Welcome back to Chasing Dramas, the podcast that discusses Chinese history and culture through historical chinese dramas. This is Karen and Cathy. Today we are discussing episode 72 of Hou Gong Zhen Huan Zhuan. Empresses in the Palace. As always, feel free to reach out to us if you have any comments or questions either at firstname.lastname@example.org or else on instagram and twitter @chasingdramas.
This episode is split into 2 parts. The first, is the final judgement against the Empress. In our last podcast discussion, the Empress lost her final support system in the palace – her adoptive son the 3rd prince and her servants. Those servants were tortured for information and her multiple atrocities have finally been revealed to the Emperor and he decides her fate. Once that’s done, the episode kinda abruptly moves on to a meeting with the new Dzungar khan whom we’ve actually met in the past. We’ll do an in-depth analysis on the first part of the episode and briefly talk about the second part as it sets up the story for the following episodes.
Episode 72 starts with the Emperor’s head eunuch 苏培盛 presenting the interrogation findings of the Empress’s servants to the Emperor in his study. 苏培盛 shares the bombshell that the Empress was involved in the death of the Emperor’s beloved first wife, 纯元。The Emperor is initially outraged to hear this accusation but 苏培盛 explained that there were several ingredients harmful to pregnant women mixed into 纯元’s food. These included 芭蕉，or commonly known as the Japanese banana, and 桃仁 or peach seeds both of which don’t impact the body immediately but is a slow poison. The fact that the stillborn child had purple and green patches over its body is further evidence of this poison.
The reason why this scheme wasn’t initially discovered was because there was another wife that disrespected 纯元. The Emperor thought that this was the root cause for the stillborn child and the eventual death of 纯元。 苏培盛 explains that it’s precisely this reason that this plot wasn’t discovered earlier.
With this painful revelation, the Emperor requests the Empress’s presence. He fully believes that she schemed for the throne, that she killed imperial heirs, that she eliminated women in the palace, but this, he has to hear from her directly.
So now onto one of the most iconic scenes in the drama. It’s iconic for several reasons that we’ll get into. The Empress is kneeling on the ground while the Emperor sits above, listening to her explain herself.
Honestly, after watching this scene, the person I want to punch in the face the most is actually the Emperor. The Empress says that when she and the Emperor first married, he had promised her that if she birthed a son, she would be made 福晋 or the main wife. However, when she did give birth to a son, her sister 纯元 already married into the palace and usurped her position. The Empress’s son is now forever a 庶出 son or the translation is a secondary son because his mother is a secondary wife. 庶出 children are generally seen as second class in society.
The Emperor says that he doesn’t care about the primary or secondary status and that he has always treated the Empress well. But it was never enough for her.
The Empress counters that her first wife position was taken, her son’s position of crown prince was taken, and even her husband’s entire love was taken. She would really like to think it was enough, but she cannot.
It’s quite heartbreaking to hear what happened to her son. He wasn’t even 3 years old when he became ill with a high fever and tragically passed away without any medical treatment. When her son died, the Emperor didn’t care much because he was so immersed in the happiness of 纯元’s pregnancy. For her crimes, the Empress does not mind if her sister comes after her life, why did the gods have to take her son’s life. Is it not her sister’s child that took her child? How could she allow her sister’s child to survive?
To this, the Emperor asks the quintessential question – I was the one who did all this, why don’t you hate me instead?
Which is a really fair question. He is the root cause to all of this pain.
The Empress responds with – Do you think I don’t want to hate you? You’re so focused on your relationship with my sister, have you ever noticed my love for you? My love for you is not less than your love for my sister.
Poor woman, she fell in love with the Emperor but he does not care for her very much.
The Emperor doesn’t have much to say to this any more and is ready to remove her of her Empress position. As he’s writing out his decree though, his mother’s head maid hurriedly arrives with one final order from the deceased Empress Dowager.
This order was written on the Empress Dowager’s dying breath. It says that if ever there was an instance that the current Empress committed unthinkable atrocities, the Emperor must remember that she is never to be removed.
The Emperor is in disbelief. Why would the Empress Dowager write this order? He does not want to keep this woman around who killed his most beloved. The maid, however, reminds him that 纯元’s last wish was for him to never leave her younger sister. He cannot remove the Empress because she, her sister and his mother are all from the same or related families.
The Emperor is furious but cannot outright defy his mother and 纯元’s last wishes. He decrees that the Empress will forever stay in her palace. In life or death, they will never see each other again. The phrase in chinese is 死生不复相见. This is quite a solemn oath.
