EPISODE 75+76

 

The Finale – Pt 1

[Cathy]

Welcome back to Chasing Dramas! Today is an exciting day where we discuss the events of the last two episodes of Empresses in the Palace – 后宫甄嬛传. We are your hosts, Cathy and Karen.  Can’t believe we’re here! We will discuss these 2 episodes in 2 parts. In this podcast episode, we will discuss more of the plot details of what happened plus some character and plot analysis. We will also have a part 2 where we discuss the history of the events that occur in these last two episodes and our final thoughts on the drama. We thought it would be too much to combine into 1 podcast episode so we’re splitting them in two.

 

Now without further ado, let’s start our podcast! 

 

In the last episode, we had our hearts broken with the death of the wonderful 17th prince, 果郡王. 甄嬛‘s sister also decided to follow her husband into the afterlife so those were the 2 major deaths in episode 74. That utterly depleted any emotion left from 甄嬛 to the Emperor and we now head to the end game.

 

Curiously, 甄嬛’s doctor, 卫临, a student of her good friend, 温实初 notifies 甄嬛 that 宁嫔, the former horse tamer maid turned concubine, is asking for 2 things. 1 the aphrodisiac fragrance that 安陵容 left over, and 2, she wants cinnabar. Cinnabar is a form of mercury sulfide largely used for its bright red pigmentation. However, it does have toxicity. As the doctor informs 甄嬛,using this has detrimental effects to the Emperor because the Emperor has been consuming medicine made from Chinese Alchemy. The medicine contains ingredients that while originally may not be toxic, but will turn toxic once Cinnabar is added. This will cause a person to become much weaker.

 

甄嬛 doesn’t share her suspicions with 卫临 the doctor but we know that 宁嫔 is out for revenge. She was in love with the 17th prince herself and learning that the Emperor killed him must have prompted her to act.

 

[Karen]

The major topic of conversation now within the Palace now is who will be the next Emperor. Establishing the heir is of the utmost importance and therefore, the Emperor needs to decide this sooner rather than later. Of the two remaining princes that are eligible for the crown prince title are the 4th prince, and the 6th prince. There’s heated discussion of who the ministers think should succeed the Emperor.  Some ministers go so far as saying that if the 6th prince is made heir, his mother, 甄嬛 should be killed to prevent her from amassing too much power. There is precedent of this dating back all the way to the Han Dynasty. The Emperor himself decides to converse with 甄嬛 over this matter. After all, she is raising both children.

 

甄嬛, in a surprising move to the emperor, promotes her adoptive son, the 4th prince, rather than her birth son the 6th prince. We know a large reason for this is because the 6th prince isn’t the real child of the Emperor’s. If he were indeed made Emperor, that would cause many issues for the lineage of the Qing Dynasty. 

 

[Cathy]

– i also think though for 甄嬛, she’s actually relatively selfishly for her son. She knows how unhappy life in the Imperial Palace is, with all of the scheming, deception, and pressure. I think she wants for her son a carefree life that his father once had.

 

 The Emperor continues to bait her with the position of the Empress. 甄嬛 kindly refuses this title. Both of these refusals play quite well in the eyes of the Emperor because it shows him she is not in it for power. She is making decisions for the prosperity of the Empire. If she had any other response, he probably would have killed her.

 

From this point forward, we are seeing the move towards the Emperor’s demise. This is largely instigated by 宁嫔 but aided and abetted by the Imperial Doctor 卫临 and 甄嬛.

 

宁嫔 bumps into 甄嬛 in the garden where she tells 甄嬛 the origins of the Persimmon Silk Trees planted in her palace. They were gifted to zhenhuan by 17th Prince and 宁嫔 requested to have them moved to her palace instead. 宁嫔 then whispers into 甄嬛’s ear – 别放过他 or Make him Pay. These two ladies will do just that.

 

[Karen]

The Emperor continues to consume these chinese alchemy pills where on the surface he seems to be increasing his life span and increasing energy, but it’s secretly killing him. 宁嫔 continuously tells him how much younger he seems and 甄嬛 instructs the doctor to make sure the Emperor doesn’t realize he’s not enjoying the effects of these pills. This one line is hilarious where the doctor says that 宁嫔 is using these fragrances originating from 安陵容 and the Emperor is very happily enjoying these aphrodisiacs. With the Empress out of the picture, no one will tattle about the components of these pills.

 

What this tells me is that 甄嬛, 宁嫔 and 卫临 are all in on the fact that the Emperor is being poisoned. Part of me wonders why 卫临 is ok being complicit in this but perhaps he realizes being loyal to 甄嬛 is more beneficial to him than the Emperor. He probably also saw how his mentor, 温实初 suffered at the hands of the Emperor and therefore wants some revenge himself. In any case, ladies and gentlemen, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from this drama, it’s that always have an imperial doctor on your side. He will not only help you when you’re ill, hide your pregnancies, but will also help you kill your enemies!

 

As the Emperor is enjoying spending time with some of his younger concubines, his health drastically deteriorates. He begins to cough blood. Shortly after, we hear he’s on bed rest.

 

Now this is where 甄嬛 is subtly abetting in slowly killing the Emperor. She instructs servants to place court dossiers in front of the Emperor for he will surely look at them. While on the surface this looks like she’s doing him a favor by ensuring he’s managing the Empire, she’s actually causing him to be further weakened. It takes a lot of energy to review these dossiers and run the Empire!. If 甄嬛 really wanted the Emperor to rest, she’d stop him from working, but she does not. Quite sneaky here but very effective. 

