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In The Beginning,
There Was Only One
Back in the days when I
was a beauty novice...
An Emperor & His Consorts : The Legend Of Zhen Huan
February 6th, 2013
76 episodes of “The Legend Of Zhen Huan” over the course of the past few months. This is one super-long palace drama but I’ve enjoyed watching every single episode which is full of suspense and intrigue. The drama focuses on the concubines in Emperor Yongzheng’s harem.
Apparently, ladies from noble families are selected to join the Emperor’s harem every 3 years. These ladies can be from Manchu and Han families but they have to be from reputable families. Nevertheless, the Emperor can also choose a concubine from any of the servants in the palace or a lady whom he has taken a fancy to outside the palace at any time, for example in this drama, the Emperor chose a feisty and reluctant horse trainer to be his concubine. She was to play a pivotal role towards the end of the series.
Previously, I’d watched “Bu Bu Jing Xin”, the one where a modern day woman gets transported back in time to Emperor Kangxi’s reign and gets romantically involved with the Emperor’s sons, particularly the 4th (the future Emperor Yongzheng) & 8th Princes. “Bu Bu Jing Xin” didn’t have as much scheming as “The Legend Of Zhen Huan”. “Bu Bu Jing Xin” had a lot more romantic angst than “The Legend Of Zhen Huan”.
There’s much that I have gleaned from “The Legend Of Zhen Huan”. While the Forbidden City may have offered a life of luxury, it was also a gilded cage and because the ladies in the harem were so restricted in their movements (no exit pass save with the Emperor’s consent and even then it would mostly have been visits to temples), they had nothing much to do except sewing, gardening and gossiping about each other. You know what they say “an idle mind is the devil’s workshop” so with so much time on their hands and all they did was wait around for the order to serve the Emperor, the ladies spent their spare time hatching ways to sabotage or get even with each other.
Even in an office where all the staff are female, there’s bound to be rivalries and resentments. At least in an office, one can still go home or take some leave or worse come to worst, resign and work in a more balanced gender environment but in the closeted environs of the harem where the concubines had to gather in the Empress’ chambers to pay homage, there was little escape from each other. They had no choice but to see or bump into each other day after day, no matter how much they hated each other.
Sumptuous costumes, head dresses and accessories, beautiful make-up and check out those fingernail extensions. Never mind the nail extensions of today. The finger extensions on the 4th & 5th fingers of the concubines are something else. These were regarded as status symbols. Well, I guess they’d have to be since you wouldn’t be able to do any manner of manual work with those on. I can see it takes a lot of practice not to accidentally scratch oneself but the finger extensions do add to the grace and elegance of movement. The embroidered qipaos worn by the concubines were so amazingly beautiful and the shoes they wore! They make wearing stilettos seem like child’s play. They wobbled rather than walked on their platform shoes. Thankfully and mercifully for Manchu women, they didn’t have to bind their feet but their platform shoes created the impression that they had small feet. Zhen Huan was so favoured by the Emperor that she was presented with exclusive items like a pair of jade shoes. Everything about the appearance of the ladies is so detailed and meticulous. Watching the concubines in their elegant qipaos almost makes me want to go and look for one for myself. They look a lot less constricting than cheongsams and more flattering too to those with middle-aged tummies as they can hide a multitude of sins.
The drama begins with the appointment of the consorts – 3 of them quickly form a bond but can their sisterhood survive the rivalries that exist in the harem? The harem is ruled over by the Empress and the Emperor’s favourite, Hua Fei or Consort Hua who is the sister of the Emperor’s trusted General Nian Gengyao. Hua Fei has a permanently tortured expression etched on her face as she’s so jealous of the other concubines. Her beauty and being favoured by the Emperor makes her totally arrogant, haughty and disrespectful to the Empress who tolerates her. There’s so much bowing, kneeling and scraping going on in every episode that I wouldn’t be surprised if the actors all had knee ligament issues after all the episodes had been filmed.
Anyway for many, many episodes, there’s a power struggle going on between Hua Fei and the Empress who is initially portrayed as a benevolent (after all, she lives in the Palace of Great Benevolence), religious, caring and kind Empress but we find out later that she is the biggest schemer of all as she uses other concubines to further her causes. In fact, she is the very epitome of the famous Chinese proverb “借刀殺人／借刀杀人”, Jiè dāo shā rén or kill with a borrowed knife. Another appropriate proverb would probably be “笑裏藏刀／笑里藏刀” Xiào lǐ cáng dāo or charm and ingratiate yourself to the enemy, move against him in secret after gaining his trust. What I find most remarkable is the ability of the concubines to smile at their rival. They might wish their rival was dead but they’d still flatter and make her think she wished her no ill will. Nowadays if we don’t like someone, we’d just avoid that person but I guess that just wasn’t an option in the harem where meeting each other was inevitable.
You’ve got to love the names of the palaces – the Emperor’s residence is named “Mental Cultivation”, Zhen Huan’s is “Broken Jade”, there’s also the Palace of Good Health & Longevity which is Zhen Huan’s palace in the 2nd part of the drama.
