What is it about period television soaps that enthrals and fascinates viewers? The latest hit series, Story of Yanxi Palace , has become the most watched Chinese-language drama of the year, clocking a whopping 530 million views in China on a single day. A fictionalised account of the lives of palace women during the reign of the Qing dynasty’s Emperor Qianlong (1735-1796), the show scores with its superior production values, in particular its painstakingly detailed sets and wardrobe, which have been meticulously researched for historical veracity.
The story follows the familiar palace-intrigue trope, presenting a bevy of jealous women with too much time on their hands, although Story of Yanxi Palace comes with an additional murder mystery plot twist.
One of the most popular characters is Empress Fucha (1712-48), Emperor Qianlong’s wife for the first 13 years of his reign until her death. In both historical records and the series, she is depicted as a gentle soul who preferred a life of simplicity despite her exalted status. As a denizen of an emperor’s inner palace – where back-stabbing schemes were dime a dozen – this made her a rare breed.
Empress Qincheng (1052-1102), the birth mother of Emperor Zhezong of the Northern Song dynasty, was another kindly soul. Despite being born a commoner and having had three fathers (her biological father, stepfather and foster father), she was chosen as a consort of Emperor Shenzong in 1068, and gave him two sons and a daughter.
Even though she was the birth mother of Zhezong (who, upon his father’s death in 1068, ascended the throne at the age of eight), she was not made empress dowager because she had been a concubine of the late emperor – that title went to the recently widowed empress. Instead, she was given the lower rank of imperial mother. Even more senior in rank than the empress dowager and imperial mother was the formidable Grand Empress Dowager Gao, the regent who ruled on behalf of her grandson, Zhezong.
Perhaps it was due to the imperial mother’s lowly birth that the high-born grand empress dowager never liked her, often reprimanding her for minor infractions. Despite being subjected to harsh words and treatment by Gao, Qincheng dutifully attended to her mother-in-law.
When Gao died in 1093, Zhezong took over the reins of government. Having heard rumours that his grandmother had opposed his ascension to the throne and had wanted to install her other son as emperor, Zhezong decided to strip his late grandmother of her titles and punish the Gao family.
One could be forgiven for thinking that the imperial mother, long the object of Gao’s rancour, would rub her hands in glee and, if not actively urge her son to pursue this course of action, then would at least sit back and enjoy the downfall of her mother-in-law and her clan. But she did no such thing. In fact, she defended Gao and persuaded her son not to dishonour his grandmother.
The imperial mother outlived her son, who died in 1100. When she died two years later, the reigning emperor (her stepson, Emperor Huizong) conferred upon her the posthumous title of Empress Qincheng. And while she may not have attained the highest honours in her lifetime, history will always remember her for having been kind to her enemy.