[Karen]
Hello and welcome to Chasing Dramas! The podcast that discusses Chinese history and culture through Chinese TV dramas. This is Karen, and this is Cathy. This is episode 7 of the podcast, but we’re analyzing episode 8 of 后宫甄嬛传,Empresses in the Palace. There’s a ton of culture to analyze in this episode actually which we’re very excited to discuss. As always, if you have any comments/questions or feedback, please email us at chasingdramaspodcast@gmail.com

Let’s start off with a quick recap. This episode is pretty light in terms of plot. Pretty much, this episode recounts our main character 甄嬛, after 8 episodes of dodging the emperor, is finally healthy and ready to um, get “married”. I must say, considering the subject matter of this drama or at least this episode, the drama is able to do this in quite a classy way, because, as we’ve mentioned before, anything explicit is banned by the Chinese government. 

 

[Cathy]
So what happens:

The first half of the episode is lovey-dovey. 雍正, the emperor is very excited (or at least, as excited as his pancake face can bring us to believe) (Karen – if you look at this scene, he really does just have this dead pan face it’s actually hilarious)  Yes – he’s excited and takes 甄嬛, our main character, outside of the Forbidden Palace to another palace with hot springs for what I’ll call is a lovely spa day. There’s a conversation at the hot springs about 汉成帝, 赵飞燕,赵合德, very famous people from the Han Dynasty. We’ll discuss the importance of this。  

甄嬛 wants a “normal wedding”, but she knows that she can’t have it because she’s only a concubine. 雍正 is very taken with her honesty and promises to give her one. The curtain closes on a romantic night.

It’s a sleepless night for many people in 后宫, the imperial harem, including the favored concubine, 华妃 and 甄嬛’s best friend, 沈眉庄 who is also establishing herself in the palace。

甄嬛 returns to 后宫 and the first thing she does is greet 皇后, the empress or official wife of the emperor. 甄嬛 performs the three kneels and nine bows or 三跪九叩 which we discussed in the 3rd episode and which is a customary formality after spending the night with the Emperor. Here, 甄嬛’s attire has also matured a bit. Her clothes and hair are styled much more formally.

 

[Karen]
After she leaves 景仁宫,甄嬛bumps into 丽嫔 and 曹贵人。If you recall, 丽嫔 and 曹贵人 are two concubines that are team 华妃. They are allies with her and want to bring down 甄嬛。 Here, we see 康路海 is currently working for 丽嫔 and he sneaks away after seeing 甄嬛 to talk to her。If you don’t remember who this guy is, that’s fine, let me tell you – he used to be the Head Eunuch for 甄嬛 back when she just arrived at the palace, but then upon seeing her sick, and thinking she’ll may never amount to much, he basically jumped ship to go work for 丽嫔. Ever the social climber, this eunuch, 康陆海 actually goes and tries to get back into 甄嬛‘s good graces and is actually wondering if he can serve her again. The nerve of him! 丽嫔, his current master, witnesses this scene and runs up to this conversation, gets all mad and punishes him. 甄嬛 isn’t stupid and knows that he doesn’t have any loyalty, which from day one we’ve seen she values very much and doesn’t take him back. He is left kneeling on the floor and punishing himself by slapping himself in the face. That’s a common punishment for folks in the palace. 

I’ve gone back and forth on the lesson here for 康陆海。 On one hand, it’s important to be loyal but is blind loyalty great? Especially if you have a terrible master? (We see examples of this later). I think the true lesson here is recognizing when you have a good master and being loyal to a good master. If 康陆海 was smart enough to see that 甄嬛 has potential, just like the empress or almost anyone in the palace, he would not have left and probably would be in a much higher social standing. But now, he has the reputation of someone who isn’t trustworthy. He’s a minor character, and was only around for like a few episodes, but this is, unfortunately, the last we see of him.

 

[Cathy]
Anyways, when they get back to 碎玉轩, 甄嬛 finds out that she’s been gifted with 椒房之礼. We’ll discuss this later but this is a huge deal!  

