[Cathy]

Welcome back to Chasing Dramas! This is the podcast that discusses Chinese history and culture by following historical Chinese dramas. This is Cathy and I’m Karen.In today’s episode we will be discussing episode 52+53 of Empresses in the Palace or 后宫甄嬛传.There’s some heartbreak, some scheming but also just a lot of eyerolls in these 2 episodes for us to discuss! If you are new to the podcast, please start with our intro to the drama and intro to the podcast episodes to see what we’re talking about.

Alright team. We are slogging through these section of the series where 甄嬛 is technically a Nun at 甘露寺 or 甘露  temple. What happens here? 

This first segment…sigh…

 

[Karen]

It’s been 52 episodes and this person who is not very intelligent finally has her comeuppance. In the last few episodes, we were introduced to the beautiful but cold 叶澜依. She was a horse tamer maid in the summer palace but captured the attention of the emperor and was swiftly made into a concubine. While the emperor is very happy with this new fling, our new concubine is not happy at all. She is in love with the 17th prince, she couldn’t care less about this Emperor. The other ladies in the imperial harem are unsurprisingly jealous and envious. This woman may be beautiful and intriguing to the emperor, but to the other women in the harem, her birth station is way too low. She’s also rude and unwavering in her disrespect towards the empress and other ladies.  In my eyes though, she’s pretty cool. She doesn’t care about riches or fame or the emperor’s attention. She had much more freedom in her low station as a horse tamer but now she’s in a cage.

The empress in particular cannot have this woman around so she, in her manipulative ways, comes up with a very simple plan to rid the harem of 2 threats simultaneously. The empress controls the harem with an iron fist. Her primary motivation is to not allow women in the harem to have children. With all the attention this new concubine is receiving, she’s bound to get pregnant. The empress must stop this. The other issue that the empress has at the moment, is the annoying 齐妃. She’s the birth mother of the 3rd prince but is not very bright. In the last episode, 齐妃 revealed to her son how she cannot wait for him to become emperor so she can become the empress dowager. This deeply irked the empress who wanted to be the sole empress dowager. Therefore, she must get rid of this 齐妃 as well. We’ll talk about this distinction at the end of the episode.

 

[Cathy]

So! The empress, in her way, devises a plan. She has 齐妃 over for a chat and they casually discuss how difficult it will be to control the new concubine once she is pregnant. The Empress is incredibly sly. She does not outright say anything about how to proceed and leaves that up to 齐妃. She only heavily hints that preventing the new concubine from ever becoming pregnant will solve a lot of headaches in the future. 齐妃 gets the hint and takes it upon herself to sabotage 叶澜依, the new concubine. What does she do?

Her grand plan is to have her maid present 叶澜依 with a bowl of red date soup. The thing is, the maid openly states that the soup is from 齐妃. 叶澜依 could tell immediately there’s something off about the soup. Even her cat smelled something amiss. But, 叶澜依, hating her life in the harem, drinks the soup anyways. She’s pretty much like whatever. If i die, I die. This place sucks anyways. 

Lo and behold, the result is that she has heavy stomach pains. The imperial doctors report to the emperor that she is now sterile. This, understandably, greatly angers the emperor who wants to find the culprit….Which is not hard to deduce. 齐妃’s maid openly said the bowl of soup was from 齐妃。齐妃 is screwed.

And when 齐妃 goes crying for help from the Empress, the empress immediately backstabs 齐妃 by pretending to never have told 齐妃 to hurt anyone. 齐妃is shocked by this betrayal but are we? Is anyone? The empress does say the key line here – 齐妃 enacted plans that made it incredibly obvious that she was the one who did it. She didn’t hide  it or try to find a scapegoat. She openly let everyone know that the soup was from her.  With this type of idiocy, only a fool would step in to protect 齐妃 because it would be obvious they’re on the same side. People would trace this act back to the empress which the Empress does not want. 

 

[Karen]

Honestly, I have no idea how 齐妃 was able to give birth to the 3rd prince in the first place with someone as devious and cruel as 皇后 around. The other question is, how did she manage to survive in the harem this long. I guess 皇后 felt she was too dumb to pose a threat and she was easy to order around for certain tasks. 皇后 did mention that 齐妃 had a powerful father who has since fallen from grace which leads me to believe there was some type of consideration back then, but has disappeared now.

Unfortunately for 齐妃, the only solution to solve this problem is to commit suicide. She is definitely guilty so it was to wait for the emperor to punish her or for her to resolve it herself. In order to prevent her son from being implicated, she decides to hang herself.  This technically is a big no no. You’re not supposed to commit suicide when guilty because this could implicate your entire family but since the “family” is the 3rd prince, she decided to go this route.

