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Series / The Legend of Zhen Huan

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Sun Li as Zhen Huan

The Legend of Zhen Huan (后宫·甄嬛传; Hòu Gōng · Zhēn Huán Chuán) is a 2011 Chinese drama based on a popular internet novel. The drama is set in the harem of Emperor Yongzheng of the Qing Dynasty. Spanning 76 episodes (almost twice as long as the typical Chinese series), it's considered one of the most successful dramas in the recent years.

The story follows the trials and tribulations of Zhen Huan, a concubine of the emperor, as she survives the perilous Inner Palace, where nothing is as it seems.

The series has been exported to the US as a miniseries titled Empresses in the Palace (made available on Netflix). The entire series is condensed into six 90-minute episodes, using original Chinese dialogue with English subtitles. The opening and closing themes are also changed for the US release.


The 2018 series Ruyi's Royal Love in the Palace, also called Legend of Ruyi, is the official sequel to The Legend of Zhen Huan, with the actress Vivian Wu playing as Empress Dowager Niuhuru, the older Zhen Huan.

The Legend of Zhen Huan contains examples of:

  • Adaptational Heroism: In the novels, the original Zhen Huan is much more ruthless, sadistic, petty and cunning than the TV series counterpart. She taunts her enemies/victims by smiling on their unfortunate fates, and finds satisfaction in their suffering. She's even more dangerous than the actual villains and antagonists in the series.
  • Adaptational Villainy: An Lingrong is a lot less sympathetic due to Zhen Huan's brother, an important part of her character arc, being Adapted Out in the drama. Also, some of the original Zhen Huan's evil deeds are transferred to her in the TV adaptation.
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  • Adoptive Peer Parent: Subverted: Prince Hongli is told to accept his father's consort as his mother, but she is only twelve years older than him. The Emperor summarily adds ten years to her age to avoid this.
  • Alas, Poor Villain: Most of the women who do horrible things do it out of love for their husband, children, or family.
  • All Love Is Unrequited: Can't be helped given the premise of the series, but accentuated with Prince Guo and Dr. Wen, who could have avoided this if they fell in love with someone else.
    • Subverted with the Prince Shen and Yurao.
  • Alpha Bitch: Consort Hua. Later, Zhen Huan, and Concubine Qi (Qi Pin) try to be one, but Qi was really being manipulated by the Empress all along.
  • Anyone Can Die: Frighteningly so.
  • Artistic License – History:
    • Quite rampantly, as the original novel was AU and set in a different Dynasty. The TV producers chose the Yongzheng Emperor's era and made adjustments (E.g, General Nian Geng Yao was real and had a sister who was the Emperor's consort), but this is bound to lead to discrepancies. One example is the empress and her sister, Empress Chunyuan. Historically, Emperor Yongzheng's empress was his legitimate wife, whom he married while still a prince and who died nine years into his rule. Another notable discrepancy is the fact that Yongzheng's mother died very early in his rule.
    • The names of the characters. Manchus have clan names, but for most of the history they didn't use them as family names; the typical Manchu are Only One Name. The idea of using Manchu clan names in the same way as a Chinese surname comes from the Communists.
  • Artistic License – Physics: It took tiny Lady Nian about three running steps to gain the momentum to crush her own skull against the wall and die instantly.
    • Huanbi uses the same method.
  • As You Know: or "As you don't know, but I do." A Senior Palace maid is sent to the households of all the future concubines to teach them palace manners and etiquette, and the characters love to educate each other on relevant history, poetry, or whatever topic that will help the viewer understand the mountain of mind games everyone is playing.
  • Batman Gambit: Guo bet that with the two-sided wine mug, Huan would try to kill herself and let him live, making it look like an accident, and he won't let her, so he switches the cups when she isn't looking. If he had assumed the opposite, switching the cups would still have killed him, but it would not have been his intention.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Such as An Lingrong.
  • Beware the Quiet Ones: Not just Zhen Huan.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: A lot of the women. Notably, the empress. She appeared to be kind and fair at first but is actually one of the most scheming characters. Also, An Lingrong first appeared to be the sweetest and meekest of the new concubines, but stabbed her "sisters" in the back repeatedly.
  • Blame Game: An Lingrong plays this to the point that when she dies, she feels that her life never belonged to her.