A few days later, 甄嬛 is sitting with 沈眉庄 and they discuss 雍正’s favoritism. 沈眉庄 is frank in sharing with her best friend that she’s a little jealous of the attention that 甄嬛 is getting but she knows that it’s beneficial for the two of them to be favored which means their position in 后宫, the imperial harem, will be much more secure. Servants won’t sabotage them as much and the other concubines will give them more respect. 沈眉庄 advises 甄嬛 to bide her time and to “endure” or tolerate (忍)the other concubines, no doubt from her own learnings.

Elsewhere, 安陵容, the third friend of the trio, who was embarrassingly returned to her palace after being called to serve the emperor, comments how no matter how close people may seem, there will be cracks to their relationships. 

 

[Karen]
Not too long after,

雍正 summons 甄嬛 to his own private residence. He has a plate of dumplings brought to her and she takes a bite. It’s super cute and she’s rightfully embarrassed afterwards. We’ll discuss the meaning of this.

华妃 and her minions are huffing and puffing in 华妃’s palace. 丽嫔 and 曹贵人 are voicing their displeasure for 甄嬛’s sudden rise to power. 雍正 is spending a ton of time with her and it’s understandable that the ladies are jealous.

The next day, 甄嬛 comes in late to 请安, which is the formal court greeting to 皇后, the empress, and this is the most fascinating thing. We’ve seen 3 ladies at this point be late to this court greeting. First is 华妃 (which is a habit for her), then it’s 沈眉庄 (where, if you recall, she had to change clothes) and now 甄嬛。 But what happens. Nothing! Remember how 沈眉庄 got completely chewed out and punished by 华妃 for being a tiny bit late? 甄嬛 is late as well but no one says a word. You see here how important favoritism by the emperor. Everyone knows if they give 甄嬛 a hard time at this point, they’ll just be hurting themselves in the eyes of the emperor so it’s best to just leave it be. 沈眉庄 did not have that much established favoritism and therefore, was a target. No one dares to punish 甄嬛 right now because of all the things the emperor has done for her the last few days. Smartly though, 甄嬛 does not flaunt anything like 华妃 does and just takes her seat at the court greeting. 

 

[Cathy]
We also get our first mention of 四阿哥, who is the 4th son of the emperor, and the Empress has a curious reaction to him. We find out that the 4th prince/son of the emperor is not favored by the emperor whatsoever because he was the product of a drunken night and was actually reprimanded by his father for this act. So this prince has been relegated to the sidelines…Spoiler alert though, this prince ultimately becomes the next Emperor, the famed 乾隆 emperor so what happened? His story is obviously a deviation of Chinese history but still fun to see how it turns out nonetheless.

The episode ends as ladies leave and 华妃 tries to sow some jealousy between 沈眉庄 and 甄嬛.

 

Analysis:

[Karen]
Okay – we’re going to get into some deeper stuff. There’s a lot to cover in this episode.

The first, is a reference to a Han dynasty emperor. This takes place when 甄嬛 is at the hot spring taking a nice bath complete with rose petals everywhere. That’s another cliche of Chinese dramas that you see time and again. Baths always, always are covered with rose petals and it doesn’t matter the season. The emperor comes to see her while she’s taking a bath, I mean, rude, so she asks him – do you want to be 汉成帝, because I dare not be 赵合德. He is sort of miffed and they have exchange about this comparison and this allusion. So, what’s going on.

汉成帝 was one of the last emperors of the Western Han dynasty. He lived from 51BC to 7BC, so several thousand years ago. The Han dynasty was a very important dynasty in Chinese history. It produced very famous emperors that expanded China’s borders, pushed back the Huns and also was the dynasty when the silk road was initially established. There are tons of books and dramas about emperors, empresses, princes, princesses, heroes, poets, of this dynasty.  The Han which this dynasty is named, is one and the same as the “Han” people of China so you can see how important this dynasty is. 

汉成帝 was the 12th emperor of this dynasty. He is known, unfortunately, not for doing any of these great things that helped establish, expand and develop the empire, but because he was one of those emperors that loved debauchery and the pleasures of women. He abused his power to focus only on building extravagant palaces, having lavish parties, and for having spent time with ladies in his harem. 

