Episode 70+71 – Check Mate


[Karen]

Welcome back to Chasing dramas.  This is the podcast that discusses Chinese history and culture through historical Chinese dramas. Today we are discussing episode 70 and 71 of Empresses in the Palace, 后宫甄嬛传。 We are your hosts, Karen and Cathy.  This podcast is in English with proper nouns pronounced in Mandarin Chinese. As always, we first do an episode recap and then discuss any interesting historical or plot details described in the episode.


In the last episode, one of the main themes was the 3rd prince’s infatuation with the beautiful and lovely 瑛贵人. This paved the way to weaken the Empress’s support in the palace as we head into the end game. Episode 70 + 71 we’re combining because they are heavily plot driven and focus on 1 thing, defeating the Empress.


I like to think of the Empress as a final boss. Zhen Huan has defeated all of the Empress’s lieutenants while developing a strong army herself. If we look at Zhen Huan’s team, you have 敬贵妃, 皇贵妃, formerly 端妃, 欣嫔, her adoptive son the 4th prince, her own sisters and at minimum 宁嫔。 All of these ladies are very powerful, intelligent and attuned to Palace politics. What about the Empress? She currently only has her servants and the 3rd prince. Now it is time to turn our attention to coming in for the kill. So, what happens in these 2 episodes?


[cathy]

First and foremost is to cause the Emperor to lose trust in both the 3rd prince and the Empress. How is this done? The 3rd prince was idiotic enough to serve himself on a platter. In the last episode, the 3rd prince became infatuated with one of the Emperor’s women, the beautiful 瑛贵人. And so, he decides to write a love letter to her. 


Unfortunately, this love letter was discovered by 敬贵妃, a member of 甄嬛’s camp. 敬贵妃 presents this evidence to the Emperor who summons 甄嬛, the Empress and 瑛贵人.  While 敬贵妃 explains what she discovered hoping to land a huge blow to the 3rd prince and the Empress, the Empress was able to turn the tables and accuse 瑛贵人 of seducing a prince。The Emperor is furious and swiftly sentences 瑛贵人 to death by hanging. The poor girl is dragged out crying that she is innocent and that’s the last we see of her. Such a sad ending for her and because the 3rd prince couldn’t keep his emotions in check.   


But even though the Emperor sentenced her to death, he’s fully aware that she was innocent. He had to do this to protect the reputation of the imperial family. He says as much to the 3rd prince who had been punished to pray in the royal temple in the palace. While the Emperor does not raise his voice, he slaps the 3rd prince for 1) being interested in his father’s woman and 2) being interested in the Emperor’s woman. The Emperor is furious with his son and warns him that if there are any future mistakes, he may not be able to save his son. The 3rd prince is left crying and in shock of what transpired.


[side note: I was shocked at those 2 slaps to the face! The Emperor must REALLY be angry]


[Karen]

But really? 3rd prince. Why on earth did you think this was a good idea whatsoever? Great job for you, you just killed a completely innocent woman. This certainly causes a rift between the Emperor and his eldest son.


The death of 瑛贵人 had collateral damage though. The Emperor is suspicious that the 17th prince and 玉隐, Zhen Huan’s younger sister, may have had a hand in telling 瑛贵人 to seduce the 3rd prince. While this is obviously not true, he becomes distant towards 甄嬛. They had a frank conversation about how this looks. 甄嬛 has sons, who would gain if the 3rd Prince falls out of favor? The Emperor admits it doesn’t look good for her. 甄嬛 is certainly saddened and annoyed that the Emperor would entertain this type of wrongful suspicion on the 17th prince’s household that are completely innocent. But this is the Emperor’s true nature.


We shouldn’t feel too bad for 甄嬛 though. As 敬贵妃 finds out when trying to make up for acting to rashly on this matter, 甄嬛 is actually pregnant again. This means that her current loss of favor will resolve itself as the Emperor will be pleased to hear there’s another pregnancy.  What I love about this scene is it again shows that 敬贵妃 knows how to play the game in the palace. It’s just when she decides to act. Here it backfired but her goal was to strike a blow to the Empress.


[Cathy]

[Really? I thought this was VERY rash of 敬贵妃 – she even admitted it herself. 甄嬛 has now lost favor, the 17th prince, who has done nothing, is on pins and needles even though he doesn’t know it, and poor 瑛贵人 died. I actually don’t know what she wanted to accomplish]


He acknowledges to 苏培盛 that he’s most anxious about ties between the Imperial Court and the Imperial Harem. He’s worried everyone’s calculating against him – well he’s not wrong – and must plan against that. 


