The Chrysanthemum Wilts
Welcome back to Chasing Dramas. This is the podcast that discusses chinese history and culture. We are your hosts, Karen and Cathy, here today to discuss Episode 64 of Empresses in the Palace, 后宫甄嬛传。
Last week was an intense episode, the Empress and her faction believed that they could destroy 甄嬛 on the basis of adultery. All they needed to do was to present some convincing evidence that may or may not have been fabricated, linking 甄嬛 and the doctor 温实处. They nearly succeeded too but 甄嬛’s team was not going to go down without a fight. With some quick thinking from 甄嬛 and 叶澜依, 甄嬛’s team won a decisive victory. The despicable 祺贵人 has been banished to the cold palace and the Empress’s has lost power of the Imperial Harem. Things seem pretty good for 甄嬛.
The episode starts off in a much calmer manner than the last episode. By this point, it has been established that 甄嬛 has not committed adultery with the imperial doctor 温实初。
However, 祺贵人 is not satisfied. In a last ditch effort, she turns to 温实初 and exclaims that everyone can see how he feels about 甄嬛, even if there’s no inappropriate relationship. She questions if he can promise upon his family and his life that he’s never had any untowards feelings for the emperor’s women.
Even though the Emperor doesn’t really acknowledge 祺贵人’s words and asks the guards to take her away, 安陵容 says that the doctor’ will inevitably kill someone. At this, the doctor says he will prove his innocence and leaves the palace.
Shortly after, the Emperor stands from his chair at the top of the room. He doesn’t directly punish the Empress, but it’s pretty much implied. He says that he and the Empress are both tired. The Empress’s health has not been good so moving forward, 甄嬛 will manage affairs in the palace. She will be aided by both 端妃 and 敬妃. The Emperor says that the Empress should just focus on recovering her health in her palace.
In case you couldn’t tell, this is where the Emperor is, in his roundabout way, stripping the Empress of all power in the Imperial Harem. The Empress cares deeply about the amount of power she holds in the palace so this is a large setback for her.
With this whole debacle, the Empress was hoping to finally topple 甄嬛 but the plan backfired. She is now powerless in the palace and has lost a crucial and powerful ally in the harem. All that’s left for the Empress are 安陵容 and her servants.
The accusation of adultery story line comes to a close. The remainder of the episode focuses on 沈眉庄, 甄嬛’s best friend, in what is admittedly one of the saddest scenes in the entire drama. Are you ready with your tissue boxes? I can’t tell you how much I cried when I watched this the first time.
She is heavily pregnant and is expected to give birth soon but as we know, the child is not the child of the EMperor’s but instead, the child of the doctor 温实初. In the last 2 episodes, she has been kept away from this interrogation by both her maid and the doctor 温实初 to prevent her from being stressed given her pregnant state.
However, at the end of the last episode, and towards the end of the interrogation, a maid, ordered by 安陵容, rushed over to 沈眉庄’s palace and tipped her off that 温实初 and 甄嬛 are being accused of adultery. Shocked, 沈眉庄 orders her maid to accompany her to the Empress’s palace to help out.
This…we shall see turns to be her undoing. 沈眉庄 is slowly walking up towards the Empress’s palace but we see a eunuch rushing passed her. The eunuch hurriedly announces to the Emperor that the Imperial Doctor castrated himself and is critically injured.
When 沈眉庄 hears this, she falls unconscious to the floor.
She is rushed back to her palace where she is now in labor. However, the circumstances are very dire. Since she suffered a shock, she loses a lot of blood and does not have energy to push. Both she and 温实初 are suffering in their respective residences.
Outside of 沈眉庄‘s room, 安陵容 and 甄嬛 are waiting to hear news. 甄嬛 is fully aware that 安陵容’s maid was the one to inform 沈眉庄 of what was happening in the Empress’s palace. If it wasn’t clear, 安陵容is the absolute worst. She puts on a show that she didn’t know why her maid told 沈眉庄 and that they are all sisters. She does not want anything to befall her dear sister. Finally though, 甄嬛 with her bright red lips and amazing smoky eye makeup, doesn’t fall for these empty words and actually slaps 安陵容 across the face. That was certainly satisfying but that doesn’t take away from the damage 安陵容 has done.
The Emperor arrives shortly after and demands that the maid who notified 沈眉庄 be killed. 甄嬛 doesn’t say much but you know she is seething inside. That doesn’t root out the main culprit which is 安陵容. 安陵容 is a master of looking weak in order to stave off any suspicion on her actions.
