Asian historical dramas are replete with queens, empresses and court ladies duking it out behind the scenes while kings rule the country. Some might think they are something akin to Disney princesses with no agency and little power, but the Korean drama Empress Ki and the Chinese drama Virtuous Queen of Han both show that women are running things.
Men may run the country, but the inner court belongs to the ladies. Like their male counterparts, women in the palace are dealing with problems of their own. Often, the royal rules make it so that the king can’t interfere in certain matters that fall under the inner court. At the same time, there are rules that these women leaders are supposed to follow. But it wouldn’t be an Asian drama if they followed the rules! Political ambition reaches even into the inner court.
Both Empress Ki and Virtuous Queen of Han show that sometimes, the Man is a woman. Before we get to really know our heroines Nyang (Ha Ji Won),the later Empress Ki, and Zi Fu (Wang Lou Dan), the later Queen of Han, we encounter their nemeses. Some are older women who wield even more power and are evil.They all have sway over the Emperors, which doubles their power. In Virtuous Queen of Han, it’s Grand Empress Dowager Dou (Chen Sha Li). It doesn’t matter that she’s blind. It doesn’t matter that she’s so old that she’s literally the last royal from her generation standing. It doesn’t matter that she walks with a stick. EVERYONE is scared of her (even me, a little), even though nobody elected her to any position. She even makes the Emperor cower; he is not trying to cross her. He literally has to wait until she dies to do what he wants. Nobody crosses her. She’s not the only one. When she does pass away, she’s replaced by Empress Dowager Wang (Grace Yu), the Emperor’s mother, who seems nicer, but has her own bad side. In Empress Ki, the head lady is the Empress Dowager (Kim Seo-hyung), mother to that twit Emperor Ta Hwan (Ji Chang-wook). Similarly, Ta Hwan’s mother has a particular kind of sway over what happens in the inner court as the mother of the Emperor.
You would think this would result in a harmonious harem, but no. Long before our heroines show up, these women have been running the harem in ways that allow the wenchy empresses to run roughshod over the concubines. As powerful as she is, Grand Empress Dowager Dou is responsible for the cattiness of the harem. She knows that the Empress, Chen Jiao (Zheng Miao Zhi), is not right and is always causing trouble. As a result of her jealousy, she terrorizes the concubines and governs the harem based on her own whims rather than what is best for all. When Zi Fu first comes to the palace, she is literally greeted by a slap from Chen Jiao. Grand Empress Dowager Dou often lets such behavior slide because she’s her favorite granddaughter. You would think things would get better with Empress Dowager Wang. Before, she was just another victim of Grand Empress Dowager Dou’s tyranny, but it’s not long after her death that she goes power crazy also. The next thing you know, she’s threatening to kill Zi Fu (who by now must be tired of these threats against her life).
Things are not much better over at Empress Ki. The Empress Dowager is constantly battling against the Empress. When Nyang joins forces with the Emperor and Empress Dowager to get rid of the baddies, everything seems cool, that is, until the Empress Dowager decides that Nyang can’t be trusted because she’s from Goryeo and not “one of us.” Let the conspiracy begin!
In addition, the major schemers in both dramas are younger women who have more power than they know what to do with. In both dramas, the empresses become empress out of necessity, not because they are favorite of the emperor. In Empress Ki, the punky Emperor, Ta Hwan, is too scared of El Temur (Jeon Gook-hwan), the scary father of the Empress Tanashiri (Baek Jin-hee), to oppose her becoming empress. In Virtuous Queen of Han, the emperor, Liu Che (Raymond Lam), made a childhood promise to Chen Jiao to marry her and make her empress, and she made him keep it! Both Tanashiri and Chen Jiao make it plain that others will have to pry the Empress position from their cold, dead hands. They aren’t great leaders of the concubines. They let petty jealousy get in the way, even when it threatens the country. True, the nation has set up this harem battle royale that doesn’t exactly promote sisterhood, but that’s the way it was, so let’s go with it!
