The Pros & Cons of Empresses in the Palace (U.S. Version)

Chinese DramasDrama Reviews

The Legend of Zhen Huan (LZH), also known as Empresses in the Palace and Hou Gong: Zhen Huan Zhuan, is my all-time favorite period c-drama.  I am so obsessed with this show that I wrote reviews for the entire series and am even writing about it three years after it finished airing.  😉  So of course, I had to check out the American version of LZH–better known as Empresses in the Palace.  It aired on the HBO network and then was released on Netflix.  The new version has a new soundtrack, opening MV, some added scenes, and English subtitles.  It also cut down the drama from 76 episodes to 6 episodes.  Let’s just say that I have A LOT to say about the U.S.version.  😛


The Pros

Abridged Version: Time-saver

A lot of people do not want to commit 57 hours of their lives to watch all 76 episodes of LZH.  That is understandable and quite frankly, I’m surprised that I even tried LZH considering its crazy length. O_O”  Generally I don’t watch many period dramas because they’re so long and I fear that they will be really draggy.  So I get where people are coming from. Have no fear, instead of spending 57 hours on LZH, instead you only have to spend 9 hours on Empresses!  And you can still get the general gist of the story!

Exposure to the US audience

A lot of people who watched Empresses likely would not have known about it if it was not released on HBO/Netflix.   So it’s good that the US version gives American viewers exposure to the show and that it is accessible to a wide audience through Netflix.

No watermarks!

Those who saw the full-length version of LZH will know what I’m talking about.  There were 2 large watermarks on the upper right and left hand corners of the screen THE ENTIRE TIME!  On top of that, there were Chinese hardsubs for all of the dialogue.  Here’s an example of the watermarking:


So the great advantage of watching the U.S. version is that I can watch Empresses in all its glory without any extra watermarks or text on the screen.  I know, it sounds like a really shallow reason to give props to the U.S. version.  >__>”  BUT IT’S TRUE…

The Cons

Abridged version: Lacking in plot & character development, leaves out entire sub-plots, and cuts out 84% of the original scenes!

While it’s great that Empresses offers a shorter option, that is precisely its downfall.  Yes, the original show could’ve cut some scenes here and there, especially during the second half.  Pacing-wise, the original could’ve been faster.  However, the problem is that the new version cuts out WAY too much of the story, thus limiting the character and plot development.  It is on fast-forward mode the entire time, meaning that it can’t stop for nothing.  It can’t elaborate on the characters’ backstories, nor can it delve too deeply into their motivations.  I feel that Empresses gives off the impression that all of the concubines are just fighting with each other so that they can be promoted to a higher rank, be favored by the emperor, and have a luxurious life.  No, many of them are fighting 1) to live 2) to protect their families 3) to protect their household (or palace, whatever you want to call it).  Each concubine’s status is intertwined with their family’s political clout–and if a concubine makes one wrong move, she could implicate her entire family.  Not only that, but the 6-episode format oversimplifies the storyline; the schemes in the harem seemed too easy and not as complex as they were in the original.  Hua Fei, the empress, and Ling Rong are all defeated way too easily.  The show just whizzes by the antagonists as though they were as easy to defeat as A-B-C.


^Be sure to remember all of these characters’ names in just one episode!

And while the American version is a good way to introduce the story to new viewers, it also makes it harder for them to get situated with the story.  For instance, the first episode throws TONS of character introductions one after the other at the viewers, without giving them a chance to gain their bearings.  On top of that, there are new phrases, palace customs, places, etc. that they have to keep track of.  Viewers cannot remember all of this ASAP within one episode–even with the slower pace in the original, I still had a hard time remembering everyone!

Empresses tries really hard to insinuate things and leave them up to the viewer’s imagination.  It assumes that we will just fill in the blanks because everything is “implied” when in fact, it doesn’t leave enough clues/hints for a first-time viewer to get everything that’s going on.


^Hua Fei is unimpressed with the subs.

