Under the Microscope (2023) 显微镜下的大明之丝绢案

Summary:  A Ming Dynasty era mystery, the brilliant but singularly focused mathematician Shuai Jia Mo ft Zhang Ruo Yun discovers an inaccuracy while out calculating the area of a plot of land. That leads to further discoveries of inaccuracies in the county’s accounting and tax numbers that may also be related to the death of Shuai Jia Mo’s parents 20 plus years ago. 


Total Episode Count: 14

Initial Airing Date: Feb 9

Platform: iQiyi


*Note – most English translations are my own and may not exactly match iQiyi’s official translations


Rating: 7.7/10 – A fantastically fun show that is nail biting and sprinkled with humor, this short drama manages to make a potentially dense topic of taxes into an intriguing introspection of human nature.  The acting across the board is superb, particularly by the older actors and makes this a thrilling watch though it is held back by some pacing issues and some moments of dryness due to the subject matter at hand.

Main Characters


帅家默 Shuai Jia Mo – 张若昀 Zhang Ruo Yun

A prodigal mathematician, he is only focused on making sure his numbers are right. He has high IQ but low EQ as he only knows what’s right and wrong from the numbers but does not know how to balance the benefits and consequences behind human nature. He experienced a traumatic childhood and is best friends with Feng Bao Yu. He measures land area for a living, as his late father did.

丰宝玉 Feng Bao Yu – 费启鸣 Fei Qi Ming

Technically a studying scholar, he loves gambling instead and relies on his best friend Shuai Jia Mo’s math skills to help rake in the money. But when push comes to shove, he is willing to help his friend fight for what is right and is a great balance for his friend who does not know much on how to speak to people. 

程仁清 Cheng Ren Qing – 王阳 Wang Yang

The equivalent of a lawyer, this individual can twist words to meet his desired result. HIs catch phrase is however much money you give me, I’ll give you that amount in fairness. At first, this guy can seem extremely slimey and greedy but as the series progresses, there is more than meets the eye.

丰碧玉 Feng Bi Yu – 戚薇 Qi Wei

Feng Bao Yu’s older sister and manager of a local meat curing business, she has money and brains to run a successful business. Unfortunately, her status as a woman prevents her from achieving more in life. She absolutely adores and dotes on her brother and looks out for his friend, Shuai Jia Mo.

范渊 Fan Yuan – 吴刚 Wu Gang

A ruthless and calculating man. He was formerly a highly respected court official who retired to Jian An Prefecture where he maintained a highly connected web of individuals that he relied on to maintain his power and status. He primarily focused on maintaining his power and monetary gain by asserting his influence on various spheres of society.

Plot Overview

This drama’s screenwriter is the author Ma Bo Yong who wrote the book for this drama. He is also a well known author behind books that turned into several dramas such as Luo Yang and The Longest Day in Chang’An. This 14 episode drama is based off of one case in his full book Under the Microscope or 显微镜下的大明。

At the beginning of the show, Shuai Jia Mo, who the director says has Asperger’s, calculates the square area for a plot of land as part of his job. But he discovers that the calculation is off compared to what official documents states. This causes him to be singularly focused on this wrong number even as a fight breaks out behind him. He next goes to help his friend, Feng Bao Yu, make some money at the gambling house. They get into a tiff with the gambling house owner who accuses them of cheating, when in reality, it’s just that Shuai Jia Mo can do math really well and can calculate the odds of his cards. A huge fight breaks out where the duo are saved by Bao Yu’s sister, Feng Bi Yu. 

The group is brought forth to court and are met with a formidable lawyer, Cheng Ren Qing who easily twists words to fit his goals, or the person who pays him the most. Fortunately, Shuai Jia Mo is able to be released with the help of the Feng family. However, after he is free, he decides to investigate further his inaccurate calculation. After intense calculation, he finds that there is an extra tax amount that his county is paying. A total 3530 taels of silver each year. He brings this up to the county magistrate and beyond. While Shuai Jia Mo is only interested in correcting a wrong answer, this incorrect tax amount soon uncovers the various connections between not only different counties but also between the landed gentry.




What I liked:

  • Setting, production and costumes!
    • The production and setting of this drama is top notch in that for once, we actually see what the poor citizens in town are like. The main character, Shuai Jia Mo, has broken shoes, his clothes are made of coarse material and his face is dirtied. You look at him and you can tell he’s not wealthy. The townspeople and farmers in this story also do not have the nicest clothes. Their faces are tanned and lips dry. Even one of the officials is shown to have patched clothing. That brings a level of immersion we have not seen in recent dramas particularly palace dramas which love showing off the glitz and glamour. I really appreciated this change because it also shows that the cast is not afraid to get down and dirty for a role which many young stars are unwilling to do these days.
    • The scenery of this drama is also stunning. While some parts were filmed in Heng Dian, many scenes were filmed on location in An Hui province and that brought about another layer of beauty to the drama.
    • Ming Dynasty Setting
      • We haven’t had too many dramas set in the Ming dynasty lately. I know some people liked Royal Feast which is set then but again I feel like the setting here is more grounded since we’re away from the palace. It’s a nice change of scenery and is leading me down another rabbit hole of Ming dynasty costumes and etiquette. 

