War and Beauty: a Primer

It’s not often for me to write about media I love. Partly because when it comes to criticism, it’s just a lot easier to pull apart imperfect things (however beloved) and examine their flaws. Partly because I function primarily through the wonder that is rage-spiration[1], partly because I have a hatewatch habit and partly because I’m just very picky in my tastes, I’m known as someone who talks endlessly about things they loathe.

But today is different.

I wrote briefly about War and Beauty a few days ago and I’ve since had enough people ask me for the link that I’m filled with the desire to share this crazy thing I love. So I decided its worth me writing this guide. And here it is.

What is “War and Beauty”?

It’s a Hong Kong made series about the politics in the forbidden city, among the many wives and concubines of the Emperor in Qing Dynasty China.

It’s Chinese title is 金枝欲孽, which is personally a rather clever pun. The figure of speech “[a tree with] gold branches, jade leaves” refers to aristocratic women, ladies of refinement and peerless beauty. The title of the show replaces “jade leaves” with the homonymns “lust/desires of the flesh” and “sin.”

Why this series about Forbidden City politics?

So, there are an million series about Forbidden City politics. And there are even more if you count the ones made by studios in Mainland China, Taiwan and Korea. Certainly there are ones more recently made and more available[2], so the question becomes why this one?

Firstly, I personally really like it of all the ones I’ve seen. And it was genre-defining in the day. It was not the first palace-intrigue drama, but it was that gripped the imagination of Hong Kong for weeks on end when it first aired[3]. Many subsequent series have tried to recapture its allure to varying degrees of success.

I love it for the depth of its characters and how intricate its scheming becomes. It is not a story of heroes and villains. Each character is written complexity and sympathy as their motives unfold. One of the ongoing motifs is how being inside the red walls of the Forbidden City changes you, makes you a terrible person as if you don’t fight back, you can lose a lot more than your life[4].

Beyond that, its cohesive and beautiful, with portions of it shot on location at the Forbidden City itself. The costumes are sumptuous. Equally each outfit conveys status and each change of clothes denotes not just a desire for the designers to show off but also a change in the circumstances of the characters. The series is transporting in the way it uses the rhymns and rituals of life in the palace, giving the illusion of a glimpse of a different time and place that is at once alien and familiar.

Whilst this is not a trait unique to War and Beauty, it is also a series that focuses on the stories of the women and their point of view. They are not always powerful and they are not always in control, but it is very much their story. And this tells it without turning it into titillation. There is not that orientalist edge of wouldn’t it be nice to be Emperor and be the focus of all that female attention[5].

And despite it all being about sleeping with the Emperor, the actual sleeping with part is completely incidental. The hard part is getting close to him, eliminating your competition and securing your power. It makes you care, dammit, about who is wearing what colour to which imperial banquet. It’s not so much about seduction as much as machination. And that’s so much more compelling to watch, for a start.

Who are all these characters?!

The series starts quite slow and takes almost two and a half episodes to establish all its main characters. It’s not that nothing happens in these episodes, but the convoluted scheming for which the series is known has barely begun and much of the foreshadowing can easily be missed. Given the shortcomings of the translation and the changes in clothing, it can take a little while to get one’s head around the vast cast of characters. So here’s quick rundown of those who matter and what they’re up to in the first three episodes, roughly in order of appearance.

Needless to say, this will contain spoilers, but they are confined to the first three episodes. The characters develop as the story goes, allegiances change, secrets are revealled and loyalties shift, but none of that is below. I describe only their starting positions.

Also don’t read the wikipedia page, it has massive spoilers for the end of the series.

Yue Fei, the quinessential dragon lady

Yue Fei (aka Madam Yue)

The series opens with Yue Fei confronting another concubine (Madam Chen) who is sneaking out of the palace disguised as a eunuch. Citing authority given to her by the Empress, Madam Yue punishes Chen for her attempting ingratiate herself in the Emperor’s good graces whilst Yue is pregnant. Ruthless, possessive and viscous, Yue essentially forces Chen to commit suicide. This scene sets her up as a villain and she is terrifying in it.

Later in the first episode, Yue wakes up plagued by the ghost of Chen and instead of appeasing the restless spirit with burnt offerings and prayers, she goes to where the concubine was killed and makes a big show of defiantly ranting at the dead woman. It is just an amazing scene where Yue turns her fear into anger. After all, if Chen couldn’t defeat Yue in life, what makes her think she could in death?

Though she wields the power of life and death within the Forbidden Palace, she technically the inferior of the Empress. The second episode introduces the complications of Madam Yue’s pregancy (aka “draconic foetus”). Afraid of showing weakness to the Empress, her doctor ends up treating her in secret with moxibustion.

Hong Mou, the only character with combat skills

Hong Mou

After the scene with Madam Yue, it cuts to Hong Mou and Chen Song, who are carting a tribute of mangos to the capital[6]. They encounter a group of young women who are travelling to the capital for the selection[7] and have been waylaid by the Heavenly Justice Cult (rebels against the Qing Dynasty, but here are merely bandits). Hong Mou is hestiant to help them as he worries about the safety of the mangos. The thematic point is obvious as the women compare themselves to the tribute that Hong Mou carries.

Hong Mou is a character pulled in two directions. He is ambitous and proud to a fault. He is restless to prove himself at the capitol and desperate to achieve power and wealth at all cost. At the start of the series he is already cynical, even as his friend (and sidekick), Chen Song reminds him of his past idealism. This happens time and again. When Hong Mou goes back to save Yuk Ying, Chen Song lauds his friend for his heroism and selflessness. Hong Mou then reveals that he only went back because he realised how rich and powerful Yuk Ying’s family was.

His luck goes from bad to worse in the opening episodes as the lost mangos get him into a great deal of trouble. He also loses a series of bets on the dice table. His luck finally turns when the dead soldier’s uniform he is wearing tears to reveal an embroidered handkerchief that had been sewn into the lining. One of things I love about Hong Mou is how much he talks the talk of ruthless ambition, but it is so often tempered by an almost chivalric romanticism within him. Sadly, this is not a world that is at all charitable to the such sentiments.

Yuk Ying & Yee Sun: Best Friends Forever

Among the waylaid women are Yuk Ying (in bright pink and then in pale blue) and Yee Sun (in orange and yellow and then in pale pink). Yuk Ying quickly establishes herself as the most spoilt and the most bratty in a group of already very spoilt noble women. Yee Sun distinguishes herself as the softspoken voice of reason. They quickly become friends and in the first episode, they become sworn sisters and vow to take care of each other should they get selected.

Yuk Ying, the “bratty” one

Yuk Ying

Outspoken, arrogant and animated, Yuk Ying is demanding and seemingly guileless. She is confrontational and simply doesn’t know her place as complains her way through the opening episodes. She comes from a very rich and powerful family, even compared to the other women and she is free with her bribes (in red packets) throughout the palace, buying information and favours.

At the end of the first episode, Yuk Ying stumbles into the allegedly haunted rooms that Madame Yue had ordered sealed (where Madam Chen died). The chief maid finds her and concocts a scheme that humiliates her in front of Madame Yue in hopes of diffusing the latter’s rage. Yuk Ying is less than pleased with her humiliation and soon sees the chief maid as an enemy.

I should probably also add that Yuk Ying is meant to be the most physically attractive of the cast as many of the characters remark on her natural beauty. This may not be obvious to someone not from Hong Kong or who have not seen all the media that lauds her as a god of beauty. In the first episode is an incredibly awkward bit where the rainwater is meant to wash away the dirt on her face and reveal her as this stunning beauty that takes the men’s breath away. It really just doesn’t work as a scene.

Yee Sun, the “nice” one

Yee Sun

The gentle Yee Sun appears at first to be the opposite of her dear sister, Yuk Ying. She is patient and forgiving, soft spoken and gentle. She is often seen trying to calm the temper of her sister. She is also by far the brightest and it is her idea to move the mangos off the cart so that Hong Mou could not abandon them (as he intended to).

As she sits by the water with Yuk Ying, Yee Sun alludes to a lost sister that she still desperately misses.

For all her sweetness, she abandons the sleeping Yuk Ying by the lake in the first episode. It is unclear at first if she did that on purpose, to eliminate her competition (remember, Yuk Ying is canonically super attractive) or if she genuinely didn’t see the other woman when she woke up.

Elder Tsu and Mother Lau

Elder Tsu

Elder Tsu appears briefly in the first episode as an important official who bends the rules to allow the candidates in despite them being late. His scheme is not fully explained until quite a few more episode in, but simply put, he was involved in some treasons years ago and he’s trying to bury evidence about it. Among his many, many schemes is his forging of papers for three Han women (seen above) loyal to him to become imperial concubines.

Despite being a eunuch, he is married. He public claims that he enjoys the domesticity, but in actuality, his wife is part of his plan to train up the aformentioned Han women. She is an ex-madam from a brothel and they both seem to be somewhat hung up over him being a eunuch.

Yes, your eyes do not deceive you. That is indeed a bath scene with Elder Tsu. It amuses me greatly because it’s almost as though the people writing War and Beauty got the memo that a historical drama should have scheming during bath scenes but didn’t get the second half that told them that it should be sexy boobs on display.

On Sin, the designated adult of the palace

On Sin

On Sin is the chief maid and is in charge of taking care of the new candidates for concubine. She has that air of being very firm but gentle. Though she is very much a servant, this part of the palace is her domain and the candidates are but “little” masters until they become actual concubines. She first appears at the beginning of the second episode where she finds Yuk Ying tresspassing on the sealed rooms. It is her idea to trick Yuk Ying into humiliating herself and thereby diffusing Madam Yue’s inevitable wrath.

She and Madam Yue share a fascinating conversation where Yue calmly tells her that the trick to being a good servant is not simply anticipating the desires of one’s mistress but also to do so effortlessly. To appear to be doing so was a fault as no one appreciates a scheming servant.

On Sin is also but a year or so from retiring from the palace. As a maid, she is allowed to retire once she has reached her ripe old age and she is looking forward to returning to her hometown[8]. She just very much wants to keep her head down and pass this time in peace, but needless to say, things are never that simple. Avoiding scandal often involves putting out the fires that others have started and there are a lot of fires in her future.

She is also good friends with a eunuch, Luk, who works in the scriptorium (pictured above). He acts as her confidant.

Yuen Kei & Suk Ling

Yuen Kei and Suk Ling

It is soon revealed that Yee Sun is working with two other women (seen above together eating watermelon together) in secret against her dear sister Yuk Ying, whom they see as their greatest potential threat in the gathered candidates. The three term Elder Tsu “adopted father” and fiercely loyal. Despite their birth, they have arrived at the palace with forged papers to become concubines and eventually gain influence over the Emperor.

For all her scheming and ruthlessness, Yee Sun does genuinely seem warm and playful with her true sisters, Yuen Kei and Suk Ling.

Yuen Kei is the youngest and is often seen happily eating sweet things now that she is out from under the sharp gaze of Mother Lau. In contrast, Suk Ling is the much more mature and frequently lectures her two sisters on the importance of their mission. Yuen Kei is more ignorant of the machinations of court and often needs Suk Ling to explain them to her.

The Doctor

Sun Bak Yeung (Doctor Sun)

The Doctor is first seen examining Madam Yue. She rests behind a veil and he speaks to her with lowered eyes. He is one of the very few non-eunuches in the palace. The first three episodes take great pains to establish him as a messed up man. His father (seen above behind him with the mustache) is also a doctor in the imperial palace and is far more cautious man. Sun still blames his father for being absent when his mother died and bears a deep grudge against the man. He lives in a brothel out of some sense of misplaced rebellion as he cannot stand being near his home. He is also ignoring his wife, whom he married in a desperate attempt to save his sick mother[9], because she reminds him of his now dead mother.

Sun often talks the talk of being more righteous, more honourable and more compassionate than his father. And yet, when confronted by his father, it is clear his actions are not so clear cut. His father points out that for a man claiming compassion, he looks awfully like an ambitious man abandoning the longstanding neutrality of the imperial doctors and trying to gain power by siding with Madam Yue against the Empress. All the while practicing dangerous medicine.

The Doctor is also seen betting against Hong Mou in a dice game (he sends a courtesan to place his bet for him) and loses. They then have an abstract conversation about luck, about whether or not they can afford to lose and about what it means to lose absolutely everything. It establishes them as foils for one another as the ambitious Hong Mou comes from nothing and Doctor Sun is born into wealth.

The Empress

The Empress

Notable for obvious reason, but Empress is a somewhat distant, motherly figure in the opening episodes. Everyone knows that Madam Yue holds the true power, after all.

She first seen interogating the two doctors about the condition of Madam Yue’s pregnancy and expressing a deep concern about the state of affairs. It is later at her summons that the candidates appear to attend an opera at the end of episode three.

There are many, many more characters. Many of the background characters, including and especially the servants, come into their own later in the series. But there really is no point in detailing them here.

Wait, what about the Emperor?

He’s really not that interesting. He does show up eventually, of course, but this is not his story.

So is there really a plot about dress colour?

Yes, in episode three, when all the important characters have more or less been introduced, we begin the ridiculous scheming.

So, there is a festival in which the selected candidates (who are essentially still on probation and living in a wing of the palace together) get to meet the Empress and Madam Yue. Everyone knows that Madam Yue is the most powerful woman in the palace at the moment and that it is a terrible idea to wear the same dress colour as her. An unfortunate accident befell the last candidate who did so and everyone is on edge about this.

Thus bribes exchange hands to learn what dress colour Madam Yue will be wearing. Yee Sun, trying to sabotage Yuk Ying, tries to trick her into wearing the incorrect colour by giving her incorrect information.

And that is just the beginning.

So, where do I watch it?

It’s now available on Viki. For long years there seemed no method of viewing it with a half decent translation. But now you need but click here.

[1] A portmanteau of Rage and Inspiration, of course.

[2] Empersses in the Palace, for example, is viewable on Netflix. However, I don’t recommend it, partly because its 76 episodes has been hacked down by Netflix to a measly six. I’m all for trimming the padding that comes from tv series that are made to be viewed every day rather than one a week, but that was a ridiculous hack job.

[3] It’s a thing. In Hong Kong, when a tv drama is very popular it just takes over the city. There are only really two channels (well, four if you count the two English ones that no one watches and who really cares about cable?) and the two are not equals. Series tend to be 20–30 episodes in length and air every weekday (sometimes with a finale on the weekend). When there is a popular series on, the restaurants lament how the city is deserted during dinner time as everyone has just gone home to watch tv. Everyone from mini bus drivers to shop assistants to students to the guy who edits your news is talking about it.

[4] It’s thus odd to me that some have seemingly completely missed the point of the series and accused of glorifying and naturalising this sort of back-stabbing political machinations as the overriding message of War and Beauty seems to be that it’s not natural, it’s not glorious, it’s not nice and it’s caused by the system that encourages them to fight.

[5] It contrasts very starkly to Netflix’s Marco Polo. Both series feature a sequence in which concubines are chosen for the imperial harem. Granted, the two series are set in very different periods of Chinese history and are trying to achieve very different goals, but still. In Marco Polo, it is told far more from the point of view of those doing the selecting. The audience is invited to participate in the objectifying of the women, to be the eyes doing the assessing and selecting. Furthermore, the women are lined up completely naked and then told to have sex with existing members of the harem as though their lives depended on it. It is ludicrously sleazy and exists very much to titillate. Within War and Beauty, the sequence is shown from the point of view of the women. They are stripped to the period equivalent of underwear, but to modern eyes, it is but a tank top. The tests focus on the pitch of their voices, the length their calves, the quality of their embroidery, the gait of their walk. It objectifies them without sexualising them and the audience isn’t invited with a wink and a giggle to participate in that process.

[6] This is probably fairly obvious, but regions would send their best produce as imperial tribute to the Emperor, who obviously deserves the best of everything.

[7] During the Qing Dynasty, China was ruled by the Manchus who saw themselves as ethnically distinct from the Han chinese they ruled over. The nobility of the Qing are known as the Eight Banners and it is from this noble class that the imperial concubines and wives are selected. Until they are rejected by the selection process, they are not free to marry and must travel to the capitol during the allotted time to be inspected.

[8] A recurring theme in War and Beauty is where people come from. Very few are born in the capital and everyone has a hometown that they are longing for. To an extent this reflects the migration within China that continues to this day.

[9] It is a Chinese superstition that bad luck can be cancelled out with sufficient joy and good luck. There is nothing more full of good luck and joy than a wedding. As such, people have big weddings in order to chase away the looming spectre of death. And yes, this is an exceptionally useful superstition when it comes to plotting dramas like this and rom coms.

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