When her body is discovered, the empress puts on a great show. She is crying in front of the emperor and saying that 齐妃 just made a mistake. The emperor feels nothing but disgust for this woman. He does mention that the 3rd prince needs someone to look after him. The empress seizes her chance. This is the masterful empress. She is crying her eyes out and interjects the emperor when he’s talking about guardianship. She mentions that she’s been raising the 3rd prince for a while now and that she views all children in the harem as though they were her own. The emperor is like, that’s right, you have looked after the 3rd prince. You’ll have permanent guardianship of him now. 

With that, the empress’s grand plans have succeeded She 1) got rid of a potential threat in the form of the new concubine, 叶澜依, 2) she eliminated 齐妃 so she doesn’t have someone to fight her for power when she becomes empress dowager, and 3) has primary guardianship of the 3rd prince which ensures she will have power as the empress dowager. This was a win win win situation for her. It could not have gone more smoothly. The Empress needed someone as idiotic as 齐妃 to do her bidding, and luckily 齐妃 did exactly what she wanted.

 

[Cathy]

While the Empress may have fooled the emperor, the empress dowager is not so easily tricked. On her sick bed, the empress dowager asks the empress to chat and they have a rather frank discussion about all the terrible things the empress has done.. The empress refutes most of the criticism by the empress dowager by hiding behind the shield that all she’s done was for their clan’s glory. The empress keeps on bringing up the fact that the empress dowager and she are from related manchurian clans. In order to maintain the glory and power that comes with being empress and empress dowager for their clan, the empress dowager cannot raise any of these issues to the Emperor even if she knows that the empress has done terrible things. Otherwise, once the empress’s deeds are brought to light, their entire clans would be punished. Everything they fought for would be jeopardized.  

The empress dowager says she has already been very patient. The other things she doesn’t care about (which probably means killing concubines), but killing her grandchildren? That she cannot allow. The empress dowager tries to push the empress to stop her horrible ways, but the empress is relishing in her power in the imperial harem and does not back down. Before she leaves, the Empress threatens the Empress Dowager with this line – “Mother, you need to take care of yourself. You’ve been bedridden for a while. You wouldn’t want the Emperor think that you are still distraught over the death of 隆科多”

The empress dowager sighs. She acknowledges the Empress’s power in the Imperial Harem. The Empress Dowager is frustrated that there is no one in the imperial harem who is able to counteract the empress. There needs to be balance. This balance and the Empress’s threats to the Empress Dowager heavily influence the Empress Dowager’s decisions in later episodes. There is an interesting line here that will come to light later which is that the empress dowager knows how the previous empress, 纯元 died. She hints heavily that our current empress was involved somehow. We’ll find out more in the future. 

 

[Karen]

Now let’s get to the main story line in episodes 52 + 53. Our main character Zhen Huan and the wonderful 17th prince are finally together and madly in love. They have already consummated their marriage and at the end of episode 51, we find out that she is pregnant with the 17th prince’s child. This was a pleasant surprise because he had just left for a trip by orders of the emperor. Their plan was to elope once he returns. 

The 17th Prince promised to return within 40 days, but it’s already been 50 days with no sign or word from him. The loyal doctor 温实处 arrives to check in on 甄嬛 but she’s not doing too well as she’s worried about the 17th prince. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have any good news to deliver. Word has reached Beijing that the 17th Prince perished during his journey in 云南. His boat sank in the Yellow River. No corpse has been found. 

Nooooooo…. Why does this have to happen? Just as the 2 were planning their happily ever after! 甄嬛 starts choking up blood. She demands more information. How can the 17th Prince just die? The doctor 温实处 agrees that this incident wasn’t normal. The boat the 17th prince was on wasn’t held together by nails but instead just glue and ropes. When the boat started sailing, the glue and ropes broke apart leading to those on the boat to drown. This isn’t normal as the boat was government sanctioned. Something happened when the boat was docked that led to the bottom of the boat being swapped, resulting in the death of the 17th prince. 甄嬛 curls up in a ball crying, lamenting the loss of her true love.  For the doctor though, there’s no time to lose. 甄嬛 is pregnant, her husband just died. They need to decide ASAP on next steps. He offers to continue with the original plan – fake 甄嬛’s death and he will smuggle her away, live together, and raise her child as his own. 

This is a sad scene but right now when I watch it, I start chuckling. On one hand, i feel like 温实初 is internally saying, “YES. FINALLY. This is my chance to be with 甄嬛”. While 浣碧, 甄嬛’s half sister and maid, also starts bawling. She shuts the doctor down, claiming how can you compare to the prince! Ouch, harsh. Yes, he’s dead, yes I get that you’re in love with the 17th Prince, but there’s no need to put down the kind doctor.

My question though is how did the doctor know about all of this? It’s supposed to be a palace secret so why does this doctor know? 

