Welcome to: Chasing Dramas! This is Karen, and this is Cathy. We’re exploring Chinese history and culture through historical Chinese TV dramas.
When thinking about which dramas we want to discuss for the podcast, we decided to focus on period dramas that represent certain eras in Chinese history. We also wanted to choose ones that were very well done in terms of not only the story, acting, but the clothing, the hairstyles, the etiquette, the use of certain nomenclature etc so as to learn more about China.
With that, which drama are we going to talk about? None other than: 后宫甄嬛传 or Empresses in the Palace. It is a drama that is set in the Qing Dynasty during the mid-18th century, under the reign of Emperor 雍正. He is the 5th emperor of the Qing dynasty. This drama follows the trials and tribulations of a woman named 甄嬛 as she enters and matures in the Imperial Harem as a concubine of 雍正.
This drama came out in 2011 and was a massive hit in China. It stars 孙俪 as the title character 甄嬛，陈建斌 as the emperor，蔡少芬 as the empress，蒋欣 as another consort in the palace named 华妃, and many others. Due to the popularity of this show, it catapulted many of the actors and actresses to A-list status. The show received numerous awards for best directing, best acting and best production. I, myself have watched this drama in its entirety multiple times and with each viewing learn a ton. It was the first mainland drama I think to really explain a lot of the intricacies of the Imperial Harem. And because it was so popular, many other dramas are able to build upon this knowledge and rarely has to “re-explain”, for example, the ranking system, the 嫡庶 system etc. We will discuss this throughout the drama.
Cathy – do you remember first watching this show? What was that like?
[Karen and Cathy discussion]
Key points –
Very poetic and academic –
Standardized what the imperial harem is like
More of a serious drama that rewards multiple viewings and portrayed court/imperial life more accurately than previous dramas. I feel like many dramas were able to build off of this drama and not re-explain things like how the harem works for example because we assume everyone has watched this.
The drama is based off a book by 流潋紫 (liu2 lian4 zi3). For those that want to watch and follow along, I believe this series is on youtube. There’s actually a condensed 6 episode version of the show created for Western audiences. It’s on Amazon Prime with English subtitles in the US and might be on Netflix in other regions, but we’ll stick to the original because there’s just so much more to discuss! (Also, some of the translations aren’t that great either so…). This drama has a total of 76 episodes, each 45 mins long.
How this will work in our shows is that for each podcast episode we will provide a brief recap (5 min or so) of the events that happened in the drama episode, then dive more deeply into a few key scenes which either has cultural historical significance, or is significant to the plot.
This episode serves as an intro episode with general background knowledge of the time setting and cultural norms of the series. So for those of you who don’t know anything about the Qing Dynasty, this will help provide some more context and background information. A mini history lesson if you will. I will say, that when doing research for this podcast, we realized how um… different a lot of this is at least by today’s and western standards so…should be interesting to say the least if you have no background on this.
And with that, welcome to Chasing Dramas. We are so excited for you to join us for our first series. We look forward to discussing episode one of 后宫甄嬛传。Next is going to be the general history for this show. If you would like to skip this, please proceed to episode one of our podcast!
Let’s talk about some Chinese history!
History – Setting:
The drama takes place during the Qing Dynasty or at the time, it’s called 大清 . The Qing dynasty was founded by the Manchu Aisin Gioro (or 爱新觉罗 in Mandarin) clan in 1632 and ruled China from 1644 to 1912. It is the last imperial dynasty to rule China. There is a lot to discuss for each dynasty and each emperor, but for the purposes of this drama, one important item to note is that the Manchu Aisin Gioro clan is not Han Chinese. The Manchu were from Northern China and were militaristic, well versed on horseback and had close ties to the Mongolians. In present day, Manchu is the second largest minority group in China and according to the 2010 Census from Baidu, there are over 10 million Manchu living in China. They have their own written and spoken language and many still live in Dong Bei province in China.