 

[Cathy]

We could say that the kill the emperor timeline is turned into high gear when the Emperor, after several months of rest, wanders the summer palace gardens and sees his 6th son and the 17th prince’s son playing with each other. As the half brothers get older, their appearances are also becoming more similar. The Emperor watches these 2 boys and notes that they indeed almost look like real brothers, not just cousins. This causes him to go into a shock and passes out.

 

When hearing this information from her sister 玉娆, 甄嬛 rightly becomes worried that the Emperor is once again becoming suspicious of his 6th son’s birth.  Even while bedridden, he instructs his spy to confirm this for him once and for all. 甄嬛 hears about the spy from of course the trusty eunuch 苏培盛. 

 

While lying in bed, 甄嬛 comes to visit him. She comes bearing very troubling news that she was told not to share, but decides to share with the Emperor anyways. She does this knowing full well she will agitate him further and cause additional harm to his health. What is this information? Apparently, right after the Emperor became bedridden, one of his younger concubines was caught, uh, cheating on him, with an imperial guard. Upon hearing this, the Emperor is furious. He shouts that these two should be killed immediately and in the most gruesome fashion. How dare they act this way. He’s the Emperor! Why do they all betray him? Why?

 

陈建斌’s acting is amazing here – you can truly see that he’s furious but weakened. 

 

He hunches over with blood spilling out onto his bed covers. 

 

[Karen]

Gee, isn’t that a great question? Why do they all betray him? There are probably a million answers to that question. 甄嬛 doesn’t even flinch at him passing out and having blood spill out. She’s probably inwardly cheering that finally she is pushing this man she hates to his death.

 

It looks like the Emperor is on his deathbed. The ladies of the Imperial Harem are all kneeling outside his bedroom. 甄嬛 dismisses them and declares that if anyone wants an audience with the Emperor, she must be notified. 甄嬛 is taking control of the palace. Along with 皇贵妃 and 敬贵妃, the three ladies make preparations for the Emperor’s possible death.

 

Elsewhere, 宁嫔 saves the day as she happens to see the Emperor’s spy leaving the 6th prince’s room. She enters to see the servants all unconscious on the floor. With a sigh of relief, she sees that the prince is still alive but notices that the 6th prince’s foot was pricked for blood. 

 

Recognizing the gravity of the situation, she hurriedly brings the prince and princess over to 甄嬛 and asks her the question, who is the children’s father? Why would the Emperor’s spy want to do another blood test?

 

[Cathy]

Episode 76 begins with 宁嫔 continuing the conversation with 甄嬛.

 

甄嬛 actually kneels to 宁嫔 to thank her and reveals that those children are the 17th prince’s. This comes as a complete shock to 宁嫔 but she is surprised and happy to hear this. This news also further fuels her drive to take action against the Emperor because it’s evident that the Emperor is suspicious about the truth and this cannot wait any further. She rushes off while 甄嬛 instructs her head eunuch to get rid of the Emperor’s spy.

 

Now, this part i think is a little unbelievable. How would it be that just a group of Eunuchs can go ahead and capture this spy who I would think has some martial arts knowledge and kill him so easily. Like, I feel like that was a little convenient but hey, we’ve talked about this repeatedly, eunuchs are quite powerful in the palace so who knows.

 

宁嫔 back at her palace picks up a pill she pretends to be from the daoist monks but I’m pretty sure is straight up poison and tricks the Emperor into eating as she tends to him. You can see her hatred as she pretends to be caring to him but cannot wait for him to die. 甄嬛 also arrives and these two revenge filled women exchange kn owing glances.

 

[Karen]

Now it’s time for the last conversation between these two. In this conversation, 甄嬛 finally bares her heart to the Emperor and it is definitely not what he wants to hear. The acting between the two in this scene is absolutely dynamic. 

 

The Emperor doesn’t even try to hide and asks where his spy is. 甄嬛 tells the truth that his spy is no longer needed and has been dealt with. 

 

The Emperor then asks directly whether the 6th prince is his son. She gives a circular answer that yes of course, all citizens are his children. He claims of course, the entire world is his but it will soon be 甄嬛’s. 

 

Even on his deathbed, the Emperor is still the arrogant asshole. The Emperor wants 甄嬛 to call him 四郎, her nickname for him all those years ago. She hasn’t said those words in years. 甄嬛 does not indulge him. She’s done doing that. She coldly tells him, the woman that entered the palace years ago? You personally killed her. I am 钮祜禄甄嬛. 

 

[Cathy] – an absolutely iconic line.

 

Recognizing that things can’t go back to where they were before, he states that she must hate him for what he did to the 17th prince. 甄嬛 doesn’t deny it and you can see the rage, anger and resentment in her eyes. She reveals that even if she hates the Emperor, she will take care of Princess 静和, the daughter of 温实初 and 沈眉庄。

 

This news infuriates the Emperor. He tries to sit up but he falls back on the bed. He’s too weak but he’s still breathing heavily. Such a great acting choice.