 

[Cathy]

After some scenes of 甄嬛 reminiscing about her time with the 17th prince and mourning his death, 甄嬛 has to make a decision. She has to decide to either abort the child or keep it. This is certainly not one she takes lightly. As a single mother, how would she take care of the child? She has the option of being with the doctor, 温实初. She’d be safe for the rest of her life but she has made the important decision that she will never be with 温实初. Poor guy. WHy does she turn him down? She doesn’t have these affections for him and because she has 3 main considerations. 

1. Her father is sick in 宁古塔 and needs immediate medical attention. If you recall the family was exiled to 宁古塔 for saying disrespectful things to the emperor. It’s a cold and harsh place to live in northern China and there probably aren’t a lot of good doctors around. 甄嬛 needs to get her father back to the city for treatment.

2. She needs to investigate the 17th prince’s death. From everything she’s heard, it seems that his death was very suspicious. She needs to be in a position to investigate his death and avenge it if necessary.

3. The last consideration is that she wants her child to have a title. She does not want the 17th prince’s line to end because of her and her child to be seen as a bastard child.

As she is discussing these considerations with her maids 浣碧 and 瑾汐, they surmise that there is only one person who is able to help 甄嬛.

Can you guess who it is?

That’s right. The emperor. 皇上。

 

[Karen]

“Ugh” – “Ew” – “Eye Roll” – This is icky and it certainly is but in her mind, she doesn’t have much of a choice. She has to return to the palace as a concubine. One with the ear of the emperor in order to achieve the things she needs to get done. 

They are on a ticking clock because 甄嬛 is pregnant. The only way to do so is to get the emperor to come visit her and make him think that the child is his. As 甄嬛 and 瑾汐 are discussing how this plan will work, 瑾汐 comes up with an idea to get close to the emperor – through his main eunuch 苏培盛。 苏培盛 has been seen throughout the drama and is a powerful guy as he has the ability to sway the emperor. 瑾汐 mentions that the way to convince 苏培盛 to arrange a meeting for 甄嬛 and the emperor is to offer herself. 苏培盛 has everything he could ever want in life, except a partner. As a eunuch, he cannot marry or have children, for obvious reasons. The thing he craves most is to have a family or partner. 瑾汐 is willing to be that partner since the 2 are from the same hometown and he’s always expressed an interest in her. If you rewatch the drama, there are many scenes where he is looking out for her and she him. 

The ever loyal 瑾汐 is making a big sacrifice here for 甄嬛. 甄嬛 recognizes as much but 瑾汐 is adamant. She heads off over to meet 苏培盛。

 

[Cathy]

Once she meets 苏培盛, 瑾汐 offers up a sob story that 甄嬛 is very lonely and that she doesn’t want her master to have to be by herself. It would be wonderful for her to return to the palace. With the emperor and 甄嬛 getting back together, she and 苏培盛 can be together as well. These words work like a charm. A few days later, 苏培盛 comes to meet 甄嬛 at her residence in the mountains and says he’ll work on arranging a meeting with the emperor. Classic. Well. Not really.  Part of the reason 苏培盛 is willing to help 甄嬛 is that 甄嬛 was always kind to 苏培盛。 She was never rude to him or demeaning, even though he was a eunuch. Life lesson for everyone here! Be kind to everyone – not just because of someone’s birth status or current situation.

After some artful convincing by 苏培盛, the emperor decides to go to 甘露寺, the temple where 甄嬛 is now studying to be a nun, during a festival in February. Once there, he asks after 甄嬛 and how she’s doing. After hearing that she’s been sick, he hurriedly heads up to the mountain peak where she was first banished and then stayed. When he opens the door to the rooms, he sees a sickly 甄嬛 praying. 

Her current conditions tug at his heartstrings. He is overwhelmed with emotion at seeing 甄嬛. She plays up how sad, destitute and lonely she’s been, though in an artful way. She mentions that she’s missed the emperor and their daughter ever since she’s left. She uses her special term for the Emperor “四郎” when addressing him to evoke those nostalgic feelings. Her tears, apologetic tone, her weakened state, her simple clothing are all enough to “seduce” the emperor.  

Everyone else retreats to give the two some privacy.

 

[Karen]

The episode ends with the emperor making the decision that he wants to spend more time with 甄嬛. On 甄嬛’s end, she has succeeded. Them spending time together guarantees that her child will now have a “father”.

Let’s pause for a second here and note that I definitely feel icky about this whole thing.  甄嬛 this time does not have any emotion left for the emperor. She’s pretty much using her beauty and body to ensure she gets what she wants. She is using his feelings for her to get power and recognition. 甄嬛 tells 瑾汐 that the emperor hurt her too fully and that she cannot truly go back to him. And yes, the 17th prince is way better than the Emperor in pretty much every aspect.