And that’s it for the Empress! Her crimes have finally come to light and she has been defeated! Let’s talk about this scene because there are so many things to unpack. Here are a few topics I want to touch on.
- The Emperor is a complete hypocrite. He keeps on bringing up the fact that the Empress and 纯元 were sisters and therefore he cannot fathom how the Empress could kill her own sister. Um… How many of your brothers have you killed or imprisoned? Even your own blood brother from the same mother and father, the 14th prince, you wouldn’t let your dying mother see. You banished your own son, the 3rd son to be the son of your 8th brother which led to his death. It’s really rich of him to accuse the Empress of not prioritizing familial ties when he himself is not a beacon of light by any means. This just makes my blood boil.
- I truly believe that the Emperor only loves 纯元 so much because she died at a young age. The Empress said it best, she regrets not letting the Emperor see her sister age. The Emperor, to me, epitomizes every saying where you miss what you’ve lost. He lost 纯元 when she was at her most beautiful and kind. She had yet to participate in Palace schemes and did not have to vy for power so she hasn’t turned, so to speak, “evil”. I do not believe that anyone who survives in the palace does not change for the worse and does not scheme. Even if it’s not to harm others, you will scheme to protect yourself. Alternatively, if 纯元 maintained her innocence and kindness, she would have been killed off in some other way. She would have too easily been a victim to one of these schemes. Lastly, we have seen time and again how short the Emperor’s attention span is. If 纯元 survived, who’s to say that the Emperor might have tired of her like he tired of so many other women in the palace? Dying may have been the best outcome for 纯元 because it solidified her existence and imprinted what her behavior was at that specific point in time.
- This once again shows the brilliance of the Empress Dowager. She knew full well what her daughter in law did to the women in the Imperial Harem but she decided that the glory of their clan and the position of Empress was more important. Even on her dying breath, she plotted to keep this glory for her clan. The Empress was not deposed nor killed, she is still the Empress, to the Empress Dowager, that was enough. She manipulated her son from her grave and that’s the last gift she could have given to the Empress.
Overall, while the Empress is reprehensible, the Emperor is not much better. The two of them are equally terrible people and I honestly think that the Emperor is the worse out of the pair. I don’t think the Empress would have done as many terrible things as she did if the Emperor kept to his word and cared more for her. Ultimately though, the Emperor and the Empress are products of their time. If not for all of these traditions and societal standards, these tragedies may have been limited.
Now let’s get to some more mundane matters of politics and the Imperial court, haha. I kind of wish that the drama just ended here? The rest of the remaining episodes on one hand just adds more heartbreak but does have a rather satisfying ending.
The Emperor meets with his minister 张廷玉 to discuss unrest with the Dzungar Khanate or the 准噶尔部落. There’s been much upheaval in the empire but there isn’t a general that can lead the forces into battle. The best option is to have a Lord or Prince to lead the troops. The only person they can use? Why it’s the 17th Prince 果郡王.
The Qing dynasty overall isn’t doing too great in this battle. The Emperor receives a report that the the Dzungar Khanate and its new ruler, 摩格is demanding astronomical sums as tribute from the Qing dynasty in order to stop the warfare. Of course the Emperor does not agree and he receives good news shortly after. The Dzungar army has contracted the plague and is currently immobilized.
Because of this, the Khan requests a meeting with the Emperor for peace talks. Luckily, the Qing dynasty has a cure that the Imperial Doctor Wen Shi Chu discovered back with the Qing dynasty suffered from the plague several years back. This is their biggest bargaining chip. The Emperor agrees to meet the Khan at a banquet in the Summer Palace and we have a grand scene where this meeting takes place. The Emperor is present with his concubines and children on one side, and his brothers and their families on another. Outside are the various court ministers.
We see the Khan come into the banquet hall to find out that it’s a familiar face. He’s the man that the 17th prince and 甄嬛 saved from a snake bite years ago when they were lovers. Uh oh… this does not bode well for either of them who are in attendance at this banquet.
The banquet is a battle of wits between the Khan and the Emperor. The Khan has a challenge for the court – someone needs to solve a 9 ring jade puzzle. It’s shown to members of the court standing outside and members of the imperial family. They all shake their heads to announce their inability to solve the puzzle. Even 甄嬛 declines to answer. Just as the Khan starts gloating, 甄嬛 whispers in daughter 胧月’s ear and she steps up to try to solve the puzzle.
