年羹尧 also delivered a request for the same thing. The Emperor is livid – here is proof that his court ministers and generals are forming factions right in front of him. This request is also an affront to his own mother the Empress Dowager. How dare the 10th Prince request for a dead woman to be promoted when the living dowagers in the Imperial Harem haven’t?
Once again, 甄嬛 analyzes this predicament. She asks if now is the time to “take down” 年羹尧. The Emperor cannot guarantee anything. He admits he only has 40% confidence that he can take down 年羹尧 and his faction. In a rare confession, he openly admits that even the Emperor is subject to different factions in court and the imperial harem.
甄嬛 consoles the Emperor, using the stories of the Han Emperors 汉景帝 and 汉光武帝 to tell the Emperor that these Emperors had to make tough choices but they were rewarded with prosperous empires. Our Emperor needs to make these sacrifices for long term stability.
So, 甄嬛 shares her plan. The Emperor will indeed gift the 10th prince’s mother with the title of Noble Dowager Consort and reinterr her to the royal mausoleum BUT not only will she be promoted, the other dowagers currently living in the Imperial Harem will also be granted additional titles. The Emperor will use the excuse of praying for his mother the Empress Dowager to justify these promotions. Thus, the 10th prince will get what he wants, but it won’t be AS disrespectful as the 10th prince originally wanted. With this plan, the Emperor seems mollified.
Man – his facial expressions…he doesn’t seem that angry?
The story about the 10th Prince’s mother is also a bug. In history, 温僖贵妃 came from an extremely prominent Manchu family, was sister to the 2nd Empress and was favored by the Emperor Kang Xi. I mean, she had the title of Noble Consort. Unfortunately she died young at the age of 34. I couldn’t find records of a fall from disgrace so this part isn’t accurate to history. Although, this might be because in the novel, the equivalent of this character did fall out of favor with the Emperor’s father.
Outside, the Empress has gotten wind of the Emperor’s fury and comes to check. But, upon hearing that 甄嬛 has already arrived, she decides to visit the Empress Dowager instead…I don’t understand why…We’ll see about that in a bit
Back at the Emperor’s study, 甄嬛 makes a really surprising move. She requests for the Emperor to restore 年妃’s title to 华妃. Now we all know that 甄嬛 hates 年妃 because she’s arrogant, a terrible person in general and also contributed to her miscarriage. The Emperor is surprised by this request. He acknowledges that this move must have been tough for her but agrees to make this move. He finally promises that he will get his revenge for their child.
Next up, the Emperor goes to his mother, the Empress Dowager’s palace, to discuss his thoughts about the various promotions. The Empress Dowager is pretty understanding and doesn’t care about these titles. Do whatever you need to get done at court. In this scene, all of the layers are peeled away. This mother and son pair have a frank discussion about their worries about 年羹尧 and why they cannot allow 年妃 to have a child. We’ve explained this before but the Empress Dowager says this here. Once she does, the child’s uncle, 年羹尧 will attempt to seize power. At that point, none of them, talking about the emperor and the empress dowager, will survive. The Empress Dowager now pushes the Emperor to see 年妃, saying that this will be better for the empire.
Another incredibly important point that the Empress Dowager brings up here is that her and the Emperor forced 年妃 to have the miscarriage all those years ago. But 10 episodes ago, 年妃 said that it was 端妃, another concubine in the palace, who gave her some medicine that ultimately caused her miscarriage. 年妃 then forced 端妃 to drink something that caused her infertility. What we discover here is that the Empress Dowager and the Emperor probably slipped miscarriage inducing medicine into the bowl of medicine that 端妃 gave to 年妃。 端妃 was made into a scapegoat so no one would suspect the Emperor or anyone else. Only 端妃 knows she was framed. I mentioned back in episode 26 that 端妃 was somehow protected by the Emperor and the Empress Dowager. It’s because both of them know 端妃 is getting framed that she is ultimately safe, even though she is sick and lives in a rather destitute situation. I think that’s also why they treat 端妃 kindly enough because they know she’s being abused by 年妃。
At her own palace of 翊坤宫, the out of favor 年妃 is ecstatic to see the Emperor finally arrive at her palace. She’s beside herself with joy. I do feel for her right here. She truly loves him. Pay attention though to what she is spending her time with before the Emperor arrives. She is sitting in front of a fragrance burner, breathing in what I am assuming is the fragrance gifted by the Emperor but is the cause of her infertility. She has absolutely no idea that her most prized possession is the item that causes her so much pain. Anyways, the Emperor spends the night with 华妃. She’s now…back on top.
The next day, at the Empress’s palace for the customary court greeting, 年妃 finally arrives to greet the Empress. It’s interesting that we only see 甄嬛 here. True to form, 年妃 immediately starts – how should I say this – taunting 甄嬛？Poor girl, 年妃 is still in her own bubble. She doesn’t think about why this sudden change of heart from the Emperor and only focuses on basking in her attention.