Qing dynasty rule is actually very easy to visually distinguish in Chinese history primarily because of the different fashion and hair styles for both men and women. It was more obvious for men because men were required to have the “queue” hairstyle which basically meant having a long braid of hair at the back of the head, while the front half of the head was shaved. Han hairstyle was more like a bun at the top of the head. You know, how in Disney’s Mulan, Mulan put her hair up in a bun and was able to go off and join the army? That bun hairstyle was Han. Not Manchu. There was actually a lot of drama surrounding this hairstyle. Generally Han people didn’t cut their hair so shaving part of the head was welcome. Han people did not want to conform to this new look because it meant relinquishing the identity of a Han person and acknowledging the demise of the Ming dynasty, the dynasty that was overtaken by the Qing. I mean, yea, that hairstyle was around back in the days of Confucius some 2000+ years ago. I get why there was resistance. People were actually massacred for not shaving their heads. This change was a slow and bloody process. On a lighter note – in present day, when you see a Chinese actor with a shaved head, doing interviews or on an entertainment show, you know – oh he’s acting in a Qing dynasty drama.
Another key distinction is the clothing. Han clothing – if you can imagine again Disney’s Mulan or perhaps a picture of Confucius, were generally more like wrap dresses or robes. That’s how I like to think of them at least. Obviously, there were some stylistic differences across the dynasties, but generally Han dress had this characteristic. Manchu dress, which was called 旗装, were much more distinct. They have high collars and a unique button style. You see these clothes a lot in “traditional” Chinese stores so next time you see them, you’ll know that this is actually more Manchu than Han Chinese.
Foot binding also became more ubiquitous during this dynasty which basically meant that women of certain status had their feet bound from a young age. It was incredibly painful because it meant the bones couldn’t grow and walking was limited. That’s why it was a status symbol – a woman with bound feet couldn’t really work fields and do manual labor. This practice was banned in 1912 with the fall of the Qing dynasty and the Chinese Communist Party in later years did work to stamp this practice out.
Some other key aspects of this dynasty – We won’t go into too much detail here for this drama, but we want to point out that that the transition from the Ming Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty was extremely bloody. The Qing dynasty is significant for not only being the last imperial dynasty in China, but also one of the 2 major dynasties in Chinese history that is not ruled by ethnically Han people. The other is the Yuan dynasty ruled by the Mongolians – a la Genghis Khan’s direct descendants. What is interesting about the Qing dynasty is that the Manchu, opted not to decimate the entire Han population and culture, but instead decided to integrate certain aspects of the Han culture into their own such as language and writing. One example of this can be seen in the Forbidden Palace in Beijing, the gates and palace names are written in both Chinese and Manchu. However, there were still a LOT of ethnic clashes during the Manchu conquest so it’s not like it was smooth sailing for either side. This Manchu and Han divide plays a key aspect to this drama with the Manchurians always being cognizant of keeping power above the Han. This dynamic is something we will discuss throughout the show.
This drama focuses primarily on women so let’s discuss that aspect of society.
The dynasties of China represented a feudal system. Chinese culture and society has historically been very much a patriarchal, conservative society. There were strict rules on how women should behave, going back to the days of Confucious some 2500 plus years ago. He even wrote text on what is expected for women behavior. Polygamy was the norm for people of wealth and stature. The man has only one “wife” who is his legitimate partner, but can have multiple concubines or consorts. The main reason for this is to ensure the family lines continue. These themes and the struggles of women of this society is key to this drama that we will be further exploring.
That was some basic historical background. Cathy, what else should we know in preparation of this drama.
The main setting of this drama is the emperor’s harem, or 后宫. Though it means “harem” in English, the direct translation of the words is “palace in the back”. This contrasts with 前朝 which is the Emperor’s court in which he conducts his ruling affairs, but the direct translation to those 2 words are “front court”. So you see, the emperor must manage two aspects of his life. The court, for ruling, and the harem, for continuing his progeny. There is a clear delineation of his roles and, of course, the role of women.
The concept of 后宫, as we see, is extremely interesting. Maintaining the purity of the royal bloodline and having as many children as possible is seen as the duty of the emperor. The women that reside in the 后宫 place their fortunes for the rest of their lives on how many children she can have for the emperor and how successful these children are. However, another aspect that we will see repeatedly in the show, is that winning favors with the emperor as a woman is a crucial diplomatic strategy. Women are sent to the emperor by family members to ensure closer ties amongst the two parties and the emperor will accept women to ensure those family members respect his authority.