沈眉庄 is not doing well at all in labor and continues to lose blood. Even though 温实初 himself is in a lot of pain having just castrated himself, he is carried over on a stretcher to help 沈眉庄 through labor. With his direction to his mentee, 卫临，the two are able to help 沈眉庄 stop the bleeding.
After some more tense moments, 沈眉庄 gives birth to a princess. The Emperor and 甄嬛 breathe a huge sigh of relief that the princess has been born. Given 沈眉庄”s weakened state, he is urged to head back to his palace and return later to see her and the daughter. The Emperor agrees and leaves with 安陵容.
甄嬛is so happy to hear that her sister is safe and healthy. After such a stressful day, it’s good to finally hear some positive news. Unfortunately, right after the Emperor leaves, a maid comes rushing out and states that 沈眉庄 lost too much blood. 甄嬛 is distraught and comes to see her best friend. She demands that her friend is provided with the best medicine to save her but even 温实初 who is tending to 沈眉庄’s bedside, says, there’s no need. She has lost too much blood.
沈眉庄 in her weakened state requests to speak with her friend and 温实初 alone for some last words. Here, 沈眉庄 drops all pretense and exposes the truth to 甄嬛. That this daughter is the daughter of her and 温实初. 甄嬛 is shocked to find out this truth but 沈眉庄 doesn’t care. She is on her deathbed, she has nothing to fear.
In this tear inducing last conversation, 沈眉庄 explains that in the palace, there are only 2 people who truly cared about her, 甄嬛 and 温实初. She even calls the doctor by his name which is a very intimate and direct thing to do. She says she knows that 温实初 has feelings for 甄嬛 and so she understands that he is mad at her for what she did – tricking him into drinking that aphrodisiac and thus spending the night together.
And she finally asks the question that she’s always wanted to know the answer to – whether or not he ever had true feelings for her. And at long last, he is brave enough to share that the alcohol that night, was not enough to force him to develop feelings. He cares for her, not simply because she is 甄嬛“s friend. It’s not the best confession in the world, but it’s enough for 沈眉庄. She is comforted by these words and the 2 new parents share a heartfelt moment with their newborn daughter.
In the safety of the two most important people in her life, she names her daughter, 静和.
Shortly after, the beautiful, resolute and kind 沈眉庄 dies in 温实初’s arms.
As 甄嬛 walks out of the palace, she reminisces of her time with her best friend. 孙俪’s acting is absolutely amazing at this moment. 甄嬛 is full of despair and is heartbroken at the death of this wonderful person.
沈眉庄， as we’ve said from the very beginning, is one of our favorite characters in this entire show. She fully embodies the beauty, strength, integrity and resoluteness of the chrysanthemum flower as described in that important poem: 宁可枝头包香死，不曾吹落北风中。Essentially, the chrysanthemum flower would rather wilt on its stem than blow into the north wind. She gave her initial attraction and love to the Emperor when she first entered the palace. Unfortunately, at the time, the formidable 华妃 tricked 沈眉庄 into thinking that she was pregnant. When this turned out to be untrue, 沈眉庄 saw just how cold-hearted the emperor could be. From that moment on, she decided that she will never turn back to the emperor. She would rather spend the rest of her life in the imperial harem without his favor than bow her head to him again.
That is why she turned to the Empress Dowager for support instead. Every day, 沈眉庄 would tend to the Empress Dowager. The Empress Dowager, from their very first meeting during the court selection process all the way back in episode 1, favored 沈眉庄。 It was the Empress Dowager who wanted 沈眉庄 to be selected as a concubine and look at how that played out for her. 沈眉庄 has been wonderful daughter-in-law so to speak and one of the few people in the haren that actually tended to the Empress Dowager. In turn, the Empress Dowager was the one who raised 沈眉庄 to become a 嫔 which gave her a lot more power than before.
沈眉庄 held her love for 温实初 close to her heart and was never jealous of the fact that he loved her friend. She was disheartened, yes, but never interfered. On the contrary, she always tried to look out for 甄嬛 her entire life. In terms of true friendship in the palace, there was only 甄嬛 and 沈眉庄 that always kept their bond. In the palace here so many people turned against each other, this was very rare. 沈眉庄 only reverted back into the Emperor’s arms in order to cover up the fact that she was pregnant with 温实初’s child. She cared neither for power nor affection in the harem. This was evident in her dying conversation when she heard that she had been promoted to the title of consort or 妃。 She did not care one iota of that title and that is what distinguishes her from so many other women in the palace. She had the intelligence, disposition, grace and personality to be a powerful consort if not more, but she chose not to. She, unlike 甄嬛, never had true affection for the Emperor. 甄嬛 herself even had to forgive the Emperor in the palace early on to survive whereas 沈眉庄 never did.
