The Empress Strikes Back
This is the podcast that discusses Chinese history and culture through historical Chinese dramas. We are your hosts, Karen and Cathy. Today we are discussing episode 59 of 后宫甄嬛传， Empresses in the Palace. We are in the last stretch of the drama I would say where 甄嬛, our main character, is essentially coming back to the palace, solidifying allies and facing enemies.
In this episode, there’s quite a bit that happens or at least many players involved with various bombshells.
The episode starts off with the result of the evening spent together between 沈眉庄 and 温实初 in the last episode. She, an imperial concubine, he, an imperial doctor. We don’t need to tell you this but this is a huge no-no! But she is in love with him even though she knows he is in love with her best friend and his childhood friend, 甄嬛。 Anyways, the doctor comes to check on 沈眉庄 to realize she is… pregnant. He is dumbfounded whereas she is actually very happy to have her suspicions confirmed. And we know that he has to be the father because she has not spent the evening with the Emperor in years.
Poor doctor. He has so many secrets to keep! His love child is going to pass off as the Emperor’s and he has been caring for 甄嬛’s secret love-children as well. 沈眉庄is also lucky that 温实初 is her personal doctor as opposed to anyone else.
In order to protect her child, 沈眉庄 wastes no time enacting the same plan as 甄嬛! Make the Emperor think that the child is his! Her plan is so simple that 苏培盛 the emperor’s main Eunuch is like, where did the sun come up from? She pretty much stopped on the road where the Emperor normally takes after going to court and says a few things that invokes nostalgic feelings between the two and also invites him over to her residence. He happily obliges. Later that evening, he requests she spends the night.
That afternoon, 甄嬛 wastes no time in congratulating 沈眉庄 during a sisterly chat. Notice the words that 沈眉庄 uses, she says that people still need to survive in the palace. It has nothing to do with changing her outlook. Of course, she’s hiding a secret. Little does she know, 甄嬛 is hiding the same secret. Wow isn’t that funny? Best friends using the Emperor for the same purpose.
It’s also fantastic to see that 沈眉庄 is not worried she won’t get the affections of the Emperor. She knows he still harbors interest in her, plus the Empress Dowager is always putting good words in for her. She just says a few words and voila, the emperor requests that she spends the night. Look at that confidence. I appreciate that she now has the maturity to play the game very easily but doesn’t do so in a condescending manner. She is very classy in how she approaches the emperor. This also tells me that if the emperor never treated her so poorly in the beginning of her time in the palace, she would be very powerful and favored now by the emperor.
In the next scene, we’re outside at a pagoda where 沈眉庄, 甄嬛, 宁贵人 and the Emperor are having a meal outside. 沈眉庄 asks the Emperor for the same plum drink as 甄嬛. The emperor says no, you can drink alcohol. This is when 沈眉庄 reveals that she is 2 months pregnant. Tada！
The Emperor is utterly shocked and extremely pleased. There haven’t been new children produced in the palace for several years and suddenly two of his concubines are pregnant. That is such fantastic news is it not? While we the audience are all chuckling that none of the those children are his. He says something very interesting in response to 沈眉庄’s news. He said that the chrysanthemums bloomed very early this year. Originally it was thought to be some ominous omen but now, he knows that it was to welcome good news. Remember how we’ve always said that 沈眉庄 is the chrysanthemum flower? This theme has returned here.
The news that these two friends are pregnant at the same time spreads fast. There are those who are genuinely happy for 甄嬛 and 沈眉庄 such as 敬妃 and the Empress Dowager, whereas the Empress is probably fuming. Fortunately for both these ladies, the trusty 温实初 has been tasked with taking care of their pregnancies. And thank god for that because otherwise, their secrets would be revealed!
敬妃, the good friend of both 甄嬛 and 沈眉庄, and the adoptive mother of 甄嬛’s first daughter, are out for a walk in the palace where they bump into a napping 苏培盛. He’s startled by their arrival and accidentally drops a pouch. 敬妃 picks it up and comments how delicate the embroidery is. She jokes that this looks like 瑾汐’s handiwork. Of course, we know that it most likely is her gift to him. The camera shifts showing their faces confirm this suspicion. At least 敬妃 doesn’t make a fuss and the ladies all carry on.
