This is my attempt to get you all to WATCH. THIS. SERIES!!!!!!!!! (Also for the Amazon/series image they decided to use … I kinda feel like someone there doesn’t like Susan Sun because that is like … the least flattering image I’ve ever seen of her ever. So. Empresses in the Palace. 後宮·甄嬛傳.
Set in 1722 during the Qing Dynasty, sweeping drama Empresses in the Palace is an epic tale of love, betrayal and scandal told from inside the Imperial Harem – the story of one emperor and his countless women. In a world filled with treachery and corruption, who will truly win the Emperor’s heart and reign supreme? In Mandarin with English subtitles.*
So. Empresses in the Palace. While not as big in the Western world (at least not in the states), this period drama exploded in Asia. It started out as what I’d say is original fanfic. (Remember that section of ff.net back in the day and the like?) It became a television series that first aired in November of 2011. I want to say it showed up on Amazon some time in 2016. There had been word that HBO bought the American rights and was going to distribute it in 2014, and was set to air in December of 2015. I have no idea what happened with studio drama but … here we are. You can either buy the episodes or “series” on Amazon, or watch it free if you have a Prime membership.
First of all, it’s an amazing series. The costuming, the acting, the set … it’s all gorgeous. As you can see.
Empresses in the Palace, also known as The Legend of Zhen Huan is a romance in the international sense – and there are romance arcs in it. However, it doesn’t fall under the category in romanceland. We don’t have a happily ever after in the form of a romantic relationship. It’s all about the various women who live in the harem. Their everyday lives, the machinations, love, trust, betrayal, intrigue, and all that comes with it. And how Zhen Huan overcomes adversity. If you’ve enjoyed any type of period dramas in the past, I really urge you to give this one a try. There are, in my opinion, few better introductions to Chinese television period dramas. In fact the actress who plays the main character, Susan Sun (Sun Li) was nominated for an International Emmy Award in the Best Actress category.
What I (also) think is amazing is the crazy accuracy of the herbal medicine. That’s a huge yet subtle part of the series, and during one re-watch I’d google items and the medicinal causes and effects are real. I know a lot of people “don’t believe” in herbal medicine, but a properly trained herbal doctor can truly tell a person’s health based solely from taking his or her pulse. And that’s obviously not even the main point of the series. But it does play a significant part in many of the mini-plots. Everything is so subtly interwoven and each tiny thing holds such weight. I once heard a Chinese instructor say the point of a Chinese insult was to do it in a way that the person being insulted felt complimented – but those in the know (read: smart) would understand the serious burn.
Zhen Huan is the heroine, who enters the palace unwillingly at age 17. She actually never wanted to be chosen as a concubine, but there’s no naysaying it. I think where people might have trouble is viewing the drama without Western bias. There were so many rules, and the will of the emperor seems absolute, but still can be constrained by “etiquette.” Life meant little to those in power, and people came into and fell out of favor with breathtaking rapidity. Then also there are a lot of just evil characters. Our heroine does not have things easy. Then there’s the fact that even the emperor, the empress, and the empress dowager are held within social constraints and rules. It almost seems arbitrary.
The original television drama was 76 45 minute episodes. Amazon’s version is 6 90 minute episodes. What’s impressive is how well it’s edited. If you’ve never seen the original, you wouldn’t know you were missing anything. There are a lot of things that are covered by new “bumpers” from the view of an elderly Zhen Huan. In a way she gives the prologue and epilogue of each episode. Then also, three thousand two hundred and forty minutes of a show is a lot. For sure some story arcs were unnecessary and dragged on – and the Amazon version saves the viewer from that. (I first saw the series on an international channel years ago.) Admittedly I also low key hate the bumpers, but if you’ve never seen the series I think they’re likely necessary.
It is important to note that the assumption is a Chinese audience/one accustomed to the culture and history. For example the emperor often tells people (or the main character Zhen Huan) to not kneel all the time, that it’ll tire her/wreck her health. That’s lip service, and literally one could be put to death for not showing “proper respect.” … And it’d infuriate him if people didn’t automatically curtsey. “Little” things like that that take half a second, and are blips, but also set the tone – one of the first clashes you see between the women is one such instance.
If you love the series after finishing it on Amazon, I do recommend you trying to find the whole thing, however, because it’s amazing how something minor early on in the series comes into play later on. The women almost make Machiavellianism look like childsplay, and definitely are in for the long game. At least, the players that do well. (And there’s more of the romance arc as well.) While the women are actually forbidden from discussing or influence statecraft, obviously there’s some bleed through, and one must always keep in mind what happens behind the palace wall greatly affects and dictates what happens out of it – especially for the families of the “empresses.” Which of course affects how they act in the palace, and why they strive for position.
One way (East) Asian television differs from Western television is there’s a set number of episodes. With American television, it depends on viewership and how well a series does, which sometimes takes them to crazy places. At least with Chinese series, they have a set number of episodes, and air from start to finish. Finis. If the series does amazingly well there sometimes are spinoffs or sequels. Basically, they only air miniseries when it comes to dramas.
While of course there are some liberties taken, Empresses in the Palace gives us a really good glimpse of what it was like to live in the imperial harem of the Qing dynasty. A lot of the rules and customs, the costumes, the speech – it’s all period. I’ve watched and re-watched this series numerous times. Both in its entirety and the readily available abridged version. I’d urge you to do the same, and would love to hear what you think of it! (If you have questions, or even if you want spoilers I’d be happy to provide those too!)
Quick tip: they all call each other “sister” – of course they aren’t really. It was to foster (*coughs*) a sense of family and harmony in the harem. I think you’ll figure things out quickly though. Selfishly I’d also urge you to watch this because I’d love to see more interest in different historical settings, and maybe that would expand to romance novels, seeing more diversity and interesting love stories.
*Also as I’ve said, the “complete series” is kinda a lie because … yeah it’s the abridged whole thing, but again. 76 episodes vs 6.