沈眉庄 was that rare flower in the palace that did not deign to dirty herself in imperial harem tactics. She was pure and true to heart, caring deeply for her friends and although died so prematurely, was with the 2 people she cared most in the world. Fortunately for her, she birthed a daughter and therefore, there will be no questions as to her daughter’s lineage. Her daughter will be raised as a princess of the Qing dynasty, loved by many. In my mind, 沈眉庄 can rest easy knowing this.
沈眉庄’s funeral is held the next day. Her palace has already transformed into a sea of white, the color of mourning in Chinese culture. Interestingly enough, the Empress is not there while the rest of the harem and even the 19th and 17th prince arrive to pay their respects. 甄嬛 is besides herself with grief, quietly crying in front of 沈眉庄’s plaque. She’s wearing a white gown with purple embroidery – perhaps as a nod to 眉庄’s favorite color? Notice her makeup is still quite heavy – this is a reminder to us that even at this funeral, 甄嬛 is not the naive young girl who just entered the palace. She still has things to do.
The doctor is hiding in the background also covered in tears. He dare not approach because well, he can’t. Poor guy.
甄嬛’s two sisters turn to leave the funeral. How funny – they are greeted by the 19th prince and the 17th prince. As they leave though, 浣碧 comments, did you see how handsome the 17th prince is? 玉娆 to her credit, did not pay any attention. Finally some girl who doesn’t like the 17th prince.
玉娆 dismisses 浣碧 and ventures out herself. She’s quickly followed by the 19th prince. There’s a cute scene between the two of them. There’s clearly some chemistry between 玉娆 and the 19th prince. It seems that even though their first interaction was not as pleasant, they are slowly warming to each other’s presence.
甄嬛 is struggling with the care of 沈眉庄’s daughter. The child isn’t sleeping well nor is she eating. Doctor 温实初’s pupil is in charge of her care but it’s difficult. 甄嬛 learns that 温实处 has been drinking heavily to cope with the loss. She makes a comment which I think is very apt – he’s only cherishing what is lost. What was he doing for all those years? Like seriously! You were still pining over 甄嬛, what the heck！I get you’re a great guy and all but um…沈眉庄 was right there. [Karen – also, why does 甄嬛 say things so bluntly in front of 卫临？Isn’t she worried he’ll expose something?]
The Emperor’s head eunuch 苏培盛 arrives shortly after bearing gifts from the Emperor not for 甄嬛 but for her younger sister 玉娆. She’s gifted a pair of begonia styled hair ornaments called 步摇。步摇 have are hair accessories with dangling ornaments. They sway with every step, hence why they are called 步摇. The literally translation is step movement. Cool huh? Anyways… This is curious – why send anything to the young girl? 甄嬛 and 浣碧 exchange knowing looks – this is not good…
安陵容 is at her own palace drinking away her own sorrows. What sorrows does she have? Seriously. What a snake. She feels slight remorse for the death of her servant 宝鹊 but absolutely nothing for her involvement in 沈眉庄’s death. We know full well that 安陵容 was the instigator of 沈眉庄”s death. If it wasn’t for her servant’s notification, 沈眉庄 would still be alive.
She didn’t care if 沈眉庄 died, she just needed to strike a blow to 甄嬛. Ugh this entire conversation is disgusting. She feels much better now knowing that 甄嬛 is very much hurting, not from a political or favor perspective, simply because she lost a friend. At the end, 安陵容 blames 沈眉庄’s death on 甄嬛.
Complete side note, I really like the framing of this scene in the wider shots. 安陵容 is sitting in the middle and you see the background. I think it’s quite balanced.
Later on, the Emperor has come to visit 甄嬛. He sees a painting on the wall that looks like a painting from the artist 崔白. 甄嬛 responds that it’s actually a replica painted by her sister 玉娆. At this point, the young girl walks in. The Emperor jokingly reprimands her for not thanking him for his earlier gift. 玉娆 actually states that she doesn’t want the gift, her sister likes begonias. She won’t take anything that her sister enjoys. The Emperor, seeing his gift denied, tries something else. This part is hilarious – he tries to make small talk but is rebuked in every way. He then just says…i’ll gift you the 崔白 original. Hahaha – your usually attempts at wooing a woman won’t work here.