Of the women he had in his imperial harem, were two sisters – one named 赵飞燕 and the other 赵合德, the woman our main character, 甄嬛 referenced. These two women are famed in Chinese history for their beauty. The more famous one, 赵飞燕 is considered one of the most beautiful women in Chinese history. She is not of noble birth and historical archives say that she is primarily an accomplished dancer but ended up being the second official wife of this Han emperor. There are dramas that depict this scene, but her “claim to fame” if you will, is that she is so thin and light, that she can dance atop of drums. This drum dance, is her signature. There is a beautiful scene in a drama called mu yi tian xia where this dance is exhibited, in case anyone wants to watch it. And what did we say previously about women who are singers and dancers? People of higher birth don’t appreciate these low ranking attributes. Anyways, the two sisters, 赵飞燕 and 赵合德, though famous in history, mostly are portrayed in a negative light because they are the women that distracted the emperor from his duties. They schemed and murdered their opponents in the imperial harem and were basically women that used their beauty for “bad” instead of good. History labels them as would I would say are “femme-fatales”. Both of these women did not have good endings. One sister was given poison, the other committed suicide.

So you see why, when being compared to this Han dynasty emperor, this current emperor, 雍正 is a little annoyed. He says how dare you compare me to him? Basically, 甄嬛 was a little shy he was visiting her in the hot springs and hopes he isn’t um as lustful as this other emperor is. But also, she wants to tell him she doesn’t want to distract him as these sisters did. But isn’t this fun? Literally 2 sentences that zhen huan says conveys a whole story. I love it.

But the stories don’t end just there. To appease the emperor, she says that the emperor, 雍正, is very wise and brilliant, something that the han dynasty emperor cannot compare to. He, however is not appeased whatsoever, but turns around and says, how would you know I’m wise and brilliant especially in court? You’re not allowed to discuss court matters.

This is very important and exemplifies actually, I would say, the basis of Chinese society that was established back by Confucius. In Chinese culture, and also mentioned by Confucius, men and women have very defined roles in the family. It is very patriarchal and the men are focused on the outer section of the family while women are focused on the inner section. Men are and always will be the head of the family, and they will tend to public affairs. Women, are focused on matters within the family, so child rearing, managing the servants, hosting events etc. They are not supposed to interfere with affairs of court, or of what the men of the household is focused on. This is division of labor at its finest in Chinese society. On a much grander scale in the imperial family, it means that women are not supposed to meddle in affairs of state. As we have seen, the empress, or the official wife of the emperor, is only supposed to be focused on affairs of the imperial harem. She, and other concubines, are not to talk to court officials or to give opinion or advice on anything related to state matters. In many cases, if they are found to be meddling, the punishment could be severe.

The reason behind this is that, as we just discussed, there have been plenty of examples in Chinese history where women have distracted emperors from their duties and in some extreme instances, have brought about the demise of entire dynasties.

In practice, however, it is clear that women play an incredibly important role in state affairs whether the men like it or not. As we will see, the empress dowager, the emperor’s mother is incredibly knowledgeable of state affairs and was crucial in helping the emperor secure the throne. There are numerous examples of women, in their restricted roles, play a key part in history. Perhaps the most powerful woman in China at any given point in time, is actually the empress dowager, the Emperor’s mother. If you were not aware, in the Tang Dynasty, a woman, who was the wife of the emperor, actually declared herself emperor, the first and only in Chinese history. So you see, even though women were unequal in terms of roles, their importance in Chinese history cannot be understated.

We went off a bit to discuss the division of roles here. Zhen Huan was able to keep the emperor happy by continuing to say that she doesn’t know anything about court affairs. All he knows is that in his imperial harem, he has women who are more beautiful than these two sisters, and also women who are as thoughtful and elegant as Ban Jie Yu. Not to get more complicated but Ban Jie Yu is another concubine of this Han Emperor’s harem. She however has a good reputation for being graceful. So basically, Zhen Huan is saying that the current emperor, has much more fortune than this Han dynasty emperor because you have beauty and you have grace.  You really can’t stay mad at that.

 

[Cathy]
Let’s get to 椒房之礼. 椒房 has its roots all the way back to the Han Dynasty which we discussed earlier. 椒房殿 used to be the name of the Empress’s palace! The literal translation is peppercorn room because 椒 means peppercorn and 房 means room. 

