Episode 45 – The “Death” of Zhen Huan
Welcome 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 will be discussing episode 45 of 后宫甄嬛传 Empresses in the Palace.
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Episode 45 is what I would call a conclusion of an era. Yes we had Hua Fei die 3 episodes earlier but this is really where all the secrets are revealed to the main character, 甄嬛。 In the last 2 episodes, we see the Empress, 皇后, as well as 甄嬛’s former friend, 安陵容’s true colors. Both of them have been plotting for forever to destroy 甄嬛. This episode, 甄嬛 receives one last revelation about her life in the imperial harem that actually does, in a sense, destroy 甄嬛。
The last few episodes have been more plot driven and less on the historical analysis. This episode, there are plenty of poems to discuss as they are relevant to this story. We will also be discussing how the revelation of the Emperor’s affections impacted the whole story up till now.
In the last episode, 甄嬛 became ill during her confinement. . Her loyal maid 流珠 sacrificed herself to summon a doctor for 甄嬛. Her sacrifice was worth it as 甄嬛 found out that she’s pregnant! 甄嬛 tries her best to stay healthy during her pregnancy but other people in the palace are plotting against her. Let’s pick up from there.
I want to prime everyone that things just get worse and worse for 甄嬛 this episode. It’s just plain depressing.
甄嬛 is several months pregnant but the Emperor has not lifted her confinement nor come to see her. Well he did sneak in a visit while she was sleeping but she doesn’t know that. She’s in the garden reminiscing about happier times, specifically when she first met the Emperor.
The drama at court continues to unfold. The whole case involving the civil servant and poet 钱明世 continues to be front and center. In the last episode, the Emperor ordered all of his ministers write critiques about 钱明世 but 甄嬛’s father 甄远道 curiously did not write anything. The Emperor gave him 3 days to write something. Now at court, 甄嬛’s father 甄远道 steps out to declare that he has no intention to do so. His reasoning is that if people cannot freely write their thoughts, the Emperor will only hear praises, which is not beneficial to the empire.
The Emperor, of course, does not want to hear this. How dare someone question his authority? Especially since the civil servant in question, 钱明世 wrote poems praising the now deceased general 年羹尧, one who blatantly flaunted his own power?
甄嬛’s father does not realize the dangerous position he’s in. The Emperor is very suspicious of his motives. Why will he not acquiesce to this simple request? Are 甄嬛’s father and 钱明世 really in cahoots with one another? You can see that the Emperor is getting more and more angry.
Two more Imperial Ministers step out, one is 瓜尔佳 鄂敏, 祺贵人’s father. He has been instrumental in putting 甄嬛’s father in this position, sowing the seeds of suspicion in the Emperor’s mind. Well 鄂敏 declares that 甄嬛’s father is clearly a traitor and should be punished.
The other Imperial Minister who steps out is 隆科多. He tries to play the intermediary but I 100% think he’s also trying to destroy 甄嬛’s father. He suggests that while 甄嬛’s father should be punished, his daughter is pregnant, perhaps the punishment should be delayed? 鄂敏 seizes this line to put the nail in the coffin. He says – what will happen to law and justice if punishment is delayed simply because someone’s daughter is pregnant? What kind of message does this send to the rest of the Empire?
The Emperor’s eyes darken. He says – All are equal above the law. Strip 甄远道 of his title and send him to jail. His family are to be confined at home.
It’s the Double Ninth Festival on the 9th Day of the Ninth month of the lunar calendar. It’s a day to pray for good fortune, drink chrysanthemum tea, and visit ancestors. In her confinement, 甄嬛 nonetheless sent some chrysanthemum flowers and wine to the Empress Dowager. They receive a surprise visitor, the Empress Dowager’s personal maid 孙姑姑. She comes to thank 甄嬛 for the presents on behalf of the Empress Dowager. 甄嬛’s fine but she’s missing her family. She then quotes from a poem.
