I fully admit, it can be difficult to get over the hump of subtitles. For me, this is more of an issue when watching a movie or TV show at home — I used to go out to the theater and watch a lot of foreign films, where reading subtitles on a big screen while also keeping up with the story’s action was easier. Doing so on a small screen (with my aging eyes!) and also if there are interesting costumes, can be a challenge. However, I finally watched The Empresses in the Palace (2015), which originally aired in China as The Legend of Zhen Huan (2011), and OMG was it worth the trouble.
The subtitled series is currently available on Netflix and Amazon, and it’s 6, 1.5-hour episodes. This is edited down from the original 76, 1-hour episodes — chew on that for a few. Imagine the 6-year run of Downton Abbey condensed into 6 hours. Purists will complain that this edit strips out all of the subtly and most of the subplots. This may be true, but coming into the show cold without any background info, I still found it incredibly entertaining and engaging, plus it’s just beautiful to look at (after watching, I did go read recaps here that mention some of what’s left out, which helped but wasn’t crucial). I’ve tried to get into Chinese historical dramas before, but none I found had the combination of lush production values and fascinating female characters to keep my interest.
Empresses in the Palace begins in 1722, at the court of the Yongzheng Emperor, the third Emperor of Qing Dynasty. He and the Dowager Empress are choosing new additions to the Imperial harem. Of the young women who are presented, Zhen Huan is hoping not to be chosen even though this would be a great honor. She has prayed to the Buddha for a private life with one true love. Obviously, she gets chosen, along with two others, who will become her close comrades throughout her ups and downs.
While the setting is historical and certain characters, like the Emperor, and some of the events, are accurate, this is really a historical-fiction story, and most of the female characters are fictionalized. Very few specifics were recorded about Imperial women at this time in China, even about Empresses, other than who they married and what children (especially males) they had. Many women’s names were recorded only as their family, or father’s, name, as in Lady Ulanara of the Ulanara clan and Lady Nian, who’s father was Nian Xialing. But this series gives the women personal names, along with motivations, desires, and a surprising level of agency for the era and culture. Even a few of the serving women are self-actualized characters in this series (although, wow, both female and male servants get treated like shit overall).
Being set primarily in the harem, most of the action takes place between the Empress, the chief consorts, and the lower concubines (where Zhen Huan starts out). They vie for power and place in the highly ritualized and formal society, and while sometimes it’s a lot of soap-operatic bitchy backbiting (this is not a bad thing, btw), there’s also an underlying current of political machinations because the women’s positions reflect that of their families outside palace walls. I suspect these are some of the subplots that were cut out for the U.S. version because we just get a few lines here and there referring to a women’s brother’s activities or her father’s status. There’s also a strong sense of Confucianism running through the story, where loyalty, filial piety, and social order are placed above personal happiness, and towards the end of the series, this turns things towards tragedy.
Pretty much everything happens that can, except for sex (or even kissing!), which is funny considering it’s a story about concubines. You’ll see poisonings, drownings, and beatings; false pregnancies and miscarriages; ghosts and animal attacks (these have cheesy CGI, however); heat waves and snow storms; singing, dancing, and ice skating; the series runs the gamut, and I can only guess that even more occurs in the hours of footage American audiences don’t see. Also worth noting, while all the women are concubines (aside from the Empress and Dowager Empress), they are remarkable not just for their beauty but for their range of accomplishments, such as musical skill, knowledge of literature and history, calligraphy, and herbal arts. They are expected to have sex with the Emperor and bear him children, but they are valued as intellectual companions too, similar to the courtesans of 16th-century Venice.
Costumes in Empresses in the Palace
Reading the subtitles and looking at the gorgeous costumes at the same time is hard! You may want to watch twice to take it all in because there’s so much to see. And it can be difficult in the first episode to tell each of the dozen women apart because the costume differences can be subtle — even though they make comments about each other’s clothing being “better / worse” than one another.