This is further exacerbated by the pending preparations for the previous Emperor 康熙’s birthday ceremonies. The Empress wants the 3rd Prince to stand out during the proceedings. Unfortunately, it does seem the whole fiasco with 瑛贵人 has sowed the seeds of suspicion towards the 3rd prince. During a meeting with a minister, the Emperor finds out the 3rd Prince has recruited ministers and scholars to discuss political matters. This is a HUGE no no – the Emperor even points out this wasn’t allowed under his father. Why? Well – that’s basically building your own political faction. You’re telling everyone that you want the throne. The Emperor is getting more and more disappointed with the 3rd Prince. So much so that he doesn’t immediately appoint him to lead the proceedings for the birthday celebrations. That’s a big red flag.



[Karen]

Now that the 3rd prince has suffered a blow and has annoyed the Emperor, onto the Empress.


In a stroke of good luck, as 甄嬛 is watching the prince princesses play with each other, she is prompted by a sentence Princess 静和 exclaims, which is “My sister chasing my sister”. Yes, the translation is a little off but this is similar to 安陵容’s final words, The Empress kill the Empress. We discussed before how this could mean an action, as in The Empress, Go Kill the Empress, or a statement: The Empress Killed the Empress.  With this epiphany, 甄嬛 discusses with 敬贵妃 and 皇贵妃 who are with her watching the kids play in the palace that could it be possible the current Empress killed the former Empress 纯元。 This would be a bit of a stretch because they were sisters after all but 皇贵妃 shares the circumstances in which 纯元 died. 


It turns out, the current Empress was first to marry the Emperor, back then just the 4th prince. The Empress was also not the wife but rather 侧福晋 or a secondary wife. The plan was for the Empress to be promoted to the primary wife after she gives birth. But what happened?  The Empress’s older sister, 纯元 came to the household to take care of the Empress while the Empress was pregnant but when the Emperor met this older sister, he immediately fell in love and requested that she be named wife. The Empress, being younger and born of a secondary wife herself could not argue and accepted this. Later, when 纯元 became pregnant, her pregnancy was extremely difficult. The Empress was tasked with taking care of her older sister since she had a background in medicine. Sadly, 纯元 gave birth to a stillborn child. She also died soon after.


[Cathy]

Upon hearing this information, the trio of she, 甄嬛 and 敬贵妃 surmise that the Empress certainly had motive to kill her older sister. After all, 纯元 stole her husband and her coveted wife position. The trio agree to act cautiously and search for evidence of the Empress’s heinous crimes.


The plot to bring down the Empress almost falls into place a little too easily. The pregnancy is taking a toll on 甄嬛. She’s not doing great and it’s only 4 months. The Imperial Doctor 卫临 is out of ideas and they have no choice but to summon 温实处 back from his self-imposed exile. After his examination, he delivers the unhappy news. The pregnancy will not last more than 5 months. Heartbroken, 甄嬛 plans for her next step. If you couldn’t tell, she plans to do to the Empress what the Empress was trying to do to her during 安陵容’s pregnancy


[Karen]

How will she trap the Empress? The opportunity presents itself when the Emperor surprises 甄嬛 with a present – a large 珊瑚 or Precious Coral. It is said to have mystical properties so this should help 甄嬛 with her pregnancy. 甄嬛 immediately requests for all of the concubines including the Empress to come and enjoy the Coral and said that in order to make sure there is enough good luck, the most powerful people in the Palace should be in attendance. The Emperor agrees. She says this to ensure that the Empress cannot refuse. 


The Empress is delayed because well, she doesn’t want to come. She has no idea what 甄嬛 is planning and she doesn’t want to take the blame if anything happens. That’s very much the right thing to do. Unfortunately for her, the Emperor demands her presence and she has no choice but to come.


[Cathy]

The episode ends with 甄嬛 requesting that the 4 of them, The Empress, herself, 皇贵妃, and 敬贵妃 place good luck charms on her bedside to ward off the evil spirits.


Episode 71 picks right up from where we left off.


