The Empresses in the Palace – An Intro to Chinese Drama


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 (2015) / Legend of Zhen Huan (2011)

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).

Empresses in the Palace (2015) / Legend of Zhen Huan (2011)

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.

Empresses in the Palace (2015) / Legend of Zhen Huan (2011)

This is all you’ll see in bed! Totally covered up.


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.

The Yongzheng Emperor in full court garb, circa 1720s-30s.

The Yongzheng Emperor in full court garb, circa 1720s-30s.

Empresses in the Palace (2015) / Legend of Zhen Huan (2011)

The show nailed it with the Emperor’s ceremonial outfit.

Empress Xiaojingxian, primary consort of the Yongzheng Emperor, in full court garb, circa 1730s.

Empress Xiaojingxian, primary consort of the Yongzheng Emperor, in full court garb, circa 1730s.

Empresses in the Palace (2015) / Legend of Zhen Huan (2011)

The Empress is shown in ceremonial robes of either red or yellow, which I guess is appropriate (despite the only official portrait of her).

One of a series of 12 paintings from before 1732 titled "Concubines of the Yongzheng Emperor."

One of a series of 12 paintings from before 1732 titled “Concubines / Beauties of the Yongzheng Emperor.”

One of a series of 12 paintings from before 1732 titled "Concubines of the Yongzheng Emperor."

From the same series, they all show similar robes and hairstyles using elaborate knots decorated with hairpins and jeweled ornaments, but the hair is not styled very tall.

Empresses in the Palace (2015) / Legend of Zhen Huan (2011)

Elaborate hair is a trademark of the TV show’s concubines — but the extent and specific shapes are probably from late-period Qing Dynasty.

Empresses in the Palace (2015) / Legend of Zhen Huan (2011)

The high squared hairstyle may be called qi tou, and it probably came into fashion in the 19th century.

Empress Dowager Xiaosheng, mother of Qianlong Emperor, and Noble Consort Xi to the Yongzheng Emperor, in full court garb circa 1751.

The character of Zhen Huan is loosely based on Dowager Xiaosheng. She was Noble Consort Xi to the Yongzheng Emperor and mother of the Qianlong Emperor, shown here in full court garb circa 1751.

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.

Dowager Empress Ci'an, 1850.

Dowager Empress Ci’an, 1850.

Manchu women, 1869. Photograph by John Thomson via Wikimedia Commons.

Manchu women, 1869. Photograph by John Thomson via Wikimedia Commons.

Imperial Consort Jin & Empress Longyu, 1880s.

Imperial Consort Jin and Empress Longyu, 1880s.

Manchu noblewomen, 1900.

Manchu noblewomen, 1900.

Dowager Empress Cixi, 1906.

Dowager Empress Cixi, 1906.

Empress Wanrong, consort of Puyi, the last emperor of China, 1934.

Empress Wanrong, consort of Puyi, the last Emperor of China, 1934.

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.

Empresses in the Palace (2015) / Legend of Zhen Huan (2011)

Zhen Huan starts out sweet and innocent.

Empresses in the Palace (2015) / Legend of Zhen Huan (2011)

As do her young friends like An Ling-rong.

Empresses in the Palace (2015) / Legend of Zhen Huan (2011)

And her BFF Shen Mei-zhuang.

Empresses in the Palace (2015) / Legend of Zhen Huan (2011)

But when Zhen Huan moves up in the harem, her hair gets bigger with more bling and her gown gets embroidery.

Empresses in the Palace (2015) / Legend of Zhen Huan (2011)

Wearing yellow signifies Imperial Concubine Consort status, as does the crown-like decoration on Zhen Huan’s hairpiece.

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.

Empresses in the Palace (2015) / Legend of Zhen Huan (2011)

Consort Hua at the height of her power and looking totally badass. Symbolic kingfisher ornaments all over her headdress (easily the most blinged-out hair in the whole series!), plus wearing rich bright colors. Don’t mess with her!

Empresses in the Palace (2015) / Legend of Zhen Huan (2011)

A glimpse of how Consort Hua wears that kingfisher headdress as much as she can, even in winter with a fur-trimmed gown (as she plots how to kill you).

Empresses in the Palace (2015) / Legend of Zhen Huan (2011)

Another of Consort Hua’s striking brightly colored gowns with an elaborate brightly colored headdress. She always stands out in the crowd.

Empresses in the Palace (2015) / Legend of Zhen Huan (2011)

Then when Zhen Huan has come out on top, she’s the one wearing kingfisher blue hair ornaments.

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.

Empresses in the Palace (2015) / Legend of Zhen Huan (2011)

This behind-the-scenes shot gives a clear shot of all the concubine’s distinctive Manchu shoes.

