Empresses in the Palace

Released in 2012, the 76-episode drama series Legend of Zhen Huan has had sweeping popularity in the Chinese mainland over the past years, that “a whole town tunes in to watch when it airs on TV,” Sina.com reported.

The background and plot

In 1722, Emperor Yongzheng of the Qing dynasty has ascended to the throne thanks to the help of Nian Gengyao (Duke of the Second Class) and Longkodo (Duke of the First Class). Gengyao’s younger sister, Consort Hua, serves as a concubine to the Emperor and wins his favor among the women in his harem. The Empress tolerates her rival in most things, allowing her to act in ways that would normally be seen as disrespectful in the actions of a normal concubine. The Empress installs a maid, Fuzi, into Consort Hua’s household to keep an eye on her rival. However, Consort Hua is on to the Empress’ plan. Six months into his reign, the Empress Dowager encourages her son to expand his harem and add newer, younger women to serve him and increase the family line. Among the ones who are chosen to be viewed and selected by the Emperor and Dowager Empress is Niohuru Zhenhuan. She prays at a buddhist temple with her maids, Liuzhu and Huanbi, to not be selected. Even Imperial Doctor Wen, a family friend and man who has feelings for Zhenhuan, offers her a jade vase as a promise to marry her. However, she can’t as she is one of the chosen ones to appear before the royal family to selection.

The series centres on the schemes between Emperor Yongzheng’s concubines in the Imperial Palace during the Qing Dynasty. The innocent 17-year-old Zhen Huan is chosen for the Emperor’s harem, and after entering the palace finds herself caught in the fierce infighting between the Empress and the concubines. Realising that the palace is a cruel and harsh place, she has to learn to survive on her own, sometimes by unorthodox methods. With her wits and talents, Huan fights her way through and wins the Emperor’s affection, ultimately becoming the most influential concubine in the imperial palace, and she ascends to unparalleled glory and wealth. However, she also becomes a woman with few real friends at her side, even after she is rid of all her enemies.

Along the way, she experiences a miscarriage due to mistreatment by Consort Hua, who is the second most powerful woman in the harem, second only to the Empress in rank. However, even though Consort Hua’s mistreatment of Huan contributed to her miscarriage, the primary reason for it was because of an ointment that she used regularly to heal a wound. The ointment had ingredients that could induce a miscarriage, given to her by another concubine who Huan thought of as a sister, An Lingrong, the same girl she had once saved. Eventually, Consort Hua is imprisoned in the Cold Palace, a place for discarded concubines, for her many misdeeds, and is eventually given a death sentence and told to commit suicide. Although Consort Hua refuses at first, Huan makes a visit and tells her that the Emperor has never loved her and only favoured her to please her brother, the general Nian Gengyao. She also tells her the reason for her infertility was a special incense granted to her by the Emperor. In the end, Consort Hua commits suicide but refuses to do so in a way that was decreed.

The Empress plots against Zhenhuan, arranging things so that she ends up unknowingly wearing the Emperor’s most beloved late Chunyuan Empress’s clothes. The Emperor is enraged by this and grounds her to her palace, where she becomes disillusioned with him. At this time, she is pregnant, and only days after she gives birth to a daughter she is transferred over to a nunnery where she becomes a nun. While there she falls in love with the Emperor’s brother, Yunli (Prince Guo). However, she eventually comes back to the Forbidden Palace when she mistakenly believes that the Emperor’s brother is dead and wants to find out the truth of his death. (After this, she finds that he is still alive, but it is too late.) In the palace, she gives birth to twins, fathered by Yunli, but she convinces all that they are the Emperor’s. She also adopts the fourth prince, who was looked down upon, as his mother was a lowly palace maid. Gradually she regains the love of the Emperor. She also erodes the power of the Empress and kills An Lingrong, who caused the death of Shen Meizhuang, her best friend in the imperial palace.

Finally, the Empress confesses her crimes and admits that she was the one who killed the late Chunyuan Empress and caused several miscarriages. However, the Empress, who has been granted amnesty by the late Empress Dowager, is not killed but discarded. Towards the end, the Emperor suspects that Huan and Yunli, the seventeenth prince, of having an affair. He orders her to kill him to prove that she has no feelings towards him. Yunli sacrifices himself for her, and although she does not intentionally kill him, he dies. Following this incident, the Emperor makes Huan the leader of the Imperial Harem, a post that carries supreme authority in the inner palace. However, increasingly the Emperor grows suspicious regarding the paternity of his children with Zhenhuan. In order to save her children, she and a concubine named Ye Lanyi plot against the Emperor, and eventually manage to kill him. As the senior most widow, she plays a crucial role in the succession and installs her adopted son, the fourth prince, upon the Dragon Throne instead of her own biological son as she does not want him to be burdened by the role of emperor. In the end, Zhenhuan becomes the sad and lonely Empress Dowager.

Comments from the audience

The series is adapted from a novel of the same name by Liu Lianzi, and the story centers on the schemes between Emperor Yongzheng’s concubines in the imperial palace during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

The pure and innocent 17-year-old Zhen Huan is chosen for the emperor’s harem, and after entering the palace, she finds herself caught in the fierce infighting between the empress and the concubines. Realizing that the palace is actually a cruel and harsh place, Zhen has to learn to survive on her own, sometimes by unscrupulous methods.

With her wits and talents, Zhen fights her way through and wins the emperor’s affection, ultimately becoming the most powerful concubine in the imperial palace and ascending to unparalleled glory and wealth. However, she also becomes a woman with few true friends at her side, even after she is rid of all her enemies.

Directed by Zheng Xiaolong and starring Sun Li and Chen Jianbin, Legend of Zhen Huan has been praised as one of the best historical dramas in the Chinese mainland in recent years. Through the thrilling story, audiences can also learn about ancient Chinese poetry, wardrobes, court etiquettes, and herbal medicine. The show also features many refined dialogues that become trending quotes among its followers on the internet.

Some viewers have also begun using the story to allude to the present and describe the schemes and trickery between rivals in the palace as “a treasured book for survival in today’s professional world.” Psychological experts disagreed, saying that violent infighting is not a characteristic in modern workplaces.

The style of Zhen Huan

After the series become popular, audiences began to imitate the way people spoke and behaved in the show. Many individuals discuss problems or issues by using the language of this drama in forums. The drama helped promote interest in classic Chinese philosophy.

Controversial values

The drama elicits a controversial debate that divided two sides. People’s Daily pointed out that in the series, it appears good characters cannot win against evil characters unless they stoop to their level of cunning. Furthermore, when evaluating the production of historical themes, the most significant critique standard should focus on the values standard instead of authenticity standard. Social media is able to shape people’s mind in visible and invisible ways, and incorrect values would lead the audience to the survival of the incorrect ideas into real life. Conversely, the article of Seeking Truth holds an opposite viewpoint; and they assert this drama reveals the decadent essence of ancient Chinese feudal society and traditional and outdated lifestyle obstructs the development of society. It also praises and appreciates the brave women constantly pursue their happiness and fight against with the forces of evil.

Edited by staff


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