Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace (如懿传) is loosely based on the real life of Step-Empress Hoifa Nara (1718-1766). Her fallout with Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799) is one of the greatest mysteries in Chinese history. It continues to baffle historians to this day. The fallout happened suddenly, brutally, and without prelude on one regular day during their 4th vacation trip to the south. From witness accounts of that fateful day, the Emperor and the Step-Empress were having a grand-ole-time together. There were no sign of marital trouble. But when dinner time came, she was nowhere to be found. It was only later that people discovered she was sent back to the Forbidden Palace in Beijing. Soon after, the Emperor rescinded all her privileges. While she still retained the title of Empress, she was treated like a minor concubine. When she died a year later, her funeral arrangement was that of a regular consort and not the grand ceremony for an Empress. On top of that, he never granted her son a rank, as customary for an Emperor and Empress’ adult son. And, her family line was demoted back to the Bordered Blue Banner. When the court officials protested the gross injustice, the Emperor angrily explained his harsh treatment stemmed from the Step-Empress losing her mental faculty and cutting off her hair during their vacation. And because of her degenerative mental state, he found her unfit to be the Empress of Qing Empire or to be buried next to him in the royal tomb.
In Manchurian custom, a woman cut off her hair when A) her husband died or B) her parent-in-law died. Since both were alive and kicking, her hair cutting was essentially a death curse on them. As a Manchurian royalty, she knew full well the repercussions of her blasphemous act. So the million dollar question is: Why did she cut off her hair?
Unless we can travel back in time and be the fly on their Imperial chamber wall, we will never know what actually happened in that fateful afternoon which made her publicly announced her wish for the Emperor and/or the Empress Dowager’s death. What mystified me is not her falling out of the Emperor’s favor but how the Emperor treated her afterwards. Why did the Emperor take away all her powers and privileges but keep her as the Empress, if only in name? Or why he kept her Empress title but adamantly refused to posthumously honored her and her son, which he was more than willing to do for other dead treasonous royalties? Or his attempts to obliterate the image of her from all the royal paintings?
If you don’t believe the Emperor’s BS about her cracking under the pressure of being an Empress, then RRL can offer you one possible explanation.