Inaccurate subtitles

I was looking forward to watching Empresses because I thought that it would have new and improved subtitles.  After all, these translations are professional.  Well sadly, the fan subtitles for LZH (on Viki) are better than the professional subs for the American version.  I was disappointed by the low quality of the subs and the obvious lack of effort that was put into them.  Some of the subs are translated either incorrectly (losing the context & meaning of the original line) or really poorly.  The subs lose the nuances of the dialogue, such as the hidden meanings behind the characters’ words.  And sometimes the subs skipped entire sentences.  Apparently the translators were either too lazy to bother translating every single sentence or they were unaware that they had skipped entire lines (and did not proof-read/edit their work).  Erm…

For first-time viewers, and especially for those who need subtitles, the inaccurate subs just make the drama more confusing and harder to understand.  For example, the subs give no explanation about the titles/ranks of the concubines.  So when Mei Zhuang starts out as Shen Guiren and then becomes Hui Guiren, there is no explanation given for why her title has changed.  Or the drama gives no explanation as to why Zhen Huan is sometimes called “Wan Changzai” and not by her full name.  Another confusing thing is the weird naming of the characters.  The subbers sometimes calls Zhen Huan “Huan” or “Zhen,” Shen Mei Zhuang “Mei,” etc.  Apparently when the characters use Zhen Huan’s nickname, “Huan-Er,” there is no indication of it in the subs.  Instead it’s just translated to Huan.  T_T

The only comforting thing I can tell myself is: At least the show wasn’t dubbed.


One indication of the lack of effort put into the US version is the Netflix episode summaries.  They are inaccurate and some of them make no sense at all.  Which leads me to think that whoever was writing them had no clue what was going on in the drama.


Episode 1:

The idea that Hua Fei is a new consort and that she is going against her brother (Nian Geng Yao, a powerful general) is totally wrong.  Hua Fei was originally married to the emperor back when he was a prince as one of his wives.  She then became a concubine after the emperor ascended to the throne.  There is no way that Hua Fei would go against her brother.  It defies logic; Hua Fei’s brother is one of the main sources of her unparalleled power in the harem.  Once her brother fell from power, the emperor had no need to keep Hua Fei around.

Episode 2:

The concubine Yu Daying tried to poison Zhen Huan, not the emperor.  When Yu Daying refused to commit suicide, the emperor’s court officials played no part in forcing her death.  Ling Rong (who was ranked Daying at the time) was the one who persuaded the eunuchs to kill Yu Daying.


Episode 3

Hua Fei did not blame Zhen Huan for her own miscarriage.  It is impossible for Hua Fei to blame Zhen Huan for her miscarriage because Zhen Huan wasn’t even in the harem when she miscarried!  Hua Fei actually blamed Duan Fei (another older concubine) for the miscarriage.  The emperor sorta made amends but he wasn’t manipulated or tricked.  He and the empress voluntarily gave Hua Fei temporary power over the harem when they left the palace.

Episode 4

I give this description a pass.


Episode 5

*facepalm*  Dr. Wen was NOT ordered to castrate himself!  And I have no idea where they got the idea that he was ordered to castrate himself because of Ling Rong!  Dr. Wen castrated himself on his own will, most likely because he felt guilty for sleeping with Mei Zhuang.  Ling Rong had nothing to do with the castration.

Episode 6

I give this a pass.

Draggy & unnecessary scenes of old-Zhen Huan


There are added scenes of old-Zhen Huan (as the empress dowager) wandering around the Forbidden City, looking off deep into space, and reminiscing about her life story.  All of these scenes are meant to let Zhen Huan narrate and introduce/end each episode.  It’s interesting that we get to see what Zhen Huan looks like in her later days as the empress dowager but overall, I felt like the scenes didn’t serve much of a purpose.

Changed the OST for no reason

OK now I sound like I’m being a LZH purist or something. =_=  But really, Empresses has an entirely new soundtrack even though the original OST already fit the drama perfectly.  I don’t see why they decided to spend part of their budget on producing a new OST when what they really needed was to put money into quality translations.


Obviously I think there are more cons than pros to the U.S. version of The Legend of Zhen Huan.  I don’t want to sound like some overly sensitive obsessed fan that is against any change whatsoever to the original drama. But come on, the least they can do is TRY to make the abridged version accurate in terms of the plot, characters and translations.  The final verdict?  The US version does not do justice to the original.

To watch or not to watch?

Personally, I’m watching the US version to see how it differs from the original version and to get a refresher on the story.  Plus it doesn’t hurt to watch it in sparkly HD on the big screen, eh?  For fans who have already seen the drama, I would only recommend watching this if you want to rewatch major parts of the drama.  If you’re a new viewer, watch with caution!  Don’t trust the subs!  And remember that there is always more to the story than the US version is telling you.  😉

Trailer – US Version

When I really think about it, everything that went wrong with Empresses in the Palace seems almost…laughable!?!  I actually started laughing while I was reading the inaccurate summaries because they missed the mark so badly.  I also got a kick out of the trailer for the HBO version because of the dramatic narration and the following phrase:

“A true story…”

Again, I am under the impression that they had no clue what was going on in the drama.