Afterwards, back at 沈眉庄’s palace, she is embroidering a cap for her unborn child and who shows up to visit? None other than 安陵容, her and 甄嬛’s frenemy. They have a pretty non-confrontational interaction where 安陵容 helps 沈眉庄 with some embroidery but the next day when the Emperor visits 沈眉庄, he comments how she looks very frail. She and her maid mention that it’s 安陵容’s visit that may have caused this so the Emperor swiftly sends orders that 安陵容 is no longer able to visit 沈眉庄. I can’t tell if 沈眉庄 was faking this or if 安陵容 was purposefully trying to harm 沈眉庄 somehow but the result is positive. With 安陵容 you never know. She may have been carrying some type of fragrance pouch with musk on it to damage 沈眉庄’s pregnancy. At least now沈眉庄 is able to avoid 安陵容 with a legitimate excuse. She knows that 安陵容 is dangerous and this provides her with some cover from this formidable adversary.
Why is it that the Emperor never seems to sit straight? That’s definitely an acting choice but it just makes the Emperor seem small and frail! I noticed it in the last episode…he just seems tired. If I was a woman, I’d definitely try to hook up with a younger man.
Back to 敬妃’s palace, she’s teaching her adoptive daughter 胧月 to read. What a sweet scene. Remember though, 胧月 is 甄嬛’s birth daughter whom she gave to 敬妃 to raise because 甄嬛 left to go to the nunnery. But the bond between 胧月and 敬妃 is very strong. 敬妃 in particular loves 胧月 deeply. The 4th Prince, or 甄嬛’s adoptive son, arrives to pick 胧月 up and head to their mother’s palace for their morning greeting. 敬妃 reluctantly agrees to let her go but she’s worried that this is all a part of 甄嬛’s plot to take back her daughter. She’s standing at her palace doors wiping away tears and WHO just so happens to see this scene? 剪秋, the head maid for the Empress. Ugh well that can’t be good. Also, why is 剪秋 even there???
Sure enough, 剪秋 leads 敬妃 straight to the Empress. We don’t see their conversation but we’ll know exactly what was said.
甄嬛 summoned the good doctor 温实处 to remind him of a few things, ranging from her pregnancy to 沈眉庄’s pregnancy. This is so funny – 温实处 knows both of these children are not the Emperor’s children, hahaha. Poor guy is pretty distraught though about 沈眉庄’s situation. He doesn’t disclose anything but asks for forgiveness. Buddy, that ship has long sailed…
Right after he leaves, the Empress leads a whole posse to 甄嬛’s palace. The entourage includes 端妃 and 敬妃. 敬妃 we’ve just seen but 端妃 isn’t usually out and about. All three Consorts are now present which means that whatever is about to happen is serious. 敬妃 is looking quite dodgy. She keeps glancing down.
The Empress gets straight to the point. 对食 is forbidden in the Imperial Palace. It’s inconceivable that there are examples in the palace but I have proof. She believes 甄嬛’s maid 瑾汐 and the Emperor’s head eunuch 苏培盛 have this sort of relationship.
We discussed at length the practice of 对食 , check out our discussion on episode 52+53 for a refresher. It’s the practice of establishing a relationship between a eunuch and a maid. As mentioned, this is strictly forbidden in the palace.
The Empress has her maid bring out evidence. It’s the same pouch we saw earlier that the Eunuch, 苏培盛， dropped. 甄嬛 acknowledges that it looks like 瑾汐’s handiwork. The Empress deliberately brings 敬妃 forward to tell the story, which she does. 敬妃 just recounts their earlier encounter with 苏培盛. She very timidly squeaks out the rules – eunuchs are not allowed to have gifts from maids.
甄嬛 tries to wave it away but the Empress closes in for the kill. The pouch is fine but the embroidery on the pouch is very clear – 柳叶合心 or willow leaves which is meant for a lover. That hints to an actual relationship between the two which is forbidden. The Empress immediately orders a thorough search of 瑾汐’s quarters – 甄嬛’s helpless to watch. Uh oh this could be bad, and indeed it’s really bad for 瑾溪. They straight up find a box with a really inappropriate image on it. I guess that’s the modern day equivalent of sending inappropriate photos.
This actually is quite shocking to me – this is like as raunchy as a show like this will get.
The Empress is “furious” at these findings. She will take swift action against these perpetrators of filth and dishonor in the Imperial Palace. You know deep down though that she is relishing in this slip up from 甄嬛’s team and cannot wait to remove one of her lieutenants and 槿汐 is her most trusted one at that. 甄嬛 calmly tries to request that she herself punish 瑾汐 but the Empress dismisses her attempt, coldly stating that she will clean up the palace as she is the Empress. The Empress haughtily leaves 甄嬛’s palace with the entourage. The empress is probably super excited right now.