甄嬛 makes a curious comment now – she says, she doesn’t want her sister to marry too far away. The Emperor nods in agreement. He keeps staring at 玉娆…what’s happening here?
玉娆 goes to pick up the 崔白’s 秋蒲蓉宾图 and bumps into the 19th Prince. He’s shocked that the Emperor gifted this to her – he’s been asking for it for ages. 玉娆 dismisses this action as simply a way for the Emperor to win points with her sister. The 19th prince doesn’t think much of this either. Girl…you are too naive. This old man is VERY interested in you. Well 玉娆 and the 19th Prince discuss the painting and their admiration for geese. Geese are known for their faithfulness as they mate for life.
玉娆 thanks the 19th Prince again for his aid to her sister during the interrogation. As thanks, he just wants a view of the painting, which she agrees. Ok, I don’t know about you but I think he’s absolutely manhandling a 700 year old painting! He just casually picks up the painting and unfurls it right in the garden. What if something happened to it! But i guess that’s what happens when you’re royalty?
玉娆 is impressed at the 19th prince’s insights. It looks like we have a budding romance?
After this exchange, 甄嬛 summons the doctor 温实处 over to her palace. The man’s in a pitiful state. He’s still mourning 沈眉庄’s death but 甄嬛 gives him his daughter to hold. This is the first time he’s seen her since her birth. Man, this guy just can’t catch a break. To atone for his sins, he will take care of her tombstone for 3 years which is a chinese tradition. The Emperor has agreed – obviously the excuse the doctor gives is to atone for his medical negligence.
At the end of the episode, the Emperor arrives to chat with 甄嬛 about some mundane accounts for the Imperial Palace. He’s impressed with the reductions in palace expenditure. 甄嬛 says this won’t be the case once new ladies arrive in the Imperial Harem. The Emperor jokes – if you’re worried about money, I’ll just take pick some ladies from your palace to be members of the harem. What about 浣碧?
What? Ew – you first were eyeing 玉娆 and now 浣碧? Gross…
I’ve wanted to point this out before but so far in the drama we’ve seen several palaces with pendulum clocks. There’s one very prominently displayed behind 安陵容. Well – I wasn’t very well informed of this history of clocks so I went and did some research. The first records of clocks in China actually date back to the Ming Dynasty in 1602. Clocks grew in popularity during the Qing dynasty. It’s around 1730 right now in the drama so it’s quite plausible for concubines to have western clocks. The most famous collector was actually Emperor 乾隆, the son of our current Emperor. He loved collecting Western paintings, trinkets, and gadgets. One of the clocks in his collection sold at auction for roughly $7M in 2010.
崔白 is a painter that is prominently featured in this episode. Born in 1050, he was a northern Song Dynasty painter who was best known for his paintings of birds and plants. He pioneered nature sketching during his lifetime. He became a court artist during the reign of Emperor Shenzong of the Song Dynasty. The Emperor delivered a mandate stating that unless there was an imperial edict, no one could commission works from the artist.
His famous paintings include 双喜图 the Magpies and Hare, the Wintery Sparrow, and of course what is mentioned in the drama 秋蒲蓉宾图。This painting prominently features a pair of swan geese in flight amongst wilting lilies and blooming 芙蓉 or confederate roses.
There are only a few of his paintings that exist today. The Magpies and Hare, 秋蒲蓉宾图, and a few others currently reside in the National Palace Museum in Taipei.
Lastly lets discuss the lines mentioned by 玉娆 and the 19th prince written by 元好问 摸鱼儿·雁丘词.
The author 元好问 was a late jin and yuan dynasty scholar and historian. He was born in 1190 and died in 1257. It is rumored that he wrote this poem in 1205 when he was only 16. He learned about the story of swan geese on his way to a civil entrance exam but there’s no definitive historical record.
The whole poem or song describes the love and faithfulness of a pair of geese. Specifically in this show, the two characters only discuss this line. 渺万里层云，千山暮雪，只影向谁去
This roughly translates to, one in the pair has already passed away. In the long road ahead, during the summer and winter travels, across clouds and snow covered mountains, what’s the point of going alone?
玉娆 is still a young girl. She can dream of one true love. Her sister, of course, wanted that for herself but she resigned herself to the life in the palace. Let’s see what fate awaits the young girl.
Before we end, the beginning of the poem includes a very famous line.
问世间，情为何物，直教生死相许 – my translation is this – Ask the world, what is love? What is feeling that compels people through life and death?
It is featured prominently in the Kungfu story by 金庸’s 神雕侠侣. Or The Return of the Condor Heroes.