The maid tells her not to worry. It’s customary for family of expecting concubines to be able to come visit during the 8th month of pregnancy, which should be soon. She takes her leave. Outside, another maid is anxiously waiting outside. This maid is 芳若, a senior maid who usually helps out with 甄嬛’s affairs. We find out that she requested aid from 孙姑姑 because she overheard the news of 甄嬛’s father’s imprisonment and didn’t know how to behave around 甄嬛. The two senior maids both agree that it is best to not tell 甄嬛 anything especially at this delicate time. There’s a bug in timing here – I’m not sure when 甄嬛’s father was imprisoned but the Double Ninth Festival happens in the Fall and previously the Emperor gave 甄嬛’s father 3 days to write the critique. Anyways, I just noticed that here.
Now we cut to a scene where the Empress and the Empress Dowager are having a chat. The Empress Dowager knows full well that the Empress, 皇后, is not kind to children of other concubines in the palace. 太后 does her best to warn 皇后 not to endanger any more of the emperor’s thereby protecting 甄嬛. This conversation is sort of like a part 2 to a conversation these two women have in the last episode. I’m pretty sure they just filed the 2 scenes back to back but just spliced them here. Lol.
Last time, the Empress Dowager tried to appeal to the Empress by reminding her of their clan’s position at court. The Empress needs to maintain her status. This time, the Empress Dowager is more blunt. 太后 says that it is the duty of 皇后 to ensure the line of the Emperor. If the Emperor does not have children, this reflects poorly on Empress. The empress says well the emperor has 3 sons. The empress dowager shoots back by saying. look at the previous emperor, 康熙. He had 20+ sons and just as many daughters. The Empress Dowager then punishes the Empress by telling the Empress to go stand outside of 螽斯门 to try to get her to think about what she’s done. The Empress Dowager is trying to do two things here. 1. Protect 甄嬛’s child. The Emperor is already in his 40s with only 3 surviving sons. The Empress Dowager needs 甄嬛 to birth a son to protect the Emperor’s line. 2. She is warning the Empress that it’s time to stop whatever dirty tricks she’s been planning. The Empress Dowager knows full well what the Empress has done to other women in the Imperial Harem and this needs to stop. Oh, I don’t think the Empress Dowager cares about who the Empress kills and what not. She only cares if these women have children. It’s all about the children.
Does it work? Absolutely not. We wouldn’t have so much drama if just reminding the Empress and having her stand outside a door would work. So what is this 螽斯门? – 皇后explains this a little and apparently this door also shows up in other dramas too. The door exists in real life and is in the Forbidden Palace. 螽斯 is a type of cricket that was mentioned in the Book of Poems 诗经。It signifies having many children and the good fortune of this large family. That’s why this door exists and why the Empress Dowager tells the Empress to go there. She should be thinking about having many children.
But the Empress is bitter. Her pawn, 安陵容, the former friend of 甄嬛, comes to visit the Empress. The Empress explains that her own son, the eldest son of the Emperor, died when he was a toddler. How can she bear to have the children of other women survive when her own son perished? This right here is her motivation for killing so many children. She’s of the mind that if I can’t have it? Why can others.
安陵容 follows along and says right, any child that you don’t want to live, shouldn’t live. What a crazy and bone-chilling thing to say. The Empress then points out that 甄嬛 is 8 months pregnant. It would be a shame to have anything impact her pregnancy such as finding out about her family’s predicament. That terrible information cannot be told to her.
How two faced. 安陵容 knows exactly what’s up. It’s not direct, but those are orders. Do the exact opposite and tell 甄嬛 that her father is imprisoned. Their goal is to trigger 甄嬛 so much that she will have a miscarriage that will kill both mother and child. Why is the Empress ok with doing this? She was tasked with taking care of 甄嬛‘s pregnancy was she not? It’s because the Empress will not be held responsible for 甄嬛 hearing this news or how she reacts. That’s all external and cannot be traced back to the Empress. But the Empress was the one to tell the other concubine, 祺贵人 , and by extension, her father, to bring down 甄嬛’s father. 皇后 is masterful in using the court to achieve her ends in the imperial harem. You know the saying that women in the imperial harem are not to interfere with court? Well this is kind of the opposite. Court is helping interfere with the harem.