  • Blatant Lies: Half the stuff anyone says in public. In almost every conversation, the consorts refer to each other as "good sisters" even though they hate and scheme against each other all the time.
  • Blood from the Mouth: How you know you've been poisoned.
    • Used to great effect when Yunli keeps swallowing blood to hide that he switched the cups for as long as he can.
  • Break the Haughty: Happens several times. Xia Changzai, Concubine Qi (Qi Pin) and Consort Hua.
  • Brainless Beauty: Deconstructed with Concubine Qi (Qi Pin), who is beautiful but painfully unaware of her own simpleness.
  • Cats Are Mean: Zhen Huan certainly thinks so, after her consistent bad luck with cats.
  • Character Development: Everyone. One of this series' greatest merits.
    • Zhen Huan, most notably, who starts out an idealistic young lady but hardens up later in the story after facing several betrayals and surviving the schemes of other concubines.
    • The same can be said for Shen Meizhuang after she nearly drowns and becomes framed for faking a pregnancy.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Xiaoyunzi's paper cutting of Zhen Huan.
  • Chekhov's Skill: The Empress is knowledgeable in Chinese medicine and An Lingrong is an expert at making scented/aromatic incenses.
  • Childhood Friends: Zhen Huan and Shen Meizhuang.
  • Children Are Innocent: Played straight, and later subverted with Princess Longyue.
  • Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: An Lingrong. She is supposedly good friends with Shen Meizhuang and Zhen Huan, but she tries to make Zhen Huan miscarry several times, causes the childbirth complication that kills Shen Meizhuang, and sets the stage for Zhen Huan to take down the Empress, who supported her rise the entire time.
    • Lady Cao (Cao Guiren). She urges Consort Hua to abandon Li Pin when she was scared insane, plays a key role in helping Zhen Huan bring down Consort Hua, and plainly says she'll backstab anyone to ensure a good future for her daughter (and herself).
    • The Empress. The price for letting her help you gain favor is never being able to get pregnant. Then she leaves you out to die when she is done with you.
    • It might be easier to list all the women who never backstab anyone.
  • Cool and Unusual Punishment: When Zhen is still quite new to palace life, she wants to go for a walk on her own, and cheerily threatens her maids that anyone who tries to follow her will have to kneel outside on the snow-covered ground. In a place where the penalty for minor infractions is flogging, it qualifies as this.
  • Crapsaccharine World: The inner palace is full of beautiful women dressed in elaborate clothes living comfortably in nice buildings... who spend their spare time scheming against each other and will stop at nothing to gain more power. Everyone knows it, no one sees a need or reason to stop it, and if you are one of the women and don't want to play that game, you probably won't live long enough or be important enough to complain much.
  • Costume Porn: The Imperial court is fond of colourful silk, items made of green or white jade, jewelry of gold or coral, and many other things that the Emperor gifts his wives and mistresses.
  • Decadent Court: Everyone who works for the Emperor in any capacity would rather commit suicide than face degradation or loss of reputation, which makes it easy for the higher-ups to get rid of people.
  • Death by Childbirth: Subverted. Shen Meizhuang and Empress Chunyuan both die of childbirth, but in both cases the delivery or pregnancy has been sabotaged to harm them. In the case of Meng Jinxian, she was poisoned and going to die within hours anyway, so the physicians induced labour and she managed to deliver a child right before dying.
  • Delivery Guy: Played straight, since all imperial physicians are male. No men are allowed in the room during delivery, but they give instructions to maids.
  • Devil's Advocate: Subverted. The Empress will often set people up to commit unforgivable faux pas or to accuse someone else of this, then argue for their innocence to make herself look blameless.
  • Diabolus ex Machina: Depending on your point of view. In the last half hour or so of the show, we learn that the Emperor has been taking something he believes to be life-extending, a medicine that contains small amouts of sulphur and mercury. To Lady Ning, it's more like a Deus ex Machina, because it makes it easy for herself and Huan to take revenge on him.
  • Dogged Nice Guy: Dr. Wen Shichu for Zhen Huan. She gives an excellent reason for refusing him, but it is clear that she is never really interested in him. The rejection doesn't stop him devoting himself to her wholeheartedly, though.
  • Driven to Suicide:
    • Consort Hua. Even though she had lost her power and title, she was still proud and unfazed by the Emperor's decree for her death... until Zhen Huan informed her that it was the Emperor's scheming that caused Hua's sterility and miscarriage. She cries out in anguish, realizing that the man she loved most was the one who caused her the most misery.