雍正 is truly going all out for her. This might also just be my projection but he’s doing this for her because she’s from the Han Banners so she’s Han Chinese. These are customs that she’d be more familiar with. They are different from Manchu wedding customs. 瑾溪, one of her maids, says the only other person to receive privilege as a concubine was 华妃, who remember is also from a Han Banner!

The wedding room is repainted with a mixture made with peppercorn and mud. Peppercorn has a lot of seeds and this new room wishes that the new couple will have many children. Peppercorn also gives off a pleasant aroma that is much nicer than your normal perfume. 

甄嬛 goes up to the bed and lifts the covers. We see different nuts, dates, and coins! So let’s see what we have:

  • 红枣 – red dates
  • 花生 – peanuts
  • 桂圆 – longan
  • 莲子 – Lotus seeds

These four make up the idiom “早生贵子”, which means “to have a son soon”. This is meant as luck for the happy couple to have a child soon. It’s all about the homonyms! Just so you all have it. 红枣 = 早, 花生 = 生, 桂圆 = 贵, 莲子 = 子。

Then what’s up with the coins 铜钱?  Well this is important for another idiom 铜钱安床. If you can sleep comfortably, then you’ll be flushed with money and luck! The Chinese are all about traditions, luck, and superstitions. A wedding night is supposed to be a lucky affair so they go all out! 

The last piece. Notice the color of the new bedding? It’s red. Now this is also very unusual for a concubine! In Chinese culture, red is reserved only for the wife! Consorts or concubines can only use pink. This whole 椒房之礼 is also usually reserved only the wife because she is the real “partner” to the husband. Consorts are not. 

生饺子

Next, I want to briefly touch on the scene where 雍正 brings 甄嬛 to his own private quarters and a Eunuch brings a bowl of dumplings. 甄嬛 eats a dumpling and immediately spits it out. She says “生的!” which translates to it’s raw. 

Taking a bite from a raw dumpling is customary for a new bride. She needs to say “生的” because it also is a wordplay on “早生贵子”, or “to have a son soon”. 生 here can mean “raw” or “to give birth”. It’s a good omen if the wife says this! This is just a very romantic gesture because 雍正 hopes that she can have a son for him soon. It’s a gesture  that I don’t even think 华妃 received.

余莺儿- the voodoo doll

The last scene we want to discuss is back with 余莺儿. Remember her? The level 1 opponent from the last episode who only lasted for a short while. She is the maid turned concubine but was very mean and got punished by the emperor for having no manners and for overstepping her authority. Well she’s been relegated to a tiny room somewhere by herself evidently forgotten and she is angry at 甄嬛 for taking her favoritism. So what does she do? She is stabbing this doll thing. She basically made a voodoo doll and is cursing 甄嬛 for her misfortunes. Some variation of Voodoo actually expanded to China from Africa. You’ll see this practice of cursing people with a voodoo doll in several Chinese dramas. This will play a major part later in the show. It is very taboo but pops up a lot in Chinese dramas. So what happens? You basically create a tiny doll in the shape of the person you are trying to curse. You will generally put their name on the doll and then what you do, is you stab the doll with needles. Each stab is supposed to hurt the actual person. Don’t know if you believe in this type of magic? Evidently this type of thing was popular back in the Qing dynasty and also in Chinese dramas but it shows up time and again. This 余莺儿 is having a fantastic time stabbing this doll of 甄嬛 in an effort to get revenge. How long can she keep this up? And will she actually be able to hurt 甄嬛。 We’ll find out soon enough.

And that’s that for Episode 8! Are we excited? 甄嬛 is living in the clouds. She’s got all the attention from the Emperor and I think she really thinks that she’s in love! Which is cute. I must say that the emperor definitely knows how to pull out all the stops. Even with that pancake face and no emotion, he is able to woo women left right and center. I’d be blushing if I got all these gifts from him too.  In the next episode we’ll see how 甄嬛 handles all this attention.

 

Thank you so much for listening. Hope you enjoyed this episode as much as we enjoyed discussing it! As always, if you have any questions/comments, please email us at chasingdramaspodcast@gmail.com . We will catch you in the next episode.