Empresses in the Palace

Today I’m going to talk about one of the shows I recently saw on Netflix: Empresses in the Palace. Who read my other posts must be thinking if the whole blog will have an oriental theme. In truth, I promise there will be books and shows from occidental hemisphere, but, despite the fact that I am really fascinated by the oriental culture, it was a coincidence the other posts be related to it. In the moment for example, I’m also watching the shows American Horror Story and Good luck Charlie, so in a while you can be sneaking this in here.

Getting back to the Netflix show, I found it by chance, while I was trying to find a movie. This Chinese show was originally exhibit in its country in 2011 and it was recently bought by Netflix. This purchase can be the beginning of a partnership with the streaming service LeTv (Streaming is the online transmission of movies and TV shows, in other words, is a provider similar to Netflix).

Maybe you don’t know, I didn’t, China makes about 30 thousands episodes of TV shows every year, an some of them get notorious in another parts of the globs, including Empresses in the Palace. The show, also called The Legend of Zhen Huan, takes place in Qing dynasty and tells the story of Zhen Huan, a girl that becomes one of the emperor concubines.

Poster of Empresses in the Palace.

Poster of Empresses in The Palace.

Unfortunately, I found that the version offered by Netflix condensed 76 episodes in 6. At the beginning, I thought they just had agglutinated the episodes, but the truth is that most of the content is cut. I just knew about this after I finished watching, so I think they were able to maintain the coherence of the main plot facts, but for sure, many secondary stories were removed.

I liked the show a lot, and as I discovered that were many critics about the Netflix subtitles, and also for missing people saying niángniang (my lady), huángshang (emperor) and other words I learned, I want to watch the entire show someday. For those who got interested, it’s available in Viki. But if you want to watch it without spending too much time, choose the Netflix version, 6 episodes with 90 minutes each one.

I loved the cultural features of the show, the clothes, palaces, behaviors, everything was very well produced. The emperor of the plot, Yongzheng, really existed and was from Qing (pronounced Ching) dynasty. This dynasty was the last imperial dynasty from China. The Manchu people founded it in 1644, lasting until 1912, when it was established the Republic of China.
I will talk about some of the aspects I found more interesting in the show.


I thought it was very rich to follow the imperial life and all the Chinese culture of this time. If you research, there was an explanation and a meaning for everything. In the Qing dynasty, for example, the men start following the costumes of Manchu people – they wear the hair shaved in the back of the head and a long braid in the rest of it. For the women, there were no big changes comparing to the previous dynasty and in the show, we see that the married ones use a bun with many ornaments. These adornments in the hair were very popular in Qing dynasty and we can see a lot of interesting arrangements in the characters (Some concubines also use bangs in the show, but in truth, this cutting of the front part of the hair were typical for single ladies).
Zhen Huan shows up with beautiful accessories.

Zhen Huan.

Zhen Huan.

Better show Hua Consort too, before she commands I receive 20 slaps in the face (yes, this was a punishment!). After all, she was the administrator of the harem and was already there before Zhen Huan.

Consort Hua.

Consort Hua.

Other accessories of the concubines that caught my attention was the “flower-pot” shoes, name given because of the shape of the heel. With a shoe like that it was impossible to move quickly – that must be the intention, do the ladies walk slowly and gracefully. I doubt the comfort of it but there are people in You Tube parading with shoes like that and saying it’s comfortable, then who knows.

Image with no copyright from Wikimedia Commons.

At last, the show also brings some scenes of singing, dance and even ice-skating to delight the emperor and the spectator too.

Scene from Empresses in the Palace.

Scene from Empresses in the Palace.

Scene from Empresses in the Palace.

Scene from Empresses in the Palace.

For those who want to see a little more of this culture, you can make a visit in the Palace Museum website. You can even do a virtual tour. Who knows I can be sneaking there personally one day. There is also many cool things about China in the channel Off the Great Wall with the nice Dan and Mike.


The respect and hierarchy of the servants with their masters and between the court people and someone of higher status is something that call attention, because it is different from our culture. We see the loyalty of most the servants and its important presence in their master’s life. There is also a ritual of getting in your knees and salute people, even with memorized phrases like “Blessings and peace may be with you, Your Majesty”.

We can also see the hierarchy of the emperor’s wives and its reflex in the life standard they have. The ascension of the main character inside the harem, for example, can be notice even in the clothes and adornment used by her. During the history of China, the consorts ranking varies, existing different numbers of classes and different names to them. The ranking was important to the administration of the court and for the imperial succession. In Qing dynasty, there were 8 classes – and looks like the show kept them:

  • Empress: only one in the harem.
  • Noble Imperial Consort: only one in the harem.
  • Noble Consorts: Only two in the harem.
  • Consorts: Only four in the harem.
  • Imperial Concubine: Only six in the harem.
  • Noble Ladies: Unlimited number.
  • First Attendant: Unlimited number.
  • Second Attendant: Unlimited number.
  • Attendant: Unlimited number.

There is too many wives! It’s not a surprise the harem had become a stage for too many disputes in the show and probably in the real life (in a light version I hope). The record it’s from Kangxi Emperor, that had 79 wives – that’s insane! I wonder if he knew the name of all of them. Who had the small number of wives was Guangxu, with just 3.
One last interesting fact in this subject it’s the presence of the eunuchs (eunuch is a man who has been castrated) in the palace as servants. One of the reasons for having a eunuch as a servant of the high classes is because people thought they were more reliable, and since they couldn’t have children, there wasn’t the risk of them wanting to steal the throne.

The Story

The plot can seem a little cliché, but in truth it’s not too obvious and reserves some surprises along the way, going through love, friendship, resignation and intrigues. It’s a drama show, sort that doesn’t attract me that much. I’m not a fan of shows like Grays’s Anatomy and similar ones. Although, Empresses is an interesting story that keeps you curious to know if Zhen Huan will make it through all the difficulties of living in the harem, were the fight for the emperor attention and the desire of being the mother of the kingdom’s heir make the place a subtle war field. To survive all this you need to enter the game and learn how to move the pieces.
Besides that, the cultural matter makes the show more than just a novel.

If you already seen the movie Memoirs of a Geisha, or read the book (very goods by the way, if you didn’t you should put them in your list) I thought the atmosphere of the story is similar to Empresses, both are a sad romance.
In the flash-forwards (moments that shows the protagonist older telling her story) we can see the melancholy. Without giving much spoiler, I would say the story of our dear character work out fine, giving all the conditions, and it pleased me.

Looks like there will be a sequel of the show, named Legend of Ruyi, that would be about Ulanara, one of Qianlong wives, the successor of Yongzheng.

For those who like this type of show, the site Viki, has many other options, including shows with many faces you see in Empresses.

Before I finish, here it goes a curiosity, Zhen Huan or dearly Huan Huan (I just love this nickname), was so exuberant in the show that she even won a wax figure in the Madame Tussauds Museum in Shanghai.

Actress Sun Li and her wax figure as Zhen Huan. Source http://www.mildchina.com

Actress Sun Li and her wax figure as Zhen Huan. Source: http://www.mildchina.com.

Both are beautiful, right? The actress Sun Li thought the figure is very truthful, and you?

That’s it, 起来吧 (qǐlaiba – “you may rise!” they say this a lot in the show 🙂 )

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