By Ruby Chingu
*WARNING! THIS DRAMA HAS 76 EPISODES. THEREFORE, THE REVIEW BELOW IS GOING TO BE SUPER LONG!!! READ AT YOUR OWN RISK!*
I came across this 2011 C-drama whilst browsing around the internet for a good Chinese drama. Even though internationally, C-drama is not as well-spread as the (overrated) South Korean dramas nowadays, I think very highly of them due to their superior productions values and more developed plotlines. And my childhood had always been filled with memories of watching a great many C-drama and Hong Kong dramas, especially the historical and wuxia ones. Naturally, as I grow older, I try to reconnect with my childhood passion once more.
Huo Gong Zhen Huan Zhuan or The Legend of Zhen Huan or officially known in English as Empresses In The Palace is a no-joke drama. It may seem all glittery and glamorous with its many concubine-related settings but trust me, this drama involves a great deal of bitterness, revenge, blood and pure satanic evil. The concubines might be donning themselves with make-up and were all smiles throughout the episodes but the slogan that generally was echoed through my head was “Kill or Either Get Killed”.
Which is kind of true.
Like all concubine-centered drama, this drama’s main concubine is a young noble lady by the name of Zhen Huan. In the beginnings of the series, she was an okay girl – pretty, not that talkative, generally polite and rational. Unlike all typical concubine heroines, she did not have a boyfriend prior to entering the palace. Indeed, she was not that sad or that happy about her selection. She was kind of okay with it. She was initially hesitant because being a concubine in the Imperial Harem would mean that she would lose her freedom but she also desired the honour that comes with the title she was to receive. Thus, she, along with her friends, embraced their fate quite easily. All the young ladies dreamed about being concubines. They trained to enter the palace since they were young. They took special classes in walking, gracefulness, literature and many more in order to impress the officials during their selection processes. So why would one say no if one got selected?
She was quite wary of spending time with the Emperor, who was technically her husband, not because he was kinda old but because of the stiff competition she witnessed amongst the concubines in gaining his attention. There were two main ladies in court who were involved in this battle of wits – the Empress and Hua Fei.
Before I continue, it is vital that I list down all the concubines’ titles in order from the lowest ranking to the highest. FYI, titles, for concubines, were super duper importance. It signified her superiority, her importance and the Emperor’s love for her. The rank starts from Daying, Changzai, Guiren, Pin, Fei, Gui Fei, Wang Gui Fei and Huang Hao (Empress). Only the Empress Dowager ranked higher than the Empress. Fei indicated the rank of a Consort, which means that once a concubine gained the title of Fei, she was pretty much settled for life and everyone in court had a valid reason to be scared shit of her, like our fabulously vicious Hua Fei.
Zhen Huan entered the palace with the rank of Changzai, which was pretty low. So, people did not notice her much and bullied her at times, though she was smart enough to ignore them and make herself invisible. She was cautious to be known at first because of the tension in the harem anyway and managed to avoid ‘serving’ the Emperor on the pretext of being ill. (Serving here means having sex and spending time with him). However, a number of ever-so-famous-and-fortunate coincidences occurred and she met with the Emperor anyway, not knowing that he was an Emperor and ended up falling for him. Once she knew his identity, her invisibility and non-importance immediately vanished and in a short time, she became his favourite concubine. When her importance increased, so did her rank. From Changzai, she became Guiren and then, Pin. Her looks also changed to that of a more mature woman.
The Emperor loved her sooooo much and had made it quite obvious. However, unlike other historical dramas, delusional romance/love story did not have a place in this story. The Emperor duly served his duty to his other wives as well and spent his time with them, though he did spoil Zhen Huan a little bit more than the rest. After living in such happiness as a favourite concubine for some time, Zhen Huan was knocked over by a huge reality check after she miscarried her baby due to Hua Fei’s evil undoing. When that happened, she naturally expected her beloved husband to punish the bitch. Instead, the Emperor looked at her lovingly and said he could not do such a thing because the bitch was the sister of the empire’s most powerful general. Zhen Huan pleaded with him, telling him that “she killed our baby.” All the Emperor could do was look down in regret.
At that moment, I think, Zhen Huan stopped loving her husband and she could never be as happy as she was again. Crimes went unpunished and no one would avenge the fate of her innocent unborn child.
