Why is The Legend of Zhen Huan considered a tragedy?

Tragic Lives of the Imperial Harem

In a story, ninety percent of the people do not have a good ending, yet they are all seen as privileged and noble in the eyes of ordinary people. Can this be considered a tragedy?

Male ensemble of the imperial harem:

  1. Emperor: As a young boy, he witnesses his mother and a minister having an affair, and for the rest of his life, he lives in fear of betrayal, which ironically keeps happening. He encounters a woman as pure as moonlight, but she falls victim to schemes and they both perish. He spends his life searching for substitutes, for shadows. He becomes a target of deception by those close to him, resulting in the decline of his offspring. Even his most beloved concubines wish for his death and his favorite child belongs to someone else. In the end, he is poisoned and dies in despair on his dragon bed—appearing to be a noble dragon among men, but truly a pitiful prisoner.

  2. Guozi: The most favored son of the late emperor, possessing both literary and martial talents, he is a handsome man of noble character. Due to his mother’s background, he is looked down upon and feared. He spends most of his life being idle, filled with aspiration and passion, but only able to live a life of luxury. He falls in love with the wrong person, leading to a more turbulent life. He marries someone he does not desire, sparking even more conflicts. He has children who he does not recognize nor dare to acknowledge. He drinks poisoned wine poured by his beloved and dies while vomiting blood—clearly capable of being a virtuous king, yet in the end, he barely escapes an obscure death.

Female ensemble of the imperial harem:

Empress: Born into a prestigious family, yet still a concubine-born daughter. After finally being chosen, she is robbed of her position by her sister. She gives birth to a son who dies prematurely and despite being the empress, she receives no favor. The most peaceful years of her life may have been the few years when Zhen Huan, her rival, was out of the palace: first, the boldness of Hua Fei in Jing Ren Palace, and later, the forceful return of Niu Hulu Zhen Huan. It was said to be ruling the world, but in the end, they never saw each other again in life or death.

Hua Fei: Coming from a prestigious family with captivating beauty and a carefree personality, she becomes the most favored in the harem. However, she never expected to be targeted from the beginning, betrayed by her loved one, and forced to consume a broth that caused her abortion by her sisters. Every day, she sniffs musk and eats sour cucumbers in hopes of getting pregnant. She may have only wanted to be a dominant and pampered wife at first, but in the end, she becomes a foolishly infatuated person with a heart full of wickedness.

Zhen Huan: A pity, known for her virtuousness, and a pitiful lady with poetic talent, all crushed by a single phrase from a woman named Yunxu. Losing children, losing favor, being framed, regaining favor—after going through numerous cycles, her heart turns to ashes. She says, “What I desire, I have never obtained.” Her original intention was just “to have an unwavering partner until the end of our days,” but eventually, she personally poisoned her devoted partner—a champion of palace intrigue, but also a pitiful woman who had her heart shattered into pieces.

(To be continued…)

Tragic Desires and Disappointments: Summarizing the Fates in “Empresses in the Palace”

In the ending song of the drama “Legend of Zhen Huan”, there is a line that goes, “What one wants, one doesn’t get; what one gets, one doesn’t want.” This is the tragic core of the drama. Almost no one gets what they want, and even if they do get something that others envy, it is not what they truly desire.

Zhen Huan yearned for a lifelong and exclusive love, desiring to be with the best man in the world. But in the end, the men she once deeply loved and the man she loved the most all died tragically, and she was the one who directly caused their deaths. She could never obtain the rightful status of being the beloved wife of the man she loved the most. She achieved the ultimate desire of the entire harem - the position of Empress Dowager, where she could live out her life in peace at a young age. But that was not what she wanted.

The Emperor longed for genuine familial affection and love. But in the end, his mother blamed him for not sparing his younger brother before her death, and she did not give him the tender love he desired, only resentment. None of his many wives truly loved him, and he realized this only before his death. The few women he cherished hoped for his demise and plotted against him, while the other women only cared about their own futures. His true loves, Chun Yuan and Shi Lan, had died long ago.

Yi Xiu desired the position of Empress Dowager, longing for power and fame. However, she only obtained the position of “Empress” that was valid only while she was alive and a cold palace on the side. After her death, her existence would be completely erased from history, and she would not receive any posthumous title or recognition.

Hua Fei yearned to give birth to a prince, to possess the Emperor’s love, and to maintain the glory of her family. In the end, she did not bear any children, and she discovered that the Emperor himself was the reason for her infertility. She witnessed the collapse of her family’s prosperity.

An Ling Rong aspired to rise through the palace and help her father’s career so that her mother would have a better life. She also desired respect from others once she became successful in the palace and no longer be looked down upon. As a result, her father made a major mistake and was executed, she lost in the palace struggle, and her mother’s situation can be imagined. In the end, she had nothing and never gained anyone’s respect.