 

甄嬛 retorts that she is just doing what he has done to others. Compared to what he’s done, she isn’t nearly as deadly. She tells him that she’s hated every single touch and every moment spent with him since her return to the palace. The Emperor is besides himself. He wants to kill her but he doesn’t have any more energy to call his servants.

 

甄嬛 continues to goad him until at long last, he dies, his eyes wide open. After he dies, 甄嬛 finally calls him 四郎 and closes his eyes. She admits that this perhaps was all a mistake but for him, no tears are shed. She only sheds tears outside, announcing the death of the Emperor.

 

Ladies and gentlemen – the Emperor finally dies. However, I implore everyone to watch this scene. Some fun behind the scenes info. When the  Emperor dies, 陈建斌 the actor purposefully kept his eyes opened to convey the Emperor’s anger and the regr. He needed to wait for 甄嬛’s actress 孙俪 to come and close his eyes. However, she was too immersed in her own role that she’d take a few more seconds that he could hold. He’d meekly tell her after filming that if she waited any longer, he’d have to close his eyes on his own. Haha, that’s hilarious but also a testament to the commitment of both of these actors. 

—–

 

[Karen]

With the death of the Emperor comes a new dawn. As per history, the next Emperor will be the 4th prince, 弘历。 He is the famous 乾隆 emperor. After the funeral where the new emperor was declared, the imperial court heads up the steps of the forbidden palace to greet the new Emperor. This man, who originally was disliked by his father, is now the ruler of the entire Qing Empire. 

 

甄嬛 herself is now the powerful Empress Dowager. On the day of the coronation, she visits the old Empress who is still locked in her palace. It has been 4 years since the Emperor banished her. This Empress is alone and destitute in her palace. She seemingly has aged significantly these last few years. The contrast is quite distinct. 甄嬛 is dressed lavishly in gold, the color befitting her new title. Her hair, clothing, lipstick and makeup have all leveled up to reflect her new status as Empress Dowager. While the Empress on the other hand, is in much darker colors of black, blue, silver and red. A far cry from the powerful Empress. The Empress still believes that with the new Emperor, she will be named Empress Dowager. We’ve discussed, she dreamed that she would be 母后皇太后。甄嬛 was never going to allow that. She informs the Empress that she and the new Emperor have decided that she will still be named Empress while she lives. After her death, she will be buried with Concubines rather than as Empress with the Emperor. The Emperor has previously said, in life or in death, he will never see her again.

 

This is the biggest insult that the Empress can ever receive. She worked so hard for her entire life to leave the fate of a secondary daughter but it backfired on her. After she dies, she will never leave that fate. As a final kick, 甄嬛 tells her that the Empress will also be removed from history. No one will ever know of her.

 

[Cathy]

Shortly after this meeting, we hear news that the Empress passed away. No one is particularly sad or surprised.  After all, she was probably the most hated person in the entire palace.

 

One day, the new Emperor comes to visit 甄嬛 to discuss some family matters. The 19th prince would like to formally adopt the 17th prince’s son to be their own. This son was raised in their family ever since his parents died. 甄嬛 has no objection but the Emperor notes that if this happens, the 17th prince’s line will have no heir. 甄嬛 says that they can always find someone worthy to take this mantle. 

 

With this, the Emperor also recounts an anecdote that we’ve discussed on this podcast about how trouble occurred when a mother overly spoiled her younger son compared to the older son. If this were the case with birth sons, what would happen with an adoptive older son? The story of 郑伯克段于鄢 was discussed in our recap of episode 28.

 

[Karen]

甄嬛 gets the hint and she formally announces that she would like the 6th prince to be moved over to the 17th prince’s line.  The Emperor of course, hurriedly agrees to this and heads back to his palace.  甄嬛 recognized that the Emperor was testing to see how she would potentially treat her birth son in the future so she took this step to prevent the Emperor from ever becoming suspicious of his brother and thereby kill him, like his father killed so many of his brothers. And in this way, as 甄嬛 states, the 17th prince can finally have his son call him father. This, in the end, is the best ending she could provide for her son.

 

The drama ends with 甄嬛,now the most powerful woman in the Qing Empire, reminiscing about all of the events of her life from when she was a young, naive girl just entering the palace, to now the seasoned and hardened woman. 

 

 

[Cathy]

Let’s talk about this last conversation between the Emperor and Zhen Huan. One cannot deny that 甄嬛 had genuine affection for the Emperor when she first entered the palace and he treated her as a shadow of his beloved first wife. When finding out that she was nothing but a replacement, 甄嬛 could not handle this truth and left the palace where she began her relationship with the 17th prince.  

 

However, early on in the drama, she wanted to have a one true love. While she recognized it would be difficult with the Emperor, she had hoped for that true affection. This is a little naive in my opinion. She knew what her position would be in the palace and wanting this romantic relationship was never going to be a reality. While still unfortunate, it was not unexpected she would have her heart broken.

 

[Karen]

The Emperor also expected too much of his women. He, being the almighty emperor, expected everyone to bow down to him. Indeed, he had many women who clearly loved him – 皇后, 华妃, 端妃 but he cared only for 纯元 thus hurting all of these other women. His question of why everyone would betray him was a good one. Think about how suspicious he is and unforgiving. He discards women easily and punishes anyone who threatens his power. I don’t think there is a single person in the Palace who did not scheme against him at one point, if not only to get his attention. In the end, I do feel that he loved 甄嬛 but he realized it too late. He always thought he loved 纯元 more and because of that, did unforgivable things to 甄嬛. You only recognize what you’ve lost once it’s too late. The Emperor, in his last conversations, finally realized that he was the one to cause his own downfall, and the betrayal of so many around him. 

