Hello and this is Chasing Dramas! We’re discussing Chinese history by following historical Chinese TV dramas. You’re listening to Cathy and Karen. Today we’re discussing episode 4 of 甄嬛传, Empresses in the Palace。
How is everyone doing? Been a busy couple of days for us – we recorded additional music on the zither so hope you enjoy.
江福海, who is the chief Eunuch for 皇后, the empress, is still at, 华妃’s palace quarters. 华妃 refuses to take any responsibility for 福子’s death and instead notes that it was 福子 who ran off. How is it her, 华妃’s problem if she’s run off and died. 福子 is the servant girl that 皇后 gave to 华妃 in the first episode. 江福海 doesn’t have a great response and retreats. (Karen: don’t you just feel bad for the servants? They die and not a whole lot can be done. I actually think there should be a body count tally to see how many deaths there are.)
Back to our main character, 甄嬛 is still in shock from the events in the previous episode. She’s realizing just how terrifying it is to be in the palace and she’s thinking of ways to protect herself. Outside in the courtyard, one of her maids notices a weird pattern of ants crawling around a tree. 甄嬛 tells the eunuchs to dig up whatever is buried there. It’s a pot and inside is something that smells putrid. 甄嬛 shocked, tells everyone to pretend like they’ve never seen this before and asks them to disperse.
甄嬛 goes back to her room, contemplating what to do. She tells 浣碧 to summon the imperial doctor 温实处。He’s the childhood friend that wanted to marry 甄嬛. Anyways, he stops by to check on her and she tells him that she doesn’t want to be available for the Emperor and needs his help to make her seem sick. She shows him what they uncovered. 麝香仁 or a musk pod to which he is shocked。温实处 reluctantly agrees to help her. We’ll analyze this scene more in depth.
It’s time for selecting the concubine for the night. It is the first night that the new ladies are available to the emperor. Obviously, 皇上 asks for 甄嬛’s name plate but upon hearing that she’s unavailable and sick, 皇上 picks 沈眉庄.
Fast forward a month, we see 沈眉庄 admiring chrysanthemums gifted by 雍正。He’s taken a liking to her! 雍正 likes that she’s educated and gifts her even more chrysanthemums upon hearing that she likes them. 皇上 actually wants her to start learning management which is a big responsibility. He likes that 沈眉庄 is poised and calm.
Meanwhile, 甄嬛 is still bedridden. 剪秋，皇后’s main maid, comes to visit and check on her. While you think this is a nice visit, 皇后 is actually using 剪秋 to incite jealousy between 沈眉庄 and 甄嬛 while also checking to see if 甄嬛 is actually sick or not. 皇后 has 齐妃, one of the older consorts, over for tea and they gossip about the ladies. Pretty much what you find out is that the gruesomeness that we’ve seen is standard in 后宫。
华妃 is in the garden admiring chrysanthemums. She sees eunuchs hastily moving a bunch of beautiful and new chrysanthemums and thinks they are for her. But, when she finds out that the beautiful chrysanthemums are actually for 沈眉庄, 华妃 throws a hissy fit and orders all of the chrysanthemums in her palace to be thrown out. Uh oh, it doesn’t look good for 沈眉庄.
Indeed, at the next 请安 (greeting), 沈眉庄 comes late because she had an accident walking to 皇后’s palace where a eunuch accidentally spilled water on her clothes so she had to go back and change. We don’t know if this was on purpose or not. Anyways. 丽嫔, who we saw in episode 2, drills down on her tardiness. 华妃 chimes in and serves out a punishment. 华妃 starts to see 富察贵人 (a manchu noble lady) and 沈眉庄 as legitimate threats.. She brings 富察贵人 who is Manchu in to teach her how to “研墨” which means grinding ink, but really, it’s a punishment meant to tell her who’s boss。
雍正 is dealing with a rebellion to the west. He’s got no one to choose except for 年羹尧 and sends him to the front lines.