Qi Fei wished for her son to succeed and become the heir, to live a comfortable life with her. However, her son was taken away, she was forced to death, and her son, who held all her hopes, was ultimately stripped of his title as the crown prince and died shortly after.

Ye Lan Yi yearned to always be by the side of Prince Guo Jun’s smile. Even if she couldn’t marry Prince Guo, she was willing to be unmarried for life to protect him. But she was forced to marry an old man, while Prince Guo died young. She gained many things that others yearned for, such as the Emperor’s favor. In the end, she survived the palace struggles and could peacefully retire as a high-ranked consort. However, these were not what she wanted, so after doing everything she could to protect Prince Guo Jun’s child, she chose death.

Shen Mei Zhuang longed for a mutual and appreciative love and marriage. However, Fourth Master let down her heartfelt feelings. She gained the coveted position of a concubine and the favor of the Empress Dowager, but they were not what she desired. Although she received a response from Wen Shi Chu at the end, she passed away after giving birth and could not accompany her child.

And there are others:

Huan Bi went from being a palace maid to becoming the side consort of Prince Wangye, a remarkable leap in social status. But she did not get what she wanted - the prince’s love. She did not even have a chance to have his body and bear his child like Meng Jingxian did. And the prince died after only a few years.

Cao Gui Ren never climbed to the high position she dreamed of and was not able to see her daughter marry a good husband. Her daughter was given away to someone else.

Chun Gui Ren only wanted to enjoy delicious food every day and have fun with her sisters. However, she was mysteriously implicated in a dark deal and silenced. Despite her disinterest in power struggles, she lost her life due to others' machinations.

The Empress Dowager was the most esteemed woman in the world. She achieved the position that everyone aspired to, but she was deceived by her beloved man and forced to marry someone she did not love. She watched her sons fight each other and was forced to kill her lover with her own hands. In the end, she was humiliated by her son before her death.

Qi Gui Ren and her family aspired to revitalize their family together with the previous

The Tragedy and Modern Elements in “Empresses in the Palace”

To be honest, I equally despise all non-tragic palace dramas.

Of course, “Empresses in the Palace” is not tragic enough, as it is limited by its theme. It has to be competitive and commercial.

If there is no competition, as in “A Chronicle of the Empress Dowager Niuhuru,” a record of the life of a noblewoman in the imperial court, it should be more repressed.

So where does the tragedy of “Empresses in the Palace” lie?

Firstly, it introduces modern perspectives. As an ancient woman, Zhen Huan’s view of love is quite modern. This defeats at least 70% of other palace drama works. Most ancient female protagonists admire not love but the master-slave relationship, the monarch-subject relationship, the daily routine, and the guide to surviving in a large family courtyard.

Therefore, we can see that if you are a person with a rich spiritual world, you cannot find love in the palace. Even if you are given three different outstanding ancient men, it cannot lead to a fulfilling relationship.

Secondly, it does not completely adhere to the (plagiarized) original logic. Although it is unable to perfectly explain aspects such as the entry of men into the palace or the talents of the concubines, it tries to use the rough historical framework of ancient times to suppress the wild imagination of the modern author. It turns a mythological battle of the gods into a folk story full of human touch. Especially in the portrayal of the emperor’s role, it innovatively transforms the typical emotionless pretty boy in palace dramas into a kind-hearted and tormented old man. It changes the reasons for the failure of love between the male and female leads in palace dramas from simple cases of the empress falling out of favor and the emperor being heartless or petty quarrels between young couples, to an insurmountable gap in power and spirituality between a proud young girl and a middle-aged mature man.

Therefore, we can see that the imperial harem is extremely dangerous. This danger has nothing to do with personal abilities. Men engaging in political struggles are heroic, while women indulging in palace conflicts are doomed to failure in life. The game can restart at any time, and the pain is not something they want to experience again.

Lastly, it tries to respect the humanity of ancient people and does not view palace conflicts as a rigid spectacle that modern people appreciate for entertainment. Zhen Huan, the emperor, and all the characters in the drama are all true products of their historical and cultural context. Zhen Huan, as a noble lady, has her emotional attachment to her family, her emotions towards her maid Ruoxi, and her underlying sense of identification with the emperor’s power struggle. The struggles among the women in the drama mostly differ from the modern workplace. In the harem, the women serve one master, and the complex relationships involved do not align well with the terms “colleague,” “sister,” or “wife.”

Thus, we see that Zhen Huan is constantly harmed, while others also harm each other unconsciously or deliberately, causing pain that cannot be avoided.