 

[Cathy] – I think that the Emperor finally fell in love with 甄嬛 when she returned to the palace but it was too little too late. He was lenient to her in several ways, including not killing her when he killed the 17th prince. He killed poor 瑛贵人 without second thought and that was when nothing actually happened between her and his son the 3rd prince. 

 

I also want to talk about the Empress 纯元. She’s the woman that played an integral role to the lives of everyone in the palace but was never seen. I will commend the Emperor’s devotion to her but I do think this is another example of loving what you’ve lost. In episode 34, we recounted the story of the Emperor 汉武帝 and 李夫人. She died young and refused to let the Emperor see her face, making him pine for her long after her death. I feel like this is somewhat similar, 纯元 died in her prime. The Emperor only has fond memories of her and did see her age or have to scheme in the palace. Perhaps the Empress was right, the Emperor would have tired of 纯元. There’s some interesting discussions about 纯元. Some people believe that she’s the innocent woman who cared for her sister and staff and loved the Emperor. There’s others who believe that she’s the ultimate schemer who, on her deathbed, begged for the Emperor to take care of her sister 宜修, causing the Empress 宜修 to be never anything more than 纯元’s sister. What do you guys think?

 

[Karen]

Of the women who remained in the palace, we have 甄嬛, obviously, 皇贵妃 , formerly 端妃, 敬妃, now 敬贵妃 and 欣嫔. There may be other women who survived but they were secondary characters and therefore not mentioned. What I found incredibly interesting is that these 3 women all entered the palace before 甄嬛. Throughout the drama, they remained relatively reserved. They don’t have as much political capital since their families or clans were not nearly as powerful as some other well known families and therefore they kept their head down. Each of these 3 women did not actively engage in tactics to capture the Emperor’s attention and were kind in their own way to 甄嬛 and others. It’s not surprising that these women survived to the end when so many others perished. 

 

Of the three women, 皇贵妃 or the previous 端妃 was the most devoted to the Emperor. She, in her own way, truly loved him. She knew that she took the fall for 华妃’s miscarriage but she didn’t care. In this episode, she refuses to meet 甄嬛 after the Emperor’s death. I think because she probably knew 甄嬛 had something to do with it and couldn’t bear to see her.  

 

[Cathy]

One woman who could have survived but decided her own fate was 宁嫔. We see her end her life after the death of the Emperor. She is a fan favorite character and there are many reasons why. Despite her low birth and her often times antagonistic personality, she was able to maintain favor in the palace and gained power. She did not deign to participate in palace schemes even though she was clearly capable of playing games. Her love for the 17th prince is truly touching. trait. She, unlike 玉隐,loves him but does not want to keep him for herself. She recognized that fate meant she will never have a chance with the 17th prince and instead of sabotaging his lover, she does everything in her power to help 甄嬛. Not many people would do this. She protected the 17th prince by protecting and helping 甄嬛. When hearing that 甄嬛’s children were indeed the 17th prince’s, she immediately took action to protect them once and for all. It also speaks volumes that 甄嬛 trusts 宁嫔 enough to tell her this secret. 

 

I personally don’t think 宁嫔 or 叶澜依 needed to end her life, but I guess it makes sense. There is nothing left to live for. She got the justice she wanted and completed her revenge for both herself and the 17th prince by helping end the Emperor’s life. Of all the ladies in the palace, she ranks very highly in my favorites. 

 

[Karen]

Finally – let’s discuss two men in the Imperial Palace. The first is the newly crowned Emperor, the 4th Prince, or 弘历. We’ll talk about this historical figure in another episode but I want to dive into his character right now. This prince is as sharp as a whip. He easily goaded his 3rd brother into meeting their 8th uncle, which ultimately led to his 3rd brother’s downfall. This 4th prince, knows when to keep his mouth shut and when to help his adoptive mother 甄嬛. In their mother son arrangement, both 甄嬛 and the 4th prince know that it’s advantageous to be in lockstep with each other, whether it’s to gain favor or keep their heads down. However, this relationship still can’t replicate the true bond between 甄嬛 and her own son the 6th prince. The 4th prince knows this. Which is why he bluntly asked 甄嬛 about the 6th prince at the end of the series. The story of 郑伯克段于鄢 is the 4th prince’s, now Emperor’s, warning to his mother about the 6th prince. If 甄嬛 had other ideas, such as scheming for the 6th prince to claim power once he’s older, the 4th prince might be forced to act as his father once did to kill his brother. 甄嬛 understood the risks and willingly took her son out of the equation. To the new Emperor, 甄嬛 acts as a great surrogate mother but more importantly as a tactician for the Emperor, just as the previous Empress Dowager was to her son. I think this was the best arrangement for these two.