More Legend of Zhen Huan reads

You can find full reviews for episodes 1-76 of the Chinese version here.

Disclaimer: No copyright infringement intended by the use of screencaps.


I'm heisui, an Asian drama blogger and the creator of My Drama Tea. I love stories and writing, so I watch dramas and blog. I especially have a penchant for Japanese and Chinese dramas, and those hidden gems that are waiting to be discovered. Oh, and I'm Legend of Zhen Huan-obsessed!
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  • I loved this series. I am American and I love historical based dramas. Thanks to you I know now that there are actually 76 episodes of this awesome series. Just youtubed it and found it!!
    Thanks for the detailed review.

    • It’s on Youtube? I bought it in the end. The subtitles are extraordinary, and by that I mean bad. However, if you combine what you get from the short version with that of the long version you can get a pretty good picture of what they were really saying in Chinese.

  • Thank you for detailing all this. I just came across the netflix streamed US version, and thought I should look into it. Glad I didn’t try to watch that first. The poor subtitles would have done me in, and I get so tired of that, especially when it’s obvious. Heading to the more interesting full length, possibly better fan subbed, episodes.

  • Thank you for your comprehensive review. We started to watch episode 1 but gave up as the subs went by so fast my husband couldn’t read them and I was getting nothing out of the acting and the story. We watched all 51 episodes of the Korean drama Empress Ki and loved it! We became obsessed. It’s too bad the Empresses was dumbed down for the US market as it looks like a great story. Again, thanks for your excellent blog.

  • Thanks for so detailing review…I just finished to watch last episod..i dont know Chinese, so, it hard to me to judge how poor subs are..yes, it little bit to fast for my reading, but who expecst precise translation in any foriegn movie? You know what to expect, therefore its your choice: whatch or not . I personally love historical movies. Glad that this is short version( not sure i will be able to watch 57 episods) usual the longest version is too detailed and boring. Beautiflul Chinese women, what a faces!! Dresses, background, i really enjoyed and resting from modern movies w/ endless violence and murders..

  • I just finished watching Empresses in the Palace, the netflix version in Portugal. I had to come online and read some reviews, like yours, to understand it a little better, and I completely agree with your view.
    I only became aware that the original series have 76 episodes halfway through watching the abridged 6 episodes. The plot felt too rushed and was a constant balance between “where did you came from?” and sudden “ahah!” moments, since nearly all plots are revealed and concluded in less than 30 minutes. Additionally, to a foreign audience that does not know much about classic Chinese culture (I know very little), it truly gets complicated following the consorts constant title promotion that changes their names, family ties and places. It takes a lot of concentration to keep up, but to an attentive viewer it becomes easier after a while at least to get a general impression. In this 6 episodes, it seems the story is only about female power plays (without much political consequence), babies and women dying left and right, which in reality it seems much more than that.
    I watched the first episode in English and found the wording a little banal for a period drama, but when I watched the remaining episodes with Portuguese subtitles, I found that there had been some proofreading in it since the choice of words seemed more appropriate and different from the English version.
    Nevertheless, this is a stunning and intelligent piece of drama that I loved watching.

  • Please help! I can’t find the Youtube complete 76 versions as someone mentioned they had found in an above comment. I can’t find it anywhere unless I order entire series for over $100.00 in a format that won’t even play on my dvd or laptop. Can anyone please direct me with exact link. Thanks so much for any help.

  • Hey this review is spot-on for this non-Chinese speaking U.S. person. I think I was well into the 3rd season when I had a relatively solid idea of who was who. Plot-wise I didn’t know what was going on a lot of the time. And the lack of character development made it come across as soap opera-esque (albeit high-brow). And that intro and closing music are cheesay! It also doesn’t help that I know very little about that time in history and about all the different ranks. But it was so visually stunning I was hooked. And I did appreciate the way women were subversively powerful and of course I loved it when Zhen Huan kicked ass after the emperor died and she wanted to name the new emperor and she was all, “Yes it is so you can go look at it on the main document” (or something like that?). It was great to see her so assertive and taking charge. I guess she could finally express that part of herself whereas she always had to subdue it previously. I would love to see all 76 episodes of the original. I wish I could commission you to write better subtitles! Thanks for your review!