However, speaking of which, “Empresses in the Palace” succeeds commercially mainly because of the satisfying parts. In my opinion, the decisive factors are:

  • Zhen Huan’s beautiful and stable mental state
  • Zhen Huan’s “golden finger” (special abilities)
  • Zhen Huan’s abundant material wealth
  • Zhen Huan’s feeling of satisfaction after enduring all her enemies on the path to becoming the Empress Dowager
  • Zhen Huan’s resilience and good health

It is these parts that were not deleted from the original work.

Tragic Consequences of Feudal Society

The lyrics have been said, but it is against one’s will.

This kind of tragedy is Western-style, even if one becomes divine, there are regrets and flaws. But the Chinese-style tragedy is more recognized by people for its deep pain, having nothing, and being trapped in a quagmire unable to free oneself. For example, Cao Guiying and Ma Youtie in the movie “Hidden in the Dust”. After all, for us ordinary people, you have already become the queen with luxuries and nobility. Among women, you are the greatest. What more can satisfy you?! You are the winner in life. We don’t pay much attention to a person’s spiritual aspirations.

Zhen Huan’s pursuit was to have the person she loved and never be apart in her whole life. But in the end, she became a substitute and suffered greatly, and then was killed by the emperor because of her love for Guo Zilin. Her lifelong pursuit became a joke.

Others are the same, splendid on the surface, but in reality, they are full of flaws. Not to mention the failures, even the winners like Jing Fei and Duan Fei, who love children so much, never had any of their own, and spent the rest of their lives flatteringly waiting to die with the empress dowager, who is also suffering from illness.

This is the result of the cannibalistic system of feudal society, which is not only a personal tragedy. In this system, women in the palace have to be either crazy, dead, or ruthless. And you, don’t even have the right to refuse entering the palace.

Life After the Palace: Memories and Loss

Entered the palace and was hurt, left the palace and returned again. Going around in circles, full of twists and turns, these days are really exhausting.

After Da Pangju’s death, Zhen Huan spent the rest of her life reminiscing about the various pasts with Guo Junwang and Mei Jiejie. Beloved Guo Junwang is no longer here, the sister she grew up with, Mei Jiejie, is no longer here, cute little food lover Chun’er is no longer here, Liu Zhu is no longer here, Huan Bi is no longer here, even the arch-enemy Empress Hua Fei is no longer here, Second Consort Qi Yelan is also no longer here, they have all left, lonely and boring.

What’s the use of all this excessive wealth? Eating, drinking, and sleeping enough? Can’t even have a mobile phone…

Being Pretentious about Losing

Thank you for inviting me.

Because vile people are pretentious.

Winning is winning, losing is losing.

So what? Not every round is a loss if you don’t calculate the lost money from each hand.

Victims of feudal society, including the protagonist, should fight against feudalism.

If this is an ordinary story, then the protagonist group only needs to kill the bad guys. Zhen Huan slaying the dragon is just the warrior defeating the big boss.

But the problem is that “Empresses in the Palace” directly hits on the essence of feudal society—Huifei is bad enough, Anlingrong is bad enough, the Empress is bad enough, the Emperor is bad enough.

But aren’t they also victims? Aren’t they also poor villagers tormented by the evil dragon?

By defeating them, what else can be achieved?

The reason why feudal society is so evil is because even emperors and empresses, such nobles, are deeply tormented, let alone ordinary people. Therefore, not only the oppressed lower class, even beneficiaries like Zhen Huan, a feudal landlady, should also oppose feudalism.

Tragedy of Imperial Struggles

Thank you for the invitation.

To understand the outcome, one only needs to look at those seemingly victorious individuals.

In the previous royal fight, the champion concubine De Fei eventually became the Empress Dowager. In order to secure the throne for her son, she had to take the risk of getting involved with multiple men, even at the cost of her own life. And in the end? Despite killing off those who posed a threat to her son’s position, she was still humiliated by her own son. He didn’t even come to see her when she fell ill, and he rejected her request to see her beloved Fourteenth Prince. Despite scheming to secure the future for her son Yixiu, she still felt the need to write a will because Yixiu was losing favor and his position was shaky. She couldn’t even die in peace.

And then there’s the Emperor, the one who obtained the throne. He hardly experienced the love of his father or mother throughout his life. While his father favored Shu Fei the most and doted on Seventeenth Prince, he never once praised or taught the Emperor. His mother favored Fourteenth Prince, and at a young age, the Emperor had to live with the Empress, always cautious and deprived of a sense of security. That’s why he became suspicious, devoid of love, and cold-hearted. Even after sitting on the dragon throne, there was not a single day when people around him weren’t plotting against him, from the previous dynasty to the harem. His beloved Empress Yixiu caused almost every pregnant consort to miscarry, thereby cutting off his bloodline. Yixiu even caused the death of the person he loved the most. Other consorts harbored ulterior motives, calculating only things that benefited themselves, including Zhen Huan. Many consorts risked their lives to have secret affairs with the imperial physicians, their own brothers, and palace guards. His whole life was filled with betrayal.

