Story of Yanxi Palace – 延禧攻略 – Actual Stories of Qianlong’s ‘Wives’

Hi, this is D! I’m back again. This time, I’m going to talk about something… interesting! As the title suggests, though I’m away in Japan, I’ve caught up with the recent fad in Singapore, which is this famous drama that has caught Singapore by storm. Everyone is sharing so many related memes on this drama that often says ‘Warning! Don’t watch even one episode. Because you’ll be poisoned.’ I began watching it only because my sister and mum from Singapore said I should watch it and well, let’s just say, I want to stay connected.

Honestly, I am not super hooked on the show, though I admit when there’s complications in the drama, I do want to find out how the protagonist squirm her way out of the troubles. I wouldn’t say this show is super well written because some parts are just ridiculous (like how she can almost control lightning wth). What got me really interested, though, is the actual real life history of the characters in the drama. I’ve always loved history and wikipedia — I’m the kind who’s always digging information after watching movie or shows that’s based on true story. So in case you are interested like I am, TADAH! Read on. I’ve done a bit of investigation and I’m gonna tell you about the three main empresses of Emperor Qianlong, un-drama-ed version.

Empress No. 1: Empress Xiao Xian (Fu Ca Clan)
In the drama, she’s such an amazing empress. In real life, she’s not too far off either! She married the emperor when she’s 16 (Emperor was 17). She’s known as a very hardworking person and the emperor really respected her for 3 main reasons:

  • She comes from a very prestigious background. All her family members are super high ranking officials who contributed a lot to the empire.
  • She’s super thrifty and does not indulge in luxuries. She’s known to wear natural flowers as accessories and she was never seen with jade or jewels.
  • She’s super hardworking. She treats the empress dowager very well and she actually truly moved to stay near the emperor to personally take care of the emperor when he was down with some poisonous sores (I think it’s chickenpox or some sort)

Because of the above, the emperor made the decision to make her son (when she bears one) his successor to take over him. However, their son, when she eventually did bear him one, passed away when he was just 9 years old. Subsequently, they had another son but fate has it, the 2nd son passed away when he was merely 2 years old. For both of their unfortunate deaths (both from illness), Emperor Qianlong gave them very elaborated funeral and special burial ground, partially to ease the pain of the queen.

The pain of losing her sons took a toll on the empress. Emperor Qianlong then decided to organise a ‘spring break’ trip to Shandong to cheer the empress up 2 months after the death of their second son. Unfortunately, the empress fell really ill on the way back to the palace after a month long travel and she passed away on the ship back at the age of 36. Emperor Qianlong had specially planned for them to travel back by a water route to surprise her and please her but it ended up in her death.

Emperor Qianlong was truly crushed and he did many things after her death for her.

Firstly, he gave her a name/title that she has always wanted when she was alive, which was to be called 孝贤 (xiao xian). Secondly, to whoever who disrespected the Empress in any way, he did not hesitate to deal with them harshly. In those days, during the first 100 days of the empress’ death, no one was allowed to shave their head. So when some high ranking officials disregarded the tradition and shaved their head, Emperor Qianlong picked one of the highest ranking official and ordered him to take his own life as a show to the others. Thirdly, being a very talented poet who has left behind more than 400,000 poems, Emperor Qianlong wrote countless poems to indicate his pain of losing his empress. He also gave the order to make the residence of Empress Xiao Xian a permanent memorial site for all her belongings and decorations to be maintained as it was when the empress was alive. He would go back to her residence often to reminiscence their time together. Last but not least, he took great care of the empress’ family and went on to promote up to 14 family members from the Fu Ca clan to become mega high ranking officials in his court, including having one of his prince marry the niece of the empress such that they became a royal family.

And this is the story of our super kind and loving Empress Xiao Xian. Such a nice love story, don’t you think?

Now, let’s look at the 2nd empress.

Empress No. 2: Empress Ulanara

The story of Ulanara empress is interesting because no one truly know what happened to cause her to be so hated by the emperor, that she was not even allowed to be buried in the royal tomb when she died. She was born in 1718 and she died in 1766 at the age of 48. She did not ‘marry’ Qianlong because technically, she’s just a consort, and we only know that she ‘got together’ with Qianlong between 1722-1735 during Yongzheng’s reign, when Qianlong was only a prince and not an emperor yet. It probably happened when she was still in her teens. Upon Qianlong’s official coronation in 1735, she was given the title Consort Xian and in 1745, she was promoted to Noble Consort Xian.

All sounds good so far, right? I mean, he promoted her after all.

So when Empress Xiao Xian (or Lady Fu Ca) died in 1748, just like in the drama, Qianlong’s mum nominated Ulanara to take over as the empress. Because Qianlong is so in love with Lady Fu Ca, he actually did not really have much thoughts as to who should become the new empress, and so he promptly agreed to it but set for it to happen only after the whole mourning period for Lady Fu Ca is officially over. And so, Ulanara became the new empress in 1750. She was also known to have accompanied Qianlong on several trips out of the palace and she also gave birth to a few children. She had glory.

So on the 4th trip to south china in 1765, shit happened. According to archived records by historians, the empress acted out on the trip and was unable to behave appropriately and be filial to the dowager (Qianlong’s mum). They actually described her as ‘crazy’ and abnormal. So how can a normal person turn crazy? There was no explanation for this at all, until 13 years later, the emperor revealed in writing that it was because Ulanara actually cut her own hair, which was a huge taboo back then. Consorts in the palace were only allowed to cut their hair when the emperor or dowager had died, as a symbol of accompanying them to death using their hair instead of their ‘head’ i.e. themselves. So what Ulanara did was essentially cursing the dowager and the emperor to die earlier.

