I originally wanted to make this next post a proper review, but I have too many feels to be proper. So here’s a story about a story…
In the past week, I’ve been watching a Chinese period drama I found on Netflix titled “Empresses in the Palace”. When I started it, I had no idea that the series has quite a reputation when it first aired. I didn’t even know that the version that I watched on Netflix is actually an abridged version. One of the original titles used to refer to the drama is “The Legend of Zhen Huan”. It actually has 76 episodes, running 45 minute-ish each. Whereas, the one on Netflix only contains 6 episodes running for about one-and-a-half hours. Those six episodes, while a bit weird in pacing (though now I understand why), are incredibly amazing. And this has a lot to do with what the series is about.
“Empresses” centers its story on a girl named Zhen Huan. At the beginning, she was just a regular girl–one of many invited to the palace to audition as the emperor’s next and upcoming concubine. The setting is imperial China in one of the recent dinasties–sorry, too lazy to look it up, but from what I understand some of the elements, like the emperor, is based on real events. But, anyway, it features king, queen, concubines, palaces, maids, eunuchs, and pretty headdresses.
Our heroine Huan finds herself thrown into this world and she has to maneuever herself in the–to borrow a certain popular show’s title–game of thrones. Being a king’s concubine seems easy, but in this series, there is apparently a lot of trying-to-stay-alive involved. Huan has to juggle her own safety, the emperor’s favor, the jealousy of the other concubines, her loyal friends, as well as a tragic romantic affair with the king’s brother. Long story short, the harem life is not an easy life.
For the complete experience of the story, I really do recommend you checking it out yourself. I don’t think I can ever give it justice trying to elaborate it here. Having said that, I can try to explain why I adore the series so much.
A few episodes in, I declared that “Empresses” is like watching “Game of Thrones” but with less gory blood and more political intrigues played by the ladies. And that is a very thrilling thing to watch, trust me. For most of the series, we witness the life of these women living in the Forbidden City, quite cut off from the outside world, even from their families. We see them pursuit some trivial enjoyment like singing, dancing, reading and reciting poetries. They wear pretty dresses and headdresses all day everyday. They dine with each other, visit each other and talk about their offsprings. They talk in sweet and polite tone, because meeting certain people require certain manners. They form sisterhood because they are all the wives of the same man. When the night comes, they take turn to fulfil their wifey duty to the emperor. When they get pregnant, it is the most honorable thing to do carrying an imperial heir.
It seems like a stress-free, beautiful life to live in a palace where you can get anything just by asking for it. But like I said, the matter of staying alive is sometimes problematic. Some concubines are more easily jealous than the others, some hide their jealousy better than the others. You never know which one are plotting against you just because you are carrying a baby inside you or just because you sing so beautifully that the only thing the king wants to do right now is hear you sing. And when someone is pissed off, they are more prone to wishing you death–and by wishing, they usually tell their subordinates to slip a poison in your tea or something. It really is a hard life.
Some women are a great fit for this kind of life, though. Our heroine Huan is definitely one of those women, though to survive she pretty much sacrificed everything. Following Huan’s journey, I had a realization. You know how you used to dream about being a princess and all. When you were a kid, it’s cool to think that way. Princesses are doted on and spoiled on, right? But then you get older, you start to think, perhaps… being a queen is much better. I mean, a QUEEN. You’re the queen. That’s so much cooler. You get to rule (with or without a king). You play the game up front.
These thoughts, when I watched this series, evolved. Ruling is not actually that attractive anymore. There’s so much responsibility. I mean, if you’re wrong, you have to admit you’re wrong. You’re the ruler. Well, if I learned anything from Huan, it isn’t about becoming the king’s most favourite lady, or about pushing yourself to the very top of the harem. It is about knowing who to place at the top of the empire and how to place the person there and giving yourself the best benefit from it. Spoiler alert, that’s what Huan did. She took care one of the heirs (it doesn’t even have to be hers biologically, just the most perfect candidate as the next king), and when the time comes, wait for the king to die (read: perhaps slip him a poison) then watch your adopted son ascend the throne. And, voila, Huan is the Empress Dowager. And I just realized, the Empress Dowager is actually the one holding all the good cards in the game–the only person the king would never want to disrespect. So, my new dream is to be the Empress Dowager of my life.
Another thing that I like about “Empresses” is how the story focuses so much on the dynamics of the ladies in the harem. It’s pretty cool to see these women who are put there usually as pawns in the political game of the men, but in the end, these women are the silent power players in that running game. The only way the game could ever continue is because these women are silently playing along, producing heirs and educating them to be better than the previous rulers. To be frank, it’s the women running the empire, because as once written in the novel From Here to Eternity, “The women ran this world; and nobody knew it better than a man in love.” So I guess, the emperor knows.