 

[Cathy]

Lastly, let’s discuss the Eunuch 苏培盛. The man who came out number one in our ranking of cleverest person in the Imperial Harem. This eunuch was loyal to the Emperor but during the last few episodes, he acted more and more in favor for 甄嬛. Whether this was to find the letters the 17th prince sent or to tip 甄嬛 off about the Emperor’s spy, what he did was, in my mind, blatantly against the orders of the Emperor. It could be said that 苏培盛 is grateful for 甄嬛’s rescue of him when his relationship with 槿汐 came out but I think more importantly it’s because he is the ultimate insider in the Imperial Harem. He knew full well who had power in the Imperial Harem once the Empress fell. Not only that, who WOULD have power once the Emperor dies. 甄嬛 has two sons, both favored by the Emperor. No matter who became the next Emperor, she would be the Empress Dowager. It’s better to curry favor with her than even the Emperor because he needs to plan for his own future. And look at that, he’s the senior eunuch at the end of the series. 苏培盛’s story tells us, that you need to treat everyone with kindness because one never knows who will be the last one standing. It’s always good to have a few more allies.

 

[Karen]

Well that’s it for this episode! We are finally done discussing the plot and characters of 后宫甄嬛传, Empresses in the Palace! It’s been an amazing ride with all of our. We have one more episode on this drama where we talk about this drama. We will talk about the history not covered in this episode, behind the scenes stories about filming, the cast, and our final thoughts.  If there’s anything specific you’d like for us to cover in this episode please let us know!

 

—-

[Karen]

Welcome back to Chasing Dramas. This is the podcast that discusses Chinese culture and history through historical Chinese dramas.  We are your hosts, Karen and Cathy. This episode is a really momentous episode as it is our LAST one discussing the classic drama – 后宫甄嬛传. 

 

We did our recap in the last podcast discussion of episode 75 + 76. In this episode we will be spending time discussing history and also any last thoughts on the drama regarding themes, the actors, filming stories etc. 

 

Without further ado, let us get started on some history!

 

Chinese Alchemy – 炼丹 –

 

First up are these pills that the Emperor ingested in the last 2 episodes. These pills or the act of making these pills is a form of Chinese Alchemy that originates from daoist teachings. Essentially you are manipulating and refining various minerals such as cinnabar and gold into these pills for various medicinal reasons but ultimately it’s for the purpose of immortality. But not just living forever, also staying young forever. The origins of Chinese alchemy is disputed but it is a widely known daoist act and has permeated chinese culture and history. The elixirs and potions that are created may have had some type of benefit but are actually often times poisonous.  Just think about it, if you’re eating cinnabar which contains mercury, the possibility of being poisoned is large.

 

Of the people who would be interested in immortality, Emperors are among those lining up for these pills. There is a long list of Chinese Emperors who have sought these elixirs or pills for immortality and many of them died ingesting these pills.  Apparently, it was true to history that 雍正, the Emperor of this drama died after eating these pills. He was very interested in Chinese Alchemy when he was still a prince. He spent a significant amount of time trying to develop pills which helped him seem calm and uninterested in the throne in the eyes of his father. Remember, there was a heated and deadly dispute of the title of crown prince so this was the Emperor’s tactic. By seeming uninterested, his father would be less worried about him and make him look more appealing as heir.

 

As the Emperor aged, he continued to follow this fascination with Chinese Alchemy and these pills. The cause of his death wasn’t confirmed but we can reasonably conclude that these heavily contributed to his death as he died quite suddenly in 1735. It’s interesting to see that this drama, Empresses in the Palace, was able to utilize this from history as a part of this story for the Emperor’s death.

 

[Cathy]

钩弋夫人 – In Episode 75, there was discussion between the Emperor and his court ministers about who should be the heir. There was a suggestion that if the 6th son is selected, the mother, 甄嬛, should be killed. This was to ensure that she does not amass too much power.  

 

Though a throwaway line and a rather harsh act of killing the mother of the next Emperor, this act has a historical anecdote. In the Han Dynasty, the famous 汉武帝 did just that. He made his youngest son, 刘弗陵,the crown prince but not before killing his mother, 钩弋夫人。At the time, the Emperor 汉武帝 was already elderly but his son was still very young and very bright. His older sons were either killed, died or not fit to be crown prince so it was left to his youngest. The Emperor recognized that his son will ascend the throne at a young age and will therefore need advisors but did not want his son’s mother 钩弋夫人 from having that power. So, he had her killed. It’s not known how she died but in tv dramas depicting this story, it’s sometimes portrayed as the Emperor giving her this option. If she kills herself, her son will be the next Emperor. 

 

While this may seem cruel, the Emperor 汉武帝 already had experience with Empress Dowagers taking too much power and wreaking havoc across the Empire. He wanted to prevent that from happening which is why he made this decision.  There have been indeed many examples in Chinese history of malevolent Empress Dowagers and women causing the downfall of dynasties. The famous 慈禧 Empress Dowager could be credited for the downfall of the Qing Dynasty. That is why, in this drama, 甄嬛传, Empresses in the Palace, the Emperor 雍正 even directly asked 甄嬛 how she would feel if she had to die. It was his test to see if she was worthy or would cause harm. Of course there are plenty of women who benefited dynasties and were great advisors but still, a consideration nonetheless. 

 

[Karen]

雍正

Let’s dive a little bit deeper to discuss the historical figure of Emperor 雍正. During the Qing Dynasty, the Emperors are more famously referred to by their Era name or 年号 instead of their 谥号 or Posthumus name as is common for other Dynasties so 雍正 is his Era name. 

