Welcome back to Chasing dramas. This is the podcast that discusses Chinese history and culture through historical Chinese dramas. Today we are discussing episode 69 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 couple of episodes, main character Zhen Huan has been working to dismantle her prime enemy, the Empress’s faction. She has successfully removed both key concubines that did the Empress’s bidding. Now that the Empress’s team is effectively destroyed, the drama turns to her last remaining support, her adoptive son, the 3rd prince, who in this drama, effectively showcases that his intelligence level is on par with his not so smart mother.
Right now, in the palace, we have the 3rd prince, raised by the Empress and the 4th and 6th princes raised by Zhen Huan, the former an adoptive son, the latter is actually not the son of the Emperor’s but rather her love child with the 17th prince. The 3rd prince doesn’t have the highest intelligence whereas the 4th prince is very hardworking and the 6th prince is too young to matter.
The episode starts with the 3rd prince being reprimanded by his father the Emperor for not being able to explain historical political discourse about the Tang Dynasty which for us nerds is quite interesting and we’ll talk about in the analysis portion of our episode. Zhen Huan, the 4th prince and 叶澜依 or now 宁嫔， the former horse tamer maid turned concubine, are waiting outside the Emperor’s residence. They hear this tirade and Zhen Huan actually kindly consoles the 3rd prince when he comes out. But already you hear the tension between the 2 brothers. The 3rd prince is the eldest surviving son of the Emperor and raised by the Empress. Undoubtedly there are high hopes but unfortunately, he is not gifted and struggles with his studies. The 4th prince, on the other hand, was abandoned for most of his childhood but is highly intelligent and hardworking. He has memorized all of the books his older brother cannot. He also displayed in this scene his ability to keep his head down by lying to 宁嫔 and saying he doesn’t know these books even though he has them fully memorized. What’s at stake here is obviously the position of crown prince, or the throne as the next Emperor. The awkwardness though is that Zhen Huan’s real birth son is favored by the Emperor and even the 4th prince himself to be the crown prince but as we know, that’s not a good idea because the 6th prince is not the son of the Emperor’s. Zhen Huan tactfully deflects all conversations around this topic.
In the next scene we see the Empress, Zhen Huan, 敬贵妃 and her daughter 胧月 in the Imperial Garden helping the 3rd prince select a wife. There is a line of beautiful young women being presented to him as potential options. He doesn’t much have a preference but the Empress has her eyes set on her niece, 青樱, hoping to consolidate power of her clan。However, the 3rd prince is rather cold towards 青樱 which is somewhat justified because she is rude towards Princess 胧月 when she comes over to make small talk. Now that it’s been a few years, 胧月 has blossomed into a cute young girl and is very loving towards her two mothers, Zhen Huan, her birth mother, and 敬贵妃，her adoptive mother.
To help the 3rd prince get some fresh air from this match making session, 胧月 is instructed by her adoptive mother to take the 3rd prince for a stroll. This leads to disaster waiting to happen. As they’re out in the garden, the brother and sister pair encounter the beautiful 瑛贵人 admiring some flowers and the 3rd prince is immediately smitten. 瑛贵人 is a relatively new addition to the palace. She was uh gifted to the Emperor by 玉隐, the concubine of the 17th prince. 瑛贵人 used to be a maid in the 17th prince’s household but has evidently gained favor by the Emperor. I will say that in this scene, she is absolutely gorgeous. The trio have a brief conversation about flowers and it is evident that the 3rd prince is mesmerized by her beauty and poise.
This infatuation is taken to the next level in the next scene. The Emperor is listening to 瑛贵人 play the Chinese Zither. We’ll talk about this instrument later in our episode. As she’s performing, the 3rd prince just so happens to arrive to greet the Emperor. He requests pushing off selecting a wife in order to focus on his studies which the Emperor allows. Before he leaves though, he compliments 瑛贵人’s zither skills, clearly trying to get on her good side. 瑛贵人 doesn’t think too much of it.
Meanwhile, the Empress’s niece 青樱 is thoroughly annoyed that the 3rd prince decided to not ask her to be his formal wife. The Empress’s head maid tells 青樱 she should first just be a lowly concubine and at least she’ll be a part of the 3rd prince’s household but 青樱 refuses and says hurtful things about the Empress. The Empress, hearing this, becomes frustrated and decides to appoint 青樱 as a concubine to the 4th prince as a slap in the face to both of them. The woman the 3rd prince doesn’t want is now given to the 4th prince as a consolation prize.
Now for those of you who have watched RuYi’s Love in the Palace which is kind of a sequel to this drama, this is technically the same person as RuYi, meaning 青樱 is 如懿. However, in RuYi’s Love in the Palace, the story was retconned such that RuYi and the 4th prince were actually lovers and childhood friends. In this drama, Empresses in the Palace, it is clear that RuYi and the 4th prince had no relationship prior to meeting. Both the 4th prince and 青樱 are rather disdainful of this pairing but the 4th prince accepts it for the greater good.