The period is 1720s-30s, early in the Qing Dynasty, when the Manchu people had started ruling China. The Manchus are the fourth largest ethnic group in China (the largest being the Han), and they ruled from 1644 to 1912. Toward the end of the Qing Dynasty, the highly stylized Manchu court fashions are well-documented, especially when photography became possible in the mid-19th century. High-ranking Manchu women wore a unique hairstyle called liangbatou (“two handfuls of hair”) where the hair is dressed high on top of and to the sides of the head. Jeweled hairpins and ornaments were added to reflect the woman’s wealth and status. The clothing for both women and men consisted of long, loose robes and gowns, sometimes worn in layers, preferably of silk and embroidered in symbolic patterns determined by the wearer’s status and to fit the occasion.
In researching the clothing of this period, I’m finding it hard to tell how much the fashions changed from early in the Qing Dynasty to later. Empresses in the Palace takes place at the beginning of the 18th century, but most of the period images that look like the costumes in this TV series are from the 19th century. This makes it hard to say exactly how historically accurate the TV show is. Another thing that makes researching Chinese historical fashion difficult are the various artwork styles of the periods. There are the extremely formal ceremonial portraits, practically iconography, which are often done at the end of the person’s life or even posthumously, and these show full court clothing that’s embroidered with symbols of power, long life, and family affinity. The other artistic style is much more fluid and romantic, and it’s found on scrolls that were displayed in private homes. The figures in these scenes are doing everything from household activities to fighting wars because this style is dynamic and encompasses a lot more natural movement. What people actually looked like and wore is somewhere between these two.
All that said, the costumes in The Empresses in the Palace are gorgeous and beautifully made, quite a feat when there are about 84 billion women on screen, often at the same time. Little things like fabric choices have been thought through carefully to emphasize characters’ rank. While in period, lushly embroidered or brocade silks would have been used, the series appears to have used printed fabrics often for the concubine’s gowns but accented them with deep borders of brocade trims to give a rich look that didn’t bust the budget. Then the all-over brocade fabrics are saved for the Emperor and Empress (and later, for Zhen Huan when she rises in status), and this helps these characters stand out in the crowd.
The hairstyles are not just magnificent, they show a character’s progression of status and influence. Zhen Huan starts out with small, simpler hair with modest floral decoration, which gets more elaborate as she rises in the Emperor’s esteem. She also has bangs early on, and while I’m not convinced this is historically accurate, it makes her look young and innocent (the three new concubines are supposed to be age 17 or 18), and one of her contemporaries, An Ling-rong, keeps wearing bangs throughout the whole series as if to show she’s still the youngest and the lowest status of them all, being from a poor family. Then there’s the bitchy bad-girl Consort Hua, who begins as the Emperor’s favorite concubine, and she has the most over-the-top headdress when the show begins, and as her crazy plots rise and fall, her hairstyles get more distinctive and then become sad and simple.
Other interesting touches are the super-long jeweled fingernail guards that all the court women wear. There are examples of these in museums from the 19th century in the Qing Dynasty, although, again, I’m not sure how early they date to. The use of jade and coral jewelry and amulets is very traditional, however. We also see glimpses of the “flower-pot” or “horse-hoof” shoes Manchu women were famous for wearing; unlike the Han Chinese, known for foot-binding, the Manchu women wore these platform shoes rather like 16th-century Venetian chopines. The women’s makeup in Empresses in the Palace is a bit modernized, and only on the very old women do we see the stylized historical makeup. In fact, in this American version, each episode is introduced by and closes with a flash-forward of Zhen Huan as the Dowager Empress reflecting on her life’s events (many online who viewed the original Chinese series found this addition superfluous; I’m OK with it). In these scenes, she wears dark lip color at only the center of her lips as a nod to the more traditional style.
If you’ve ever been curious about Chinese historical dramas, I can whole-heartedly recommend The Empresses in the Palace (aka The Legend of Zhen Huan) as being a good introduction to the genre. There’s plenty of good eye candy, a fantastic soap opera story, and complicated female characters to both love and hate. If there are places where it seems the story jumps around a little bit, well, that’s probably because it’s been edited down by more than half. You can always search for it online — there are unlicensed streaming versions with fan-made subtitles available, but you may miss some of the glorious costume details shown on HD via Netflix and Amazon.