Empresses in the Palace (2015) / Legend of Zhen Huan (2011)

While historically, the women would likely have worn long layers of gowns or skirts, this behind-the-scenes photo shows the actresses wore pants (at least they’re trimmed to match).

Empresses in the Palace (2015) / Legend of Zhen Huan (2011)

Zhen Huan becomes the Dowager Empress.

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.


17 Responses

  1. Susan Pola

    The costumes are so lush and gorgeous. I must see the series. Wonder if YouTube has it? Or is it out on DVD region 1?

    Only other ‘Eastern’ costume drama I can think of is Shogun. This is a welcome addition to it.

  2. Lady Hermina De Pagan

    Oh, if you loved this you might want to try Rise the Red Lantern. I watched that while recovering from surgery and found it fascinating.

    • Sarah Lorraine

      I keep trying to get Trystan to review Raise the Red Lantern. I remember seeing it when it came out in the American market and being blown away by the visuals. The storyline, however, was suuuuuper depressing.

      • MoHub

        Raise the Red Lantern is one of my favorite movies, both for its visual beauty and its storytelling (even though, as you say, it’s depressing). And of course, it’s the first film that came to mind on reading this article.

    • Saraquill

      Raise the Red Lantern is a well done movie, but has gotten some flack as it exoticized/made stuff up to appeal to overseas audiences. That should probably be addressed if they cover the movie.

  3. woostersauce2014

    There was an excellent drama about the Yongzheng emperor made around the early 2000s which I would recommend. To see court fashions worn during the late 19th to early 20th century, “Towards the Republic” ‘or “For the Sake of the Republic” (Zou Xiang Gong He in Chinese) is a must see although the costumes worn by the diplomats from Europe and America leave a lot to be desired.

  4. Caroline

    I’m pretty sure the trousers are accurate. Non-aristocratic women women wore trousers under a shorter, tunic-style gown. I can’t find a picture of trousers on someone who is clearly non-aristocratic, but I can find lots of photographs of aristocratic women where the gowns crease inwards in a way that looks like the legs are separated underneath and not smoothed by underdress. I also have read letters from men sent to the U.S. to study grappling with the fact that their robes are girly to Americans but American trousers are feminine to superiors who insist the men wear robes. The area I’ve studied most in Chinese costume is 20th century so this isn’t my expertise but I’m pretty confident.

  5. Adina

    The person in pink who you labeled as Meizhuang is actually Qi pin, who later get’s demoted to promise Qi.

    This is Meizhuang:

    Though I think her most iconic hairstyle is the one with the silk rose and blck/gold buyao:

    A bit of extra trivia: The blue hair ornaments are called ‘dancui’ and were made by inlaying actual kingfisher feathers in gold.

  6. costumekullan

    I started to watch the series some time ago, but I haven’t finished it. I definitely felt that there were some strange plots and events that just disappeared, which of course is explained if it’s been cut down from 76 to 6 episodes. Gorgeous costumes though

  7. Olivia

    I know Adina already said this, but the one captioned “BFF Shen Meizhuang” isn’t Mei, it’s one of the conniving brats who has it in for Huan Er and her pals. Nasty lil’ Qi pin, I almost feel bad for her when karma gets her…almost.

  8. Tom Green

    The picture of a woman in pink dress with caption saying “her BFF Shen Mei-zhuang” is wrong. She is “qi guiren”(Don’t know the English name, qi guiren is her Chinese name). And she is actually one of Zhen Huan’s enemies.

  9. Laura

    Can you tell what are the white scarfs all the comcubines are wearing around thei necks? Is it a rank mark? I see that they are decorated differently, but everybody has one. Interesting read, this post!

    • Olivia

      The scarves are just fashionable, at least as far as I can tell from casual research; sets them above the masses as ladies of elegance and refinement and all that. The decoration is likely just part of the age old issue of whether someone can afford it or not. More decoration means “hey, I’m so rich even my sweaty neck tie has gold on it!”, plain means that you can’t afford the shiny embroidery, etc. You should watch the full series (not Netflix) for more examples of the different fashions based on status.

  10. koinakasan

    This, or rather the full version, is also available on DramaCool at up to 720p HD with English subtitles. These by the way are very well done for the first 20 or so episodes and then rapidly become dire. I am finishing episode 32 as I write and since mid 20’s they have become steadily more awful. Gramar and gender, person, tence are all frequently wron and there are editing codes meant to give line-breaks which don’t but are very irritating. Then there are modern americanisums such as kid (instead of child) and [you] guys (instead of people/persons. The english is frequently such gibberish I can’t believe it was ever passed. It’s slipshod and full of typo’s – such a shame since the visual content and cinematography is stunning. I will look for it on Viki to compare because frankly the DC subtitles are so unprofessional they kill the enjoyment!