[Karen]

Welcome Back to Chasing Dramas! This is the podcast that discusses Chinese history and culture through historical Chinese dramas. We are Karen and Cathy, your hosts for this podcast. Our website Chasingdramas.com is now live with info on the podcast so please check it out. Please let us know if you have any feedback on our website or email us at karenandcathy@chasingdramas.com

We’ve been zooming through the last couple of episodes in an effort to get to the more interesting episodes but now we have to slow down. Today we are going to be discussing Episode 54 of Empresses in the Palace 后宫甄嬛传.

This episode revolves around our main character 甄嬛’s plans to get back into the imperial palace as a concubine of the Emperor. Her main motivations are to 1) provide much needed medical attention for her ailing father who was exiled to 宁古塔, and 2) to provide a title for her child who is the child of her lover, the 17th prince. She can only do this as a concubine in the palace because, as we found out last episode, the 17th prince has heartbreakingly passed away. To solve for her immediate problems, 甄嬛 planned for the Emperor to come see her in an effort to trick him into thinking he’s the father of her unborn child. 

 

[Cathy]

With all that planning in episode 53, the efforts pay off. 苏培盛, the emperor’s head eunuch, comes to visit 甄嬛 after she successfully lured the emperor to visit her at the nunnery. The emperor was so moved by her current state that they immediately closed the doors and had an intimate moment. 

It’s been about a month since the emperor’s first visit. Apparently, he’s been over a lot. The eunuch 苏培盛 arrives to present some gifts etc and 甄嬛 puts on a show of pregnancy symptoms. 苏培盛 doesn’t miss a beat and realizes she is pregnant. He is very pleased because obviously, he thinks it’s the emperor’s. He says they must have 甄嬛 come back to the palace because her child has to be documented in the family tree book or 宗室玉蝶。 We’ll talk about this in the analysis. He plans with 甄嬛 and her maids to ask the imperial doctor 温实初 to come care for her pregnancy because the emperor trusts his abilities and because 甄嬛 knows 温实初。

I’m surprised no one’s found out about 甄嬛’s relationship to 温实处 already.

甄嬛 has many reasons for keeping this pregnancy a secret at the moment but the one she gives to 苏培盛 is that her status is a little awkward, news of a pregnancy would not fly in the Imperial Harem.  And with that, the plan to cuckold the emperor goes smoothly.  苏培盛 is such a great guy to have on your side. He looks out for you. Treat him with respect, provide him with a partner and he’s the best ally you can have. 

苏培盛 notifies 温实初 of his new responsibilities, namely to care for 甄嬛 who is pregnant which confuses him greatly. 温实初 heads off to see 甄嬛 to discover the truth. He doesn’t understand why 苏培盛,eunuch to the emperor, would help 甄嬛’s child who is so clearly the 17th prince’s. When 温实初 speaks to 甄嬛, 甄嬛 informs 温实初 that the Emperor, 皇上, thinks her child is his…

温实初 is like how did this happen? I’m sure internally he’s mad that he was supposed to be next in line but got usurped by both the 17th prince and BACK by the emperor? But 甄嬛 tearfully explains her predicament and asks him to help her return to the palace. To do so, he has to fool the emperor on her condition as well.  I feel like 甄嬛 treats 温实初 rather poorly here. She keeps calling him 实初哥哥 , her childhood nickname for him, to help him see her side. Of course he’ll help her. I think she’s totally abusing his affections for her…

He reports to the emperor that 甄嬛’s pregnancy is not stable so the emperor cannot spend intimate time with her. That should prevent the emperor from noticing any discrepancies with her pregnancy.

Also, can we also just admire that these Chinese doctors can accurately predict when someone is pregnant after just 1 month? Like kudos to him.  It’s most likely for plot purposes but hey, he has the skill to know these things. I’m not a medical expert but I feel like this is rather suspect. Oh well.

 

[Karen]

The emperor is beyond pleased to hear that 甄嬛 is pregnant. He goes to visit her and plans how to bring her back to the palace. Just as they are planning this, the Empress in the palace finds out about 甄嬛’s pregnancy. She and her posse are furious that this happened. The ladies desperately do not want 甄嬛 to come back to the palace. Why would they? It would jeopardize their power in the palace. They have to come up with a plan to prevent her from returning.

As these ladies are plotting, 甄嬛 has to resolve another issue on her end. The 17th prince’s mother, who has also decided to leave the palace and become a nun several years ago, is distraught over hearing about her son’s death. 甄嬛 heads over to comfort her. She wears clothes of mourning which in Chinese culture is traditionally white and black. More white than black. I actually quite like the outfit.  The mother is understandably sad over her son’s death. 甄嬛 is able to cheer her up somewhat by telling her about her grandchild. This does the trick and the 17th prince’s mother is ready to eat food she’s been neglecting. 