Of course, 甄嬛 gets suspicious after a while because her family hasn’t been scheduled to come see her in the palace despite her pregnancy. Not long after, a “new” eunuch comes with some items for 甄嬛 and shares the news, after some money, that 甄嬛’s father has been imprisoned and accused by none other than 祺贵人”s father. This man is a backstabber because he worked with 甄嬛’s father to bring down 年羹尧 and 华妃 baci in episode 40-42. After delivering this news, the eunuch scuttles away. Who sent him to share this news? Yup. It’s 安陵容。 安陵容 also tells this eunuch to go to the prison with plague infested rats so as to infect 甄嬛’s father and kill him. 安陵容 really is a piece of work. She does not care about 甄嬛 at all. Her methods are also incredibly devious and deadly. In my opinion, her and 皇后 are the most annoying/worst kinds of opponents. They have no bottom line they aren’t willing to breach and it’s clearly on display here.
甄嬛 is heavily impacted by this news. She confirms this information with her friend, the imperial doctor, 温实初。 We didn’t mention this in the last episode, but it was the Emperor who insisted on 温实初 taking care of 甄嬛 which was a good move. Seems like he is the only doctor that can be trusted in the palace. We haven’t heard of any other doctors around for a while.
As anyone would in this situation, 甄嬛 wants to save her family. She asks for an audience with the Emperor who finally grants her wish. This is the first time they’ve seen each other face to face since the wrong robe incident many months back. The emperor is in his study writing a letter. 甄嬛 shows up and explains that her father was set up, that he is innocent. She tries everything to appeal for her family. Unfortunately, the emperor is resolute in his decision. He coldly says that he’s made the decision to banish her to 宁古塔, a place in the northeast of the empire. 宁古塔 is cold and destitute and is generally where prisoners are exiled to. The place has a horrible reputation for being tough to survive. However, the emperor says that The family will be spared from slave labor and just be made to live there- that’s already clemency enough.
甄嬛 finally voices her displeasure and retorts – is there really clear cut evidence for this case or are you still sulking about the deceased general 年羹尧 and your 10th brother so much so that you have to be suspicious of everyone? Dang girl! That’s bold. This statement completely angers the Emperor. He flings the papers on his table at her and yells “Do you know what you are saying?”
甄嬛 picks up one of these sheets and reads it aloud. It’s a letter the Emperor was writing while 甄嬛 showed up but this letter was written to his deceased wife 纯元. After reading this letter, 甄嬛 is finally and completely heartbroken. We’ll deep dive into this in our analysis section. Essentially she finds out that the man she loves has never actually loved her. All of the affections and favor she received was because she reminded the Emperor of his deceased first wife. He never actually loved her. This revelation is shocking to 甄嬛 and she even screams at the emperor that all her years of affections were misplaced. In the drama, this is one of the most heart wrenching scenes. 孙俪 the actress does an amazing job acting this disbelief and dejection out.
Just when things couldn’t seem to get any worse, the eunuch 苏培盛 enters to deliver the news that 甄嬛’s father has fallen ill in jail from the plague. We all know how that happened. 甄嬛 is once again stunned. Ugh, she sort of falls to the ground upon hearing the news. The Emperor makes a half hearted turn towards but doesn’t motion to pick her up. I can’t.
She quickly turns to the Emperor to beg not for clemency this time but for medical help for his father. Even at this point, when it’s clear that 甄嬛 is not doing well, she’s still wearing those flower pot bottom shoes for goodness sake, he says nothing. She’s pregnant with your child! Do something! But no, he just watches her hobble out of the room.
甄嬛’ is rushed back to her palace but she’s already fainted in the carriage and she’s bleeding. News travels fast and 甄嬛 is going into labor prematurely. The Empress is excited, hoping for two deaths. She got exactly what she was planning for. 沈眉庄 however is worried. She wants to help 甄嬛 but she’s quickly stopped by 敬妃. 端妃 analyzes the situation for her. The three of them are all team 甄嬛 which honestly is quite nice to see given how poorly she’s been treated by the Empress and 安陵容. 敬妃 and 端妃 explain that the Emperor himself needs to know just what 甄嬛 went through to deliver the child. If he feels guilty, then there’s hope for 甄嬛 to regain favor. The most important thing right now is to make sure 甄嬛’s father stays alive. If he dies, 甄嬛 and her child will be forever branded as descendents of a criminal which will be a stain on 甄嬛 that cannot be washed away. With that, these two ladies hurriedly summon doctors to rush to jail.
