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’re going to talk about episode 39+40 of 后宫甄嬛传, Empresses in the Palace. In the last two episodes, 华妃 is desperately trying to stay in favor, even sending her maid to become a concubine, but does it work?
Let’s find out.
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We combined these 2 episodes even though there’s a lot going on because it flows pretty well together.
Episode 39 starts off with the Emperor 雍正 meeting with his some of his court ministers, including 甄嬛’s father. The emperor is contemplating what to do about his brothers, the 8th Prince 允禗 and the 9th Prince 允糖, both of whom we talked about in the last episode. These 2 brothers schemed against the emperor for the throne and are now imprisoned. 华妃’s brother, the mighty general 年羹尧, sent a memo recommending clemency and forgiveness towards these 2 brothers, which is not what the Emperor wants to hear. In the previous episodes, we’ve learned that the general 年羹尧 has developed close ties with the Emperor’s 10th brother, 敦亲王, who in history was close to the 8th and 9th prince as well.
The Emperor comes to the conclusion that in order to destroy 年羹尧 and his faction, he needs to also deal with his brother, the 10th prince. At the end of the meeting, the Emperor makes a curious comment. He says – It hasn’t been calm in the Imperial Harem. The ladies are constantly squabbling with one another. Once I resolve the issues in the Imperial Harem, I’ll deal with the matters in court.
What does he have in mind?
It’s another banquet at the Imperial Harem. This time though, I feel like the roles are reversed. Let’s take a look at what happens.
The new concubine 颂芝 offers a plate of grapes to the Emperor, who eats one. Let’s recall, this concubine 颂芝 used to be 华妃’s maid, but 华妃 offered 颂芝 to the Emperor as a way to strengthen her own standing in the imperial harem. It seems to have worked
In a reversal of her usual habit, 甄嬛 begins to openly mock 颂芝 during the banquet. 甄嬛 starts by saying – oh my dear sister, the Emperor didn’t comment on the fruit. You need to be more observant. She continues to escalate her insults. This one is pretty good, 甄嬛 says – There’s the common phrase – industrious people don’t age. That must be true for you but you also are very astute. That’s why you came into favor with 华妃. She must like you so much, which is why she recommended you to the Emperor. I must commend you, even I can’t do that.
This is 甄嬛 on the offensive! She just mocked 颂芝 on her low background and her ability to please other people, which is not a good thing. Poor 颂芝 is completely at a loss at how to respond. 华妃 steps in – “Emperor, are you not going to say anything?” It’s because she knows that 甄嬛 insulted 颂芝 which is out of line.
The Emperor interestingly throws the question to the Empress. “What do you think?” The Empress merely says, it must be due to the drinks that 甄嬛 would say such things. I will take measures after the festivities. Pretty reasonable right? Nope – this is not your ordinary banquet. The Emperor’s face turns sour and he slams the table.
Is this how you govern the Imperial Harem? No wonder why it’s always so chaotic.
Everyone is stunned to see the Emperor so angry. They all immediately kneel, with the Empress begging for forgiveness.
The Emperor chides the Empress for her lack of leadership and ability to quell the squabbles in the Imperial Harem. He then turns his attention towards 甄嬛. He reprimands 甄嬛 for her jealousy towards 颂芝. This is not how concubines should behave in his harem. In a surprising move, he banishes 甄嬛 to 蓬莱洲. Where’s that? A desolate island in the middle of the lake at the Summer Palace. Two concubines make a plea on behalf of 甄嬛. 安陵容 and 敬妃. 敬妃 actually does want to help, I think 安陵容 is doing it just for show. The Emperor is not moved by their pleas. He has his eunuch 苏培盛 remove 甄嬛 from the banquet. 华妃 is just smirking on the side.