The princess grabs the jade puzzle and throws it on the floor, promptly shattering it, and consequently solving the puzzle. The Khan is furious with this act but the Qing court all quietly smirks on the side. The princess was the perfect person to solve the puzzle in exactly this manner. I highly doubt that no one else didn’t know how to solve it. The 17th Prince and 甄嬛 both smiled when they examined the puzzle but the princess is someone who could a, do what she wanted, b, be a slap in the face to the Khan since she’s so small, and c, prevent the Khan from retaliating exactly because she’s so young.
The eunuch 苏培盛 enters to mutter some good news to the Emperor, one of his generals was victorious in battle. This gives the Emperor a bit more leverage over the khan and makes a gesture of peace by offering the cure to the plague to the khan.
甄嬛 excuses herself from the banquet to change. However, outside the Khan stops her. He recognizes her as the woman with the 17th prince all those years ago. 甄嬛 denies any of his allegations but he threatens her to be careful. Unfortunately this conversation is overheard by one of the Emperor’s spies. The episode ends with the Emperor ordering the spy to investigate further and he goes to meet with the Khan.
In episode 72, we have the final showdown between the Emperor and the Empress.
The Empress will still be around for a few more episodes but we’ll say our goodbye to her here.
The Empress in history was called 乌拉那拉 多棋木里. Born in 1681, she married 雍正, the then 4th prince in 1691. When she was only 10?? She was his primary consort or wife. She gave birth to her son 弘晖 in 1697 and died prematurely in 1704. As in the drama, she didn’t have any more children after her son. She became empress when her husband ascended the throne in 1723 at the age of 43. In this episode, the Empress quotes from the Imperial edict for her ascension to Empress. The piece she quotes is directly from the Factual Records of the Qing Dynasty or 清实录雍正朝. So again kudos to the drama for this.
She died in 1731 at the age of 51, which is actually right around when the final scene between her and the Emperor takes place. The Emperor praised the Empress for her adherence to duty, frugality, and kindness. The whole story of 纯元 is of course fictictional as well as any claims to her plotting to kill the Emperor’s unborn children.
This episode features an iconic scene, specifically the phrase 臣妾做不到 that the Empress states a few times as she’s confessing her crimes. This translates to I cannot do it. She could bring herself to hate the Emperor so she says 臣妾做不到. Why is this iconic?
Well, this along with a few other phrases from the drama, has been memed, recreated, you name it in all forms of social media in China. It’s taken a life of its own more in a joking manner. So for example, if you wanted to say, I want to stop eating desserts, but I cannot do it. In mandarin, you’ll say, 叫我不吃甜点，臣妾做不到! Ada Choi, the actress, actually perpetuated the meme and she has a ton of fun with it. She posted on her weibo saying – tell me to not love ada choi? I cannot do it! I cannot do it!
If you see Ada Choi in reality TV shows, someone will inevitably bring this quote up.
Speaking of, let’s give a shout out and praise to the actress 蔡少芬, Ada Choi. I’ve watched several of her Hong Kong TVB dramas growing up but she really astounded me here in this drama. She was extremely famous in Hong Kong and gained more popularity in the mainland with this drama.
Some fun behind the scenes tidbits. She was 37 when she filmed Empresses in the Palace. Shortly before filming, Ada found out she was pregnant with her first child! She initially contemplated backing out of the production but since she already signed, she decided to conceal her pregnancy and continue filming. A few months in, the cast and crew finally found out about her pregnancy but they were able to carry on. What a trooper!
I’m thoroughly impressed that she was able to act while pregnant especially in those flower pot bottom shoes! Well, I guess that’s what pregnant women had to do back in the day anyways?
If you look at interviews with Ada during this time, she constantly jokes that it was relatively easy to adjust especially since she was the Empress. She says that rarely had to kneel or bow and as the Empress, she always had people to hold on to while walking. Ada Choi is an absolute gem! I’m very glad she didn’t pass on this role. I can’t imagine another person as the Empress.
We’ve mentioned this before but her reality tv show appearances are hilarious. Her husband is from the mainland but he speaks Cantonese at home so she doesn’t speak Mandarin much except for her guest appearances. BUT her Mandarin in China has become known as the “Ada Style Mandarin” or “Empress Style Mandarin”. It’s hilarious and cute. I highly recommend googling some of her appearances. There’s a reality tv show called 王牌对王牌 where she reprises her role as the Empress to play some games and such. She’s so charming and a great sport in those episodes. I will warn you, you will roll over laughing. It’s on youtube. To this day, Chinese media will refer to her as 皇后娘娘 or the Empress.
That’s it for this episode. We devoted a ton to the Empress because well, she is the last “boss” in the Imperial Harem. 甄嬛 has more obstacles to face in the Palace but she’s vanquished her foes in the Imperial Harem. With only 4 episodes left, stay tuned to find out!