But… 甄嬛 has to break the rest of the story to the 17th prince’s mother. When she does, the 17th prince’s mother is understandably shocked and angered. How could 甄嬛 take her grandson away to be raised as someone else’s child. 甄嬛 once again has to tearfully share her difficulties and predicament. She ensures the 17th prince’s mother that she loves the 17th prince but has to take this step in order to enact revenge for the 17th prince. The mother comes around. She understands the difficulties of being a woman in that time period and accepts what’s happened.

On 甄嬛’s side, all loose ends are tied up. She just needs to get back to the palace. But… that won’t be too easy.

 

[Cathy]

The empress has come up with a plan to prevent 甄嬛’s return. She plots to have very unlucky events happen to both her and the empress dowager. For her, she sprains her ankle and the incense she’s burning while praying breaks twice. For the empress dowager, her palace catches on fire when she has a ritual happening there… All of this was to nudge the Emperor into seeing 钦天监, the Imperial Astronomer. It’ll be the Imperial Astronomer that halt’s 甄嬛 return to the palace. We’ve mentioned this slightly before when we were talking about the general 年羹尧 but Chinese people were historically very superstitious and looked at the stars for signs to follow. 

The imperial astronomer, in very fancy language, noted that a harmful constellation is now bright. This constellation is called 危月燕. This constellation is nearing the moon and cause misfortune to those represented by the moon. Furthering with the fancy language, the astronomer says that the cause of the misfortune originates from the north, a peak, a woman who is pregnant, someone outside the palace but getting closer. This person will harm both the empress and empress dowager. HMMMM who could that be?! Quite obviously, this person is 甄嬛. The emperor hears this and, wanting to protect the empress and the empress dowager, halts 甄嬛’s return to the palace. We’ll talk about some of the astronomy that Chinese people followed but a lot of this constellation talk was tailored for this drama or these scene.

From this, it’s pretty clear that this nonsense with the constellation was plotted by the Empress. If you look at 苏培盛’s reaction throughout this scene, he knows something’s up. He promptly tells 甄嬛”s maid about this development. 甄嬛 is not surprised about this either but there’s not a whole lot she can do. She just has to sit tight and wait until she can figure out how to combat this. 

 

[Karen]

This is a stroke of genius on the Empress’s part. It’s hard for the emperor, who is rather superstitious, to deny what the imperial astronomer says is harmful to his mother. You’ll also notice that even though the empress dowager’s palace caught fire, the fire was small and didn’t do a whole lot of damage. The empress only wanted her and the empress dowager to suffer slightly in order to nudge the emperor’s suspicion. He’ll listen to this astronomer instead of listening to her. If she says she doesn’t want 甄嬛 to come back, the emperor will dislike her. He can’t dislike her if the astronomer says 甄嬛 shouldn’t come back.

The problem with the Empress is that she doesn’t know when to stop. 甄嬛 would have been stuck at the mountain peak if the Empress didn’t decide that she needed to solve all of her problems in the Imperial Palace. She had already killed the 3rd prince’s mother and now has sole ownership of the 3rd prince. She prevented 甄嬛 from returning to the palace. What else? Her next target is the 4th prince. The 4th prince we’ve seen in previous episodes, is the unfavored son of the emperor. He is now grown and poses a threat to the 3rd prince’s claim to the throne. So what does the empress do? Try to poison and kill the 4th prince. Luckily, one of his maids ate the bowl of poisoned soup instead of him. She died on the spot. 

 

[Cathy]

He ran away frightened by what happened. Fortunately for him, he ran straight to 沈眉庄’s place. 沈眉庄 is best friends with 甄嬛 and is very kind. 沈眉庄 takes the 4th prince to the Empress Dowager. They calm the 4th prince down and wonders who wants to harm him. The empress dowager knows exactly who did it. It has to be the Empress. The Empress Dowager is frustrated because she’s warned the Empress numerous times that she needs to stop her actions but she doesn’t listen. There isn’t anyone in the palace who can counteract the Empress. Who might be that option? Of course, it’s 甄嬛.

The empress dowager orders the emperor to come see her the next day. What does she have to say to him? We’ll find out in the next episode.

 

Analysis

[Karen]

What do we have to talk about today?