At the end of the episode, we finally get back to 碎玉轩, 甄嬛s quarters, to check in on 甄嬛. All of her servants, except for 浣碧, 流珠 and 瑾溪,are starting to treat 甄嬛 poorly because she’s not getting any attention from the emperor. It truly is a cold hearted world out in the 后宫. It looks like the servants are about to mount a mutiny. This is all because 甄嬛 has refused to be available for the Emperor.
Alright Cathy. What’s the first scene you want to discuss?
I want to discuss the scene where 甄嬛 requests for 温实处, the imperial doctor, to come over for a check up. This is right after they find the mysterious object from the pot.
Ok – what do you want to share about this scene?
Well, first let’s give some background about Chinese medicine and how people are diagnosed.
In Chinese medicine, the doctor usually checks your pulse on your wrist to make the diagnosis. This practice has been around for centuries, if not millenia. It’s how Chinese doctors were able to detect pretty much anything in your body. In the drama, he places a handkerchief over her wrist before performing a check up because In this society, a male is not allowed to touch a female unless they were of course, married. There can be no skin on skin contact, even for a doctor. Reputations have been ruined if a male so much as touches you.
Not quite. A bug here is that apparently, imperial doctors were not even supposed to check pulse this way. You’re supposed to tie a string around the concubine’s wrist and pull the string across the room to check what the ailments were. I have no idea how accurate their diagnoses were, but these were the rules set by imperial doctors.
I’ll say, I feel like 甄嬛 treats 温实处 extremely poorly. She knows he’s in love with her and dangles his promises of protecting her for life during the conversation. Not cool, girl.
The main thing I want to discuss is actually the potent smelling object they dug up earlier. 甄嬛 gives it to 温实处. He’s shocked. How does she have such a thing? What is this mysterious object? The mythical ingredient that is used for every palace drama! Musk or 麝香!
Ladies and gentlemen, remember what this is! It’ll show up everywhere. In Chinese dramas, this is the all powerful object that causes miscarriages and potentially stops a female’s ability to reproduce.
Musk is a chemical from the gland of the male musk deer. The pod is dried and used to make medicine. Musk has been used in Chinese traditional medicine for thousands of years. It can be used for seizures, convulsions, and bruising. It also gives off a scent which is why it’s used in perfume! It is true that pregnant women should not be using musk but musk doesn’t have the ability to stop the female reproductive system. In the drama, this is dramatized.
The previous inhabitant 芳贵人 (another noble lady concubine) was banished after suffering a miscarriage because she apparently went crazy with grief. Was it because of this thing? It was most likely that she had a miscarriage because this item was around. What terrifies 甄嬛 the most is that this dangerous and harmful item was plotted in such a way that it was very difficult to detect. If it wasn’t by sheer stroke of luck, who knows how this could have impacted 甄嬛.
甄嬛 is savvy enough to know that 后宫 is a terrifying place. She comes up with a plan and asks 温实处 to help her seem sick and unavailable to serve the emperor. This is because she does not want to be the center of attention and draw the ire of the likes of 华妃. The other consideration here is that she needs to not only protect herself, but her family and her family’s reputation. She needs to find a way to survive in the palace and protect her family. She deemed pretending to be sick is the only way.
It’s always good to have a doctor around
Now, Let me briefly discuss the scene with 皇后 and 皇上 where they are deciding who to select for the evening. I actually want to talk about 皇后 bringing up the incident of 福子。雍正’s reaction upon hearing this right now is interesting. He knows that 华妃 must have done it because it’s in her nature and he actually tells 皇后 to investigate. Palace maids are from the banner clans, not just random people from the street so, it doesn’t look good to have one unexpectedly die. Something else that’s interesting is that when 皇上 hears about the fate of 夏冬春, who is now permanently disabled from her punishment in the previous episode, he’s more or less like meh, she deserved it. He does not care whatsoever that she’s disabled.
华妃 knew that this punishment wouldn’t be a big deal and to the Empress and Emperor, it wasn’t
And on that note – Karen, what scene do you want to discuss next?