As for the current royal fight champion, Zhen Huan, since entering the palace, she has been a substitute. Although the Emperor eventually developed feelings for her, as an emperor, his ability to provide for her was limited. She had to kneel before the Emperor while pregnant and beg for mercy for her father. Her dearest maid, Liu Zhu, was killed trying to save her. In the end, her entire family was banished to Ninggu Pagoda, and she herself was sent to Ganlu Temple, suffering humiliation from the Empress and An Lingrong. She fell in love with Prince Guo, but in order to protect her entire family, she ended up poisoning him with her own hands. She supported her fourth brother, Hongli, to become emperor, but he only pretended to be filial and his true thoughts revolved around maintaining his power. He subtly tested Zhen Huan’s loyalty.

The above examples are considered relatively good outcomes. Those who failed either committed suicide or were killed, and some even had their entire families slaughtered. Those who fared slightly better, like Consort Li, were driven mad in the Cold Palace.

If this is not a tragedy, then what is?

The Tragic Reality of “Legend of Zhen Huan”

The Legend of Zhen Huan is actually a complete tragedy.

Emperor: Since childhood, my parents never loved me, and I have never experienced the nourishment of kinship. Before the Empress Dowager passed away, she said the song that mothers sing to children, “Have you ever sung it to me? Can you sing it for me now?” I truly feel that even a generation of emperors has a tender side that longs for familial love. Most of the children and concubines have been victimized by the Empress, seemingly the least tragic of all, but she was also killed by Zhen Huan, the one she loved.

Empress: Originally a concubine of the Wang Clan, she was supposed to become an official wife after giving birth to a son, but unfortunately she was intercepted by Chun Yuan, her own older sister. As a lowly born woman, Ying Xiu may have felt inferior and helpless, and harbored resentment. That’s why she later killed Chun Yuan. And the Emperor also went madly after Ying Xiu, making her take care of Chun Yuan right after she lost her own son. It’s impossible for anyone not to hate it. Including the later poisoning of the Prince, there should also be reasons related to this.

Zhen Huan: Although she eventually became the Empress Dowager, she lost the Prince Guang, whom she loved. Her parents also suffered a lot, and she lost many others, such as Huan Bi, Liu Zhu, and Mei.

It goes without saying for the other people, but when I think of one thing the Emperor said, “The feng shui of the Forbidden City nourishes people, and it will never let you fade away,” it is truly ironic.

01. Lost Friendship

  1. Lost Love
  2. Lost Family+ To seek and not obtain is a tragedy.

Although Zhen Huan eventually rose to power and no one could control her life anymore, the wheels of fate had already been set in motion, and what was lost could never be regained.

01. The loss of friendship.

Among her friends were Liu Zhu, who had been with her since childhood, Shen Meizhuang, and An Lingrong.

Liu Zhu and Meizhuang were separated by death, causing an insurmountable rift in their friendship. As for An Lingrong, differences in values, misunderstandings, and external interference turned them into enemies, fighting each other until death.

If given the choice, would Zhen Huan trade these people for her own wealth and glory?

02. The loss of love.

This love wasn’t limited to Guo Qingwang. Of course, Yun Li’s death left her heart utterly cold.

If Yun Li hadn’t died, would Zhen Huan, who possessed great power, follow in the footsteps of Xiaozhuang and Dorgon?

She also lost her beautiful first love during her budding adolescence, which was with Da Pangju.

There was a mismatch in their thoughts between Zhen Huan and the Emperor. While Da Pangju saw her as his favored concubine, Zhen Huan hoped to become a different kind of moonlight in the Emperor’s heart. This expectation diverged, leaving her disheartened, and it was from this that her devotion to Lunyue emerged.

Later on, Qingliang Terrace and Yun Li’s secret communication were nothing more than a persistent hope for love, and also the most vulnerable manifestation amidst adversity.

Eventually, Guo Qingwang was poisoned, Zhen Huan and the Emperor fell out, and their love disappeared completely.

03. The loss of family affection.

Zhen Huan was cold at the top.

The deep affection between her and her parents and sisters was now bound by the strict rules of the royal family.

Then, Huanbi committed suicide. The only person by her side was Cui Jinxixi, an old palace maid.

How boring.

And the paternal love and filial piety that Zhen Huan had longed for, the desire to “gain one person’s heart,” was something she never had a chance to obtain.

No wonder that in the end, in Emperor Qianlong’s harem, she couldn’t help but cause trouble. It was all because she wanted to add some ripples to her dull life and make it more interesting.