 

Born in 1678, he was the 4th son of Emperor 康熙. He won the bloody battle for the throne and ruled from 1722 – 1735. As the 5th Emperor of the Qing Dynasty, his economic and cultural reforms and military expansion brought relative peace and prosperity to the Empire. Some of his accomplishments include increasing farmable land, abolishing the untouchable caste, increasing silver’s importance in the Qing economy, defeating the Dzungars, and increasing the Imperial treasury. The Emperor was apparently a very fashionable man and was the first Chinese Emperor to wear Western clothes. There’s actually a painting of him wearing a wig and styled in the Baroque period. While he clamped down on Western religion, he did enjoy western products such as wine and he did use glasses in his later years.

 

However, he is somewhat overshadowed in history by the long reigns of his father 康熙 and his son 乾隆. Emperor 雍正’s efforts laid the foundation for the prosperity of his son’s reign, which some say Emperor 乾隆 squandered. It doesn’t help that Emperor 雍正 is oftentimes portrayed as a cold and ruthless ruler, as is done here in this drama. It is historical fact that he killed and imprisoned his brothers and trusted advisors such as 年羹尧 and 隆科多 as seen in the drama, which may or may not contribute to his image. 

 

He had 10 sons but only 6 were ranked or named as an 阿哥 and 4 daughters. We’ve talked at length about his harem so we won’t discuss those ladies here.

 

[Cathy]

There are several rumors regarding 雍正’s sudden death. Historical records only state that he became gravely ill one day and died the next. One rumor is that he was assassinated by a one 吕四娘 but that’s been mainly brushed off as fiction. The next rumor is that he died of a sudden stroke due to over exhaustion. The Emperor 雍正 was indeed a very fastidious Emperor, pushing reforms and working long hours. We see in the drama that he’s often reading reports and meeting with ministers on matters of state. This seems to be the most accepted rumor. A third rumor is as we’ve discussed earlier that he died from eating poisonous Chinese Alchemy pills. There’s another rumor that in his later years, he spent more time in bed with his concubines to a point where he had erectile dysfunction. He decided to eat different medicine and aphrodisiacs to uh fix the problem, which ultimately contributed to his death. Who knew viagra was deadly? These of course are all just rumors but I do think overexhaustion probably did contribute to his early death.

 

As for Chinese drama appearances, Emperor 雍正 reached his peak popularity in 2011 when he was heavily featured in 4 dramas! 甄嬛传, 步步惊心, 宫锁心玉, and 宫锁珠帘. Still, his drama appearances pale in comparison to his father and son who are extremely popular and most notable.

 

太后

[Karen]

Next up – let’s discuss 甄嬛 or her real life counterpart! She is known to history by her clan name of 钮祜禄 or Niohuru. Born in 1692, she married the 4th Prince, the future Emperor 雍正, in 1704 and birthed his 4th son 弘历 in 1711. She became consort 熹 or 熹妃 when the Emperor ascended the throne and became Noble Consort Xi or 熹贵妃 in 1730. When the Empress died in 1731, 熹贵妃 ran the Imperial Harem but was never elevated to Empress Consort during her lifetime.

 

When her husband died in 1735, she was elevated to Empress Dowager. Her son, now Emperor 乾隆, built 寿康宫 for her and that became the residence of Empress Dowagers. In the drama the Empress Dowager or mother of Empress 雍正 already lived there but that palace didn’t exist during 雍正’s rule.

 

She had a very close relationship with her son, Emperor 乾隆. He would take his mother during official visits across the Empire. During her 80th birthday, the 60 year old Emperor still performed for his mother. 

 

[Cathy]

One could say that her family had very good genes because her father, herself, and her son all lived extremely long lives. She died in 1777 at the ripe old age of 85, making her the oldest Empress Dowager in Chinese history.

 

As the mother of 乾隆, she played an outsized role in his life but he was a very respectful and doting son. She is prominently featured in many many dramas, especially those that focus on Emperor 乾隆, such as 还珠格格 or My Fair Princess, 如懿传 or the Legend of Ru Yi, and of course 延禧攻略, the story of yan xi palace. There’s hilarious memes about her due to 甄嬛传. Fans have placed 甄嬛 in the same universe as My Fair Princess or the Story of Yan Xi Palace and created memes like – hm, you kids have nothing on me. I vanquished level 9 foes! Don’t bother me with your childish games. Or, if in a drama she’s not portrayed as being intelligent, fans will scoff and say that Zhen Huan lost her touch.

 

[Karen]

 

六阿哥 – 弘曕 – The youngest son of 雍正, born in 1733, and was just 4 years old when his older brother ascended the throne. Due to his young age, I don’t think he was in serious contention for the throne. His mother was 谦妃 and therefore did not share the same mother as 乾隆 Emperor. The most interesting fact about this prince is that according to history, he did indeed move over to become the son of 果亲王 or the 17th prince, as was described in this drama. You could say that the 17th prince was his adoptive father.  Of course the relationship between the 17th prince and 甄嬛 was fabricated but it’s again really interesting how the screenwriters were able to intertwine real history with the drama. 

 

In his youth, the 6th prince was a favored younger brother by the Emperor 乾隆 and was given large responsibilities. However, as he grew older, he became more arrogant, corrupt and disrespectful of imperial power. His Brother, tiring of his antiques stripped away his power which caused 弘曕 to fall seriously ill. Due to this blow, he never fully recovered and died at the age of 33. 

