[Karen]

Welcome back to Chasing Dramas! The podcast that discusses Chinese history and culture through historical Chinese dramas in both Mandarin and English. This is Karen and Cathy. We are currently discussing Empresses in the Palace, 后宫甄嬛传. Last episode we discussed the ending of one of our favorite characters, the famous 华妃。I think we needed a little bit of a break to mourn the loss of this wonderful character. Today, we will be talking about episode 43 of the drama which is another key turning point of the show. Many secrets are revealed here.

If you are new to the podcast, please start with the intro to the podcast and intro to the drama episodes. Send us any comments/feedback to Chasingdramaspodcast@gmail.com. Share this podcast with your friends! We just love talking about dramas and dissecting them. Anyone who might like to hear our thoughts, please have them listen in!


[Cathy]

Before we get started though, I wanted to do this in the last episode but since it was already incredibly long, we didn’t get to talk about it. We’re more than halfway through the drama. Let’s talk about how many women in the palace have gone. Of the actual “concubines” there are – 

  1. 夏常在 – she get offed in episode 3
  2. 余答应 – maid turned concubine
  3. 丽嫔 – originally part of 华妃’s posse
  4. 淳常在 –  the cute foodie
  5. 曹琴默 – the devious former all of 华妃
  6. 华妃 – 华妃 herself
  7. 颂芝 – 华妃’s trusty maid

There are many other maids and eunuchs who have been killed too that we don’t count. Let’s take a step back to talk about how, from our 21st century perspective, worthless women’s lives or at least lives of those in the imperial harem were. Throughout the first half of the drama, we saw that women in the imperial harem were primarily used as chess pieces to either help with matters of court, or else simply as vessels for bearing children. Bearing children was an incredibly important part of Chinese culture and tradition. One on hand, it’s because the infant mortality rate was very high so it’s essentially a numbers game to see which child can actually make it to adulthood. On the other hand, the more children one has, the more options one has on having a child be smart or capable enough to succeed the family business. In this case, it is the throne. After thinking through a lot of this for a while and reading up on other emperors who failed to have sons to pass the throne to, I kind of get it. There are plenty of examples in history, both Chinese and Western, where you have people kill many others for the throne because there was no legitimate heir. It seems that the Chinese system allowed for what the west would call “bastard” children to inherit the throne thus causing a little more stability to the line. There is still that distinction of being born from the primary wife versus a concubine but, any son in the Qing Dynasty could technically inherit. This is just my observation. 


[Karen]

Something we didn’t discuss in the last episode is that, at least according to the book, one of the concubines, the lovely and kind 敬妃 never got pregnant because she lived in 华妃’s palace for a while when they were younger. And because of that, she got exposed to the harmful 欢宜香 that damaged her reproductive capabilities as well. The emperor doesn’t have too many feelings for this woman but does to some degree feel bad for her because 敬妃 is essentially collateral damage for 华妃. This contributes to her being promoted as she does and for her title to be 敬 which means “Respect”. The emperor clearly respects this woman, but unfortunately does not love her. 敬妃 is one of the smarter people in the palace. She knows when to keep her head down. She normally doesn’t say much but throughout the show she has shown kindness to the likes of 甄嬛 and 沈眉庄. 

— 

That was a lot to discuss and we haven’t even started Episode 43! One would think we’d get a chill episode after having finally removed 华妃 from the palace. Nope we don’t get that at all. The Empress turns her attention towards 甄嬛. Unlike 华妃, the Empress knows exactly what to do to deal fatal blows to 甄嬛. In this episode, secrets are revealed. We thought the special birth control fragrance was a big secret? Nope not at all. That’s tiny compared to what’s discovered here.


[Cathy]

Let’s start off with the recap.

It’s time for the Empress 皇后 to spin her web. With 华妃out of the way, the empress needs to remove her next biggest threat – 甄嬛. In this episode, let’s pay special attention to the Empress’s faction and the actions of its players both in court and in the Imperial Harem. We start off with a visit from the Empress to the Emperor’s study. 甄嬛’s um involvement with court affairs has not gone unnoticed. The Empress warns the Emperor that women in the Imperial Harem should not interfere with matters of state. 安贵人 and 祺贵人 are much better in that regard. The Emperor agrees but as the Empress continues to talk, he dozes off. Haha, he’s not listening to her at all. At this point, the Emperor favors 甄嬛.