    • An Lingrong after she lost the Emperor's favour.
    • The Emperor orders Ying Guiren to commit suicide after the impropriety scandal involving Third Prince Hongshi, so she will bear the guilt rather than implicate the Prince.
  • Emotionless Girl: Concubine Ning. She rarely shows any emotion, and even during her bouts of anger, she remains relatively composed.
  • The Emperor
  • Establishing Character Moment: Many, and often done spectacularly. A few characters, like Consort Hua, can be read right off the bat (see below). Most others do not reveal their real nature until much later.
  • Establishing Series Moment: Consort Hua orders a maid to be killed for being annoying, and a low-ranking concubine to be beaten into lower-body paralysis for rudeness. That is episodes 2 and 3 out of 76, and it only goes downhill from there.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Consort Hua is not above bribery, lying, lashing out due to pettiness, or murdering fellow concubines, and she even played with Princess Wenyi's health to gain attention, but she wouldn't hurt a pregnant woman's unborn child. However, this might have more to do with her personal experience with miscarriage than morality. Notably, later in the series both Zhen Huan and the Empress play with the lives of unborn children for their own gain, even they though have also endured the pain of losing a child.
  • Evil Cripple: Consort Hua has a retainer with a pronounced limp - the only regular character with a noticeable physical disability. He's also the one whom she sends to assassinate people, and he plays up his sinister role with great aplomb.
  • Freudian Excuse: Huanbi and An Lingrong. Both attribute their self-serving actions and attitudes to the fact they had harsher childhoods than Zhen Huan, and that their mothers were abandoned/neglected by the men they loved.
  • Foregone Conclusion: The fact that the framing device is Zhen Huan as Dowager Empress looking back on her life, lets the viewers know we don't have to worry about her.
  • Gorgeous Period Dress: The outfits worn by the consorts and the Empress are especially opulent.
  • Graceful Ladies Like Purple: Shen Meizhuang.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Consort Hua and as revealed later, the Empress and An Lingrong.
  • Happily Adopted: Disturbingly common: biological mothers of children don't usually last long in this series. Princess Wenyi, Princess Longyue, Fourth Prince Hongli and Prince Guo's son are the trope. Arguably, Shen Meizhuang's daughter and Zhen Huan's twins are happily adopted by the emperor.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Prince Guo takes the suicide Huan orchestrated for herself, because he understands that the Emperor wants him gone and that she was trying to do that for him.
  • Ice Queen: Life in the Inner Palaces causes several ladies to become the trope. Namely, Shen Meizhuang and Ning Guiren.
  • Ignored Enamored Underling: Huanbi is this for Prince Guo for most of the series.
  • Impractically Fancy Outfit: Justified because this is a Royal Harem.
  • Important Haircut: Sort of. Zhen Huan's makeup and headdress are distinctly different in the later half of the series.
    • Justified: when women in the harem are promoted (or demoted), their hairstyle and style of dress must also change to befit their stations.
  • Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Prince Guo.
  • Interrupted Suicide: When the Emperor orders her to kill prince Guo, Huan tries to kill herself instead, (making it look like an accident) but Guo figures her out and switches the cups.
  • In the Blood: Even though she was raised by the mostly honest and sincere Consort Jin, Princess Longyue showed traces of her biological mother's craftiness and wit at a very young age.
  • Jade-Colored Glasses: Shen Meizhuang and Zhen Huan. An Lingrong also becomes very cynical as the series progresses which Zhen Huan points out in their final conversation.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Jerk: Consort Hua. If she is doing something nice for you, be very, very afraid.
  • Kindhearted Simpleton: Chun Guiren, who also doubles as innocently insensitive.
    • Zigzagged with Shen Meizhuang.
  • Law of Inverse Fertility: Almost everyone in the Inner Palace wants a child because a child is the surest way to guarantee their future, but pregnancies are rare and carrying a child to term and giving birth successfully is even rarer. However, that's not surprising considering what these ladies do to each other.
  • Light Is Not Good: A literal and symbolic example; when Zhen Huan returns to the Palace she is given the title Xi Fei (which means "light"), but she has lost most of her innocence and surrendered her chance for a happy future with the man she actually loves.
  • The Lost Lenore: Empress Chunyuan.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: The story involves close to two dozen concubines, important characters have between one to three servants who are all fleshed out,and a lot of nobles and politicians come and go.