I love 甄嬛’s response after the Empress leaves. 甄嬛 knows the Empress was just waiting for an opening and took it. She can’t let anything happen to 瑾汐 or else she’s next. She immediately heads towards the Emperor’s palace. We see that 苏培盛 isn’t there anymore so something must have happened. Sure enough, the Emperor already knows about this and has dismissed the eunuch.
Upon hearing that the Emperor already knows about the situation, 甄嬛 doesn’t request for clemency on behalf of 瑾汐, instead she apologizes for the embarrassment. As she rightly explains to 浣碧 outside of the Emperor’s study, the Empress would have pounced if she heard that 甄嬛 tried to persuade the Emperor to release 瑾汐.
After seeing these developments, 甄嬛 decides to head over to 慎刑司. In the drama, 慎刑司 is a Qing Dynasty Agency specializing in punishment. We’ll discuss this in the analysis portion of the episode. 甄嬛 visiting 慎刑司 is a really big gesture though because she is pregnant and a concubine that is in favor. Not many masters would have tried to save her servants in these situations which shows why 槿汐 is so loyal to 甄嬛。I mean, 甄嬛 is indeed going all out for 槿汐。 For her crimes, 槿汐 has been sentenced to hard labor there. That’s crazy fast – didn’t the whole thing happen just that morning? I love 甄嬛’s rationale and decision to go. She needs to protect 槿汐 – if she goes to 慎刑司, others will think twice about harming 槿汐. 甄嬛 coldly states – I’ve already gone to the cold palace twice, what can 慎刑司 do to me? You go girl. If only everyone could have bosses and masters like her.
She heads over with 浣碧 and her eunuch 小允子, but even she isn’t prepared for what she sees. The ladies are currently punished to pound rice for hours at a time in addition to other forms of hard labor. The ladies only sleep 4 hours a night, given poor sleeping conditions and basically left to die. What’s shown on screen is relatively clean.
槿汐 is shocked to see 甄嬛. She tearfully begs 甄嬛 to sacrifice herself, 槿汐. The opportunity to return back to the palace was hard earned. 甄嬛 can’t risk saving her and losing everything. 槿汐 is truly loyal. 甄嬛 correctly points out though, that sacrificing 槿汐 does nothing for them and plays directly into their enemy’s hands. 甄嬛 promises to find a way to rescue 槿汐. We find out that even under torture, the eunuch 苏培盛 did not divulge his relationship to 槿汐. That’s quite touching. 槿汐 even admits as much, she didn’t really think much of this relationship at first, but she’s now had a change of heart towards him. 苏培盛 is a eunuch but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have feelings. 甄嬛 tells 槿汐 to sit tight. She’ll do everything she can to save them.
甄嬛’s brilliance in playing harem politics is now on display. After seeing 瑾汐 in 慎刑司, her next stop is actually to 端妃‘s palace. 端妃 is one of the oldest concubines in the palace and became an ally of 甄嬛’s in order to help take down the powerful and arrogant 华妃 in the first half of the drama. But I don’t think the Emperor knows they are good friends. 端妃, true to her title which means level headed and refined, as a gentle mannered woman but is not simple or stupid. She knows that there is chaos at 甄嬛’s palace. 甄嬛 comes out directly to say she wants to save 瑾汐 and 苏培盛 but the interesting part if that she focuses on 苏培盛 rather than 瑾汐。 端妃 cares more for the emperor than 甄嬛“s personal maid which is why 甄嬛 continuously focuses on how the emperor will not be able to function as properly now without his trusted eunuch by his side.
Not long after this conversation, 皇上，the emperor, comes to visit 端妃. It’s really interesting to see that 甄嬛 knew he would visit 端妃 for a discussion and planned accordingly. He notices that 端妃 is reading 孟子 or Mensius. This tells us that she is quite educated. We’ll discuss this in the analysis portion of our episode but she brings up how, in reading this text, she realizes that the Mencius scholar, 朱熹, is someone who has no empathy or feelings. His teachings are counter to what the emperor decrees throughout his dynasty.