We get a quick scene of 甄嬛 in labor – but it looks like she’ll pull through. I’m not sure why? She didn’t have to work so hard for this child. Perhaps she wanted her to be the last things she does for her love, the emperor after finding out he utterly used her and betrayed her.
What’s the Emperor doing? He’s just sitting there facing the wall, cross legged, eyes closed. The only glimpse that we have into his thoughts is how quickly he’s pushing the beads on his buddist bracelet. This is a meditative thing that people do a lot. They hold bead bracelets that they push the beads back. You’ll see monks and nuns in temples with these bracelets. The emperor has a jade one he’s pushing around as he is nervous. Contrast his lack of behavior to that of his eunuch 苏培盛. The eunuch is pacing all around the room. I find that quite hilarious because it’s 苏培盛 who’s like “don’t worry Emperor, don’t rush Emperor, everything is going to be all right”. Clearly we see who is the kinder person in this pair. In a change from earlier, the Emperor does allow doctors to check in on 甄嬛’s father.
At this moment, another eunuch comes rushing in to deliver the good news. 甄嬛 has delivered a healthy baby…wait for it…girl. The Emperor finally opens his eyes, turns around and says – “ A princess is also good”. He then gets up to finally see 甄嬛.
News of the princess travels quickly to the Empress’s palace. She of course breathes a sigh of relief. It’s only a princess. Even if 甄嬛 is still alive, it’s only a princess. Let’s pause there to also say – look at this society where they really do not care about women. This reinforces again that women are nothing but second class in this era.
The servants of 甄嬛’s palace are also somewhat disappointed that the child is a girl but they quickly hide their disappointment because at least they are alive. 甄嬛 wakes and takes a brief glance at her daughter. 敬妃 is also here to help out. The Emperor rushes in, takes a peek at her daughter and sits at 甄嬛’s bedside. You can tell he’s extremely pleased. She however, refuses to look at him.
He wants everything to go back to how they once were. 甄嬛 however, cannot accept that. She asks, how is it possible to go back to how it was.
[Karen] – I’m looking at this scene now and think, WOW emperor. You have a huge ego. After everything you’ve put 甄嬛 through you just think everything can magically snap back to how it was before? Wow. 甄嬛 is right to not accept this.
[Cathy] – 甄嬛 is utterly heartbroken at finding out she is indeed just a replacement. Everything she has received is because she is similar to Empress 纯元。 Seeing that 甄嬛 won’t bow down and be the submissive replacement, the Emperor says calmly that she should not stay in the palace anymore. She should go to a buddhist temple to calm down. She actually agrees. There is nothing left for her in the palace and staying will only cause pain for her daughter. Leaving will be the best way to protect her. With tears quietly streaming down her face, she asks that since she’s leaving she wants to name their daughter. Her nickname will be 绾绾。Chinese is very funny because words can sound the same but are completely different characters and mean completely different things. There are so many homonyms. The 绾 that 甄嬛 is proposing to call her daughter sounds exactly the same as 菀 , the nickname of the deceased first wife, and 甄嬛’s own title as a concubine. The emperor thinks is the latter 菀 but 甄嬛 clarifies it is another character. We will discuss this in our analysis later too. She just explains that she hopes her daughter will be able to do the things she won’t be able to for her father.
With that, she has one last request. She asks that her daughter be given to 敬妃 to raise. 敬妃 has always been kind to 甄嬛 and 甄嬛 is helping ensure that 1) her daughter is in good hands and 2) that 敬妃 has someone to depend on in the palace as a way to thank her for all she’s done for 甄嬛.