That was an action packed banquet! Since we have been privy to the Emperor and 甄嬛’s conversations, we know that this was all for show. You’ll notice that 甄嬛, who hasn’t really worn bright lipstick before, is now wearing it which is an attempt to make herself stand out in the crowd. 甄嬛, who is also known for her mild temper, behaves in an incredibly rude manner towards 颂芝. Why? So that the Emperor can have the excuse to banish her! This entire evening was for 华妃 to see. The Emperor needs 华妃, and by extension, her brother, to lower their guard. With 甄嬛 banished, 华妃 will believe she has all the favor and glory again in the Imperial Harem. She will continue to accept bribes, spend money etc. With her and her brother’s guard down, the Emperor can continue to gather evidence against them.
I love the stagings and the cuts for this scene. Yes, the Emperor’s angry but there is a ton of focus on other people’s faces, especially the Empress. No one knows what is happening. Ada Choi, the actress for the Empress, does an amazing job showing us the audience how she is processing all of this information. She sees and listens but doesn’t react. When 甄嬛 is led away by the eunuch, the Empress is contemplating these turn of events with a furrowed brow. That’s it. Compare the Empress’s reaction to that of 华妃’s. She’s over there smirking and feeling belated at this turn of events. Oh honey – you have no idea what will happen to you.
Let’s continue on that thread of the Empress. Later that evening, she summons 安陵容. She shares her suspicions about everyone’s actions earlier that evening. She can’t quite put her finger on it but she knows she cannot have 华妃 back in power again. With 甄嬛 banished, 华妃 will have no competition and she will be a legitimate threat to her own position as Empress. The Empress needs to devise another plan. The Empress orders 安陵容 to join 甄嬛 in her banishment. Why? It’s twofold – 1) 华妃 will just find ways to insult 安陵容, which doesn’t help anyone and 2) if 甄嬛 comes back to favor, 安陵容 can say play up their relationship in the future and gain a lot brownie points with the Emperor.
安陵容 at first is not happy with the plan but acquiesces only after she gets confirmation from the Empress that if 甄嬛 truly is banished, the Empress will summon her back to the Imperial Harem. I am so impressed with the Empress’s intuition. At the end of the conversation, the Empress says – I just have a feeling that it’s better for you to be with 甄嬛. The Empress has no idea that the entire evening was just a show but she knows something is up and acts accordingly. What a woman. So smart.
It looks like 甄嬛’s banishment has achieved its purpose. 华妃 is in her palace gloating at the turn of events. 曹贵人 and 颂芝 are both there. Let’s remind everyone that 曹贵人 was originally team 华妃. Now she’s team 甄嬛. She applauds 华妃 for the turn of events but she cleverly pushes 颂芝 into some hot water by saying, I hope 颂芝 can birth a child soon. That way, she’ll be like me! A noble lady! 华妃’s eyes immediately turn into daggers. With one phrase, 曹贵人 is able to incite jealousy between 华妃 and 颂芝. Well, 颂芝 is just doing 华妃’s bidding. Nice job 曹贵人！
Here is some analysis – There is absolutely no way 颂芝 can get pregnant because she’s been in 华妃’s palace for so long, smelling the perfume fragrance that has the musk which, according to this drama, damages your reproductive capabilities. I think this is also why 皇上 is fine with favoring 颂芝 because he knows she won’t get pregnant. Let’s also point out that in the episode, it was 曹贵人 who advised 华妃 to tell her brother that the response to the Emperor’s question about his brothers should be to focus on comradery and clemency. I feel like 曹贵人 knows this is not what the emperor wants and is pushing 华妃 and 年羹尧 into making a mistake. We can’t be completely sure though because I can’t imagine 年羹尧 not having other people vet the answer as well but still, we can hypothesis that 曹贵人 is pushing them this way.
In any case – 甄嬛’s crew arrives at the island. Back in her own palace, the Empress is busy trying to maintain balance in the Imperial Harem but 华妃 is back to her old self. 华妃 goes so far as to not even go to the greetings anymore. The Empress is livid but she’s powerless to do anything right now.