Despite all the Empress’ misdeeds and crimes including killing off the former Empress who was her biological sister and engineering the miscarriages of several concubines as well as administering morning after medicine to those who spent the night with the Emperor, the Empress Dowager refused to expose the Empress simply because the Empress is from the same Ulunara clan as the Empress Dowager. Historically, the biological mother of Emperor Qianlong who succeeded Emperor Yongzheng is from the Ulunara clan. Everything the Empress did was to hold on to power and out of extreme jealousy as she was too in love with the Emperor.
Polygamy certainly brought out the worst in women! The saying that “there’s no hell like a woman scorned” is so appropriate here. The most dangerous woman is a woman who has been cast aside as she’ll stop at nothing to get back at her ex. In the modern world, we just move on and get our lives back on track if that happens but it was much harder in the harem. Imagine being ignored yet one has to suffer the humiliation of witnessing the Emperor with his new love everyday. No wonder those concubines were out to kill each other and get away with it. It’s unbelievable that they could order someone murdered one minute and then read or write Buddhist scriptures the next. The Empress is quite a pitiful figure as she can never win the love of the Emperor. Instead, she is constantly reminded by the Emperor that she can never hold a candle to her sister, the late Empress.
The drama is so interesting mainly because the plots never stop. Hua Fei is confident that she can do no wrong even if she orders her eunuchs to murder, causes other concubine’s miscarriages or accepts bribes from officials who want to gain the goodwill of her brother. Then one day she goes from most favoured to least favoured concubine and that’s still not the end of the drama.
The main protagonist, Zhen Huan quickly becomes the Emperor’s favourite concubine after Hua Fei as she is both beautiful and smart. She’s even allowed to proffer advice to the Emperor on political matters, a big no-no as it is forbidden for concubines to meddle in affairs of the state. Zhen Huan finds out that one of her good friends has always been against her (she works for the Empress) and has even caused the miscarriage of her first pregnancy. The good friend turned #1 enemy passes Zhen Huan a tub of cream for her scar which contains musk and masks the scent of the musk with flowers. It’s said that musk causes miscarriages.
After Zhen Huan’s first miscarriage which everyone thinks is caused by Hua Fei ordering her to kneel in the hot afternoon sun for 2 hours, the Emperor merely demotes Hua Fei but does nothing more severe to punish her which leads Zhen Huan to harbour resentment against the Emperor but the Emperor is still dependant on Hua Fei’s brother to quell the enemies at the border so nothing more is done to Hua Fei (till much later). Zhen Huan starts to ignore the Emperor and is at risk of being forgotten since the Emperor has dozens of other concubines to serve him. It’s Zhen Huan’s best friend, Concubine Hui who drags her off to the Cold Palace to witness first hand what happens to abandoned consorts before Zhen Huan wakes up and shakes up. She realises that the most important thing is to regain the Emperor’s favour. There is a beautiful scene where she hides lots of colourful butterflies in her cloak, sits in the snow claspin her hands in prayer ostensibly praying for the Emperor while waiting for the Emperor to come upon her “by chance”. Then when her cloak is open, the butterflies fly out and the Emperor is once again entranced and besotted by Zhen Huan much to the chagrin of the Empress and the other concubines. Such is “美人心计” or schemes of a beauty!
During a torturous stay in a monastery where she was constantly bullied by the nuns for being a disgraced and abandoned concubine (she is made to wash clothes, chop and carry wood), she falls in love with the 17th Prince, the Emperor’s brother. Let’s call him Prince Charming as he certainly has the looks and charm. Hard to believe that a Prince of that era could be so faithful and loyal to one love when it was then the norm to take as many concubines as one could afford. Even harder to believe that at the time he fell in love with Zhen Huan, he was still single. Wouldn’t a nobleman of his age have married one or two wives already? Seems like he was quite modern in his thinking as he was waiting for the right woman!
For Prince Charming, Zhen Huan was the only wife he could ever love even though he was later forced to take 2 wives. Prince Charming is the ultimate romantic in this drama as he vowed to Zhen Huan that she was the only woman he would ever love. He is sent on a mission by the Emperor even as he and Zhen Huan have pledged their love to each other and have made plans to elope once he returns from his assignment. While he is away, she finds out that she’s pregnant but as luck would have it, his ship is reported to have sunk and he is missing. In her grief, she decides to return to the Emperor for 2 reasons : to find out who sabotaged Prince Charming’s ship and to use her influence to free her imprisoned and ill parents. How she does this is very interesting as she has to enlist the assistance of the Emperor’s chief eunuch to lure the Emperor to the temple. The Emperor still has very deep feelings for Zhen Huan as she resembles his late Empress who was the love of his life. By the way, it’s never explained who set up Prince Charming, i.e. exchanged his original ship for one that would easily sink.
The twists and turns of this drama! One moment Zhen Huan is out of favour and next she’s in thanks to her wiles and beguiling charm. This is no brainless beauty as she is forced by circumstances to win back the favour of the Emperor but in doing so, she has to cut off ties with Prince Charming forever even though he miraculously returns just before she’s set to return in glory to the Palace as a promoted Consort. The Emperor goes to the extent of bestowing a new and noble family name to Zhen Huan so that the records show she is a new Consort rather than an ex-Abandoned Consort and in doing so, her age is altered to 32 when in actual fact, she is just 22 years old. She also becomes foster mother to the Emperor’s 4th Prince who later becomes Emperor Qianlong.