Her words immediately cause the Emperor to be suspicious so he asks her if she has recently seen anyone. He clearly is wondering is she has spoken to the likes of 甄嬛 because he can sense this conversation is steering towards the drama between 苏培盛 and 槿汐。She lies and says that she is generally frail and she doesn’t like to gossip, the emperor knows this, who would she see? The Emperor is appeased by this answer.
So he, actually asks her opinion on the whole matter between 槿汐 and 苏培盛. I have a feeling that 端妃 would have helped 甄嬛 regardless but after her visit, 端妃 uses her own method to convince the Emperor that the situation is not as bad as the Empress makes it out to be. She appeals to his empathy and highlights how these two haven’t done anything to cause drama in the palace. They are only spending time together to help with their loneliness in the palace. It;s possible that all of the palaces have such instances of eunuchs pairing with maids, does the emperor want to kill everyone?
The emperor overall seems to still be mulling her response over. She comes in with a final thought that impacts the needle- The 2 pregnancies in the palace. 端妃 highlights how both 沈眉庄 and 甄嬛 are pregnant right now so it’s not good to have killings in the palace. The emperor immediately agrees to this and says he appreciates the conversation with 端妃. The episode ends with the Emperor leaving her palace but not before she stops him to suggest he should drink some chrysanthemum tea for his dried lips.
You can clearly tell she cares deeply for the Emperor but can only show her love in such simple ways.
The Emperor is such an inconsiderate asshole – all he does is pat her on the shoulder? Come on…
The only other I guess notable scene in this episode is that the Empress, now fully on attack mode against 甄嬛, visits 祺贵人 who is currently under house arrest. In the last episode, 祺贵人 got demoted from being a royal concubine to now just a noble lady because of her abusive antics. She hates 甄嬛 for causing her demotion and is fully ready to work for the Empress to enact revenge.
Ok— that was the episode recap. Now onto the analysis for the day.
Today there are a few items we want to discuss.
慎刑司 is a Qing Dynasty agency and you can think of it as an office of punishment. It was originally called 尚方司. The name was changed in 1655 to 尚方院 and finally 慎刑司 in 1677. 慎刑司 has a few roles. Its primary role was to enforce punishment for the crimes from the upper three banners – made up of the bordered yellow banner, the plain yellow banner, and the plain white banner. It also of course was in charge of punishment and torture of eunuchs and maids. We have heard 慎刑司 mentioned throughout the show and it will continue to pop up – it’s a deadly and dangerous place. Like we said earlier, 槿汐’s punishment is quite PG right now but others will not be so lucky in 慎刑司.
The torture enacted in 慎刑司 are akin to if not worse than what is experienced in european medieval torture chambers and this agency has a lot of authority to enact punishments however it wants. From whippings, to stabbing people’s fingers with needles, to hard labor, to beheadings, this place can be considered “hell on earth” and is most definitely a scary place everyone tries to avoid.
The next bit of interesting history is about the Neo Confucian scholar, 朱熹。
端妃 has a copy of 孟子 or Mencius but the major conversation between her and the Emperor actually revolves around a Neo-Confucian scholar 朱熹. So let’s talk about him.
朱熹 is a Song Dynasty scholar, philosopher, and calligrapher. Born in 1130 – he is one of the founders of Cheng-Zhu School of Neo Confucianism， which 端妃 mentions. It’s also known as the Rational school. His writings and commentaries of the Four Books formed the basis of the civil service curriculum and exams for 600 years. That’s very impressive. For his contributions, he has a memorial tablet in the confucian temple at QuFu and is venerated as one of the 12 Philosophers of Confucianism. He is the only philosopher who was not a direct disciple of Confucius.
The specific line that is debated in this drama is 存天理,灭人欲 a central teaching of 朱熹. My translation of this is keep natural law, eliminate all desires. 端妃 criticizes 朱熹 for being too heartless. Mencius wrote 男女居室，人之大伦也 – That male and female should dwell together, is the greatest of human relations。 This is natural. 朱熹 however is advocating to rid of desire. These are in direct conflict. 端妃 believes 朱熹’s teaching’s lack empathy and do not reflect what the Emperor wants to convey for his empire. She’s trying to portray the relationship between 苏培盛 and 槿汐 as a normal one and that the rulers in the Imperial palace should show some empathy.
I personally don’t think that’s 100% what 朱熹 meant. Yes, he did focus on vital force and principle over desire but I don’t think it was to rid of all desire. I’m not a philosopher so someone can correct me on this.