The Emperor makes a pit stop at his mother’s palace, the Empress Dowager. More talk about politics, balancing power. Here though, the Emperor is more explicit in his distaste for a certain 隆科多. He dealt with the general 年羹尧, it’s time to clear remove any other obstacles in his path. There’s history between the Empress Dowager and 隆科多. She wants to persuade him to stop but she needs to tread carefully. We already discussed how her relationship with her son isn’t as tranquil as it seems so she wants to keep the peace. Otherwise, their relationship will be more strained.


[Karen]

In the evening, the Emperor is with 甄嬛. He shows her the collection of writings from 汪景祺. We discussed him in the last episode. This man was in league with the now deceased 年羹尧 For his writings, the man was beheaded and his head to be hung outside of a market for 10 years. 甄嬛 agrees the writings are a pile of rubbish but she’s saddened by the punishment served out to the rest of his family. They were innocent in this. The Emperor disagrees – he needs to suppress any hint of rebellion with force. Little does 甄嬛 know, her sentiments of pity are being used against her and this is only the beginning.

Later that night, there’s a shot of the two of them in bed together. The Emperor mutters two words “莞莞”. Now “莞” is 甄嬛’s title – remember 莞嫔 or 莞贵人. She assumes he’s calling out to her. It definitely seems like it. When the Emperor leaves for court the next morning, he still calls her by the name of “莞莞”. We’ll dive into either this episode or a later episode. Unfortunately, the Emperor’s behavior is seen and heard by 安陵容。 She was waiting outside to head to the Empress’s palace with 甄嬛. Quite convenient right? Like um why were you there to begin with? 安陵容 does not hesitate to make this known to the Empress that the emperor called 甄嬛 菀菀。 Although 安陵容 shares the information in a joking sort of way – saying oh look, the Emperor even has a nickname for 甄嬛 which is 莞莞。


[Cathy]

Again, Karen and I now know what’s going on through the Empress’s mind. She wants to use this information as a weapon but on first watch, I also just passed off the excuse that the Empress gives as something normal. Because why? The Empress chuckles, repeating 莞莞 but merely says- your title is 莞, this is a normal nickname. The Emperor really does favor you. The Empress then discusses some basic details about the upcoming promotion ceremonies. She clearly says – I will have your ceremonial robe sent to you. Let’s keep this in mind.

甄嬛 and 沈眉庄 are together trying to see what can be done about 沈眉庄’s burn. She’s been secretly refusing to take medication or ointments just so she can flirt with the Imperial Doctor 温实处 but 甄嬛 doesn’t know that. 甄嬛 offers up her ointment 舒痕胶 that 安陵容 gifted her to 沈眉庄. Just then, the doctor 温实处 appears for the ladies’s usual check up. He however becomes suspicious of the ointment and requests to inspect it further. 

FINALLY – someone will look into it. Praise 温实初’s nose for being able to detect certain fragrances that other people cannot. Is he a dog in a past life? Can someone tell me if Chinese medicine doctors are trained to have amazing noses?


[Karen]

At court, the new Noble Lady, 祺贵人’s father shares another collection of poems with the Emperor. This collection is written by a guy named 钱明世。According to 祺贵人’s father 鄂敏, this man was a close friend of the deceased general 年羹尧. They took the civil exams in the same year. 祺贵人’s father 鄂敏 states that he discovered this collection of poems at the home of 甄远道, 甄嬛’s father. This collection is not widely printed, how could he have gotten a copy? There must be something going on between them.  祺贵人’s father continues – certain lines in the collection praise 年羹尧 and even the now banished and imprisoned 14th and 10th Prince. 

The Emperor’s face turns sour. He questions 鄂敏, are you saying that 甄远道 is sympathetic towards them? Listen to what 鄂敏 responds with, he says, I don’t know about the 14th Prince but 莞嫔 (or 甄嬛’s) leniency towards the 10th Prince’s son is quite telling. 

Well the seeds of suspicion have been planted. The Emperor is now mulling this over. Why did 甄嬛 ask for leniency? You’ll remember that the reason 甄嬛 asked for leniency was because the 10th prince’s wife came to see her while she was out of favor. The wife even brought some nice ginseng to help 甄嬛 recover from the miscarriage. It has nothing to do with politics or to help the 10th prince. The emperor also conveniently forgot that 甄嬛 was instrumental in coming up with ideas on bringing down the 10th prince.