The Empress, 皇贵妃, and 敬贵妃 all go ahead into 甄嬛’s bedroom to hang the charms but 槿汐 delays 甄嬛 for a moment. She’s holding a bowl of medicine for 甄嬛 to drink – this is the very prescription that 甄嬛 requested earlier from the doctor to help her lose the baby. 槿汐 knew this is a unique opportunity to take down the Empress and nudges 甄嬛 to make the decision. 甄嬛 makes no comment but immediately drinks the concoction, turns around, and enters the bedroom.


The Empress finds herself alone with the pregnant 甄嬛 and she’s worried. You can see her eyes darting around. There’s absolutely no way that 敬贵妃 that 皇贵妃 were not in on this and purposefully left these 2 alone. Finally alone, 甄嬛 lifts all pretense and formally accuses the Empresses of the many terrible deeds she’s done, going so far as to grab the Empresses hand. The Empress is shocked and shakes off 甄嬛’s hand but then, 甄嬛 pushes herself onto a table. She cries out in pain as she knocks things over and passes out. 


All the while, the princess 胧月 is hiding in the corner watching this unfold.


[Karen]

Given the commotion, the Emperor and the rest of the ladies rush to see what happens. Zhen Huan is placed on her bed and the Imperial doctor comes to check on her. When she wakes she is informed that the child has been lost. Of course, this was all part of 甄嬛“s plan but she puts on quite the show, crying and accusing the Empress of harming her child. She feeds into the Empress’s dislike of her that the Emperor knows about. The Empress does a pretty good job of defending herself and evoking an anecdote which we’ll discuss later. The trump card though comes in the form of tada – Princess 胧月! 甄嬛’s eldest daughter. She starts crying and tells her father that she saw the Empress push 甄嬛。 We all know that’s a lie but the Emperor takes this as proof that the Empress did it. I mean, you have to believe a 6 year old child. They’re not supposed to know how to lie! But oh, but little does he know. 


The Emperor is furious and places the Empress under house arrest. So now both the 3rd prince and the Empress are not favored. This isn’t the end of them both so 甄嬛’s team continues to act. 


[Cathy]

甄嬛 makes clear to her adoptive son, the 4th prince, that the 3rd prince and the Empress are connected. The 4th prince gets the hint and devises a clever plot against the 3rd prince. 


The 4th prince meets his older brother and surreptitiously mentions that he went to visit their 8th uncle who is currently imprisoned. This is strictly forbidden and I don’t think the 4th prince actually did this but he cons his older brother into requesting clemency for these imprisoned uncles. The 4th prince mentions how forgiveness of these uncles will reflect well on their father the Emperor. The poor 3rd prince actually thinks this is a wonderful idea and agrees he’ll make this request. 


Unfortunately, this was probably the WORST thing the 3rd prince could have done. We’ve explained in this podcast series repeatedly about how the current emperor had to fight his brothers for the throne. He defeated his brothers the 8th prince and the 14th prince and had them imprisoned. Therefore, when the 3rd prince asks his father for forgiveness of these 2 uncles, his father becomes so furious that he tells the 3rd prince to be the son of his 8th uncle. Moving forward, the emperor will no longer have this son. 


[Karen]

The 3rd prince is shocked and crying but there’s nothing that can be done。 His father has made his final decision and has made this decree.


With that, the 3rd prince is now out of the picture. All that’s left is the Empress. We checked this and the fact that the 3rd prince was moved to be the son of his 8th uncle is in fact true. His father was angry at his arrogant nature and this was his punishment. Sadly, this son died a year after this punishment.



Now onto the Empress. The Empress and her head maid,剪秋 are shocked to hear this news. All those years of plotting to raise the future Emperor have been wasted. 剪秋 is raging on behalf of her master and decides to take matters into her own hands. This turns out to be the Empress’s final undoing.


[Cathy]

Later one evening, the Emperor hosts a family dinner. In attendance are him, Zhen Huan, 敬贵妃, their children, 宁嫔, the 17th prince with his two consorts, 玉隐 and the heavily pregnant 孟静娴, and the 19th prince with his wife, 玉娆。


甄嬛’s son the 6th prince is very interested in the pregnant 孟静娴. Of course we know it’s because they’re actually siblings but 甄嬛 continues to highlight that these 2 are cousins to avoid any suspicion. When a soup comes, the 6th prince asks 孟静娴 to feed him which she does. She first takes a sip of the soup to see if it’s hot. Before she can feed any to the 6th prince though, she starts coughing up blood. 


Turns out, the soup was poisoned. Both the 6th prince and Zhen Huan’s bowls of soup were poisoned by the famous 鹤顶红. This poison shows up in pretty much every chinese drama. 