  • Love Martyr: Even after all Consort Duan has suffered for helping the Emperor abort Consort Hua's baby she still holds no ill will towards him. After his death, she is so heartbroken that she falls ill.]]
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: Fuca Guiren's miscarriage. Subverted with Zhen Huan's final miscarriage. Also Lady Chun's murder.
  • May–December Romance: The Emperor and his newer concubines.
  • Meaningful Name: The titles the Emperor gives to his concubines have special meanings.
    • The Emperor claims that Zhen Huan's first title, "wan", refers to her smile. It turns out to be his nickname for the late Empress Chunyuan (see Replacement Goldfish below.) Zhen Huan is horrified when the Emperor offers to bestow the name "wan" on her younger sister, indicating that he wishes to marry her too.
    • An Lingrong's "li" is a kind of bird, referring to her singing abilities. However, her vocal chords were long ruined by the time she was given this title, which is one of the reasons she finds it jarring.
  • Mother Makes You King: The outcome of Hongli's "adoption" by a consort backed by a powerful family name.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain!: Several of the concubines try to undermine or overthrow Zhen Huan, but she only becomes more beloved and desired by the emperor as a result. Promise Yu, Consort Hua and the empress are especially hard hit by the trope.
  • One Steve Limit: Consort Qi (Qi Fei) and Concubine Qi (Qi Guiren) in the English translation. In Chinese, however different words/characters are used.
  • Polyamory: A common practice in ancient China. Nobody considers the emperor of China having hundreds of wives in his palace to be unusual.
  • Protagonist Journey to Villain: Zhen Huan, and a lot of other characters over the course of the series.
  • Prematurely Grey-Haired: Zhen Huan starts finding grey hairs at the age of twenty-seven. Hardly surprising considering all she's been through at that point.
  • Purple Prose: Every single line of every single conversation, in accordance with the series' setting.
  • Replacement Goldfish: Zhen Huan to Empress Chunyuan, which sent the former into Heroic BSoD when she found out.
  • Right for the Wrong Reasons: Lady Qi accuses Huan of having an extramarital affair, which is true. Then she goes on to claim it was with Dr. Wen, and Huan relaxes, because that is not true.
  • Right-Hand Cat: Two ladies have cats, and neither of the cats are completely innocent.
  • Royal Harem: The story centers around the politics of the Chinese Emperor's harem.
  • Sherlock Scan: Several characters come up with evidence for their assumptions this way. Luckily, it is usually the case that such details can be interpreted in different ways depending on what story is told to explain them.
  • Sibling Yin-Yang: The twins. Zhen Huan says that Hongyan is full of mischief, but Lingxi had great self-control from the start.
  • Silent Scapegoat: Consort Duan.
    • When an important concubine falls, the most senior maid almost always steps up to take the blame, even if they are being tortured to tell the truth.
  • Silly Rabbit, Romance Is for Kids!: Brought up throughout the series.
  • Sleeps with Everyone but You: A very interesting variation in the setting of an imperial Harem. All the women want attention from the Emperor, and genuinely fear falling into this trope for one reason or another.
  • Spell My Name with an "S": The Chinese character for "huan" in the titular character's name has multiple pronunciations, and according to origin of her name in-universe (it is drawn from a poem), it should actually be pronounced "xuan."
  • Spoiled Brat: Implied with Concubine Qi (Qi Pin), who shows traces of this even towards the Emperor. The Emperor lets her get away with it up to a point because he thinks it is cute.
  • Snark-to-Snark Combat: Usually Consort Hua against everyone else. Zhen Huan also engages in this as the series progresses.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Several concubines are much better suited to other men at court than the Emperor.
  • The Scapegoat: Consort Qi (Qi Fei), Concubine Qi (Qi Pin), and An Lingrong, for various schemes the Empress came up with that had gone awry.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Many characters...but, to be fair, they only appear dumb in comparison to all The Chessmasters floating around, and they only die because it was ancient China and it only takes one word from the Emperor to kill anybody.
    • Played straight with Qi Pin, who keeps bothering Zhen Huan even though Zhen Huan outmaneuvers her time again and clearly has a better hold on the Emperor's favor than she does.
  • Would Execute a Girl: The Emperor.
  • You Never Did That for Me: A lot of concubines feel this way about what the Emperor does for Zhen Huan (or anyone the Emperor happens to favour), but Consort Hua is the most vocal about it, at least to her servants.


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