This acceptance of this match is another example of the intelligence between these two brothers, the 3rd and 4th prince. While the 4th prince accepts this new concubine, the 3rd prince accosts 瑛贵人 in the garden again and tries to declare his love for her and grabs her hand. 瑛贵人 is rightly shocked and tries to get him to stand down but he is does not back down. She runs away with him chasing behind her. We don’t need to tell you that this relationship is taboo. She is his father’s woman. A woman of the emperor. Technically the 3rd prince’s mother. Why on earth the 3rd prince would think there is any way on earth a relationship between the two of them would ever work showcases that he doesn’t use his brain enough. He has no clue how this could harm both him and 瑛贵人 and does not think of any of the consequences.
Unfortunately, 敬贵妃 saw the 3rd prince chasing after 瑛贵人 and is able to deduce something about their relationship being amiss and instructs her subordinates to pay close attention.
After this failed attempt of wooing 瑛贵人, the 3rd prince has the gall to write a letter to send her expressing the feelings. That’s totally going to go over well right? Yes, absolutely. NOT. We shall see the aftermath of the 3rd prince thinking too much of romance and not enough about social norms.
The other thread in this episode is the growing tension in the 17th prince’s household. He currently has 2 secondary concubines, one is 玉隐, or formerly known as 浣碧 and is the half sister of 甄嬛. The other is 孟静娴. Remember, none of them are considered his wife, just secondary concubines or 侧福晋。
甄嬛 is out for a stroll with 敬贵妃 and 瑛贵人 where they bump into the 17th Prince and 孟静闲. Is it just me or is he looking quite scraggy? We rarely see him unshaven so I’m like…what’s happening at home?
Well – this is the first time 甄嬛 has met 孟静闲 and she’is surprised to find them here by themselves. Where’s 玉隐, this is unbecoming, she must pay her respects to the Emperor! The 17th Prince quickly gives the answer that 玉隐 is had matters of the household to attend to and couldn’t come. Listen to 孟静闲’s response – 玉隐 is very capable whereas I’m always sick and only a burden to others. Since 玉隐 is your sister, if it isn’t too bold, I would like for you to treat me as a sister. Then when the 17th prince tries to motion to leave, she purposefully grabs his hand. Everyone of course sees this and 敬贵妃 immediately teases the 17th prince for his luck for having such a loving relationship. 甄嬛 looks slightly uncomfortable, obviously jealous which he acknowledges and immediately removes his hand from 孟静闲’s grip.
甄嬛 returns back to her palace to find a surprise visitor, 宁嫔。Now two women who love the 17th prince are gossiping about the politics of the 17th Prince’s household. It’s hilarious – 宁嫔 warns 甄嬛 that 孟静闲 is no pushover. 玉隐 needs to be careful. Based on what we just saw? I agree. Don’t underestimate a woman’s love or jealousy!
The 17th prince has to delicately balance these two women in his household. If he shows favor to one side, what will the other side think? What will their families think? 孟静闲 and 玉隐 both come from powerful families – it’s a tough choice for the 17th prince. Maybe that’s why he’s looking so scraggy, haha. Well as 宁嫔 leaves, she comments that she hopes 玉隐 doesn’t lose herself in this battle for favor and that she (宁嫔) is ready to watch how this’ll play out. She’s so funny – she’s like, I’m just gonna grab my popcorn and watch this firestorm break out.
Sure enough, 玉隐 decides to stay with 甄嬛 for a few days. She’s annoyed at 孟静闲 and all of her doe-eyed actions to keep the 17th prince who seems to be paying her more attention than 玉隐. The servants in the household also see where the wind’s blowing and are beginning to sideline 玉隐. Girl! You gotta step it up!
Just then 孟静闲 arrives. 玉隐, not wanting to see 孟静闲 quickly hides in a corner. Small digression – is it me or does 孟静闲 have the deepest curtsies in the show? Well 孟静闲 drops a bombshell. She’s pregnant. WHAT? But then she curiously says, the 17th Prince doesn’t love me, he just pities me. I know how I became pregnant…hm…what does this mean?
She then also says – I originally thought that the 17th prince and 玉隐 were meant to be but it doesn’t seem like it. 玉隐 is also trying everything she can to please the 17th prince. I can’t figure out the reason. 甄嬛 coldly gives some advice and 孟静闲 takes her leave. 玉隐 comes out of her hiding spot worried. She says – this woman is too smart and saw too much. If she keeps this up, her suspicions will kill him.
甄嬛 tries to console 玉隐 and I suspect try to console herself. 玉隐 must take care of the child, the baby is the 17th prince’s first “official” child and to represent her family, 玉隐 must do her part. I think this is also a warning to 玉隐 to not do any funny business with the pregnancy. We all know how easy it is to cause a miscarriage.
Oh my gosh! I just had a great idea, this part of the episode should be called – the harem of the 17th prince. It’s like 4 ladies each being jealous of the relationship the 17th prince has with the other ladies. I’ll end the recap here on this note. 玉隐 and 甄嬛 are slowly recognizing the intelligence of 孟静闲. 甄嬛 of course is team 玉隐 because of their sister relationship. 玉隐 has a long road ahead of her – did she make the right choice in marrying the 17th prince? We’ll find out.