It’s been about a month or two. Fall is right around the corner. 沈眉庄 finally hears about 甄嬛’s predicament. Her maid asks if they should send anything over. 沈眉庄 quickly shuts her down – 甄嬛 used to have everything, what do we have to send her? Aw, it looks like their friendship is over. Haha but in the next scene, the Emperor’s head Eunuch 苏培盛 arrives onto the island to visit 甄嬛 bringing fall clothes and food from 沈眉庄. She’s all talk. She really does care about 甄嬛.
The Eunuch 苏培盛 doesn’t tarry for long but does give 甄嬛 some critical pieces of information. The Emperor will return to the Forbidden Palace the next day. He was worried that she’ll get caught in the firestorm which is why she was sent to the island. This confirms that both the Emperor and 甄嬛 knew this banishment was just a farce. Unfortunately, 安陵容, who is hiding behind some rocks, also overhears this information.
Back at the Imperial Palace, the 17th Prince who we haven’t seen in awhile rushes in with a secret memo. The 10th Prince is trying to persuade 年羹尧 to join him in a coup to depose the Emperor 雍正 and install the currently imprisoned 8th Prince as the Emperor. With this information, the Emperor can now act against the 10th Prince. He orders his assassins and generals to surround the 10th Prince’s residence. The Empress Dowager, who is unwell, requests the company of the 10th Prince’s wife and son，and with his daughter who is already with the Empress Dowager, to take care of the Empress Dowager. If you couldn’t tell, this is to hold the 10th prince’s family hostage so that the 10th prince can’t do anything crazy.
Later that evening, the 17th Prince delivers the good news to the Emperor. The 10th Prince, 敦亲王, has been captured. With him captured, it’s only a matter of time before 年羹尧 and his faction falls.
At the island, 甄嬛 spots a small boat with Imperial guards heading towards them. She has no idea if the Emperor succeeded or not so she’s prepared with a small dagger. If the Emperor failed in stopping the coup, she’ll follow him to the next world. Luckily, it doesn’t resort to them. The eunuch delivers the good news that the Emperor has succeeded. 甄嬛 is to be welcomed back into the Imperial Harem. Yay! 甄嬛 is absolutely relieved.
Once the 甄嬛 is safely back at the Imperial Harem, the Emperor visits her to share the news of his successful capture of the 10th Prince and his punishment for the 8th and 9th Prince. We went over the fate of these two princes in the last episode. The 8th and 9th Prince are imprisoned in the Imperial Clan Court. Their names are changed to 阿其那 and 塞思黑 on an Manchu – dogs and pigs.
The timing of these are a bit off. In history, the 10th Prince was stripped of his titles in 1724 while the 8th and 9th Prince were imprisoned in 1726. 甄嬛 says she’s been in the palace for 3 years so I think we’re at least around 1725/1726.
安陵容 returns to the Imperial Court and pays a visit to the Empress. Let’s take a moment to applaud the Empress and her intuition. She knew there was something off with 甄嬛’s banishment. She had a hunch that it would be better to send 安陵容 off with 甄嬛 and she was right. The Emperor now remembers 安陵容 for her devotion to her sister. We as the audience learn that the Empress needs 安陵容 to be her eyes and ears. She cannot allow 甄嬛 to become the next 华妃. That’s too dangerous for the Empress. How can she continue to build her faction? Why more women of course!
The episode ends with the Empress discussing, well demanding for 甄嬛 to be ok with new ladies entering the Imperial Harem. The emperor doesn’t want to do a court selection so they’ve decided to include women from families who were helpful in resolving this coup.
Episode 40 continues with the consequences of the attempted coup by the 10th prince. The 10th prince and his family aren’t going to be killed, but will be reduced as regular citizens – no longer related to the royal family. 甄嬛 is a little sad for the wife and kids but what can you do.
As they’re having this discussion, a docket from 年羹尧 arrives. What happens here is actually based on historical fact. The dockets contain pleasantries for the emperor because astrologists saw fortunate signs in the heavens which I guess represent good things for the empire. So obviously, all of the officials and ministers are kissing the emperor’s butt and saying nice things.
BUT – 年羹尧’s greeting changed the order of meaning for a commendable phrase which severely angered the emperor.
We generally save this analysis for the end of the episode but we can discuss now so that it makes sense for the rest of the episode.