 

乾隆

[Cathy]

Lastly, as historical figures go, we’ll touch briefly on Emperor 乾隆. I’m sure we’ll probably do a drama about him in the future so we’ll discuss him more in the context of his father, mother, grandfather, and siblings here.

 

Born in 1711, he was the 6th Emperor of the Qing Dynasty and his Era name is 乾隆 so we’ll just refer to him as that. Before ascending the throne his name was 弘历.

 

The rumor is that when 乾隆 was 10 years old in 1721, his grandfather Emperor 康熙 met the boy and took an instant liking to him. The boy was ordered to move to the palace and grow up under the tutelage of court ministers and professors. It is said that the boy’s performance tipped some favor towards his father when the Emperor 康熙 died. By the time his father ascended the throne, 乾隆’s older brother the 3rd prince had lost favor with the Emperor and the Emperor 雍正 secretly tipped him to be his successor. This was written in a secret edict that was stored behind the tablet over the throne in the Palace of Heavenly Purity. 

 

[Karen]

He married as his wife a member of the Fuca clan in 1727 and as his second consort a member of the ulanara clan. These two are accurate in the drama and of course very much part of the plot for 延禧攻略 or the Story of Yan Xi Palace. 乾隆 was promoted to Prince of the First Rank under the title of 宝亲王. 

 

He had a loving relationship with his mother and fulfilled his filial piety to the nines. I think it’s actually quite rare to see such a devoted mother son relationship in Chinese history, especially amongst Emperors. 

 

He didn’t have many male siblings so he didn’t have to contend with them for the throne. As we said earlier, he favored his younger brothers and was lenient to a degree. He actually released and pardoned some of his uncles who plotted against his father’s throne. Many of them were getting on in age so they didn’t really pose a threat and he won brownie points for his reputation. 

 

He’s the longest living Emperor and ruled for 60 years. He abdicated after 60 years stating that he didn’t want to rule longer than his grandfather Emperor Kang Xi but nonetheless held onto power for another 2 years. He died in 1799 at the age of 89. What did I say, good genes right?

 

Final thoughts –

 

[Cathy]

The lasting impact of this drama cannot be overstated. Despite not having the highest ratings when it first premiered, it is now heralded as THE classic palace drama in the last decade. 甄嬛传 clearly established palace customs and norms for viewers who may not have been too familiar with the palace titles. For example, this drama clearly delineates what it means to be Consort or 妃 or a noble lady, or 贵人. It clearly states what the various levels are and how to achieve a higher status in the palace. This is useful knowledge for all other palace dramas. Many dramas never made this very clear so the titles were often a jumbled mess that was not accurate in history. Now, these titles are much clearer and viewers take this knowledge gained from 甄嬛传 to other dramas and allows those dramas to not have to explain court titles and schemes. It’s just common knowledge. At least, that’s how I felt watching more palace dramas after watching Empresses In The Palace. 

 

It was the same when discussing the concept of 嫡庶. Or the status of the first born and anyone who is not the first born. This societal norm caused so much pain and anguish for many people in the palace, particularly the Empress who always struggled against her birth of being a secondary or 庶出 daughter. This concept was made explicitly clear throughout this drama and therefore brought about a level of understanding to us viewers of this antiquated societal guideline. This concept will be revisited even more heavily in our next drama, the Story of Ming Lan.

 

[Karen]

One theme that was heavily emphasized throughout this drama and was a hidden constraint for almost everyone, was family. The Empress Dowager, 太后, knew that the Empress killed many women in the palace and even many of her grandchildren but ultimately decided to protect the Empress in order to maintain power of her clan. 甄嬛 had to return to the palace because her father was sick while in exile and she had no means of saving them except for relying on a man she hated.华妃 had a powerful brother she could lean on but was manipulated because of her family and connections. 

 

Each person is tied to how his or her family behaves or where they come from and it’s very difficult to change the fact that you’re tied to those families. Family was a hidden force and can often times be seen as a restriction that drove many actions of our characters and I feel is a key trait of Chinese society.

 

[Cathy]

It is easy to be immersed in the glitz and glamour of these Palace dramas. The clothes, the hair, the accessories, the shoes, the make up, the instruments, the jewelry – all of it is beautifully presented to us in these tv dramas. It was also wildly popular for a time for characters from modern day to travel back in time to various dynasties to live out their lives. While yes, the production of these dramas and the stories they tell are gripping, what I have learned most from these dramas and this one in particular is how restrictive Chinese society was just a few hundred years ago. I don’t want to get into politics about what’s going on today, but seeing how difficult it was for a woman to make her way in the world and the societal restrictions placed on women during this time should push us viewers to reflect on the changes we benefit from today. 

 

Beyond the history and themes of the drama, the drama also either started the careers of many of the actresses or was the pinnacle of popularity for others.