Alrighty, now onto the analysis. There’s tons to talk about today! We haven’t had a history and analysis driven episode in a while.
First, let’s discuss Qing dynasty education。
The Qing Dynasty took the education of princes extremely seriously. Not only were they expected to continue the athletic manchu traditions of horsemanship, archery etc, they were also expected to excel in academics. Princes were sent to study at what was called 上书房 with renowned tutors and court ministers starting at the age of 5. Their days were long, waking up before dawn to begin their studies of history, classical texts, politics, military strategy. The princes got little respite from the daily grind and were expected to study daily. They stayed in the study until adulthood. Some dramas including 康熙王朝 depict the strict regimen these princes adhered to, but that also explains why many Qing Dynasty Emperors themselves were very intellectual and highly accomplished.
The Political Program in Zhenguan Times or 贞观政要 is the the topic at hand for the Emperor to quiz his son the 3rd prince. Compiled by the Tang Dynasty Historian 吴兢, it is a monumental work. Spanning 10 volumes and 40 chapters, it chronicles the politics and military strategy of the 23 years of the 贞观 era of the early Tang Dynasty. I can’t even imagine reading all of that but hey, I’m not vying for the throne.
Another document that’s brought up is 谏太宗十思疏 which roughly translates to 10 Suggested Reflections for the Emperor. This Emperor is the 2nd Emperor of the Tang Dynasty, 李世民 one of the most famous in Chinese history. This document was written by 魏征，one of this Tang Emperor’s most trusted advisors who is well known for speaking his mind about the Emperor and even criticizing him when warranted. This document basically gives 10 reflections for the emperor on how to rule and be effective. It’s a throwaway document that’s mentioned but still interesting nonetheless.
Let’s talk about the Chinese zither! We’ve mentioned this instrument before but this instrument is highlighted today. 古筝 is another popular traditional chinese instrument. With records of the instrument dating back all the way to the Warring States period some 2500 years ago. It actually started out as a weapon and then gradually transformed into the instrument we see today. I read basically you just used it to swing at people when it was a weapon. Hard to imagine right? It grew in popularity throughout Chinese history and the number of strings grew for 13 to 21 or 26.
筝 holds its own compared to the 琴 and 琵琶. The 古琴 has been prominently featured in this drama but not so much the 筝. The instrument is meant to be plucked. Today, you’ll tape turtle shell nails to your fingers to get the crisp plucking sound. You’ll notice in the scene, 瑛贵人 isn’t wearing any extra nails. Historically, people would just pluck with their nails but it is quite tough to get the same sound. The modern zither has 21, 25 or 26 strings depending on the number of octaves you want. It is made of wood and there’s a whole range of wood you can use from the more common 桐木 or Paulownia to very rare 金丝楠 or Phoebe Zhennan. Some of the decorations on these Zithers are exquisite. Strings are now made of steel coated in nylon but were historically made of horse hair, deer tendons. A funny anachronism – if you take a look at the zither or 筝, there’s green strings on it. That’s definitely a modern string. I highly doubt they had those in the 1730s.
The piece 瑛贵人 performs is called 高山流水 or High mountains, running water. It is named one of the 10 most famous classical pieces of Chinese traditional music. It started as a 古琴 piece and was transposed for 古筝 over the centuries. Legend has it, the legendary musician 俞伯牙 composed the piece during the Warring States period. He played the piece in a lonely forest where woodcutter 钟子期 was able to comprehend the imagery evoked in the piece, from the towering peaks of 泰山 to the rushing water of the stream. 伯牙 was surprised to meet this kindred soul so much so that when 钟子期 died, 伯牙 destroyed his 琴, never to play again.
People still perform the piece and it’s one that I’m trying to learn on the Zither as well. It is a gorgeous piece with the highs and lows and different dynamics of the piece. You can really imagine the rush of water when listening to it. Check it out on youtube if you can!
Now, the talk about who will take the title of the crown prince has got me thinking about the Emperor’s sons. In the drama, the sons we see are the 3rd, 4th and 6th prince. The 1st and 2nd prince died at a young age. It’s been years since this drama has been out and a question has always plagued me as to where the 5th prince is. Why haven’t we seen him in this show? Long story short, the 5th prin ce didn’t serve a purpose to the story of Empresses in the Palace and therefore, he wasn’t featured. There was a brief mention of him by the Emperor but he is never on screen.
But apparently, the 5th prince in history lived for quite a long time, dying at 58 years of age and had quite the close relationship with the 4th prince or the future emperor. The problem is that he was rather uh ridiculous. According to historical records, he was arrogant and abusive of his power. He would play ridiculous games and was an alcoholic. Therefore, this meant he was not a threat to the Emperor and his throne. Thus some historians may say that this prince was actually very intelligent by acting this way so that no one would view him as a problem to be eliminated. This was his method of survival.
That’s it for today’s episode! Not as heavy on the drama but more with the history. Hope you learned something. If you have any comments, questions, please let us know. We look forward to having you with us in our next episode!