  • I’m so confused by this – I’ve binge-watch empresses in the palace from Netflix several times (it’s so engrossing!) and each time it took several days to complete. Unless Netflix changed it recently there were definitely more than nine episodes….
    Still, now I’m curious to locate the fa subs to see if there was anything I missed….

    • Gyah, I just check Netflix and was stunned. They definitely used to carry two seasons- they’ve cut it drastically…odd since they used to have the full thing (or at least more)

  • I originally watched it on Netflix, being the first I had heard of the series. However once I learned there were many more episodes to the series I searched them out, luckily I found the originals on YouTube. It was amazing the differences between the two and even having seen the Americanized version first I am glad I took the time to watch the original version. There intricacies of life in the harem are greatly brushed over in the U.S. version leaving gaping holes at times that leave you scratching your head. Sadly the site I was watching has been taken down so I cannot go back and rewatch at a later date. Time to search out an original 19 dvds.

  • Oh great. I watched the netflix version and had feeling that a lot is missing. Then i googled the drama and found out that it has 76!!!! Episodes. Then i read your post. Now i’m frustrated 🙁 but i don’t know if i want to watch the whole drsma again. Its really long. Thanks for your post.

  • I actually think Ling Rong did have something to do with Dr. Wen castrating himself. In that episode Ling Rong whispered to him about his sins or something like that. I think this served to make his more guilty. I honestly believe that Ling Rong didn’t know the outcomes of her actions and didn’t mean to make Mei die in childbirth.

    • Actually she did mean for Mei Zheng to die. In the original she drinks to her death and looks happy and bitter. She sent her servant to MZ to force her into shock and early birth.

  • I have been watching the US version…and being “untainted” by the original sprawling drama, I have to admit this show is very compelling and easily the best historical drama in a long time. I enjoy watching the scenes of Zhen Huang, now the Empress Dowager, reflecting on the past. Now that she is the most powerful woman in all of China, being the mother of the current Emperor, she is not a happy woman.

    I would say that one should take the US version as an appetizer or sampler. If it whetted your appetite, then delve into the original 70+ episodes series.

  • This rewiev is pure gold! Thank you so much for doing it. This finally explains why it was so weird 🙂

    As a historical costume enthusiastic, I was wondering about a detail in the elaborate costumes of the concubines. What is the purpose of the white scarf they all are wearing around their neck? Is it a rank sign? I see that they have different decorations on it….

  • So I have been watching the Emperess in the Palace series on Netflix. I went to check if there is a season two when I realized this was a highly edited series. I kind of feel cheated. I understand the editing but there should be clear info telling you of this at least and option to watch the full series on Netflix as well. I wonder if it’s a rights issue or they did not feel like paying for full subtitling.

    But now that I learned of the editing everything makes much more sense and the biggest issues I had with the series are explained. I have not watched Chinese tv before (just films) so I wondered about the fast edits and lack to cohesion to the one episode but it thought maybe it was some commercial placemat/different style. There also seemed many missed opportunities with storylines (expecially those dealing with the outside world) and I had hard time keeping track of characters that were constantly being introduced and changing names. But I kind of like constantly trying to figure things out so trying to count the concubines game was interesting.

    I came to here trying to find a way the watch the original. Maybe there is some info elsewhere in the site but if not hope you can respond 🙂

    • Hi, unfortunately the original fully subbed version is hard to find now. I don’t think it is available online. The original takes its time to develop the plot. Also the changing concubines’ names is not as hard to get the hang of in the original since it goes at a slower pace than the edited version.

  • I have always detested so called “professional” subs and find Netflix subtitles lazy and lacking. I feel the fansubs actually take the effort to preserve the essence of the original while Netflix simply chops off any cultural nuances in the dialogue.

    I came across this show while browsing on Netflix and have not watched the original. It was a very riveting plot but I’m not sure I’ll ever get round to watching the whole series. The number of episodes is kind of daunting.

  • I wonder if you have ever developed a character/.palace guide for the series? I am watching the 76 episode version, and there are times when a character will say “I am going to this or that palace” or “the emperor has gone to xyz palace” and I simply can’t remember who lives in it! I’ve looked all over the web and can’t find anything like that. Thanks! Enjoying your blog very much. This is a whole new world for me!

    • Hi, thanks for your comment. I have not developed a guide. Honestly I also don’t remember all of the palace names either. It took me a while to remember all of the concubines’ names and titles too. So I really relate to how confusing it can be. X_X

  • I have to say that you are too mild about the subtitles they are absolutely dreadful. They start ot well but by episode 20 are falling well short of professional and by 32 they are unbelievably dire!

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