[Karen]

The Emperor orders an investigation on how these bowls of soup could be poisoned. Very quickly, the guards were able to apprehend 剪秋 the Empress’s head maid. She was the one to put the poison in the soups. She shows absolutely no remorse for what she did and is dragged off to be tortured for information.  The oddest part about this is that she is screaming at the Emperor for not believing his wife, the Empress that she did not harm 甄嬛’s child. I find that quite funny. What about all the other terrible things the Empress has done in the past?


WIth that, the Empress now has absolutely no more allies and these servants are bound to spill her secrets. After all, they are undergoing intense torture. 


As to 孟静娴,she gives birth to a son for the 17th prince but since she was poisoned, sadly passes away. We find out that her pregnancy was a result of making the 17th prince drunk one night which she feels sorry for. The palace is saddened to hear of this death because she was completely innocent in this. It was a stroke of bad luck that she drank the soup first instead of anyone else. 


These two episodes completely deplete the Empress of any and all allies in the palace. 甄嬛 and team are closing in to finally defeat this formidable foe. It’s some what sad to see how weak the Empress is, completely isolated and weakened. But let’s take a look at 甄嬛’s faction now. Not only does she have amazing allies in the form of fellow concubines, her adoptive son, the 4th prince is incredibly cunning as well。 He totally manipulated his brother into visiting their uncle which is banned. His brother didn’t give it a second thought. This guy also did not care whatsoever that he essentially sentenced his brother to death by his suggestions. 甄嬛’s daughter, 胧月, is also dare i say even more cunning and intelligent than her mother. This young princess takes to heart what her adoptive mother says about protecting her birth mother and straight up lies in front of her father.  With a son and daughter like these, 甄嬛 has absolutely nothing to worry about in the future. 


—–

[Cathy]

Ok – On to some historical analysis


In episode 71 when the Empress was being accused of murdering 甄嬛’s unborn child, she says that she is similar to the Tang Dynasty’s 王皇后 or Empress Wang。 Empress Wang was framed for killing another concubine 武媚娘’s infant daughter and was severely punished for it. But the truth was that 武媚娘, this concubine, killed her own daughter, in order to bring down the Empress. What’s this story?


It’s actually quite a famous one that is often portrayed in television dramas. The Concubine who’s daughter was murdered is none other that the famous 武则天, the one and only female Emperor of China. There are many dramas and tales of this story but essentially when 武则天 was still a concubine, then commonly known as 武媚娘,this 王皇后 or Empress Wang was in power. The two women were at odds as 武媚娘 was heavily favored by the Emperor. Soon after 武媚娘’s first daughter was born, the young princess was found dead in her crib. It was said that 王皇后 was just in the palace where the princess was and without a strong alibi, the Emperor 李治 became furious with her. It paved the way for stripping 王皇后 of her Empress title and turning her into a mere citizen in the future. The catch is, it was never clear how the young princess died. There are stories that it was actually 武媚娘 who murdered her own child in order to frame the Empress. We will never know. 


As I said, this scene is portrayed in numerous Chinese dramas. Of the ones I’ve seen, yes, 王皇后 was framed but it was not 武媚娘 who killed the child. Instead, it was some made up character.


In our current drama, this is quite the apt comparison. The Empress is being framed for the death of a child that she did not kill. It was a powerful antidote to bring up but unfortunately for her, a lying 6 year old princess quashed the Empress’s hopes for a murky alibi.



One last item to chat about is this poison that killed 孟静闲 but was originally planned for 甄嬛 and her son. 鹤顶红. This poison pops up in so many Chinese historical dramas at this point, it’s almost a cliche. It’s pretty much just, Arsenic Trioxide. The direct translation of this name is the Red on top of a Heron. Historically, it was believed that that part of the heron was poisonous but that’s not the case. Nowadays it’s white but back then since the components were not pure, it looked red. In modern day, there are some medicinal purposes to it but historically, this was a poison that people favored because it didn’t have any taste or smell. Though for the poison to kill, it would take much longer than what was displayed here. 孟静闲 had one bite of soup and started coughing blood. That’s a little aggressive. 


Also – 鹤顶红 has been mentioned a few times in this drama. Typically when a concubine dies in the palace, she has three choices, this 鹤顶红, white silk, or a dagger. I guess most people choose silk to hang themself instead.