So there’s this phrase that originally reads: 朝乾夕惕 but 年羹尧wrote it instead 夕惕朝乾。Essentially, the first 2 words are flipped with the last 2 words. On the face of this, it’s not the biggest deal. Perhaps 年羹尧 made a simple mistake. However, the emperor doesn’t take it that way and gets incredibly angry. Why?
The original phrase 朝乾夕惕 originates from 周易 or, the Book of Changes which is a book on divination and the oldest of Chinese classics. The words mean that during the day you work really hard, at night, you reflect and be thoughtful of what happened during the day. The original text is to revere the Emperor. By flipping the words, the meaning changes. It means that the Emperor is not worthy of the reverence and respect or the thoughtfulness.
That’s why this pisses off the Emperor because 年羹尧 is basically stating that the emperor is not to be respected and does not deign to give the original phrase to the emperor. This is the straw that breaks the camel’s back and truly angers the emperor. The docket is sent back without any response to 年羹尧.
华妃 hears this news that 年羹尧 sent this wrong phrase. Initially she’s like, oh it’s not a big deal, it’s an honest mistake. But upon hearing that the docket was sent back without any response, 华妃 is shocked.
This is also another prime example of the difference between 华妃 and 甄嬛’s intelligence or at least education. 甄嬛 was the one to first see the language in the docket. She immediately recognized that there was something wrong and said she didn’t want the Emperor to see the language because she knows it’s disrespectful and will make the emperor angry. 华妃, on the other hand, doesn’t see anything wrong with it. She only recognizes that something is wrong when the docket is returned.
In court – many ministers and court officials are discussing all of 年羹尧’s faults. The emperor decrees that anyone part of 年羹尧’s group who continues to work with him in corrupt manners will be severely punished.
年羹尧 sends over documents to justify himself but it just makes the emperor even more angry because 年羹尧 essentially writes all of his accomplishments. These accomplishments are to suggest that without him, the emperor can’t survive with him. As a result, the emperor demotes 年羹尧 to a lowly position.
华妃 is very upset at hearing this news and tries to see the emperor but the emperor ignores her in favor of, surprisingly 安陵容.
How the tides have turned. 华妃’s family is now in deep trouble.
With the court moving against 年羹尧, the next stop is to get rid of 华妃 in the imperial harem. The news has spread of 年羹尧’s demotion which is being discussed during a court greeting at the Empress’s palace. 曹贵人 takes this opportunity to betray 华妃. She confesses all of the horrible things 华妃 has done, that she, 曹贵人, is aware of which includes killing the concubine，noble lady 淳 who discovered 华妃 taking money from people trying to buy ministerial positions in court. All of the ladies are shocked at hearing all of this being exposed. The empress summons 华妃 to her palace. When she arrives, 华妃 kicks and hits 曹贵人 for betraying her. The empress is really smart and exclaims – look! 华妃 and 曹贵人 are incredibly close so everything 曹贵人 has said must be true!
At this point it’s pretty sad for 华妃。 Everything is getting exposed and no one is doing anything to protect or stand up for 华妃。 It just shows how many people she’s pissed off, neglected, and hurt over the years. The empress orders all of the servants in 华妃’s palace be interrogated (which probably means tortured). Her brother has now also been demoted to a guard at Hang Zhou city’s gate. His and his children’s titles stripped as well.
After days of interrogation, the emperor is in the imperial harem with the empress and the rest of the ladies of the imperial harem to discuss the results of the interrogation. The servants have described everything from pushing 沈眉庄 into the water to try to kill her, 沈眉庄’s fake pregnancy scandal, giving her plague infested dishware to try to kill her, buying ministerial positions at court, hurting Princess 温宜 to try to hurt 甄嬛, poisoning 甄嬛 and many others. Honestly, it’s been so many episodes I can’t even remember all the terrible things 华妃 has done.