  • A deep introspection of how rare it is to keep a pure heart; how society tramples even those with the best of intentions:
    • Often times, corrupt officials are painted as just officials looking to make a quick buck. They don’t care about the citizens and are easy bad guys. In this drama, there are very few purely “bad guys” and also few purely “good guys”.
      • Bad guys – The most intriguing are officials who all took the imperial entrance exams and originally wanted to do good for the world but then reality came crashing down and beat them down. How reflective is this of current society? County Magistrate Deng privately deeply admires Shuai Jia Mo’s mathematical acumen and in another world would want to be friends but is forced to turn Shuai Jia Mo in due to pressures he faces as a relatively new official. County Magistrate Mao knows his defense of Fan Yuan is unethical but he has no connections or money apart from his aging old mother. He has no choice but to sell his soul in order to do some type of good for his county and to live up to all the suffering his family went through to place him where he is. Lawyer Cheng Ren Qing was once headed for the top in his class and even got the girl of his dreams. But then his classmate snuck cheating materials in his bag which caused Cheng Ren Qing to be banished from ever taking the imperial examinations. That and the death of his wife meant he could only make a living as a lawyer to the highest bidder, thereby turning his back on his bigger aspirations at court and being a good person. Official Ren recognizes that there may be inaccuracies in the tax numbers but he has to fight against it because he does not want to burden his county any further with even a tael more of taxes which could equal the death of one of his citizens. County Magistrate Fang at first is called a statue because he doesn’t do anything, partly because he’s lazy. But when push comes to shove, he does care about his citizens and steps in to help Shuai Jia Mo and Feng Bao Yu many times.
      • Good Guys – Shuai Jia Mo and Feng Bao Yu meet Huang Zhi Fu and Li Xun Fu, two magistrates who help them along in their quest to correct the incorrect silk tax number. But guess what, they are not doing this purely to help these two men. While both these officials are benevolent, they are more interested in seeing how they can use the case to bring them back on top. Huang Zhi Fu (prefecture magistrate) in particular was just demoted from the Capital and desperately wants to use this case to return. 
    • I really enjoyed this aspect of each character we met that it often times wasn’t as simple as black and white. Shua Jia Mo put it best. Why did a simple math question turn into such as mess?  
  • Strong acting by a diverse cast:
    • For marketing purposes, Zhang Ruo Yun, Wang Yang and Fei Qi Ming have their faces plastered everywhere but honestly, Wang Yang’s Cheng Ren Qing was the most interesting individual to watch. Though, the rest of the cast, primarily all of the officials we meet in this drama were just as captivating. No matter how few scenes or lines these individuals were in, they captured their moments to help draw you in to their world and motivation. As described above, almost each person in this case had many layers and you can’t help but be glued to the subtleties on screen. Also, everyone used their own real voices for the drama so each person had to showcase their real enunciation abilities without the aid of a voice dub. 

Some hesitations:

  • Pacing Issues: These are small nitpicks to an overall strong drama.  I did think the pace of the show was a little all over the place particularly near the end of the drama as the stakes grew higher and climactic events were met with screeching halts or else long monologues.  The flashback scenes in particular detract from the story and I kept wanting to skip those flashback scenes and return to the present. Overall, this does not detract from a highly enjoyable watch
  • Jargon: Surprisingly, the more complicated math talk in this drama was limited. What scratched my head a little more was the tax and administerial talk.  This is probably just a me thing that even I was slightly confused at the different levels of court ministers and the administrative requirements of land ownership in the Ming Dynasty. I feel like the drama did the best they could though with the subject matter so this is just a small warning that some people might be lost even with English translations on some of the more involved monologues.


Stray Observations:

  • SO MANY FACES FROM JOY OF LIFE – I felt like I was watching Joy of Life 2 because you have so many people from Joy Of Life or 庆余年 in this drama. I will admit it took me out of the story for the first few episodes because you have an affinity for each person thinking oh, they must be a good or bad guy, but then the drama drew me in. 
  • Kitty! Cat lovers rejoice as there is an ADORABLE stray kitty prominently portrayed in this drama. In all the behind the scene clips, everyone adores this little stray cat that they found on set and had great acting timing. The original cat was not cooperative on set so this kitty took its place. They all named named her Nv Ming Xing or Female Celebrity, only to find out at the end of filming that she’s actually male. Haha. 


Let me know what you think of this drama!



1 thought on “Review: Under the Microscope (2023) 显微镜下的大明之丝绢案

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