[Cathy]

Well, it looks like that whole scene was nothing but a scheme concocted by the Empress. The Empress and 祺贵人 try to plan out their next move after hearing of the Emperor’s lack of reaction during the meeting because apparently, the Emperor didn’t really say much. They are doing their hardest to knock 甄嬛 down, using 祺贵人’s father as a tool. To be honest, I’m somewhat surprised that the 2 of them are scheming like they are but after further reflection it makes sense. They are both from the Manchu banners. They want Manchu women to be in favor in the palace, not Han women. Naturally, the 2 Manchu women would band together.


[Karen]

Let’s see if 甄嬛 recognizes the trap. The Emperor now comes to 甄嬛’s palace to test her. He brings her the collection of poems but doesn’t say anything as to who wrote it and the background, he just has her read through it.  She dismisses the poems, stating that they’re nothing special. The Emperor starts his questioning – I agree they aren’t great. Who do you think would have a copy? 甄嬛 responds – well, i guess it would be friends or family. 

Wrong answer #1 – this confirms the Emperor’s suspicion that 甄嬛’s father is friendly with the author. He then presses on, I believe these poems are nothing but pointless adulations for certain individuals. The author must be punished. 甄嬛 responds – i didn’t see anything too terrible. Wrong answer #2 – she’s making light of the Emperor’s statements. The Emperor asks his final question – but these poems praise the 10th Prince. What do you think i should do. 甄嬛 hesitates but still decides leniency should be the way to go. Wrong answer #3 – this re-affirms what the Emperor heard earlier from 祺贵人’s father. 甄嬛 is sympathetic to the 10th Prince! How dare she? 

I guess 3 strikes? The Emperor’s face doesn’t change but the mood shifts, he decides not to stay the night. 甄嬛 has no idea what just happened. Girl – you’re good nature will get you killed. It’s no time to be soft! The Emperor looks extremely sour in his carriage. 


[Cathy]

It is now time for the Consort ceremony! It’s quite an honor! 甄嬛 has only been in the Imperial Harem for a few years and she’s already a Consort or 妃! Everyone in her palace is excited for the special day. 甄嬛 is about to change but just as the servants bring out her consort ceremonial robe, everyone gasps. There’s a huge gash on the robe! 

She hurriedly summons the head eunuch of the imperial interior department 内务府. He comes and is also perplexed at what happened. These ceremonial robes are custom made – there’s not enough silk for a quick repair. The Eunuch suddenly remembers that the Empress recently had a robe brought out for repair. By the looks of it, it seemed to be a ceremonial robe. It might be a bit old but that might work. With no other options, 甄嬛 quickly changes into this new robe.

It’s a dark rouge color? Very extravagant, I personally really like her headdress. Everything seems good to go but 甄嬛’s maid 瑾溪 seems to have seen this robe before. 甄嬛 hurries over to the Empress palace. The Empress mysteriously has a migraine – she’ll have to wait a little bit. She urges the Emperor to head over first. What a master player. She slowly laid her trap and 甄嬛 is about to fall right it.


[Karen]

The Emperor walks out to the main room. A woman has his back towards him and is hidden behind a thin veil. He is stunned at the scene. How could she be here? The Emperor – showing the LARGEST eyes we will ever see in the show, is astonished. He rushes over to the woman, calling out “莞莞”. He pauses right before the screen and says once more “莞莞, you’re finally back”. He grabs her hand, caressing it. The woman finally presents herself, “I 甄嬛 greet your majesty”. The Emperor cannot believe his ears. He pulls apart the veil to see 甄嬛 in utter shock on. He first asks – how is it you? Then he demands – where did you get this robe? How dare you!

甄嬛 finally realizes somethings wrong and immediately kneels. Right on cue, the Empress arrives, looks at 甄嬛 and exclaims – Oh my goodness! How can you be wearing the Empress 纯元’s robe? The Empress reprimands her maid – how could this have happened? The maid gives a sob story about how they brought this out to repair and she somehow forgot to pack it. 

The Empress is um “beside” herself. She then looks at 甄嬛. How dare you! Out of all of the Empress 纯元’s clothes to take, why this one?  The empress is such a good actress. This is why she is a master manipulator. She spun this web for 甄嬛 to fall into and 甄嬛 never even thought twice.

The Emperor of course remembers, this is the robe that 纯元 wore the first time he met her. He orders 甄嬛 to take it off. The Empress continues her act – I’m sure this was an accident. Why did you do it? 甄嬛 dutifully takes off the robe and tells the truth but the Emperor is livid. The Empress puts a nail in the coffin and begins to say “莞妃 or Consort 莞” . The Emperor, in his maddened state, coldly responds Consort? She may have received her seal but she has yet to complete all of the rituals. She is not a Consort. Go back to your palace to reflect on your mistakes.