Still, it seems quite easy to pass off one’s offspring with another man as the Emperor’s as long as they find a way to sleep with the Emperor as soon as they find out they’re pregnant. After all, premature births are quite common. Since there were no DNA tests in those days, the way to test paternity or non-paternity as the case may be, was to mix the potential father and baby’s blood together in a bowl and if the two mixed, parentage was proven. So Zhen Huan successfully passes off Prince Charming’s twins as the Emperor’s with the help of her childhood friend, now one of the Imperial Physicians.
Then there are concubines who know all about aphrodisiacs so they can entice the Emperor to spend more time with them. Anything is possible as long as you can get one of the Imperial Physicians on your side. If you have one of them as your collaborator, you can have access to practically any herbs and poisons. Concubines can even engineer their own miscarriages and blame it on another concubine as Zhen Huan later did and blamed it on the Empress.
The plots get thicker and thicker! Even mud isn’t as thick as the plots concocted by the harem. It seems like every character is colluding and conniving all the time. This is a great drama mainly because it managed to hold my attention for 76 episodes, this is a much better palace drama than the TVB ones which can be seriously draggy and some scenes downright unnecessary. There are so many deaths in this drama, plenty of suicides. Seems like the most popular way is to run full steam ahead into a table or pillar or random hard object and they’d be dead instantly. I’ve lost count of the number of deaths self-inflicted that way. Of course, the other ways would be ingesting poisonous wine or food and hanging.
The make-up is fabulous. When Zhen Huan first entered the Palace, she didn’t have much make-up on as she was naive and innocent. She was bullied many times. So much slapping in this drama not to mention the torture like needles under fingernails. Ouch! It was certainly no fun living in the Forbidden City where the slightest transgression could get you executed or sent off to the torture chambers. Life was cheap and eunuchs and maids could be dragged off to be executed if they pissed off their masters and mistresses. No fun being a servant in those days and by the looks of it, not much fun being a concubine either where they could be ignored for months if the Emperor didn’t fancy them much. Looks weren’t everything, they had to have a certain je ne sais quoi in order to hold the Emperor’s attention and even that wouldn’t guarantee their survival as too much attention from the Emperor could also mean they were marked by the Empress and/or other concubines. What a life!
When Zhen Huan returned to the Palace after her stint at the temple, her make-up was FIERCE and harsh! Wow! The red lipstick remained on her lips till the last episode and she really looked much more stern and serious as befitted her character all out to seek revenge but who can blame her. She had to be stronger than ever to survive the Empress’ machinations. Even when we reach the last episode, she was still in her twenties but she looked mature and much more regal as she had already been appointed Empress Dowager after the death of the Emperor. She had the Empress Dowager look down pat. I have to hand it to the make-up artists on this set, they deserve an award.
The characters are pitiable and most of the time miserable. I don’t think any character was truly happy. They had the trappings of grandeur but just about every character had their life hanging by a thread. There was so much sabotage and back-stabbing. Zhen Huan thought she’d be content as long as the Emperor loved her but when there are so many other women trying to be the Emperor’s favourite, it’s next to impossible to gain the Emperor’s affections for long. It must have been a living hell for Zhen Huan to pretend to love the Emperor when in fact she hated him with all her heart.
Overall, a magnificent masterpiece which was never boring or draggy for me. This is a very informative drama for those who are history buffs like me. I’ve always loved reading about China’s history and the various dynasties have fascinated me for years. Through this drama, I learned more about the different consort rankings in the Qing Dynasty from the Empress in descending order (there were 8 ranks altogether) :-
- Empress (皇后 : Huánghòu), 1 only
- Imperial Noble Consort (皇贵妃 : Huáng Guìfēi), 1 only
- Noble Consorts (贵妃 : Guìfēi), 2 only
- Consorts (妃 : Fēi), 4 only
- Imperial Concubines (嫔 : Pín), 6 only
- Noble Ladies (贵人: Guìrén), unlimited number
- First Class Female Attendant (常在 : Chángzài), unlimited number
- Second Class Female Attendant (答应 : Dāyìng), unlimited number
In the end, it’s all about survival of the fittest or in this case, the most scheming and cunning person. It wasn’t easy living in the splendour of the Palace as it seemed like every person had to be on their guard all the time. I think it must have been downright stressful and having to watch their backs all the time can shorten a concubine’s life.
So many Chinese dramas about the Qing Dymasty lately especially in the Yongzheng era that the Emperor must be rolling in his grave if he knew how he has been portrayed! I’m sure the real Yongzheng wasn’t slowly poisoned by ingesting mercury pills or stressed out by the goings-on in his harem although I do think that taking on too many wives is probably bad for a man’s health, physically and mentally! Watching “The Legend Of Zhen Huan” makes me wish I could go back in time to that era but I don’t know which is worse, to be a concubine or a servant? Either way, it’d be more stressful than life in the modern age for sure.
Images are from www.viki.com & www.chinadaily.cn
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