 

[Karen]

孙俪, the Actress for 甄嬛, 蔡少芬, the Actress for the Empress and 蒋欣, the Actress for 华妃 all exploded in popularity from this drama. We’ve mentioned previously but for each of them, when on reality TV shows or being addressed by fans, people will call then 娘娘, as the affectionate title of a consort or Empress. It’s been 10 years and that’s still true. A classic line that 华妃 says, “贱人就是矫情” which roughly translates to “bitches are crafty”, is said all over the internet and we all know where it comes from.  There’s another one, the line 我是钮祜禄, 甄嬛 that 甄嬛 utters in episode 76 has taken a life of its own. It’s simply a declaration of who she is but she fully comes to her own. She’s a badass. Now in pop culture, whenever someone wants to say she is a badass, she’ll just say or the comments will say she’s 钮祜禄 blah blah blah

 

They’ve each had relatively successful dramas since Empresses in the Palace but I would subjectively say that those dramas did not become as classic as this one. However, each of these ladies are still considered a staple in the Chinese entertainment industry with incredible acting capabilities.  Women such as 唐艺昕 who plays 祺嫔, 毛晓彤 who plays 瑛贵人, and 谭松韵 who plays 淳儿 were all incredibly young while filming this drama and have all now achieved a certain level of success.   

 

[Cathy]

 

孙俪 – The actress for 甄嬛 was born in 1982 in Shanghai. One of the most famous actresses today, she had her start from a drama called 玉观音 Or Goddess of Mercy in 2003 that showcased her acting capabilities and brought her to the forefront of people’s minds. Since then, she has acted in several high quality films and dramas. Her notable dramas include a remake of the famous 上海滩 or Shanghai Bund in 2007, Zhen Huan Zhuan or Empresses in the Palace in 2011, The Legend of Mi Yue in 2015 and Nothing Gold can Stay in 2017.  Her notable films include Fearless or 霍元甲 with Jet Li in 2007, Painted Skin 画皮 in 2009 and Shadow 影 in 2018. She has won numerous awards for her various roles and was even nominated for an international Emmy award for Empresses in the Palace. 

 

Sun Li is married to a fellow well known actor named 邓超 and has two children. They’re definitely a super cute couple. Sun Li primarily focuses on acting while 邓超 is also involved in several reality tv shows. He’s also a really good actor, but he’s definitely diversified outside of acting in recent years.

 

Without spending too much more time on 孙俪,I just want to thank her for creating such a classic role and bringing it to us in the form of 甄嬛。 I don’t think anyone could have done a better job than her and this will be her defining and classic drama of her career.

 

[Karen]

 

陈建斌, the actor for the Emperor was born in 1970 and born in Xin Jiang Province. Even before this drama he was a well established actor and like Sun Li, has won numerous awards for his various roles. He is married to one of the most gorgeous women in the Chinese entertainment industry, or at least I like to think so, 蒋勤勤. We’ve mentioned this before that 蒋勤勤 looks similar to 孙俪 and so everyone jokes that 蒋勤勤 is actually 纯元 from the drama. 

 

And while many fans were confused and angry at this casting choice when the drama first came out because he’s not as handsome as some would have liked, I think 陈建斌 did a phenomenal job portraying an overall stoic but calculating and suspicious Emperor. 

[Cathy]

From a production perspective, one cannot deny the beauty and detail on the costumes, hair, set and make up. Each individual had distinctive outfits befitting of their title and period of life. 

 

Something else to highlight is the voice dubbing. The voice dub for 甄嬛 is done by a woman named 季冠森。 While she dubbed many voices previously, her voice dub for 甄嬛 is so iconic that whenever you hear her voice dub in another drama, you’re like – oh that’s 甄嬛’s voice. This definitely happened a couple of times in modern dramas where people say that they’re getting confused hearing 甄嬛’s voice while seeing another person’s face. One could say this is listening fatigue of the same voice over and over but I thought it’s quite funny. 

 

[Karen]

Some background about the filming of the show. Filming began on September 18 2010 at 戒台寺 on the outskirts of Beijing. It’s a beautifully preserved buddhist temple that was built during the Tang Dynasty in 644. The cast and crew stayed in Beijing and shot the scenes for the temple at 戒台寺 and the Summer Palace at Beijing 大观园, which is a replica garden of the famous 大观园 built for the filming of 红楼梦 or Dream of the Red Chamber in 1984. Filming then transferred to 横店 World Studios for the Palace Interior scenes. Finally the cast then travelled back to Beijing to finish some temple scenes and the ice skating scene.  Filming lasted for 132 days,  wrapping filming on January 30th 2011. That’s EXTREMELY fast! For 76 episodes? I didn’t know that. There were over 1800 scenes filmed and the main actress 孙俪 had approximately 960 scenes. 

 

[Cathy]

And that’s a wrap for 后宫甄嬛传. Wow! What an incredible journey to talk about this show after having watched it so many times. I’ve certainly learned many things from drama and hope that you did too. If you have any additional comments or questions, feel free to reach out to us. 

 

[Karen]

There is technically a sequel to this drama that’s called RuYi’s love in the palace or 如懿传. The main character we already met briefly in this drama and that is 青樱. The sequel follows the love story between 青樱 and the 4th prince which was retconned to fit the story. In this drama, they don’t have any real emotional connection between them but in the sequel, they love each other deeply. The sequel mentions some of the events from 甄嬛传 but largely follows a separate path. I thought it was alright but definitely not as classic as 甄嬛传 and if you can believe it, even more depressing and sad. It’s not necessarily a drama I go back to and rewatch all the time like I do 甄嬛传 but that’s just me. 

 

Next up! We are going to be discussing the Song Dynasty drama, the Story of Ming Lan, 知否知否应是绿肥红瘦。 Stay tuned and thanks again so much for your support of this podcast!

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