Little does she know that the Emperor summoned 甄嬛’s father who was recently promoted and has been working with other officials to gather evidence against 年羹尧. The Emperor offers him the chance to see his daughter but he politely declines. Smart man – I think this was a test for 甄嬛’s father. The Emperor does not want the Imperial Court to get too close to the Imperial Harem, even if it’s your own daughter, see 年羹尧 and 年妃。
I think the next scene is a great juxtaposition of that. 年妃 has just been restored to favor and her maid comes in to announce the myriad of people who would like to offer “gifts”. 年妃 has at least some caution this time to tell her maids to be more discrete but she only sees her brothers fortunes.
Not long after, an official edict is declared throughout the Imperial Harem. 年妃 is to be restored to her previous title of 华妃。No one is surprised, least of all the Empress. Note that she’s only restored to 妃 or Consort, not 贵妃 or Noble Consort. We will now refer to her as 华妃 again. There is a very interesting conversation happening between the Empress and 甄嬛 when this edict comes through. 甄嬛 starts the scene by noting that the Empress never uses any type of fragrance but never knows why she doesn’t use fragrances or scents. The Empress kindly responds that every woman likes to use fragrance but the emperor wants to cut these expenditures. However, seeing that 年妃 has her lavish 欢宜香, it’s difficult to enforce this rule so she herself doesn’t use fragrance to cut some of that cost. 甄嬛 is like that’s really thoughtful and kind of you.
This is a pretty innocuous and simple conversation. On the face of it, it sounds like the Empress is indeed trying to be kind. BUT, I think the Empress MUST know what’s in that fragrance. In previous episodes we heard her say that she does not like using any type of fragrance that’s not natural from fruits or flowers because you never know what’s been included in man-made fragrances. I think it’s really interesting this scene is in this drama. It showcases to us how easily the Empress is able to make herself look good in front of others even though her real motives are quite different.
Ugh, we now have a scene with 安陵容 and 沈眉庄. We haven’t seen the two of them alone in a while. Once again, 安陵容 tries to play up her victim persona. They discuss the reinstatement of 华妃. 沈眉庄 is extremely disappointed but she acknowledges that she doesn’t spend much time with the Emperor anymore so has little say in the matter. She turns to 安陵容 and says – but you aren’t the same.
Listen to what 安陵容 says – “Are you blaming me for 华妃’s re-instatement?” Once again, faulting herself. In a one-two punch, 安陵容’s maid chimes in to say, don’t blame her, blame 莞嫔, or 甄嬛. She was the one who suggested this to the Emperor. Ugh – look at 安陵容, she glances at 沈眉庄 to get her reaction and then doubles down to “question” her maid about the validity of the news. 安陵容 tries to sow some doubt in 沈眉庄’s mind but I am so proud of 沈眉庄. She’s mad at the news but she says, I won’t believe anything until I hear it directly from 甄嬛. That’s true friendship! 沈眉庄 knows that 安陵容 is purposefully telling her this information to get her mad so she doesn’t try to fall for it.
Ok but then immediately she says, if 甄嬛 really was the one who helped reinstate 华妃, then we are no longer friends. No! C’mon! Look at the bigger picture!
Next up –
甄嬛 goes to the Empress Dowager’s palace for a visit. Unsurprisingly, 沈眉庄 is also there. She’s been spending a lot of time with the Empress Dowager as she has decided that the Empress Dowager will be where she puts her time and effort in an attempt to stabilize her position in the imperial palace, especially since she does not want to go back to the Emperor. At first, the conversation is pretty tame. After eating some hawthorn, the mood in the room immediately shifts. The Empress Dowager turns to 甄嬛 and reprimands her for interfering in court. She is of course referring to the 10th Prince’s request of promoting his mother at the beginning of the episode. The Empress Dowager notes that concubines are not to discuss or have any input in court matters.
We rarely see the Empress Dowager this angry. 甄嬛 immediately gets on her knees. She explains that the promotions of dowagers is a matter of the Imperial Harem. She dare not discuss anything about court. Her only selfish act was to ensure the health and longevity of the Emperor. We discussed this before – women were not allowed to discuss matters of court. If someone really wanted to make a big deal out of this, 甄嬛 would be in big trouble. The Empress Dowager seems appeased by this answer.
Here though, let’s talk about what the Empress Dowager says. I’m curious to hear what you think. The Empress Dowager continues – here in the Imperial Harem, the Emperor is everything. When he’s alive, you all have something to live for. If he isn’t, the Empress will be fine. She will be the Empress Dowager. 曹贵人 at least has a daughter but for those concubines like you two, without children, you will just meet sad, lonely ends.