The order travels fast to her palace. Everyone is to be put under house-arrest. The head eunuch that came up with the idea for this swap? Killed. Poor guy. This eunuch was actually placed into this role by none other than the Empress. She totally used him like a worthless pawn.


[Cathy]

甄嬛 is alone in her room. She has now realized the sad truth and confronts her maid 瑾溪 about it. I look like the deceased 纯元. Is this why you came to my palace? This must be what 端妃 meant when she first saw me. Is this why the Emperor favors me? She is heartbroken. The truth has finally been revealed to her. She has no idea what to do next. 

I will commend 瑾溪. She’s still trying to analyze the situation. She never served 纯元, the eunuch that was killed also didn’t. She correctly guesses that this was all a setup.

With this, 甄嬛 finally realizes that this was all a trap set by the Empress. Who else could have ordered the robe to be laid out of the deceased Empress 纯元? Who else could have had her original robe destroyed? There is only 1 person in the palace and that is the Empress, 皇后。

This is incredibly heartbreaking. 甄嬛 has lost favor with the Emperor. She realizes now that she never had favor with the Empress. This time, she wore the Empress 纯元’s clothes which seems to be an absolutely fatal mistake. There doesn’t seem to be any hope for redemption. She says to herself that I am nothing but a replacement. 甄嬛 ends up crying in her palace, all alone.


[Karen]

Elsewhere, the Empress and her little posse are celebrating at her palace. 安陵容 is now a 嫔 or Concubine which is the same level as 甄嬛. Can I also just say that I really don’t like her headdress and overall getup? Her bangs are pulled up so I feel like she looks more severe. I prefer her with bangs. 

This scene is just a summary of the events of the episode. The Empress truly lets everything out of the bag. From the robe to the collection of poems, they were all just traps in the Empress’s plan. She even evilly thanks her sister while caressing the robe as without her sister, none of this can be achieved. This time, she’s confident that even if the Emperor forgives 甄嬛, 甄嬛 will not want the Emperor anymore. 

The episode ends with 甄嬛’s one true friend 沈眉庄 trying to request audiences with the Emperor, Empress, and Empress Dowager but to no avail. It’s looking hopeless for 甄嬛。

That was the recap for the episode! Let’s get into our analysis!

In this episode we start to see the players in the Imperial Court and the Imperial Harem finally turning their attention and vitriol towards 甄嬛. Before, 华妃 was always the one everyone was wary of, with her death, the ladies of the Imperial harem now have a new target, 甄嬛. 

We see again in this episode that while 甄嬛 has matured significantly throughout her years in the Imperial Harem, she is till quite a novice when compared to the Empress. Just when 甄嬛 thought she could live peacefully in the rest of the Imperial harem, she’s faced faceless enemies. Even her poor father got dragged into this.  The Emperor is no longer a fan of him.


[Cathy]

Let’s first start off looking into the collection of poems by the man 钱世明。Born in 1660, he met the general 年羹尧 on their way towards the civil service entrance exams. This 钱世明 did pretty well on the exams and was praised for his scholarly talents. He actually worked on the History of Ming – one of the official Chinese historical works. 

In 1724, 钱世明 wrote some poems for the then popular general 年羹尧 who was on his way to quash the rebellion in the Northwest. The four lines that are the most questionable are

分陕旌旗周召伯,从天鼓角汉将军

He compares 年羹尧 to the Duke of Shao – ji shi who helped the king of 周 defeat the kingdom of Shang and the legendary generals of the han dynasty.

钟鼎名勒山河誓,番藏宜刊第二碑

This phrase is even more problematic – why? It basically translates to, during the Emperor 康熙’s reign, the 14th Prince successfully won battles in Tibet. The Emperor built a monument in his honor. The merits of general 年羹尧 warrant another monument. 

Let’s take a look – this was written in 1724, when 年羹尧 had favor. To the unsuspecting person, this would have been great. This praises the general and his achievements. Unfortunately, 年羹尧 is now dead and the Emperor has banished his brother the 14th Prince. These two phrases could be construed as treason for praising a criminal. These 4 lines are actually indeed the ones that got 钱世明 into trouble in 1726. Or they are the ones most frequently mentioned in history. I will give props to the show for being accurate here.

