It seems China’s imperial palace is never short of back-stabbers, murders and dirty tricks.
This summer it has been the setting of two Chinese historical television dramas that have been captivating audiences around the globe – Story of Yanxi Palace and Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace.
Social media has been abuzz with debate among viewers about which of the many ruthless characters in the dramas is the most evil.
Here we take a look at four manipulative royal villainesses from four Chinese historical palace dramas.
Niuhulu Yu-yuet (Consort Yu) – ‘ War and Beauty’ (2004)
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War and Beauty is, without doubt, one of the most beloved classic Chinese imperial palace historical dramas produced by TVB Hong Kong.
The series won almost all the major TVB awards when it premiered in 2004.
It has been suggested that the programme started the trend for dramas set in the Chinese palace that featured ruthless, scheming characters and inspired many of the shows that came afterwards.
Consort Yu, played by Sheren Tang, is one of the core characters of the 30-part series.
As one of the emperor’s favourite imperial consorts, Yu is widely regarded as a sensible and wise wife, but in reality she is cruel and ruthless to anyone who threatens her position in the palace.
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In the first episode the pregnant Yu plots the murder of Consort Chan when she feels threatened after the concubine catches the eye of the emperor while she is indisposed.
Yu ignores gossip swirling around the palace, suggesting that Chan’s ghost will seek revenge – by fearlessly entering Chan’s bedroom after she has died.
This opening made a deep impression on viewers and perfectly illustrated the ruthlessness of Yu’s character. (Spoiler: there are touching turning points in later episodes).
Yu aim is always to put herself first and protect her position, but she also has hopes and dreams secreted away inside her heart that will help to melt viewers’ hearts.
Empress Ulanara Yixiu – ‘Empress in the Palace: The Legend of Zhen Huan’ (2011)
Empress in the Palace, produced by Zheng Xiaolong in 2011, is based on Liu Lianzi’s internet novel of the same name.
The show was a major success and has remained one of the most popular television dramas that are streamed online today.
Among the programme’s many characters, Empress Ulanara Yixiu, played by the Hong Kong actress Ada Choi, is definitely one of the most memorable.
She initially comes across as a kind and patient motherly character, who finds her position in the palace threatened when Consort Hua grows increasingly popular with the emperor.
The empress gradually reveals her true, darker, more menacing side in later episodes.
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To protect her position the empress plots the murder of several concubines and their children – and even the death of her own sister, Empress Chun Yuan, to become empress.
However, her scheming murderous ways are eventually revealed and she finds herself imprisoned by the emperor for the rest of her life.
Hoifa-Nara Shushen (Consort Xian) – ‘Story of Yanxi Palace’ (2018)
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This new series, produced by Yu Zheng, which started to be broadcast on the online video platform, iQiyi, in July, has become this summer’s veritable hit.
The drama follows the story of Wei Yingluo, a smart and witty maid who enters the palace to uncover the cause of her sister’s death.
In the end she becomes Consort Ling and continued to be the Emperor’s favourite consort.
Yet the rise of Wei is far from easy; Consort Xian, Hoifa-Nara Shushen, who becomes the new empress after the death of Empress Fucha, is her biggest enemy in the series.
Xian, played by Hong Kong actress Charmaine Sheh (below) – whose classic Chinese good looks make her perfect for such historical dramas – is a clever, manipulative character who knows how to start a fight between the concubines while staying out of trouble herself.
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Fun fact: Sheh also played a Yi Shun in War and Beauty.
Xian is an honest person at the start of the series, but grows embittered and increasingly evil following the deaths of her mother and brother after they fall victim to unfair treatment and political disputes.
She realises that adopting an honest approach will not help her or her family survive in the palace.
First she plans to poison Consort Gao, then stirs up the emotions of Consort Chun, which leads to the killing of the empress’ second son, which, in turn, leads to the suicide of the empress.
Xian also plots against Wei by revealing the secret of her sister’s death, which causes her to be resented by the emperor.
Jin Yuyan (Consort Jia) – ‘Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace’ (2018)
The highly anticipated series, starring Zhou Xun, Huo Jianhua and other leading Chinese actors and actresses, finally premiered in August after three years of preparation.
Yet it has been regarded as a relative failure compared with the massive success enjoyed by the rival series, Story of Yanxi Palace.
However, over the course of its first 20 episodes, the scheming and manipulative actions of Consort Jia, played by the young Chinese actress Xin Zhilei (below), have definitely been entertaining.
Jia is one of the characters in the palace with hidden levels to her wickedness; she may look innocent on the outside, but don’t be fooled.
She is the mastermind behind many dirty tricks and outlandish plots as she tries to achieve her goals.