On the flip side, the emperor seems to really miss 甄嬛. He’s eager to have her back. Unfortunately, the boat has sailed from 甄嬛’s perspective. If only the emperor had recognized this earlier and valued 甄嬛 instead of treating her like a shadow of his first wife…

Well that’s it for the recap – let’s do some analysis for some interesting topics in these 2 episodes.

 

Analysis 

 

太后

[Cathy]

Why does the Empress 皇后 take such swift action against 齐妃 after so many years? She reveals her reason why during her conversation with the Empress Dowager. She, the Empress, will become 母后皇太后 but she cannot let anyone be 圣母皇太后. 

So what is the difference? 母后皇太后 is the title reserved for the Empress. When her husband dies, she becomes 母后皇太后 even if her son does not claim the throne. 圣母皇太后 is the title reserved for the birth mother of the Emperor.

The most famous example of two Empress Dowagers is from the Qing Dynasty with Empress Dowager 慈禧 and Empress Dowager 慈安。Empress Dowager 慈禧 is the more famous of the two but she was a 圣母皇太后. She gave birth to the future Emperor 同治 but was only a consort. The other Empress Dowager 慈安 was Empress during the reign of 咸丰. After his death, she became 母后皇太后. 

Typically when we think of Empress Dowager or 太后, we usually assume of just one woman, or at least I thought so but this is not the case. The first instance of two Empress Dowagers in Imperial China actually originates from the Ming Dynasty under Emperor 朱祁钰 or 景泰帝。

In Imperial China, despite Emperors having many concubines etc, the title of Empress or 皇后 was extremely important. She was the official wife of the Emperor and held more power in the Imperial Harem. She was the only person whom children of the Emperor could call mother. Birth mothers were referred to as aunties. Usually, regardless of who ascends the throne, the Empress of the previous Emperor will hold the title of Empress Dowager. If the birth mother of the new Emperor is not the Empress, the woman will simply be granted a title of Dowager Consort. 

Typically, 母后皇太后 holds more clout and power because she was the Empress, but that is not always the case. In this drama, our Empress 宜修 is rightly worried that if the 3rd Prince ascends the throne, she will have to contend with his birth mother for power. She’d rather deal with the threat now when 齐妃 is just a consort. It would be much harder to kill her once she also becomes Empress Dowager. 

Our current Empress Dowager is a 圣母皇太后. She’s lucky, she doesn’t have to compete with another Empress Dowager. All of Emperor 康熙’s Empresses passed before he did.

Hopefully that wasn’t too confusing for everyone. 

对食

 

[Karen] 

In episode 53, one person is crucial for 甄嬛’s chances to regain favor. That person is the eunuch 苏培盛。It would take a lot to persuade him but 瑾溪 has the one proposal that will sway him .

The literal translation of 对食 is eating opposite of one another. The original meaning of 对食 actually refers to same sex relationships between palace maids. Palace maids had little to no opportunities for sexual interaction with men because the only “male” in the Imperial Palace was the Emperor. So these women turned to each other for comfort. The first record of this phrase is found in 汉书 or the Book of Han finished in around 111 AD.  

Over the years, the phrase of 对食 changed it’s meaning to include relationships between Eunuchs and palace maids. 对食 typically refers to a short relationship between the maids and eunuchs. Once a maid and eunuch establish a long term relationship, they are known as 菜户。The couple behaves like a married couple but are not legally married. 

Often, these 对食 relationships were kept in secret but not unheard of. For example during the Ming dynasty, it was quite normal for these relationships to exist in the Imperial Palace. There are rumors that palace maids were actually mocked if they couldn’t find a partner in certain dynasties. In the Qing dynasty, I’m not sure if the practice was as prevalent because palace maids could all leave the palace at a certain age typically between 25-30. They could marry after their time in the Imperial Palace. 

According to this drama, eunuchs had everything they wanted – namely fame and fortune. The one thing they couldn’t do is have children. 瑾汐 gives 苏培盛 the opportunity to fulfill his desire for a “family”. He happily accepts her proposal. For 瑾汐, from a traditional perspective, this is a sacrifice because she could have had the opportunity to marry a man and have children. 甄嬛 states as much. From everyone’s perspective, 瑾汐 is making a huge sacrifice for 甄嬛 because she is giving up this opportunity. She will have a relationship without the physical aspect of that relationship. 瑾汐 is just so awesome and loyal. She’s willing to give up so much for her master. And to be honest, 苏培盛 is not bad. He is very thoughtful, attentive and kind to those who treat him well. He doesn’t step over people unnecessarily like some of the other eunuchs and maids we’ve seen in the palace. He will treat 瑾汐 very well.

We will discuss marriage between eunuchs and women in a future episode. 

 

Well that’s that for our discussion of episode 52+53! The next few episodes revolve around 甄嬛’s path back to the palace. It won’t be easy but it’s the path she’s chosen and we are here for it!

Thanks so much for listening! If you have any feedback, please leave us a note on our website: chasingdramas.com!