Since then, the romantic side of Zhen Huan faded radically. Instead of a devoted wife and lover, she focused more on becoming the concubine – albeit a powerful one – she was meant to be – intelligent and always a step ahead from her enemies. The greatest thing about our heroine is that she refused to trust anyone completely except for her soul sister, a fellow concubine, Shen Mei Zhuang. When everyone else was kissing the Empress’s or Hua Fei’s asses, Zhen Huan did no such thing and focused solely on concentrating her source of power from the Emperor’s affection, which worked wonders because the Emperor’s guilt made him more attached to Zhen Huan.
As the competition unraveled and many people died including servants, concubines and fellow innocent and not-so-innocent victims, Zhen Huan grew tired of it all. By then, her relationship with the Emperor was already strained, for she had always made it clear that she could not forgive the Emperor for not punishing Hua Fei for her baby’s death. Also, Zhen Huan was also severely punished by the Emperor after wearing a dress which once belonged to the Emperor’s first love, the late Empress Chun Yuan (due to a trick by the Empress. Smart smart bitch!). She was locked in her palace for many weeks and when she fell ill, her servant sacrificed her life so that the guards would allow the doctors to see her. All of these dramatic events in the palace sickened Zhen Huan physically and emotionally to the point of no return.
She told the Emperor she wished to be a concubine no more – and she meant it. Note that by now, she was already a Fei (Consort), meaning that her rank was second only to the Empress. However, she hated the palace and a concubine’s life so much that she was willing to leave her newborn baby girl under the care of a fellow trusted concubine. Seriously, who could blame her? She wanted only some peace and she deserved it. However, after a love affair with the 17th Prince resulted in her pregnancy, she knew she had to do whatever it takes to protect her unborn twins. Thus, she seduced the Emperor once more (though she had stopped loving him ages ago) and returned to the palace as the transformed, more powerful and ambitious version of Zhen Huan. Say bye bye to the naive endearing Zhen Huan that we knew.
Since her return to the palace, the only thing that mattered for her was survival as she needed to secure a good future for her children. Royal children’s future lives often correlated to that of their mothers. If their mothers were high-ranked, their future would be more secure. She also wanted to beat the hell out of the Empress, whose cruelty increased after Hua Fei’s death. With one bitch’s death, come another bitch and another and another. The cycle of blood never ends.
The ending was quite a realistic one for me. No happiness, no sadness. Just a reality of life in the Palace. Those who worked hard and worked smart stayed in power, those who did not were defeated.
NOW!!!!! TIME FOR MY FAVOURITE ELEMENTS OF THE DRAMA!
God, there are so many! One great thing about the drama is that it has so many interesting female characters. From Zhen Huan to Hua Fei to the Empress and also tons of other concubines with interesting characters. The storylines also never really falters halfaway and stayed solid. And the costume! Need I say more? The costumes are fucking gorgeous, goddamnit that I feel like crying each time I lay my eyes on those beautiful dresses.
1 – THE CHARACTER OF SHEN MEI ZHUANG, OR HUI PIN AND HER STEADFAST SISTERHOOD WITH ZHEN HUAN
My favourite character in this drama is not Zhen Huan but her soul sister, Shen Mei Zhuang. I think many fans of this drama have the same thought as me. Shen Mei Zhuan, or later known as Hui Pin, was the most consistent character in the series. She was the only concubine whose personality remained untainted with the immorality of the palace, only that she grew more pessimistic. She entered the palace as an intellectual graceful lady with a kind heart and a mountainous patience and elegance. Despite the evils people had committed against her, she remained that person she once was. From the Emperor’s early favourite, she fell from grace due to a heinous plan by our fabulous Hua Fei and was accused of faking her pregnancy. Since then, she had a reality check and realized the true value of a concubine and how temporary and uncertain the Emperor’s love could be.
As Zhen Huan was rising in ranks, our Shen Mei Zhuang contented herself by being the unimportant lady in the shadow. Due to Zhen Huan’s immense grace, Shen Mei Zhuang was somehow protected from further harm and never really escaped the notice of the Emperor, who was still quite fond of her. However, Shen Mei Zhuang resisted his affections, her heart never really forgiving him for believing the accusation thrown at her. For her, he had failed at his duty as her husband (poor Emperor, so many wives’s expectations to meet. Hahaha!) As the Emperor began to let her to herself, Shen Mei Zhuang lived quite a peaceful life, accompanied by her servants. She had more time for herself, engrossing herself in her intellectuality and also serving the Empress Dowager. At the same time, she began harboring feelings for her personal doctor, the only court official who treated her kindly as others ostracized her during the fake pregnancy scandal. She had a baby girl with him and died after the childbirth.