To ensure purity of the bloodline, there is literally only one “man” in the 后宫. The men that serve the consorts/concubines are all eunuchs. For those that don’t know, eunuchs are typically castrated at a young age and they grow up in the palace to serve the members of the court. The only other “real men” allowed in 后宫 are imperial doctors and palace guards. It is generally restricted for other men, even family to see concubines in 后宫. The concubines must maintain a level of separation with almost everyone she sees that is not the emperor. Eunuchs have been employed by imperial households for thousands of years. They were very quintessential to palace life. Although they could obviously not father children, many of these eunuchs became incredibly powerful figures in court because of their close connections to the royal family. Several reigns have met their demise because of eunuchs meddling in ruling affairs.
For background on how this works, every night, palace eunuchs from 敬事方 comes to the emperor’s study with the names of each concubine on a tray. The emperor will then flip the card of the name of the woman he wishes to spend the night with. When that happens, the selected lady is pretty much undressed, rolled up in a comforter, placed in a special carriage (sometimes), and brought to the emperor’s quarters. And this carriage is a special carriage so everyone knows who’s spending the night. Obviously, things change here and there, the emperor can decide to visit the palace quarters of whichever lady lives there, but this is the general gist. Every woman the emperor spends his time with is recorded by 敬事方 eunuchs to make sure they know exactly when a child is conceived, to again ensure purity of the bloodline.
How does this work? Women, as with men in court, have rankings in 后宫. Your rank depends on a number of factors – your age, your favoritism from the emperor, the number of children you have, and your family connections. You must be appointed the rank by either the emperor, empress dowager or the empress.
This is also described in the drama, but generally, you have one empress or 皇后, that rules the harem on behalf of the emperor. She is what is considered the “main” wife. Every other woman is, or supposed to be, subservient to her. She has special privileges, as we’ll mention throughout the show, that make her special. There is normally a 皇贵妃, the Imperial Noble Consort. Then the next rank is 贵妃, the Noble Consort. Then four women are generally appointed 妃子, Consort。The next tier is 嫔, Imperial Concubine。Of the above ranks, according to the drama, you are able to have your own, or at least control your own palace quarters. You can refer to yourself as 本宫 (owner of a palace) and servants will address you as 娘娘. Anything below that, you must live and listen to the 妃 or 嫔 who runs that palace apartment. As we’ll see, this can be interesting. Of course, if you are tasked to live elsewhere, you must do so. Below 嫔， in this drama, are 贵人, Noble Lady, 常在，First-Class Female Attendant, 答应, Second-Class Female Attendant. Servants will address you as 小主 （little master).These are the ranks int eh Qing dynasty. Other dynasties will have different names and ranks.
Women are not only sent from families, but typically, every three years or so, there is a selection process where women from all over the country are sent and assessed as to whether or not she can be a concubine in the Imperial Harem. This practice has also been around for millennia. Part of the reason this is done so frequently is to ensure, again, that there is a healthy line of offspring. As the saying goes, not having filial piety is one thing (aka respecting your parents), but not having an heir is egregious. As we’ll also see in the drama, people’s life span, especially women, are very short. People die of illness or of childbirth or of the drama that occurs in the palace so people need to be continuously replaced. Additionally, sometimes, servant girls will catch the eye of the emperor. We will see this as well. Many try to seduce the emperor, but this is dangerous and could result in death from jealousy of another consort or the emperor himself. However, if successful, these women turn from servant to owner. That is how they improve their own careers. Several women have become incredibly powerful through this route
I also want to highlight titles and names just so people aren’t confused. We may alternate how characters are addressed. Generally, people have their given names and then their titles. It’s the same as in English. You have the Duke of Cambridge, but his name is William. In Chinese history for the harem, you are generally called the rank plus your last name, unless formally given a title by the emperor, empress or empress dowager. So for example, if I am a consort with the rank of 妃 and my last name is 安， I will be called 安妃。But, if I am given a title of, for example, 德， I will be referred to as 德妃。 I hope that makes sense.
Alright and with that, I think we are ready to start. Of course, this is only a small snippet of information about the Qing Dynasty and Chinese history in general but hopefully will give enough context for what is happening in the show.
Thank you for listening. Please join us for the next episode of Chasing Dramas.