Hello! Welcome back to Chasing Dramas! The podcast that explores Chinese history through historical TV dramas. This is Karen, and this is Cathy and we are back again to discuss the next episode of 甄嬛传, Empresses in the Palace。
甄嬛is dealing with a mutiny from her servants. She hasn’t seen the Emperor, in about 2 months and the gossip is that she never will. No one wants to tie their fortunes to a loser. She is understandably upset and dismisses everyone who wants to leave. Only 瑾汐，小允子, 佩儿 are left along with 浣碧 and 流珠。The original head eunuch of zhen huan’s palace, decided to leave to 丽嫔’s palace.
We quickly see that even as a concubine, if you aren’t in favor, it isn’t a comfortable life. It’s winter time and 瑾汐 (the head maid) and 小允子， the only remaining eunuch, are trying to burn some coal to keep warm in the cold. But the coal is very poor quality coal that burns with too much smoke so it’ll be impossible to put in the room. The Eunuchs from 内务府 Imperial Household Department who give out materials to the various ladies obviously decided it wasn’t worth it to give zhen huan quality coal.
Fortunately, 甄嬛’s two friends, 沈眉庄 and 安陵容 stop by to check on 甄嬛。 Immediately 沈眉庄 realizes that the Eunuchs are playing games and not providing the allotted supplies。沈眉庄, who currently is very favored by the Emperor, brings over a couple of baskets of silver coal (basically higher quality coal) to help 甄嬛 through the winter.
After this scene 沈眉庄’s main servant actually goes to 内务府 the Imperial Household Department, she’s able to help secure materials for 甄嬛 so that she can survive through the winter. Unfortunately 颂芝, 华妃’s main maid also comes and basically bullies everyone.
A bit more time passes and it’s time for the new year celebration. With 甄嬛’s illness, she was granted leave to stay her quarters and not attend the main festivities of the royal family. She has a lovely time with her servants – joking and playing games. They are making 剪纸 or Papercuts and the legend was that if you can put it on a high branch and make a wish, then the wish will come true. She’s still a young girl here and enjoys having fun.
In the Palace, 华妃 has organized the new years eve celebration and everyone is getting a little tipsy. The emperor, his concubines and various favored brothers are in attendance for the feast. We are also introduced to the handsome 17th brother, 允礼。
There’s dancing and music, quite a lively occasion, but the Emperor becomes upset when he sees red plum blossoms as part of the decorations. He decides to go out into the plum blossom garden, 椅梅园 for a stroll.
There, he hears a woman who is making a wish by reciting a lovely poem from the Tang dynasty. Who is it? It’s none other than 甄嬛! She makes the wish but is overheard by not just the emperor, but also the 17th prince, who has come out to find the emperor, and…a maid who is staffed at the garden. Her last name is Yu.
The emperor calls out – wondering who is making the wish. 甄嬛 first hides away so she cannot be seen by the emperor and then lies to say that she’s a servant maid in the garden before sneaking away. She is supposed to be sick and in bed. She shouldn’t be seen out and about so late and in the dead of winter. She was worried she’d get in trouble.
The handsome 17th prince reveals himself to be following the emperor and they leave the garden, but not before the Emperor, smitten and surprised to find an educated woman among the ranks of the garden maids, asks his head eunuch to find out who that woman is. Obviously, he doesn’t know it was 甄嬛. During the questioning, the maid who overheard the exchange – named Yu, seizes her opportunity to become a woman of the emperor and falsely claims that she was the one to make that wish that night. The emperor happily accepts her claim and showers her with attention.
沈眉庄 and 甄嬛 discussing this new woman. 沈眉庄 is getting a tiny bit worried about not getting as much attention by the emperor with this new woman but is even more worried about their friend 安陵容 because this servant girl, 于, is of a much lower birth rank than 安陵容 (who at least has a father who is an official) but now has the same rank. Concubine. 于， has been promoted twice recently so her and 安陵容 are the same rank.
The episode ends with a small confrontation between 余答应， this new servant girl turned concubine, and 沈眉庄， as she leaves 甄嬛’s palace. We see that 余答应 is very rude and condescending and flaunts her favoritism. It’s one thing when you’re 华妃 to talk down to 沈眉庄 who is of a lower rank, it’s another when you’re several tiers below 沈眉庄 and talking rudely up to her.