Dear Shen Mei Zhuang, you deserve so much more! I pray to God that your character can be reborn into another drama as an Empress, for an intellectual mind like you deserves to be on top!!
Another great aspect about Shen Mei Zhuang’s character is the sisterhood between her and Zhen Huan, which is actually the core part of who Zhen Huan was.
It was also the only relationship in the drama to stand the test of time. They met as young girls and Zhen Huan addressed Shen Mei Zhuang as ‘jie jie’ or older sister from the beginning to the end. Indeed, they were truly sisters in life and death. Nothing could come between them and when the rest of the world was against any of them, they always knew that they could rely and support each other. As an audience, I was always looking forward for an initially kind character to betray Zhen Huan sooner or later, like An Lin Rong, who was in their close-knit circle but later switched sides to serve the Empress . But when I saw Zhen Huan with Shen Mei Zhuang, I always knew that the they would never betray each other. Is it just me or their chemistry as sisters and best friends are so much better than the ones with their respective lovers?
The breakdown scene of Zhen Huan crying over Shen Mei Zhuang’s death has to be best scene in the drama. She did not grieve that much for the Emperor or even her lover, the 17th prince. But for Shen Mei Zhuang, she felt as if her life had been taken away from her. Maybe because she finally realized that she was left alone in this world, no one else she could rely on. Even though Zhen Huan had already amassed herself support from many concubines, nobody was able to fill in the void Shen Mei Zhuang left. Nobody could become her best friend, sister and trusted advisor as well as she did.
*cries* SISTERHOOD FOREVER!!
2 – THE REALISTIC PORTRAYAL OF ZHEN HUAN’S MARRIAGE TO THE EMPEROR
Zhen Huan’s relationship with the Emperor could be described in one word – rocky! In the beginning, it was a sweet happy marriage like any other newlyweds. Zhen Huan genuinely fell in love with the Emperor. How could she not? He was a gentleman, a patience wise man who never really got angry. When he loved her, he expressed it clearly. And he was a supporting and attentive husband, too. For a brief while, their love was the only thing that kept her happy. However, do keep in mind that this is an Emperor we are talking about, with more than ten wives living together in a big fat palace.
The main event that transformed their relationship was of course when the Emperor failed to punish his former favourite, Hua Fei for being the cause behind Zhen Huan’s miscarriage. It was her first pregnancy and she was very heartbroken to lose the baby. When the baby died, a part of her died as well. Seeing how her husband remained silent over the cruelty of Hua Fei only added salt to her wounds. Who could forget the disbelief look on her face when the Emperor told her to “let it go and move on”?
From then on, their relationship deteriorated greatly. Zhen Huan’s distance from the Emperor allowed more space for other concubines to step in, such as An Lin Rong. However, Zhen Huan always knew that she had a special place in the Emperor’s heart. The sad thing was, however, that the reason the Emperor was attracted to her in the first place was because she looked a lot like his first love. Nevertheless, I do believe that the Emperor also genuinely loved Zhen Huan. Their relationship might have its ups and downs but Zhen Huan had the great and revered status that she had due to the Emperor’s love for her. Whatever Zhen Huan wanted, she got them. Her each desires were fulfilled by the Emperor even when she asked to leave the palace. Ever since the Emperor raised her rank to that of a consort, I think the whole palace kind of knew that Zhen Huan was to be the most powerful woman in the palace below the Empress Dowager and the Empress. By the second half of the drama, it was obvious that their marriage involved the pair more as a ruler and his consort rather than lovers. The passion and romance had faded away completely by the time Zhen Huan returned to the palace as Fei after her stint at the monastery. Their love, at least on Zhen Huan’s part, had completely broken down. She had no feelings left for the man she used to love so greatly. The marriage was a necessity for her survival, a representation of her status and the key to her glory.
Therefore, she remained loyal to the Emperor though she did not love him. Even though the 17th Prince returned to the palace, she did not elope and resumed their affair. She stayed at the Emperor’s side as a devoted wife and advisor, being there for him so long as he needed it. She performed the duty of an Imperial Consort impeccably, which speaks volumes to any long-term marriage, modern or otherwise. We all know why people get married in the first place – love, family arrangements etc etc. But when all love and passion is gone, why do people stay married? Image? Power? Money? Security? Or just the fear of being lonely?
