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Series / The Legend of Zhen Huan

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Sun Li as Zhen Huan
The Legend of Zhen Huan is a 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 upcoming drama series Ruyi's Royal Love in the Palace 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 ruthlessly darker, sadistic, petty and cunning than the TV series counterpart. She taunts her enemies/victims by smiling on their unfortunate fates, and found satisfaction in their suffering. She's even more dangerous than the actual villains and antagonists in the series.
  • Adaptational Villainy: An Lingrong's motivation is a lot less sympathetic due to Zhen Huan's brother, an important part of her character development arc, being Adapted Out in the drama. While some of original Zhen Huan's evil deeds are transferred to her in the TV adaption.
  • Adoptive Peer Parent: Subverted when 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 added ten years to her age to avoid this.
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  • 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 exactly 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) tries to be one, but she is really 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 died nine years into his rule. Another notable discrepancy is the fact that Yongzheng's mother died very early in his rule.
  • 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 do seem to 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.
  • Beware the Nice Ones
  • Beware the Quiet Ones
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: A lot of the women. Notably, the empress. She appeared to be kind and fair at first but was revealed to be 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.
  • Black and Gray Morality
  • 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.
  • 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 cause Zhen Huan to 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 helping Zhen Huan bringing down Consort Hua, and says plainly said 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 back stabs anyone.
  • 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 importantly enough to complain much.
  • Costume Porn
  • Deadly Decadent Court
  • Death by Childbirth: Subverted. Shen Meizhuang and Empress Chunyuan both dies of childbirth, but in both cases the delivery or pregnancy has been sabotaged to harm them. In the case of Meng Jinxian, she is poisoned and is going to die within hours anyways, so the physicians induced labour and she managed to deliver a child right before dying.
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: Subverted. The Emperor can have any women he wants, so he callously abandons any woman who become too cold toward him.
    • Life in the Inner Palaces actually causes several ladies to become Ice Queens. Namely, Shen Meizhuang and Ning Guiren.
  • 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.
  • 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 for devoting to her wholeheartedly, though.
  • Driven to Suicide:
    • Consort Hua. Even though she had lost all her power and title, Consort Hua who was demoted to Nian Daying, was still proud and unfazed by the Emperor's decree for her death... until Zhen Huan informed her that it was the scheming of the Emperor that caused Consort Hua to be sterile and miscarriage. Consort Hua's final cry of anguish, as she realized that the man she loved most was the one who caused her the most misery, were considered by many to be a Tear Jerker
    • 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 guilt rather than implicating 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. Few characters, like Consort Hua, can be read right off the bat (see below). Many other characters do not reveal their real nature until much later.
  • Establishing Series Moment: Consort Hua orders for a maid to be killed for being annoying and for a low-ranking concubine to be beaten to 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 own experience of miscarriage than matters of morality. This becomes an interesting point later in the series when you see both Zhen Huan and the Empress play with the lives of unborn children for their own gain even though they both 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 compared to Zhen Huan, and that their mothers were abandoned/neglected by the men they loved.
  • 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, as biological mothers of children don't usually last long in this series. Princess Wenyi, Princess Longyue, Fourth Prince Hongli and Prince Guo's son. Arguably, Shen Meizhuang's daughter and Zhen Huan's twins are happily adopted by the emperor.
  • Ignored Enamored Underling: Huanbi is this for Prince Guo for most of the series.
  • Impractically Fancy Outfit: Justified because this is the Royal Harem.
  • Important Haircut: Sort of. Zhen Huan wears distinctively different makeup and headdress in the later half of the series.
    • Justified, as when women in the harem are promoted (or demoted), their hairstyle and style of dress must also change as befitting their stations.
  • In the Blood: Even though she is raised by the mostly honestly and sincere Consort Jin, Princess Longyue shows traces of her biological mother's craftiness and wit at a very young age.
  • Jade-Colored Glasses: Shen Meizhuang and Zhen Huan, most notably. An Lingrong also becomes very cynical as the series progress 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 successful is even rarer. However, that's not that surprising considering what these ladies do to each other.
  • The Legend of X
  • Light Is Not Good: Quite a literal and symbolic example as when Zhen Huan returns to the Palace she is given the title Xi Fei meaning Light at the same time she has lost most of her innocence and surrendered her chance of a happy future with the man she actually loves.
  • The Lost Lenore: Empress Chunyuan.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: Oh dear yes. the story involves close to two dozen concubines, important characters have between one to three servants who are flushed out,and a lot of nobles and politicians come and go.
  • Love Martyr: Even after all Consort Duan has suffered for helping the Emperor aborting Consort Hua's baby she still hold no ill will to toward the Emperor. After his death, she is so heartbroken that she fell ill. For all her wrongdoings,
  • 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: titles the Emperor give to his concubines have special meanings.
    • The Emperor claims that Zhen Huan's first title "wan" refers 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 offered 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 are long ruined by the time she is given this title, which is one of the reaons An Lingrong finds it especially jarring.
  • Mother Makes You King: the eventual outcome of Hongli's "adoption" by a consort backed by a powerful family name
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain!: Quite a few of the concubines try to undermine or overthrow Zhen Huan but ultimately she only becomes more beloved and desired by the emperor as a result. Some particular offenders are Promise Yu, Consort Hua and eventually the empress.
  • One Steve Limit: Consort Qi (Qi Fei) and Concubine Qi (Qi Guiren), but it's not the same word/character in Chinese.
  • Polyamory: A common practice in ancient China. It's nothing special about the emperor of China to have hundreds of wives in his palace.
  • Protagonist Journey to Villain: Zhen Huan, but the process happens to a lot of the characters over 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, but it works with the setting of the Imperial Harem.
  • Replacement Goldfish: Zhen Huan to Empress Chunyuan. Sent her into Heroic BSoD when she found out.
  • Right-Hand Cat: Two ladies have cats, and neither of the cats are completely innocent.
  • Royal Harem
  • 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 genunely fears 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." Implication: this TV show misled a good portion of China to read this character improperly.
  • Spoiled Brat: Implied with Concubine Qi (Qi Pin), because she 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 have shown to be 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: To be fair, they only appear dumb because there are too many Chessmasters floating around, and they only die because it was ancient China and it only takes one word from the Emperor to kill them.
    • played straight with Qi Pin, who keeps bothering Zhen Huan even though Zhen Huan out maneuvers her time again and clearly has a better grasp of the Emperor's favor than she does.
  • Would Execute a Girl: The Emperor
  • You Never Did That for Me: A lot of the concubines feel this way about what the Emperor does for Zhen Huan (or anyone the Emperor happens to favour), but Consort Hua is most vocal about it, at least to her servants.
  • Your Cheating Heart: Zhen Huan's and Yurao's father. Also, Shen Meizhuang


Example of: