Analysis of leadership in The Legend of Zhen Huan

Hello everyone! :D I think today's blog post might be hard to follow for those who don't watch Chinese dramas. I've been a fan of The Legend of Zhen Huan, 后宫甄嬛传, since mid-last year. Ask my housemates, they know I've watched this drama on Youtube in various segments over 70 times now (oops).

Why is the drama so popular in China?

The story is about a kind and innocent girl Zhen Huan (Sun Li) who enters the Imperial Palace at the age of 17. Initially only habouring hopes of finding happiness with the right man, she hoped that she'd not be selected as an imperial concubine, but was selected anyway due to her uncanny resemblance to the late Empress Chunyuan (纯元皇后). Once in the palace, she fell victim to a series of evil schemes by the other concubines, most notably, the two bosses- the current Empress 宜修皇后 (Ada Choi) and Consort Hua 华妃 (Jiang Xin).  She gradually hardens and learns to protect herself and her loved ones through scheming and manipulation. In the end, she adopts the young Qianlong Emperor and rises to the top to become the Empress Dowager, but has lost everyone dear to her and her soul in the process.

One of things I found most appealing about this (extremely long, 76 episode) drama was the depths of the characters. Everyone's point of view, development and mindset was explored in great detail. At the very end you find you don't actually hate anyone; you may not agree with what they did but at least you could see why they did it from their side of the story.

I've read a couple of reviews online which mentioned that this drama provides valuable insight on survival in the workplace. I don't completely agree- firstly, it is difficult to find, in a first-world, modern society, an environment that works exactly like the imperial harem does. Promotion depended highly on the Emperor's sexual attraction towards you, and to a smaller extent, how useful your family is to his government. However, most organisations today are a lot more straightforward. You bring in the moolah, they give you the promotion. Of course this also involves plenty of soft skills and how well you're able to impress your boss and manoeuvre around your peers without incurring jealousy. But I agree there are certain things we can learn from the characters that are applicable in every field of work or social group.

Today, I'm going to talk about three leadership styles displayed by the three big bosses of the imperial harem- the Empress, Consort Hua, and finally, our heroine, Zhen Huan.

1. Consort Hua 华妃


Early in the reign of Emperor Yongzheng, she was the most favoured consort in the harem. 

She was second-in-command to the Empress, was aggressive and ruled with an iron fist. Iron fist, meaning she sentenced a misbehaving junior concubine to be maimed on the very first day she meets them- and it only went downhill from there. She was able to hold onto her power through her ruthlessness, which instilled fear in every other concubine who even dreamed about going against her, the favour bestowed upon her by the emperor, and her powerful brother general Nian Gengyao.  

However, she also had a ton of weaknesses. To begin with, she was nowhere as intelligent and good with people as Zhen Huan was. She was also no match for the Empress, whom, even though had less of the Emperor's favour, was more cunning and hid an even more ruthless character underneath. Within the first few episodes we could all tell she was not well-liked by the other concubines. She led her own camp within the harem made of other junior concubines, but was not afraid to let them take the fall should trouble come knocking on their door.

What really caused her downfall was that she alienated her most loyal and intelligent follower, Lady Cao (曹贵人), by poisoning the latter's baby daughter just to get the Emperor's attention. In the end, Lady Cao stepped on her by confessing all of Consort Hua's crimes to the Empress to get a promotion.

Lady Cao reports all of Consort Hua's crimes to the Queen while pretending she was coerced to be the latter's accomplice

We've all met people like Consort Hua at some point in our lives. Pompous, flamboyant, think the world of themselves, taking interpersonal relationships for granted because the Emperor (or in modern day, perhaps an important family member). Kept people in check by making them afraid to speak up and question things. Nobody could go near her except the people she was using. This is a very risky leadership style to adopt. A couple of junior concubines tried this and it has never ended well.

Consort Hua was able to keep her power for a significant amount of time only because she was a political pawn- her family had military power and the Emperor pissing her off had real consequences for the country. I guess this shows that dictatorship and authoritarian styles are best saved for someone who has the charisma and vision (or in this case, political backing).

2. Empress Yixiu



Embittered by her sister Empress Chunyuan who cheated on her with The Emperor while she was pregnant, Empress Yixiu murdered Chunyuan and the latter's child. From that moment she ruled the imperial harem with her well-concealed cruelty and cunning.

Empress Yixiu was a more effective leader than Consort Hua. Despite poisoning her minions such that they would never conceive, she at least pretended she cared for her minions and was on their side. She also displayed intelligence by acting like the virtuous, caring Queen to her husband while ridding herself of her enemies through elaborate plots. She instilled fear in the imperial harem by being inconsistent and unpredictable.

However, one major weakness that led to her defeat in the race with Zhenhuan was her lack of wit when it comes to dealing with people. 

Firstly, she picked all the wrong people to work for her. She picked those she thought were easy to manipulate and read, but she ended up dying by stupid after surrounding herself with stupid. Her minion Lady Qi, a pompous, arrogant and dumb junior concubine, was taken to task by The king after her foiled attempt at framing Zhenhuan for adultery. Her adopted son, the third prince, was disowned by the king for pleading for the nation's criminals (while Zhenhuan's adopted son the fourth prince was a lot more careful and calculating). One by one, her minions self-destructed because they were all so dumb, leaving her alone to face her enemy Zhen Huan.

Perhaps her greatest mistake was preventing her minions from having children. Why would she do that? Wouldn't it be better to have more imperial offspring under her control? Worse, she pissed off An Lingrong (more on her later), who was half-hearted in serving the Empress because she knew the Empress was merely using her. This ended with An Lingrong revealing that The Empress killed the late Chunyuan on her deathbed, leading to the Empress' downfall.

People like the Empress are what I'd call book-smart, but not people-smart. She was a poor judge of character, controlling those under her with puppet strings until she realised she was no match for Zhen Huan. Besides, her insincerity led to followers like Lingrong to feel used rather than protected, almost guaranteeing her betrayal later on.

3. Zhen Huan (Consort Xi, 熹贵妃)



The ultimate winner in harem politics, Zhen Huan had it all- a powerful family, extreme intelligence and wit, great social skills, eloquence and musical talents. But the most powerful weapon she had, which was also the sole factor that dragged her into this bloody fray in the first place, was her resemblance to the late Chunyuan Empress.

When she first entered the palace, she was intimidated by the sabotaging that was going on, and kept a low profile all this while by chao keng-ing (pretending to be ill). She would have led a non-descript, yet peaceful life within the palace, if she didn't catch the Emperor's attention. Her whole life was changed when she realised the Emperor did not love her, but merely treated her as a substitute for Empress Chunyuan, his one and only love. 

She came to that realisation after a plot by Empress Yixiu to accuse her of disrespecting the late Empress by making her wear an old outfit by the late Empress Chunyuan. Through further sabotage by Empress Yixiu's minion Lady Qi, Zhen Huan's father was also framed for crimes he did not commit and came down with the Plague in prison. 

From then, she plotted and schemed to survive in the imperial harem, by recapturing the Emperor's affection, adopting the neglected Fourth Prince (the future king), teaming up with the more senior and experienced (though neglected) concubines and winning people over by catering to their most desperate needs.

I found myself rooting for Zhen Huan all the way. Unlike in other dramas I've watched in the past where I really disliked the Mary-Sue female protagonists (步步惊心 anyone? Gosh I hated 马尔泰若曦) , the drama makes it clear that Zhen Huan was never a righteous heroine. She is simply extremely clever and knows when to be ruthless, but also very human, and this is where I find her more relate- able than other dramas' characters.

Zhen Huan's wisdom in personnel management was very evident in the first few episodes, when she was still a sickly, lowly concubine (in Consort Hua's words, “病歪歪的常在”). Some of the eunuchs in Zhen Huan's residence were frustrated with her for not having gained the Emperor's favour after so many months, unlike the other junior concubines, whose servants would in turn be well-respected.

A pissed off Zhen Huan rounded them all up and invited them to leave if they weren't happy working for her.

"Just take the money and leave!"

I was quite impressed with her at this point. Even at her age and inexperience, she knew it was best to have a few loyal sidekicks rather than a whole house of servants who might be a source of trouble anyday. Same theory applies to our social circles- better to have a few loyal and sincere friends than be popular with no one to turn to when you're down.

Predictably, she did not accept these eunuches when they came running back to her the moment she got promoted to Noble Lady (贵人)and enjoyed wealth and prominence. Why would you still want someone who desserts you when you were down back into your life when you're doing well?

As the leader of the imperal harem after the fall of Consort Hua, Zhen Huan takes on Empress Yixiu by winning over everyone else. Rather than manipulating them with punishment and control like Empress Yixiu did, she really understood the people she was co-existing with. She knew how to give people what they needed to win their hearts, rather than simply winning their obedience.

Why do I say this? Because Zhen Huan left the palace for a brief moment and left her newborn daughter to be raised by a senior concubine, Consort Jing. After returning to the palace, Consort Jing was rife with fear that Zhen Huan would want her daughter back. Consort Jing even very nearly sabotaged Zhen Huan just to be able to keep her adopted daughter.

ZH to Consort Jing "If you really feel bad about betraying me, then please make it up to me by raising my daughter till she's of marriageable age."

Zhen Huan's relationship with Consort Jing could have very well been destroyed if the former had insisted on taking her to task and taking her daughter back (at this point, Zhen Huan was already of a higher rank than Consort Jing). However, she allowed Consort Jing to keep her princess, therefore winning over Consort Jing's gratitude and friendship for the rest of the series.

Besides, Zhen Huan had loyal servants and a loyal friend who stuck with her till the end. 

I really respected Zhen Huan. She knew exactly how to use people (not in the bad sense but in terms of establishing good relationships) and how to protect herself from the plots and schemes of Empress Yixiu's camp. She was very unpredictable and slays silently; you would die by her hand some day and you wouldn't even know it. Yet, she treats the people on her side (and the neutral players) very well. It was all very scary, but I had to give it to Zhen Huan for working her way around all these politics so well.

4. An Lingrong (Consort Li, 鹂妃)


Like Empress Yixiu, she does not exist in history, but was added to the story to give a little more kick to the plot. However, I'd like to add my own analysis to the complex and deep character because I found her worthy of discussion.

She enters the palace at the same time as Zhen Huan, and they established a close friendship. However, Lingrong was plagued by an extreme inferiority complex. She was born into a poor family and was thus being stepped all over by the other junior concubines. Zhen Huan stood up for her again and again, and for a brief period of time, I believed Lingrong really saw Zhen Huan as a friend.

However, Lingrong could never see past her differences with Zhen Huan. She was demoralised by the affections Zhen Huan got from the Emperor, and all kinds of good things that Zhen Huan had but she supposedly never had. She got suspicious of Zhen Huan's sincerity towards her, always thinking that everything Zhen Huan offered to her was out of pity, not true friendship. This eventually led to her changing sides to be with the Empress (who ironically treated her even less kindly than Zhen Huan did), harming Zhen Huan and the people close to Zhen Huan every opportunity she had.

I believe we've all been in Lingrong's shoes at some point in our lives. Feeling worthless, thinking everyone has got everything going for them while you have nothing, However, low self-esteem for a moment is one thing, and letting it consume your life completely is another thing altogether.

Firstly, Lingrong allowed the whole "low family background" thing to define her, neglecting all the other good traits she had- sewing talents, singing talents, ice skating talents (which I believe was extremely rare back in the Qing dynasty), her expertise with fragrance and chemicals, her beauty etc. Secondly, deep down, she never believed she was deserving of the Emperor's, or anyone's favour for that matter. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy. She rejected Zhen Huan because she did not believe in their friendship. She betrayed Zhen Huan, forgetting that Zhen Huan was the one who helped her obtain the Emperor's favour in the first place.

I think it's safe to say that in general, nobody likes someone who constantly (deliberately or not) makes you feel bad about what you have by comparing it to what they don't have, like Lingrong always does. They are always saying "Wow you're so lucky to have this, unlike me..." and distances themselves from you whenever something good happens in your life, due to their own insecurities. Nobody likes to constantly have to pander to someone's insecurities and hurt feelings. Lingrong's background may have placed her at a disadvantage, but it was her attitude that proceeded to seal her fate.

Lingrong to Zhen Huan, "At the end of the day, I hate you most. Because you've got everything, yet at the end of my life, I'm left with nothing."

The moral of this story is not "you will sacrifice everything for power", a commonly used trope in many dramas of a similar genre. I would think it is more like, "how others treat you is a direct result of how you make others feel". Make others feel threatened, like Consort Hua or Empress Yixiu, and everyone cheers when you're taken down. Make others feel valued, like Zhen Huan, and people will reward you with their friendship and loyalty in return. I also like how the drama challenged the notion that there is no true affection or friendship in a competitive environment like the inner palace. It all depends on who you're dealing with and how you engage them.

Conclusion

I never expected myself to be so hooked to a drama so supposedly longwinded and cliched, but trust me, it is anything but cliched. Unlike your typical drama about palace politics, The Legend of Zhen Huan goes a bit deeper than being purely about ambition, jealousy and survival. It also emcompasses the complexities of Qing dynasty politics, social hierarchies, interpersonal relationships and character development.

This is one drama that really engages you, and encourages you to think. It explores in great detail the psychology of people based on their past experiences, and allows you to see why certain people succeed in this cut-throat environment as opposed to others.

76 episodes may sound long and for many dramas, "long" can mean boring or way too confusing, but The Legend of Zhen Huan was engaging and touching all the way.

Comments

  1. Thank you for writing this! It was a very interesting analysis of both the series and life in general.

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  2. Very well-thought out analysis. Well-written. Your standard of English is rather good. Thank you for making it easy for us to enjoy the drama.

    You must be very taken by palace intrigues and the like. I can't imagine 70 repeats but I've re-watched 5-6 times certain episodes of certain dramas I enjoyed. I've repeated from the beginning 2 dramas I enjoyed very much.

    76 episodes are not that long. I've watched all 1008 episodes of the taiwanese drama Night Market Life which was also full of plotting and scheming. Each episode was more than an hour long. I spent quite some time to finish all 1008 episodes but I started in the middle and then after episode 1008 I started at the beginning until I reached the middle bcs otherwise certain characters and their motivations were unclear. It's good to start at the beginning but I was impatient bcs the drama was really too long.

    I've only recently discovered Mandarin dramas bcs many have english subs. I don't understand much mandarin but I do understand 80% Minan but still prefer subs in english. Now I prefer made-in-china dramas. I still dislike korean dramas bcs their language sounds so rough. Thai and vietnamese ones are more palatable. Thank you.

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  3. "I really disliked the Mary-Sue female protagonists (步步惊心 anyone? Gosh I hated 马尔泰若曦)..."
    I TOTALLY AGREE WITH YOU!!!! but I finished BBJX cos 4th prince is kindda cool. good acting there Nicky Wu..
    And now in Imperial Doctress... omg that is fairly annoying... I dropped it but Wallace Huo was good there.. shame even he couldn't prvent a DNF!..

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    1. OMG Liu Shi Shi can't act! But her character was badly written in BBJX too to be fair. Wishy-washy and had no idea what she really wanted to do with her life

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  4. Thank you for your insights! This was the first Chinese palace drama I have watched, so I have no comparisons. I have watched a few Korean palace dramas though-, some were very light-hearted and humorous, others very dark.. While I am sure Asian royal courts had both sides - humor, happy moments AND the fierce competitiveness -, I wish there were some perhaps more realistic drama series to depict the mundane every day life.. I cannot believe that ALL there was just competition, poisonings, and plots :)
    European royal courts were quite vicious too, but there have been some genuine people there as well. It is a fascinating scenario to observe how one can live in a corrupt, dangerous enviroment, and not lose one's soul or honor.
    Thanks again! Hoping to watch the sequel to LZH, not sure if it is available yet with subtitles.

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    1. Hi NarnianGirl, thanks for your comment! You can try check out Ode to Joy (欢乐颂), which is available on Youtube. I don't think it has English subs, but it is a pretty realistic modern drama set in Shanghai! It is not mundane either, it discusses human relationships (friendships, family) and the harsh reality of living in a city like Shanghai.

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  5. Dear friends, I know that Zhou Ying (Nothing Gold Can Stay) was a real historical figure. I really enjoyed that series. I am now on episode 4 of Zhen Huan and I really like it. Especially since the english subtitles are so good. Was Zhen Huan a real historical figure such as Zhou Ying? I also loved Empress Qi with Ha Ji Won. She was a major figure in Yuan Dynasty. Hwang Jin Yi, also with Ha Ji Won, is a beautiful historical-drama about a poet, musician and giseng who lived in ancient Korea.

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