钱世明 was stripped of his commission and sent packing back to his hometown. This isn’t even it. The Emperor personally wrote a plaque with the words “名教罪人” or how I’ll translate it to be Famous Criminal. This was to be hung on his front door. Local officials checked in on the 1st and 15th of each month to see if it was still there. The Emperor did some more things to this guy but we’ll just leave it at that. The Emperor REALLY did not like this guy or really just wanted to set an example to others. 


[Karen]

Let’s move on to talk about why 皇后 orchestrated this whole thing. I don’t’ think she would have done this or at least wanted to destroy 甄嬛 so immediately if it wasn’t for 安陵容 relaying to 皇后, the empress, that 皇上 called 甄嬛 菀菀。 This is discussed more fully in later episodes but 菀菀 was the nickname of the deceased first wife, 皇上’s “true love”. This slip made 皇后 incredibly jealous as it meant that 皇上 is falling harder for 甄嬛. Her favoritism will be so powerful that a) it could threaten the Empress’s title, and b) the emperor will fully rely or fall for 甄嬛. The empress could not have this and chose to strike.

But the Empress is masterful in how she strikes. This revelation that 甄嬛 looks like the deceased first wife was not to make the Emperor mad. Yes, he will be upset but if 甄嬛 forgives him and throws herself back at him like she did before with the miscarriage, nothing will change. The Empress chose to act in this way to show 甄嬛 that a huge part of her favoritism is because she looks like the former empress. It means she is nothing more than a replacement. The emperor doesn’t love her for her, but rather, because she reminds him of his first wife. The empress sees that 甄嬛 is incredibly proud and will not accept being in someone’s shadow. 甄嬛 will not want to look back after this or fight for favoritism, thus be eliminated as a threat for good. This is the result that the empress ultimately wants. By the looks of it, the empress, leveraging 祺贵人’s father in the imperial court and this tactic in the harem, is succeeding. 


[Cathy]

Everything that happened at court, the collection of poems by 钱世明 were nothing more than to sow the seeds of suspicion and disappointment in the Emperor’s mind. If 甄嬛 still had the sterling reputation, the Emperor might not have been this angry. The Emperor is a deeply suspicious man and he’s already questioning her and her father’s loyalty. The whole robe fiasco was just another whammy.

Hints of this similarity in resemblance were embedded throughout the drama as far back as episode 1 when 甄嬛 was going through the court selection to be a concubine in the palace. If you go back to watch, the emperor was surprised by her the moment he saw her. We now know it’s because she looked a lot like his deceased first wife. The main reason why the empress dowager, the emperors mother who was also present in that scene tried so hard to prevent 甄嬛 from entering the palace in that episode was also because she saw that 甄嬛 looked like 纯元。 Later in episode 2 when discussing the women selected to court, 皇后, the empress even made the comment that it was rumored that 甄嬛 looked almost exactly like… She didn’t finish the phrase then but now we know it was in reference to the first wife. The Emperor’s response at that point was that her eyes had similarity and that was it. There are many other references and examples to this connection but those were very obvious right from the beginning of this drama.


[Karen]

This is a really big reveal for 甄嬛 and a heartbreaking one at that. She realized that a huge part of her favoritism is because she looks like someone else. She gained favor so easily because of her appearance and now she loses favor because of her appearance as well.

Unfortunately, this isn’t even the end of this story.

Let’s end today’s episode on a lighthearted note!

One very funny and very meta fact about this entire show is is that the actress for 甄嬛 looks very similar to the actor for the emperor’s real life wife. Her name is 蒋勤勤, an actress who retired for the most part after she married 陈建斌, the actor for the emperor. Fans joke about this all the time that 纯元 is pretty much 蒋勤勤。 纯元 never makes an appearance in the drama but there is a lot of fan art depicting 蒋勤勤 as 纯元. Like if you google 纯元 now, it’s just a bunch of pictures with 蒋勤勤’s face photoshopped onto drama pics from the drama. It’s quite funny actually. What’s even more coincidental is that when the actress for 甄嬛, 孙俪, first started acting, her nickname was actually “Little 蒋勤勤!” People noted their similarities long before 孙俪 took this role. 蒋勤勤 or the wife of the actor 陈建斌 was extremely famous in mainland china so she was the more popular woman. Now that’s not the case since 蒋勤勤 doesn’t have as many works under her name as 孙俪。孙俪 is definitely the more famous one now. I do highly recommend you google 蒋勤勤. She was absolutely gorgeous. How she married 陈建斌, I will never get it… 


That’s it for today’s episode! As always, if you have any questions or comments, please contact us at chasingdramaspodcast@gmail.com. We’ll catch you in the next episode!