Then – the Empress Dowager drops a bombshell for 沈眉庄. She nonchalantly says – “I heard the idea to reinstate 华妃 was your idea?” 沈眉庄 is stunned. Obviously 甄嬛 did not tell her. 甄嬛 confesses i guess? She says – someone needed to do it. The circumstances meant that someone had to be “wronged?”
The Empress Dowager praises her for unselfishness but 沈眉庄 doesn’t see it this way. She storms out of the palace. The Empress Dowager gives 甄嬛 some advice now that they are alone. Being smart is a curse and a blessing, you need to figure how to balance your actions. Everything women do in the imperial harem will have an affect on court. Be cautious of what you do.
The episode ends with 安陵容 hearing the news that 沈眉庄 stormed out of the Empress Dowager’s palace. She starts gloating because she achieved her goal. Let’s see if 沈眉庄 and 甄嬛’s friendship can survive this.
Phew – ok that was a lot.
Before we get to the analysis, I want to say that while yes, the Empress Dowager probably has eyes and ears everywhere, BUT I think that probably the Empress was the one to tell the Empress Dowager that 甄嬛 has been discussing court matters. Remember how earlier in the episode the Empress, 皇后, stopped by the Emperor’s study to see if there’s anything she can do to appease his anger but was told that 甄嬛 was already there? Her next stop was the Empress Dowager’s palace. I think that 皇后 probably went to say how 甄嬛 was in the study, thus tipping off the Empress Dowager that 甄嬛 may have been meddling in court affairs.
Ok. That’s that. On to the analysis.
There’s two stories for today both from the han dynasty. 甄嬛 briefly mentions them when trying to calm the Emperor at the beginning of the episode when dealing with the request from the 10th prince. Once again, 1 or 2 lines of dialogue from 甄嬛 equates to tons of research and discussion on our end. Let’s get to it!
The first is the story of 汉景帝 晁错 – what happened here?
汉景帝 was the 6th emperor of the Han dynasty. We have lots of stories from the Han dynasty. We have to thank the really great historians that were I guess promoted at that time for all these wonderful stories.
During this time period of the Han Dynasty, brothers of the emperor or at least legacy royalty all had separate smaller kingdoms within the empire that they would rule. This meant that the central government where the emperor rules, has limited power to rule these kings and their smaller kingdoms. It got to a point where these smaller territories indeed became very powerful. This dude 晁错 was an imperial minister/politician who advised the Emperor. He recommended reducing the powers of these kings and removing some of their territories in order to increase and centralize power of the Emperor. The emperor accepted this recommendation and began removing territories from various lords/kings. This angered many of these kings which resulted unsurprisingly in 7 of them revolting against the Emperor. In order to try to appease these folks revolting against him, the Emperor decided to kill 晁错, the guy who made this recommendation. This sentence didn’t fully result in the emperor quelling the rebellion but one could say laid the groundwork for it. Indeed, the revolt only lasted 3 months and the Emperor claimed victory. He was able to reduce a lot of powers of the territorial lords and punished them for their revolt.
The second is the story of 汉光武帝 or 刘秀. This piece of history is fascinating to me. He was the founder of the later Han dynasty and he is a 9th generation descendent of the 1st Han Emperor 刘邦. He was born in 5BC and lived until 57CE. By the time it got to his own generation, even though he was related to the renowned 1st Han emperor, he didn’t have any royal privileges. He was basically the same as a peasant. At this time, there was civil unrest due to the failure of the short lived 新 dynasty. After some back and forth, 刘秀 emerged as a claimant to the Han throne after his brother died. He married his childhood sweetheart 阴丽华. There’s a famous saying that 刘秀 said about her – 仕宦当作执金吾，娶妻当得阴丽华.
If I had any job, I’d want to be a city lieutenant. If I want to marry any woman, it would be 阴丽华. That seems all lovey dovey right? It’s to say how much a husband loves his wife.
But unfortunately, real life was much more cruel. On the path towards the throne, 刘秀 was forced to marry another woman 郭圣通 for her family’s political sway. Like in so many stories, the original wife 阴丽华 was demoted to a concubine while 郭圣通 claimed the title of the official wife and eventually Empress when 刘秀 seized the throne. I won’t spoil the rest of the story if anyone wants to do a little research. There’s a great TV show starring 袁弘 and 林心如 about this Emperor called 秀丽江山. I thought it was decent.
Both stories again reinforce the point 甄嬛 was trying to make. The Emperor needs to make sacrifices for the sake of the Empire
Finally, let’s talk about the Empress Dowager
Here are a few questions to think about
Why reprimand 甄嬛 in front of 沈眉庄?
Do we really think she was going to punish 甄嬛?
That’s that for today’s episode of Chasing Dramas! Let’s see how long 华妃’s favor can last. Honestly, after doing such in depth analysis on her at this point I find her attitude somewhat annoying? Like you need to calm down. No one is taking your shit anyone. You have no idea how many people are working to kill you and bring you down.
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