The Emperor agrees and asks if there is anything else 甄嬛 wants to say. 甄嬛 recites one more poem. This is a pretty harsh poem to recite and we’ll explain too. The Emperor is very clearly angered by this and the episode ends with him storming out of the palace.
So……we were hoping that this episode would be short on the recap and long on the analysis but we couldn’t make that happen so it will just be long on the analysis and long on the recap! There was a lot to unpack on what happened this episode but just as much to explain the history. Everyone had a chance to digest? Let’s get started again.
The first poem to analyze is the one 甄嬛 quotes during the Double Ninth Festival earlier on in the episode just after her father was imprisoned but she was still unaware. The poem’s name is 九月九日忆山东兄弟 or Reminiscing my brothers from Shandong on the 9th Day of the 9th Month by the Tang Dynasty poet 王维.
王伟 was a famous poet and painter born in 701 or 699AD, it isn’t quite clear and died in 761. His writings were saved in a collection that includes over 400 works. He wrote this poem when he was only 17.
The full poem goes like this
I’m alone in foreign place as a visitor, every time there’s a holiday I miss my friends and family.
I know for this holiday my brothers are hiking but this year they are missing a person with a dogwood pouch.
This is the best I could translate this. Even in the tang dynasty, for the Double Ninth festival, it was customary to go hiking. People would bring small pouches of 茱萸 or dogwood on their hikes to ward off spirits. I actually think the first two lines fit 甄嬛’s feelings a bit more in that scene. When the poet 王维 wrote this poem, he was already by himself in the capital city of 长安. He’s feeling lonely without his friends and family. But overall, I think the sentiments for 甄嬛 are the same. She brings up this poem as a way to say that she is missing her family on this holiday where families are supposed to be together often visiting graves of their deceased loved ones. The holiday is still celebrated today in China. This poem is very on the nose because the maid who comes see her knows what befell zhenhuan ‘s family so there is no way 甄嬛 will be able to see them despite 甄嬛 being pregnant and wishing her family was around.
Next, let’s talk about the letter 甄嬛 reads when she confronts the Emperor. The Emperor had just written it and it’s address to his deceased first wife 纯元. Why does 甄嬛 have such a big reaction to reading this poem? Let’s find out.
The letter goes like this.
Here’s my translation: To my beloved wife 菀菀. I grieve your departure, as you’ve left me alone in this world. You still move my soul. I often search for you in my dreams. I still cannot forget you. Even though I now have 莞莞 and 莞莞 is like you, she only briefly stops my yearnings for you. For I’ve seen the best clouds in 巫山 and nothing can compare.
Let’s dissect this: We call the Emperor’s first wife 纯元 but her nickname was 菀菀. This 菀 sounds exactly like 莞 from 甄嬛’s title but the characters are different and have different meanings. 菀 for 纯元 is an Aster tataricus or a purple flower. The 莞 for 甄嬛’s title can mean small smile or else the plants bulrush. The last phrase that translates to – For I’ve seen the best clouds in 巫山 and nothing can compare means that I have had the best, which is 纯元, and nobody can compare, not even 甄嬛.
This letter makes it extremely clear that 甄嬛 is nothing but a replacement for 纯元. 甄嬛 might not have completely understood why the Emperor was furious with her before when she accidentally wore the wrong clothes but now she does. The Emperor was not going to allow anyone to touch his precious 纯元’s belongings even if it’s 甄嬛. This also shows that everything that 甄嬛 has received in terms of affection and favoritism was only a result of her being like 纯元。
This is such a sad joke for 甄嬛. The Emperor gave 甄嬛 this title of 莞 way back in episode 2 when he first laid eyes on her. Even at that point, 皇后 asked if the title should have been the other 菀 to refer to the deceased first wife but the emperor changed it slightly. From the beginning, 甄嬛 was always that replacement. Sure there might have been some true feelings from the Emperor but the Emperor always viewed 甄嬛 through the lens of his first wife 纯元. There are many examples throughout the drama that no matter that 甄嬛 did, the emperor still favors his first wife. One that pops immediately into mind is when both 甄嬛 and 安陵容 made pajamas for the emperor. The emperor at first chose the style 甄嬛 created but then made a curious choice. He said I still want to use the ones 纯元 made for me. That’s the best as it is these pajamas are the closest things to me. This statement really stood out to me when re-watching this series. He has 2 perfectly good things in front of him but prefers the ones made by 纯元。 Another example is when 安陵容 came back to favor after having been out due to an illness. The Empress trained 安陵容 to sing like 纯元. This immediately captured the emperor’s attention. While they watched 安陵容sing, the empress says that 安陵容 was trained to sound somewhat like 纯元 but not completely to which the Emperor says that even if its just a little bit, that’s good. This shows again how anything that is close to his beloved 纯元, he will like.