While these women use power to oppress and suppress, our heroines use it to help people (mostly). At first glance, it may seem that Nyang from Empress Ki has more agency while Zi Fu from Virtuous Queen of Han is more passive; they come off as polar opposites. Before entering the palace, Nyang, disguised as a man, rolls with her own posse, and is unbeatable with her secret bow technique. Even after she enters the palace, she will break out that bow and arrow if she needs to. She is an integral part of the plan to take out chief baddie, El Temur. However, Zi Fu is a musician who gets into the palace because Liu Che thinks she’s cute. She’s protected by her brother, and later, by the Emperor. Nyang will beat you up, while Zi Fu would give you a band-aid. Some people would read Nyang as having more agency because Zi Fu spends all of this drama being “virtuous:” not taking revenge, not taking the lead, not beating people down. No matter the situation, she is relentlessly optimistic, treating her enemies with kindness and letting things go. I think she only slaps someone once out of anger in the whole drama. As a result, some might see her as weak, and Nyang as strong.
However, they are more similar than we may realize. Both are victims of horrible circumstances due to their low social position. Nyang narrowly escapes being sold as a concubine as a child, while Zi Fu endures crushing poverty and famine with her family. As a result, both are outsiders who arrive at the inner court to face women who have spent their lives clawing their way to the top and feel entitled to power and privilege. Nyang has to get past two evil empresses on her way to the top as well as the mother of the Emperor who changes her allegiances based on how good it looks for her flunky son. People become increasingly suspicious of Nyang because she is from Goryeo; they think she is just waiting to sell out the Mogols. Similarly, Zi Fu’s low-born status does not serve her well. Basically, everybody treats her like she’s just a girl Liu Che brought home from the club.
Both Nyang and Zi Fu overcome their obstacles by using their brains. Nyang overcomes nearly every plot put in her way by Tanashiri. Tanashiri can concoct all kinds of plots to get Nyang killed or kicked out of the palace because she is the Empress. She runs the inner court. As long as she doesn’t get caught trying to off Nyang, she gets free reign to do whatever she wants. However, Nyang uses those very inner court rules, along with help from her fellow concubines, to best Tanashiri every time. Despite wanting to interfere on behalf of his bae, Ta Hwan often just has to go along with the program. There’s a certain deliciousness when Nyang orchestrates Tanashiri’s “exit” from the palace using the very rules of the inner court. (Not telling how, watch the K-drama!)
Like Nyang, Zi Fu uses the rules of the court to beat her nemesis, Chen Jiao. It’s her ability to stay calm that helps her to be victorious when Chen Jiao is running amok. While she starts out fairly naive, she eventually learn how to figure out how backstabby the inner court can be. It’s her kindness that actually prevents her from being a victim of some of the plots against her. Nothing shows the difference in Zi Fu and Chen Jiao more than Chen Jiao’s last plot. Not only does she set Zi Fu up, she messes with the Liu Che, and he is not about to let that go. It’s only through the intervention of Zi Fu that Chen Jiao’s head does not end up on a pole outside the city.
Not only do Zi Fu and Nyang just want the empresses to stop messing with them, but they also have concern for the country over their own feelings. Nyang makes the ultimate sacrifice to hang out with the Mongol gang, giving up her relationship with Wang Yoo (Joo Jin Mo), because she believes she can save his life and kingship as well as help her people from the inside. While the drama makes a big deal of the relationship between Zi Fu and Liu Che, it also constructs Zi Fu as “the mother of the nation.” For good or ill, the people look to her, and respond well if they thing she is looking out for them. She is also motivated by national concerns when dealing with the plots within palace as well.She constantly tells Liu Che that she is there to help him, that if she keeps the harem politics under control, he can concentrate on ruling the nation. In the end, he needs her, because the plots not only affect her, but they also affect him as the ruler.
These women may be behind the scenes, but they are in many ways, as the title song for Virtuous Queen of Han suggests, the power “behind the glory.”
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I Run This: Women and The Inner Court in Empress Ki and Virtuous Queen of Han by CeeFu is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.