Putting on a successful TV show in China is a challenge. Producers run the constant risk of having their programs cancelled for portraying “incorrect” values or interpretations of Chinese history.
One genre, however, has managed to flourish for decades in spite of these restrictions: the gongdouju, or “court conspiracy drama.” Often set in the lush imperial harems of the Qing dynasty, these shows pit a female protagonist against a host of other manipulative, dangerous, and beautiful women who vie for the emperor’s favor—while trying to make it to the last episode alive.
The characters of court dramas have become archetypes: the insecure empress; the jealous concubine who schemes her way to prominence; the enigmatic eunuchs who know all the secrets in the palace; and the ambitious maid who might sell out her mistress for the right price.
Despite cliché characters and anachronistic plots—and the sexist premise of many women competing to sleep with one man—these dramas have become pop culture mainstays. The 2012 series Empresses in the Palace, also known as The Legend of Zhen Huan, is the seventh most re-run show on Chinese TV, ranking among old favorites like Journey to the West (1986) and Princess Pearl (1998). After 2018’s The Story of Yanxi Palace hit the airwaves, replicas of the empress’ hairpin sold out on Taobao, and a hot pot restaurant in the Forbidden City had to suspend operations due to overcrowding by fans eager to dine like their favorite characters.
Mostly, though, these shows’ vast cultural influence can be felt through the internet memes and pseudo-historic lingo they have spawned. Based on characters’ stereotypical lines—which, like the plot, are almost identical in every show—palace lingo is already widespread in WeChat essays, customer service messages on Taobao, and everyday conversation. Don’t be surprised if your courier sends you a text message that addresses you as 小主 (xiǎozhǔ, young master)!
While the emperor is nominally in charge, the concubines and the empress are the real architects of drama in any TV palace. These morally ambiguous characters have contributed some of the most famous lines from gongdouju, now used by male and female speakers alike.
Etiquette was paramount in the Chinese imperial court. For that reason, characters never refer to themselves simply as “I,” but change their pronouns based on the social standing of the other person in the conversation. A concubine, when speaking to servants, a lower-ranked concubine, and other subordinates, uses 本宫 (běngōng, “mistress of this palace”). Next time you’re tired and need some alone time to rest, try saying feebly, with a flick of your hand:
The mistress is tired. You can all adjourn.
Běn gōng lèi le. Nǐmen dōu tuìxià ba.
To address her superior—the emperor, empress dowager, or empress—a concubine would refer to herself as 臣妾 (chénqiè, “subordinate concubine”). This can be deployed to comical effect in ordinary conversations.
A: If only you stopped eating fast food, you could lose weight!
Nǐ zhǐyào bié zài chī kuàicān, jiù néng shòu!
B: But this humble concubine just can’t do it!
Chénqiè zuòbudào a!
Backstabbing is the stock-in-trade of a court drama character. The florid gestures and deferential speech patterns are just masks for the curses and insults they want to hurl at their enemies in reality. To confess an embarrassing incident to one of your friends—or just get them really interested in what you have to say—try this classic line used by the villainous empresses in both Princess Pearl and Zhen Huan as they tried to poison the emperor’s mind against the protagonists:
There is something on this humble concubine’s mind; she doesn’t know if she should say it or not.
Yǒu jù huà, chénqiè bùzhī dāng jiǎng bù dāng jiǎng.
In private, though, a TV concubine’s claws may come out—and when the mask of politeness drops, no one is safe from her venomous barbs. To express annoyance at someone (jokingly, of course), try the following insult used by the arrogant Consort Hua on the protagonist in Zhen Huan:
That hypocritical b–ch!
Jiàn rén jiùshì jiǎoqíng!
The proud ruler
Like his concubines, the emperor has to watch how he addresses himself. Some of the usual pronouns are 朕 (zhèn, “the sovereign”), 孤 (gū, “the solitary”), and 寡人 (guǎrén, “the widowed”). It has become trendy to use the pronoun 朕 for one’s pets, especially cats, the sovereigns of the internet. You might, for example, caption a photo of your kitty’s suspicious stare:
There are always malicious commoners who want to harm their sovereign.
Zǒng yǒu diāomín xiǎng hài zhèn.
And for the meme of a feline pensively looking out the window:
This is the territory that your sovereign has conquered for you.
Zhè shì zhèn wèi nǐ dǎ xià de jiāngshān.
To impersonate the emperor in ordinary conversations, you can try addressing your friends using 爱卿 (àiqīng, “beloved minister”). Note that while 卿 is a traditional form of endearment, 爱卿 evolved to simply be a term for high-ranking officials, without indicating the emperor’s affection for them:
Does my beloved minister come to me for any particular reason?
Àiqīng zhǎo wǒ yǒu shéme shì?
Please speak, my beloved minister.
Àiqīng qǐng jiǎng.
You can also mimic the imperiousness of an emperor when someone comes to you bearing news:
Report if you have anything to say, and adjourn if you don’t.
Yǒushì qǐzòu, wúshì tuìcháo.
The social climbers
Palace servants and eunuchs are at the bottom of the imperial totem pole (relatively speaking, since there is plenty of jockeying for position within the servant ranks in gongdouju as well). Thus, they use humble personal pronouns like 奴才 (núcái, “this servant”) and 小的 (xiǎode, “the subordinate”). When speaking to their masters, they employ flattery, and one line in particular has been picked up by customer service personnel looking for a five-star rating:
Give us a reward, young master!
Xiǎozhǔ, gěi ge shǎng ba!
One can also use excessive modesty when bidding goodbye between friends:
A: This subordinate needs to go home to walk his dog. Please excuse him from this assembly early.
Xiǎode háiyào huíqù liúgǒu, jiù xiān gàotuì le.
B: Are you riding back to your mansion so soon? Permit me to attend you to the elevator.
Nín zhè jiùyào qǐjià huífǔ le? Nà wǒ jiù gōngsòng nín dào diàntī ba.
Or issuing and responding to lunch invitations:
A: Out of 300 WeChat contacts, the sovereign has selected you to share his noon feast. Won’t you express your gratitude?
Sānbǎi gè wēixìn liánxìrén, zhèn zhǐ qīndiǎn le nǐ péi zhèn gòngyòng wǔshàn, hái bù kuàikuài xiè’ēn?
B: Your Majesty is wise! Thank you for your benevolence! This humble servant will attend your Majesty respectfully!
Bìxià shèngmíng! Xiè zhǔ lóng’ēn! Xiǎo de gōngyíng shèngjià!
Or simply when greeting each other:
Peace to you!
Gěi nín qǐng’ān!
Other palatial vocabulary can add a sprinkling of regality to your everyday speech. When describing a visit to someone more senior than yourself, instead of 见 (jiàn, “meet”), use 觐见 (jìnjiàn, “seek audience with”); instead of saying 睡觉 (shuìjiào, “sleep”), try 就寝 (jiùqǐn, “retire to the bedchamber”). The request 别生气了(Bié shēngqì le, “Don’t be angry”) can become 娘娘/大人息怒 (Niángniang/dàren xīnù, “Please calm your wrath, my lady/lord!”).
These lines add a dash of drama and tongue-in-cheek humor to your ordinary social interactions, but please be sure to use them only among friends, not during formal occasions. If you accidentally use them at work, don’t blame your boss for choosing to respond in kind:
Drag this person out and behead him!
Bǎ tā gěi wǒ tuō chūqù zhǎn le!
“Royal Roast” is a story from our issue, “The Wellness Issue”. To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.