Sure, I want to discuss the scene after 沈眉庄 has been picked to serve the emperor. This scene is where you uncover what type of person she is. Well, in TV time it’s the next scene. In drama time, it’s like a month. She’s out in her palace enjoying chrysanthemums that the emperor gave her. 皇上 stops by to see how she’s doing and he notices that she likes chrysanthemums, her clothes even has chrysanthemums sewn into them. He asks her why.
She responds, with a poem “宁可枝头包香死，不曾吹落北风中“ She likes the 气节 or integrity of the flower, to which 雍正 is immediately impressed. Not only by the fact that this means she is educated, but because she cares about something as important 气节 which is not something everyone focuses on.
So, let’s dissect this verse because I really like this poem. I think about it a lot after watching this drama. This poem is by a Song Dynasty scholar named.郑思肖. This verse is actually quite well known. It describes the chrysanthemum flower with a historical twist. There are four total to the poem. The first two lines, which she doesn’t recite, basically says that chrysanthemums bloom at a different time than most other flowers. She stands alone against the rest in her beauty – which is true given that they bloom generally late summer through early winter. The last two lines, which 沈眉庄 recites says that when the flower’s life ends, it would rather wilt on its stem than to blow into the north wind. Basically saying that this flower has integrity and is able to stand its ground. Now the “north wind” piece of this poem is significant. For those of you who aren’t aware, the late Song dynasty, when this poem was written, was when the Mongols – a la Ghengis Khan, were invading China from the north. The Song scholar purposefully mentions the north wind as a way to say that they would rather die than be subject to Mongolian rule.
For 沈眉庄 to like this line and to like this poem, shows that her mind is resolute in what she wants. If she has an idea of what she wants, she will stick to it and not back down. 雍正 is impressed and gifts her a lot more chrysanthemums. Historically, in China, women have been described as flowers whether it be in books or poems etc. This drama is no different – 沈眉庄 can be compared to this chrysanthemum flower. This is also pretty good foreshadowing for what she will be like for the rest of her life.
沈眉庄 has the attention of the emperor, she’s now the target for a lot of people.
I want to discuss the next 请安 scene. Last episode, 沈眉庄 had 甄嬛 to help her but this time she’s by herself and doesn’t come out unscathed. 沈眉庄 arrives late because a eunuch spills water on her. 丽嫔 begins the attack, giving a snarky comment on her late arrival. Remember that 丽嫔 is on the same side as 华妃。Even 皇后 seems a little annoyed but she nevertheless excuses her.
华妃’s not having it. This is a perfect opportunity to strike 沈眉庄 down a little bit. 丽嫔 remarks, if she asks for forgiveness every time, does that mean she can disregard the rules and court etiquette? 沈眉庄’s maid tells the truth of what happens, and before 皇后 can even breathe, 华妃 swoops in to say no matter what, it’s still your fault. This is a sticky situation. 沈眉庄 isn’t getting out of this.
Ok, can I pause here to say what? You’ve been late so many times! You now bring up this palace etiquette thing?
敬嫔, a soft spoken concubine who is the ruling concubine if the palace where 沈眉庄 lives, tries to help her out but is quickly shut down by 华妃. As the highest ranking concubine in that palace, 敬嫔 also needs to be reprimanded for not teaching 沈眉庄 better manners.
皇后 does not come to 沈眉庄’s aid and asks what type of punishment would be suitable. 华妃 starts off big. For her crime of boastfulness and belittling the empress, she should be flogged 30 times. But since I’m being merciful and this is your first time, you’ll be docked 2 months pay. Oh and 敬嫔, since you didn’t teach her properly, it’s the same punishment.
30 floggings for a small woman? You’ll most likely be dead. 华妃 has given out harsher punishments. Remember 夏冬春? 皇后 finally steps in. They will be docked only 1 month pay because it’s almost the new year and she dismisses the ladies.