First, is about the 宗室玉碟。 This is the historical archive or the imperial genealogy that tracks all of the family members of the royal family.  苏培盛 mentions that 甄嬛’s child has to be documented in the 宗室玉碟 as an official child of the Emperor’s. This is kind of a throwaway line in this episode but also quite interesting. For those of you who have watched the popular drama 琅琊榜, or Nirvana in Fire, there is a storyline where 靖王, a prince, mentions that the orphaned son of his brother cannot be recognized as a royal because the son was not documented in the 玉蝶 or imperial genealogy. Therefore, the best this prince can do for his nephew, is raise him as a god-child to give him at least some of the comforts he would have retained as a royal. I feel like that was the first time I paid attention to what “玉碟” means so I am pleasantly surprised that this is mentioned in this drama. I haven’t paid attention to it probably because I generally skip these episodes.

This 玉碟, which more or less translates to “jade record”, has been documenting the imperial household’s family tree since as far back as the Tang Dynasty. In the Song dynasty, the process is to update the genealogy every 10 years. This process has been maintained for centuries all the way up until 1921, even after the fall of the Qing dynasty.  The documented changes include marriage, births, deaths, promotions, demotions, your banner, your title among others changes. I think of it as kind of a more detailed census report but for the imperial family. There are similar genealogies for family clans all throughout China but of course, not as official or grand since we’re talking about the imperial royal family here.  

I thought this was really interesting. In the Qing dynasty, starting from 顺治, the 1st emperor to rule China proper and the grandfather of the emperor of this drama, the imperial genealogy or this 玉碟 has been updated 26 times and an additional 2 times after the fall of the Qing dynasty. They are written in two versions: 1 in Chinese and the other in Manchu. The last update included over 1000 booklets to document the family tree. This genealogy is the best preserved genealogy in China and is currently stored in the First Historical Archive in Beijing. That, no matter how you slice it, is very impressive. 

 

[Cathy]

Next we’ll dive into another topic that is very complex – Chinese Astronomy!

The Empress in this episode cleverly uses the Astronomical Bureau of 钦天监 to dissuade the Emperor from summoning 甄嬛 back into the palace. Astronomy has a long and colorful history in China dating back to ancient times. There were various iterations of an Astronomical Bureau  throughout history such as 太史令, 太史院 and 司天监. The name was changed to 钦天监 in the Ming Dynasty and was still used in the Qing Dynasty. 

You can think of 钦天监 as the national observatory. It had many important roles including setting the calendar, observing celestial events or phenomena, and predicting the solar terms. The science and technology used to develop these calendars were quite impressive. Surprisingly, astronomy is one area of study where there was heavy Western influence beginning in the 17th century for both the Ming and Qing Dynasties. There are several notable Jesuit missionaries that led the Astronomical Bureau. They include the German Jesuit Johann Adam Schall Von Bell or his mandarin name 汤若望 and the Flemish Jesuit Ferdinand Verbiest or 南怀仁. These two helped modify the Chinese calendar to be more accurate. Von Bell is quite commonly portrayed in TV shows about the reign of Emperor 顺治. During the Qing Dynasty there were Han, Manchu, and Western missionaries that led the bureau and Beijing Ancient Observatory. 

Of course, the information that 钦天监 provided also was used astrological divination. Most of the time astronomy is used for useful purposes but in other situations like the one we have here in this episode, it’s quite easy to use this information to sow fear for the likes of the Emperor. 

I’m definitely no expert on this so let’s sort of dive into what the Imperial Astronomer says. He says:

北方玄武七宿中十月才明亮的危月燕星,突然大放异彩,尾带小星,有冲月之势

He has observed 北方玄武 or the Black Tortoise – one of the Four Symbols of the Chinese constellations. The various names also have roots in Daoism and Chinese legends. Of the seven astrological Mansions within the Black Tortoise, one mansion is different. The one specifically called out in the show is 危 or rooftop. The literal translation of 危 means danger. Roof means top or tall. Tall represents risk. Hence why this mansion is unlucky or dangerous. Based on what I’ve read, this 危 usually does not shine brightly. The Imperial astronomer here says, this mansion is suddenly shining brightly. The full name is 危月燕. I”ll need someone to completely explain to me that part but 月 means moon and usually represents a female. The quote on quote “top” females in the land are the Empress Dowager and Empress. This mansion currently has a small tail, which according to him represents a pregnant woman living in the North. As we said earlier, this woman will be dangerous to the two top women in the palace, namely the Empress Dowager and Empress.

This I must say is actually quite a convincing argument. I did some basic research and it is true that 危月燕 is seen as unlucky. Most everything about this statement is true which is more than I can say of several other dramas.

Chinese people very much believed in astronomy and astrological divination. My grandma still looks at the lunar calendar to mark some unlucky days. It’s no surprise that the Emperor, who is very suspicious, calls off his plan to bring 甄嬛 back into the palace. This is a pretty obvious negative sign! 

 

Phew – enough about stars. That’s it for today’s episode! 甄嬛’s plan to return to the palace is temporarily foiled by the Empress but will she ultimately prevail?