The marriage of Zhen Huan and the Emperor were symbolic to the institution of marriage in so many ways. She did not love the Emperor but she needed him. Whether she liked it or not, her identity and whole status relied on his grace. By the end of the series, it was not him that she wanted, but the life he could give her.
THINGS THAT I THINK COULD’VE BEEN BETTER BUT WAS NOT PRESENTED THAT WELL
1 – ZHEN HUAN’S LOVE AFFAIR WITH THE 17TH PRINCE
Forgive me for saying as such because I know there are so many of you fans of this couple here. This is only my personal view. Even though Zhen Huan and the 17th Prince knew each other for a long time, it was only after Zhen Huan left the palace for the temple that she began to love the Prince and vice versa.
Okay, let me just put it out there – THE PRINCE IS INCREDIBLY HOT!! Our prince was a hot emotional mess of a sentimental lover. A man fated for a doomed end. A man who fell in love with one of his brother’s wives and that brother was not just any brother – that brother was the Emperor. But he did not care, he gave his all to Zhen Huan. He knew he could die for treason but he loved Zhen Huan anyway without an inch of regret. Now tell me how can one not fall in love with this stupid bastard???!! I mean, my prince, I will love you forever!!
So, with this devoted and dreamy of a character, why the hell don’t I feel for their love?
Well, because our 17th Prince himself. He was a man you’d meet in your dreams – a devoted handsome man who would die for you. Now, prince baby, you don’t fit in this bloodthirsty drama. The drama does not deserve your grace. Our Prince’s general goodness was often drowned by the awesomeness of the concubines in the series. He was not the main lead and was obviously so, though I suspected several efforts by the writer who tried to represent his character as something bigger than he was. No, he was not that vital, in my opinion. More than often, I do think that he seemed out of place amidst the competition for the Emperor’s attention. So many times I thought his character was merely an accessory to develop Zhen Huan’s storyline and the Prince never really stood out to own his own story as well, unlike Hua Fei, the Empress and Shen Mei Zhuan.
Yes, he was, of course, Zhen Huan’s lover. But at that point of time, any good kind man could appear in Zhen Huan’s life and became her lover. Also, I would not go as far as to declare that he was Zhen Huan’s true love. I do not believe as such. I do think that the Emperor was the love of her life and when he betrayed her, she slowly transformed into another woman. The 17th Prince, however, succeeded in offering Zhen Huan an alternate life that she could never dream of – a life of simple happiness, purity and joy. A life without the glory she was used to. I think that is why Zhen Huan fell for him – aside from the fact that he was practically available EACH TIME Zhen Huan needed him.
I mean, my dear prince, don’t you have a fucking job other than to chase after your brother’s exiled concubine?
However, the end to their love affair pained me a little even if I’m not a fan of this couple. Zhen Huan, who was already pregnant with the Prince’s children, thought that the Prince had died in war. She had no other choice but to return to her life as a concubine by serving the Emperor once again and making him believe that the children belonged to him to save their lives – or else they would be executed along with their mother. By the time the imperial decree had came out for Zhen Huan to return to the palace, THEN THE PRINCE CAME HOME. FUCK YOU, WHY DIDN’T YOU COME BACK EARLIER, YOU BASTARD?!! It all seemed to cliche of a plot, does it not? But it worked quite well with Zhen Huan’s struggles.
Which is basically what I’m trying to say. Everything that the Prince was in the drama was too reliant on Zhen Huan. His existence in the series depended on Zhen Huan’s storyline. I do wish that the Prince was a less-than-perfect character. Make him a bit evil, bad-boyish and competitive. Or mischiveous. Not the heavenly prince that he was presented to be. If only he was a bad-boy prince, then, damn!!!! It would spice up the drama real nice, haha.
Other photos of the drama….
Overall, this drama is a must watch drama for you drama lovers out there. It is, by far, the best costume drama EVERRRRR!!! EVEN INTERNATIONAL-WISE!!! Where else can you get a myriad of characters and the storylines so unpredictable? Where the women control the show by their intelligence, patience and manipulative traits? I won’t say that this drama is an ode to feminism, because it is not but it is a great realistic drama about flawed human characters. No one is perfectly nice and kind and happy all the time. If he or she is, most likely he or she ended up dead or living life very miserably like our 17th Prince and Shen Mei Zhuang, two of our most morally upright characters in the show.