Before 华妃 leaves though, 皇后 stops her. She points out that she’s never reprimanded 华妃 for being late so why be so strict on 沈眉庄？To which 华妃 responds, “You’re too kind and 皇上 knows this. That’s why he gave me the power to manage 后宫, if I don’t do something what will he think?” That’s a pretty good blow. 皇后 tries to win back the argument, “Well since 皇上 gave you the power, you should lead by example and come early to future greetings”. She’s trying to force 华妃 to come early. We’ve already seen her tardy twice!
Nope, 华妃’s gonna do what she wants. “I can’t help it if 皇上 tells me to sleep in! Who should I listen to? You or him?” 皇后 cannot win that argument…and concedes of course, listen to the Emperor.
华妃 definitely won that round and she knows it. Look at that strut!
Everyone is jealous of 沈眉庄’s favoritism from the Emperor. 沈眉庄 doesn’t quite know how to play the game. She’s made herself too much of a target. To be fair, it’s tough. You want the favor of the Emperor but you can’t seem too eager about it. 华妃 needed some ammunition and 沈眉庄’s tardiness was the perfect excuse. No one can say it was an unfair sentence. 皇后 is definitely annoyed too, otherwise she probably would have made more of an effort to stop the sentence. 华妃 also used this sentence to pit 敬嫔 against 沈眉庄。敬嫔 basically got punished for no reason. Kill two birds with one stone.
Let’s now discuss two scenes that bring together the political machinations of the Imperial Court (前朝) and the Imperial Harem (后宫). 雍正 is discussing with some of his courtiers/government officials about a rebellion in the Northwest 青海. The best person they have to quash the rebellion is 年羹尧. Do you remember who he is? He is 华妃’s brother.
Here, 雍正 says, “年羹尧 rules the roost in the northwest.” The idiom he uses, 大权独揽, to arrogate all power to oneself, to describe 年羹尧. It is definitely an idiom that has a negative connotation and 雍正 is wary to give 年羹尧 more opportunities. The solution is to have another up and coming viceroy join the expedition so that 年羹尧 doesn’t receive all the credit.
When the courtiers leave, we see that 华妃, sent over some desserts for 雍正 as if this were on cue. 雍正 takes this opportunity to gift 华妃 Eastern Pearls and wants 苏培盛, his head eunuch, to personally send them over. We discussed this last episode, but 东珠 Eastern Pearls are extremely valuable, more valuable than jade. There are certain Eastern Pearls that are only designated to the Emperor, Empress, and Empress Dowager. This gift is highly unusual and truly elevates 华妃’s status! 雍正 gives the answer that it’s to reward her for doing such a good job managing the 后宫。 But what did we just witness? 华妃’s brother is about to go to war. This is my reading of this scene, but 雍正 needs to keep 华妃 appeased so that her brother will be successful on the battlefield. He’s managing both aspects of court to get the best result. With all the power that 年羹尧 has right now, 雍正 cannot risk him rebelling against his empire. Happy sister= loyal brother = quashed rebellion.
Do you notice how giddy周宁海, 华妃’s eunuch, is? It’s because he knows how valuable the pearls are.
This whole political strategy even extends further to the scene with 皇后 and 雍正。皇后 brings up her discoveries with the case involving 福子’s death and what 雍正 wants to do about it. He knows exactly what happened, but he brushes it and tells 皇后 to let it go. Why the sudden change? Earlier we saw that 雍正 was willing to let 皇后 investigate. At that time he most likely already knew that happened. But now, with 华妃’s brother off to the Northwest, he can’t risk 华妃receiving any type of sentence. He needs to keep the power balanced in that family. 皇后 is understandably disappointed and look what 雍正 does. He feeds her a spoonful of the swallow’s nest, personally! This intimate gesture will keep the Empress happy for a while! She drops the case with this gesture. What a player. Every action he takes is calculated. He is the emperor after all.
And that’s that with Episode 4 of 甄嬛传。 In the next episode, we’ll see how zhen huan deals with not having any attention by the emperor.