A few quick notes for the episode, that we won’t dive into but we want to point out.
安陵容 who we haven’t really discussed in the last couple of episodes, has the lowest rank of the ladies – below 甄嬛 and 沈眉庄 She still hasn’t been called by the emperor to spend the night. It’s not a given. Something else of note is that 甄嬛 hasn’t told her friends what’s happening so they’re in the dark that her illness is actually fake.
梅花 – or Plum Blossoms will be a constant motif in this series. In China, they represent virtuosity, purity, and hope. It is a symbol of winter and is known as one of the Four Gentleman of Flowers in Chinese art, the other being Chrysanthemums, which we already discussed, orchid, and lotus. Plum blossoms have a certain history in this story which is why the Emperor is so taken with sights of these flowers.
Alright — Analysis time! What do we want to discuss.
This time, we’re not going to focus as much on the concubines, but look at the servants instead. This scene is after 沈眉庄 goes to visit 甄嬛 and realizes that she’s being jipped by the eunuchs of 内务府.
This scene shows the dramas and subtleties of servant life that most other dramas don’t discuss. Reminds me a little bit of Downton Abbey actually.
彩月, who is the head maid for 沈眉庄, goes to 内务府. This is the department that manages all of the internal affairs of the palace. 彩月 is there to pick up the monthly allowance for her master. Now, I think we mentioned this in our intro episode, but each status for a concubine has an allotted allowance each month to spend that is increased the higher your rank/title is. It seems that here, you have to go pick up the money from this department. If your family has money, that’s another situation.
彩月 casually mentions that she JUST went to 甄嬛’s palace to send some stuff, and decided to come pick up the allowance along the way. And immediately, the head eunuch says, oh, you came from 甄嬛’s palace? 采月 says yes, my master and 甄嬛 or more specifically, her title of 菀常在, are childhood friends. 菀常在 is missing things here and there so my master has always picked the nicest things to send over to her. The head eunuch quickly responds – how is it appropriate for 沈贵人 to be sending stuff, it must be because some things fell through the cracks. We will immediately replenish and make up for what was missed to 甄嬛. If you watch this scene, none of it is overacted, it’s very pleasant. No accusations, no threats – just subtleties that one side drops and fortunately, the other side picks up on immediately.
采月，the maid, upon hearing that supplies will be replenished and therefore achieving her goal, promptly replies – I understand that your department is very busy with thousands of things to work on every day. It’s inevitable that things are missed. So again, rounding out the conversation by not accusing anyone, but acknowledging that this is appreciated and her master will be happy.
For this exchange. 采月 mentions the connection of her master to 甄嬛 very casually. Even though there is nothing threatening, the underlying tone here is very clear. 沈眉庄 is favored by the emperor, and she is good friends with 甄嬛, so you, eunuchs of 内务府 should heed my master’s example and also treat 甄嬛 accordingly.
This exchange when we look at it, is exactly why it is (i) crucial to “fight” in the palace for the emperor’s affection and (ii) the concubines align themselves into factions. Let’s take a look at the first point. If you are favored by the emperor, you have more sway over most of the servants because they think that you have the power to help them further their careers or else give them larger monetary rewards/tips. I mean I get it. The worst part is that if you aren’t favored, not only will the servants not help you, they will actively try to sabotage you which is sometimes worse. No one wants to serve someone who’s just gonna wallow away.
Onto the second point, breaking into factions or finding allies, as is the case here with our main character 甄嬛 and 沈眉庄, is an easier way to survive in the palace if you DON”T have a whole lot of favoritism by the emperor. Other factors to keep in mind are, of course, your matrilineal line. Why do you think all the servants treat 安陵容 poorly? She comes from a poor background. Fortunately, she has allied herself with these two ladies. The main person right now is of course 沈眉庄 because she has favor. 安陵容 just needs to keep her head down and while she won’t be too well off, people won’t bother with her.
From this exchange of the servants, you realize how tiring being in the palace is and how precarious the each woman’s position is because it is a non-stop constant battle for affection not just because your own fortunes are tied to how much the emperor likes you, but your day to day by the eunuchs and maids will be heavily influenced by this favoritism. The head eunuch here can most definitely make your life hell if he really wanted to. Like, cut off supplies to coal or good food or clothing. Even though to the outside you’re a “woman of the emperor”, you are at the mercy of these servants.