So why did the empress do that despite knowing that it is such a huge taboo? There must be a reason. Upon investigation, historians found out the possible reason through a proposal that was submitted by a subject in 1761. In the proposal, it was mentioned that Qianlong wanted to grant a lady the title of a consort on his trip to south china in 1765 but Ulanara was not happy about it and had thus cut her own hair in defiance.

Crazy woman? Too bad she fell in love with such a dude. I mean, what do you expect? He’s the emperor yo.

When Qianlong got back to the palace (he had sent Ulanara back earlier via another boat), he promptly made arrangements to strip Ulanara of ALL titles. Some royal subjects came up to him to oppose the idea but they were all punished in return and exiled to become officials in faraway lands (he must be real pissed wth). So just like that, Ulanara was thrown into the ‘cold palace’ and reduced to only 2 maids. She passed away a year later.

It’s baffling why the emperor hated her so much. She had a very sub-standard funeral as well, on top of not being buried in the royal tomb. She did not even have her own mausoleum and was buried in someone else’s. She was also not granted a ‘tablet’ for people to ‘pray’ to, which is a HUGE thing back then. Even her coffin? It was made with the worst grade of wood. When Lady Fu Ca passed away, there was 7,920 people who took turns to carry the coffin but for Ulanara, there was a mere 64. Even her son Prince Yongji, he never had any title to his name and died at a mere 25 years old, buried in another small tomb. Years later, historians and scholars who appealed to the emperor to reconsider giving Ulanara a proper funeral/burial were either exiled or executed.

Hell hath no fury like a woman an emperor scorned, lol.

Now, the 3rd empress.

Empress No. 3: Empress Xiao Yi (Lady Wei)

In the show, all of us has the impression that Lady Wei is very loved by Qianlong and that she is of a much younger age compared to Qianlong and Empress Fu Ca. We are not wrong in that sense. Lady Wei was born in 1727 (Empress Fu Ca was born in 1712) and so she’s indeed much younger than Qianlong by 16 years. Whether she is as shrewd as the way she was portrayed in the drama? That, we don’t know. But I’d think it should not be too far off because after all, she was so ‘successful’. Now, what do I mean?

Well, Lady Wei was legendary because she indeed (as shown in the drama) made Qianlong ignore the long standing tradition of having not promoting any consort to Imperial Noble Consort (huang gui fei) when an empress was still around. This, again, as portrayed in the drama, is believed by historians to be one of the reason why Ulanara went berserk and cut her own hair. Her ultimate success is that though she was never crowned an Empress while she was alive, she was ‘promoted’ to be an empress after her death. Now, tell me, if this isn’t successful, I don’t know what this is, lol.

Lady Wei joined the emperor’s imperial harem in 1745 as the emperor’s lowest ranking consort. In case you are curious, Empress Fu Ca passed away in 1748, so, for this part, the drama wasn’t that accurate. In addition, Lady Wei was indeed a lady-in-waiting but she was serving the emperor and not the empress like in the drama. According to historians, the emperor found Lady Wei’s behaviour very meticulous and careful, and he fancied her for being really gentle and young (super far from the drama, lol).

She progressed really fast after she became a noble lady. She started as a Noble Lady in 1745. Next, within the same year, she was promoted to Imperial Concubine. In 1749 (4 years time) she became a Consort and 11 years later in 1760, she became Noble Consort. It took her a mere 5 years more to become Imperial Noble Consort, which is a position that was only 2nd to the Empress. Now, this can almost be called ‘scholar’ track in Singapore, lol. In case you missed the year, Ulanara was ‘banished’ in 1765 (and died in 1766), the same year Lady Wei became Imperial Noble Consort. According to historians, Lady Wei’s progress in the harm is considered legendary.

Qianlong especially doted on Lady Wei. She was known to be the emperor’s favourite for a long time and she gave birth to 6 children in 10 years; 4 princes and 2 princesses. She apparently had a lot of fervour and was noted as someone who was ambitious. She was fighting to be an Imperial Noble Consort. So on the emperor’s 4th trip to southern china, she openly raised up the topic for discussion, voicing her desire to be an Imperial Noble Consort, putting up a request for the emperor to officially respond. Empress Ulanara, of course, objected directly but unfortunately, Qianlong and the dowager both agreed. So Lady Wei 1, Ulanara 0. And there goes Ulanara’s hair, lol.

Lady Wei’s success did not end there. She also pushed for at least one of her son to become the crown prince, which indeed happened to her son Yong Yan, who eventually went on to take over the throne, though she didn’t live to see that happen. She passed away in 1775 at the age of 49 (or 47, depending on English or Chinese calendar I think, sources contradict so far). After her death, she was crowned the Empress and she was buried in the emperor’s royal tomb, which was considered the highest honour, as she would then get to accompany the emperor forever and ever.

So, in conclusion, historians believe that this Lady Wei is not a simple person because of her crazy success and she knew how to wittingly handle the emperor and gain his favour.. Empress Fu Ca was highly respected by the emperor because of her background and beliefs. Empress Ulanara, unfortunately, wasted her position as an empress and upset the emperor with her lack of control, becoming the woman Qianlong hated till the end.

And this, concludes my little post-drama-research. In my opinion, Lady Wei is probably no where near kind and unambitious. It is scary to think that perhaps she was the evil bitch in the palace who bullied and sabotaged others her whole life but never got any bad karma from it and instead, enjoyed the ‘fruits’ of her effort all the way even after her death. But who knows, maybe life indeed is this cruel?

Hope this was interesting to you who watched YXGL!

Till the next time~



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