The emperor doesn’t seem too surprised. He’s upset but is rather calm in the face of everything he’s hearing. He orders that everyone who was close to 华妃 is to be beaten to death. 华妃 is to be demoted to a 2nd class female attendant, and her title removed. She is now to be known as 年答应。
The emperor agrees on some other matters as well. They are to have another Manchu lady come into the palace to serve the emperor as a noble lady. She comes from a family that helped bring down 年羹尧。 颂芝, 年答应’s former maid turned concubine is now to be a maid again. Surprised she’s not beaten to death but there you have it.
I love this next part. The dumb 齐妃 chimes in that 曹贵人 was also very close to 年答应。Obviously, trying to get 曹贵人 to be punished as well. But, 曹贵人 tearfully responds that she had to keep her mouth shut and do 年答应’s bidding because 年答应 at the time was incredibly powerful. If 曹贵人 didn’t help 年答应, her daughter would not be protected.
It’s hilarious because 齐妃 is looking all smug trying to bring 曹贵人 down but the Emperor is staring at 齐妃 like she’s an idiot. 齐妃 knows she somehow annoyed the emperor so she looks down. I mean, 曹贵人 has a clear defense. It just makes everyone look bad if they punish her, a mother trying to protect her child since everyone knows how difficult 华妃， now 年答应 can be. 甄嬛 comes to the rescue which results in 曹贵人 not only avoiding punishment, but actually getting promoted to 嫔， or Imperial Concubine and is given the title of 襄， which means “helpful”. 齐妃 looks very disheartened and abashed now and shrinks in her chair. What an idiot.
With that, the once powerful 华妃 is now no more than just a lowly 答应。
Her brother, cannot give up his fame or power. He continues to disrespect the emperor even as a gate guard. The Emperor is livid that 年羹尧 wore his 黄马褂 or Yellow Imperial Jacket while on duty. Traditionally, only precious few are allowed to wear a Yellow Imperial Jacket. The Emperor mostly gifts them to people for their civil or military merit. By wearing the jacket, 年羹尧 is trying to remind the people of 杭州 of his past military glory and how he helped stabilize the empire. He’s trying to make the Emperor seem ungrateful in the eyes of people of 杭州. 年羹尧’s actions angered the entire court as well as the emperor.
This event doesn’t happen in history and the whole 黄马褂 or Yellow Imperial Jacket may be an anachronism. There were no records of Emperors gifting these 黄马褂 or the Yellow Imperial Jacket as rewards or for recognitions until the 19th century. Before that in the Qing Dynasty, the only people who could wear the jacket were Imperial guards, and only guards on active duty. The Emperor might gift these jackets at a hunting party but that was about it.
Back to 年羹尧 and court. The emperor says that ministers have detailed 92 different instances where 年羹尧 and his faction were disrespectful, overstepped, or lied etc to the emperor. This is actually true and noted in the history books. As a result, 年羹尧 is allowed to commit suicide. His eldest son is to be beheaded. All male family members over the age of 15 are to be exiled. The year in history is 1726. The once powerful 年羹尧, his family, and faction have been dismantled.
A couple of things we didn’t discuss in the episode:
- 沈眉庄 and 甄嬛 have made up and are close friends now. Both of them are still pretty upset that 年答应 wasn’t killed, just demoted.
- 甄嬛’s father was promoted for helping with getting rid of 年羹尧. Her mother was also allowed to come back into the palace again to see 甄嬛.
After 40 some episodes – the powerful 年羹尧 is no longer.
Look back to episode 1. In the first couple of scenes we saw 年羹尧 and another gentleman, 隆科多 walking out of the palace after court. Episode 1 showed us who are the key players in court and in the drama. 年羹尧 has been defeated. Next up, we will see what happens to 隆科多。
Again, that’s why this drama is great. The seeds are sown way back in the beginning of the drama but you have to go back to watch it multiple times to catch everything.
年羹尧 is gone but her sister is still in the Imperial Harem. What will happen to her? Who’s the new noble lady that will enter into the Imperial Harem? We’ll find out in the next episodes!
Thank you so much for joining us this episode. Again, if you have any questions or comments, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll catch you next time.