And on that lovely note – let’s discuss a new main character. He is…. Dang dang da da — the 17th prince! His name is 允礼。He is the younger brother of the current emperor who is the 4th prince. Brother from another mother but they have a good relationship. He is handsome and dashing and we are told he is very focused on studying and likes his books or to travel and not focus too much on politics. He’s also great with the flute. When he is introduced during the new years eve celebration, he, by the historical timeline, is around 26.
Now to give some context – remember a few episodes back, we mentioned that the current emperor went through a ton of drama to become emperor. The previous emperor had a whopping 25 sons and ended up having 9 of those sons scheme and battle for the throne to become the next emperor. Our current emperor, 雍正, had to dispose of most of his opponents, and we mentioned even his own blood brother, the 14th prince who is now in exile. Therefore, 雍正, our current emperor is INCREDIBLY wary of his brothers. However, he has a really good relationship with this brother the 17th prince – primarily BECAUSE he’s so focused on books and not politics.
A little bit of cool history, remember how we discussed in episode 2 the whole name rule? It’s where you can’t have the same character or the same sounding character in your name as the emperor? Well, we know that 雍正’s real name is 胤祯。His brothers all had 胤 as a character. Well after he is coronated as Emperor, all of his living brothers changed their names to 允 because they couldn’t have the same character as the emperor! That’s why in some shows/stories they will be referred to as 允 instead of 胤。
Now this handsome gentleman is asked to follow the emperor, when the emperor becomes upset at the sight of red plum blossoms as part of the decorations. The 17th prince, follows the emperor to the garden where the emperor overhears 甄嬛 making her wish.
To re-iterate, there are a total of 4 people in the garden at this point. 1- the Emperor, 2 – 甄嬛, 3 – the 17th prince and 4 – this other servant girl – 余。
In the garden, 甄嬛 says two lines of a poem – 逆风如解意，容易莫摧残 from the poem 梅花 Plum Blossoms by the Tang Dynasty poet 崔道融。This poem is pretty on the nose since the title is literally Plum Blossoms. These two lines basically mean, I hope the northern winds are understanding and do not destroy the flower. 甄嬛 wants to remain “pure” and hopes she doesn’t get swept up in all the palace drama.
All 4 of the characters overhear this. 雍正 is impressed and wants to know who she is. 甄嬛 lies and says that she’s a maid. Well 雍正 wants to find out who she is after leaving the garden because he’s surprised there are educated people.
When 苏培盛, the emperor’s head eunuch, asks if anyone knows the corresponding line the next day, the maid 余 seizes her chance and says the second part of the line 容易莫摧残. She is presented to 雍正 and the 17th Prince. And just like that, the Emperor makes her a 官女子, the lowest ranking concubine.
Now listen to the 2 lines he says as he leaves the room, 玉楼金阙慵归去，且插梅花醉洛阳. The maid, 余莺儿 kind of just sits there. She has no idea what it means. 允礼, the 17th prince, then asks “do you know what this means? This is a poem by 李白, the emperor likes 李白.” 李白 is one of the most famous Tang Dynasty poets in Chinese history. It seems like 允礼 is helping her out, giving her some pointers to win favor. But no! This was a red herring, he’s testing her! These two lines are actually from a Song dynasty poet by 朱敦儒 (Zhu Dun Ru). 余莺儿 doesn’t correct him and just says, “thanks”.
I am impressed that the drama didn’t say, hey this is wrong. We had to do some research to learn about this poem and lo and behold, it wasn’t by 李白。
Well now he knows that she’s a fraud. He doesn’t outright tell his brother that but makes it pretty obvious to 苏培盛. The 17th prince is one sharp cookie. He knows that telling his brother the truth won’t do him any favors and it seems like 雍正’s mind is pretty set on this girl. 允礼 knows when to keep his mouth shut. Affairs of 后宫 and politics will most likely get him killed, he just needs to stick with playing Chinese go and his flute.
In a short period of time 余莺儿 is now already a 答应. She’s super bitchy towards everyone
And that’s that with Episode 5 of 甄嬛传。 In the next episode, we’ll see how this new girl survives…hey at least she lasted longer than 夏冬春. What’s going to happen to 甄嬛 now that this girl has taken her spot?