This phrase 莞莞类卿 or 莞莞 is like you is the crux of the issue. The Emperor still puts her in this box, not seeing 甄嬛 for her. This is one hurdle 甄嬛 cannot overcome. Which is why she is so adamant on leaving the palace. In this situation the Empress, ultimately won in terms of removing 甄嬛 as a threat. 甄嬛 now sees that the emperor never saw her for who she truly was. She has no fight left in her. She does not want to try to gain any attention by the emperor. What’s the point? There’s no emotion there. The issue is that from the very beginning of the drama, 甄嬛 has always wanted a true love type of love. One where she and her love will be on the same page. Even though she knows she’s in the palace and that can’t happen, she never expected this. 甄嬛 will not look back because she is very proud. The Empress was banking on this.
Next let’s talk about more homonyms!
This time the name that 甄嬛 gives to her daughter 绾绾. So many wans.
She quotes the phrase 长发绾君心. I’ll translate this to – flowing locks to bind my beloved’s heart.
This phrase comes from another 唐 dynasty poet. A female poet at that! Her name is 晁采. The full poem goes like this.
I will cut a strand of my hair, my beloved will also cut a strand of his hair. We will find a private place to bind our hair into a true love’s knot.
甄嬛 gives her daughter this name because she wants her daughter to find that one true love. She even says, what I did not accomplish, I want my daughter to. You can really tell that she’s absolutely heartbroken and disenchanted with the Emperor. She wanted true love but she didn’t get it.
Finally, let discuss the lines that 甄嬛 says at the very end episode.
甄嬛 quotes from 诀别书 or the Parting Letter from the Han Dynasty female writer 卓文君. We talked about her before. Her husband 司马相如 wrote this famous song 凤求凰 when he was trying to woo her. He succeeded. Now, years later, this husband gains fame and fortune and wants to bring a concubine into the household. Classic, ugh men.
卓文君, mournful of happier days, writes a scathing poem and letter to her husband. We’ll focus on the phrases that 甄嬛 says.
Strings are broken, marriage is done, my youth has gone, it’s time to leave, remember to eat and don’t think about me, your wife, I swear to the flowing river in front of me, to part with you.
Essentially, she is saying, we’re parting ways. I’m leaving you.
After everything that 甄嬛 has been through, to find out all she has received was fake, it’s no wonder she makes this choice. This poem, as we’ve translated, is pretty harsh. She shuts down the emperor with this final poem. As we said earlier, the emperor is angered after hearing this poem and leaves.
Why do we call this episode the “death” of Zhen Huan? Her heart died today. The illusion she was in from everything she had was finally lifted.
Let’s round out this discussion by saying that in the entire drama, the emperor is the one who breaks the most hearts and destroys the most lives. Some people say that he is actually very focused on love as he compares everything to his deceased wife. They say he’s 长情 or very sentimental. But look at how many people he’s hurt in his wake. 甄嬛, 沈眉庄. 华妃. 皇后。 It must be terrible for 皇后 to have to endure her husband talk so lovingly about her sister while never showing the same type of affection to her.
Wow that was again a lot to handle. That’s all for our episode recap today. Let us know your thoughts! We are working on creating a website and also publishing transcripts of our episodes so you can follow along if need be especially with all of these poems. Look out for that in the coming weeks. Otherwise, please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org!
We’ll catch you in the next episode. Yes, we know it’s not the most exciting episode arc but we will power through it.