The Story of Ming Lan
Welcome back to Chasing Dramas! This is the podcast that discusses Chinese culture and history through Chinese dramas. We are your hosts Karen and Cathy! Follow us on instagram or twitter at Chasing Dramas or else email us at karenandCathy@chasingdramas.com with any comments or feedback on what we’ve discussed today.
Today we’ll cover episode 2 and episode 3 of 知否知否应是绿肥红瘦 – or The Story Of Ming Lan! Please listen to the Intro to the Drama episode for this drama to get some background about the show, history, and cast. The drama is available on YouTube with English subtitles so please follow along with us. We are paying attention to the English translations that Youtube provides but we will provide our own translations for some title names and phrases if we feel they fit better with what we’re trying to say.
This podcast is in English but with proper names and historical phrases said in Mandarin Chinese. Additionally, please note that we are not historians or academics. Granted we’ve done research for this podcast but urge listeners to continue to conduct your own research as well. The sources for this podcast include the original novel the book was based on, various pages on the internet and physical books on Song Dynasty history we’ve consumed.
I will be honest, the next couple of episodes are rather sad so I’ve generally avoided re-watching them too often. But they set the groundwork for how 明兰 develops in the later episodes so it’s good to see the conflicts.
The core of this drama is around family life in the Song dynasty. This episode begins with the 4th daughter of the 盛 family, 墨兰, trying to impress Grandma 盛 by reciting some texts she’s memorized but Grandma 盛 isn’t particularly interested in listening her. 墨兰 returns to her mother where she throws quite a tantrum. Her mother is the concubine, Mistress 林 or 林小娘 who wants her daughter to tend to Grandma 盛‘s side because that means there will be more opportunities for her daughter. We’ll despise 林小娘 later but we have the empathize with her wish of trying to ensure that her daughter has a comfortable future.
Little 明兰, greets her father after he finishes a chat with Grandma 盛 where Grandma 盛 praised him for disciplining his son after his embarrassing display during the engagement betrothal. Evidently, nothing escapes Grandma 盛’s eyes. She also urged him to see 明兰 and her mother because this embarrassment was prevented because of 明兰. After he exits the room, he sees cute little 明兰 waiting for him. She wants him to visit her mother and he finally agrees to see them. 明兰 runs off in an excited flurry. Isn’t she just the cutest? Yes, her and little 小桃.
From this conversation scene, we can surmise a few things. One, 盛纮 does not favor 明兰 and her mother. Though 明兰’s mother, 卫小娘 is pregnant, he does not visit them often. Instead, he favors 林小娘。 And two, 明兰 is very generous and kind. She wanted to gift the pastries that her grandmother gave her to her father. This means she doesn’t keep everything for herself but knows when to offer good things.
明兰 excitedly shares with her mother that her father will come visit them. Her mother warns 明兰 not to mention anything about the coal and the fact that they aren’t receiving their allotted allowance. The maid 小蝶 goes out of the house to exchange their unusable coal for usable coal in order to have heat in the house when 盛纮 or Master 盛 arrives. At a main door, she is stopped by a servant because she does not have a pass to leave. Another servant helps her exit via a side door. This turns out to be a problem in the future.
明兰’s father does indeed come to visit and everyone is very excited. He praises 明兰”s arrow tossing skills and he and 卫小娘 have a pleasant conversation while 明兰 goes out with the maids to make tea. For this brief moment, it’s a warm scene. However, 明兰 disobeys her mother’s words and mentions how they only have a little bit of coal left. Her mother tries to stop 明兰 from saying more but 明兰 ignores her and kneels to the ground in tears. She recounts their destitute living conditions – they are freezing at night, they save their tea for guests, even pastries from Grandmother are saved for special occasions.
盛纮 is shocked to hear this and storms out of the rooms, looking to stand up for 卫小娘 and 明兰。
Unfortunately, this scene is seen by a servant that runs off to spread the news.
盛纮 storms right over to his wife, Madam Wang or 王大娘子 ‘s rooms. This is actually quite hilarious. At first he’s all in a huff trying to be the big man but when he sees her, he immediately changes tact and doesn’t directly accuse her of anything. Why does he go there first? It’s because, normally, it’s the wife of the house who manages the household. Giving out coal would fall under her purview. Thus, it makes sense for 盛纮 to ask why his wife is not giving the concubine any coal. 王大娘子 doesn’t have a good temper and immediately gets into a shouting match but her maid who is evidently more even-keeled than her master, reminds 盛纮 that the family keys have been given to his favored concubine 林小娘, 王大娘子 has nothing to do with giving out coal.
盛纮 pauses. Now he realizes that it was 林小娘 that was neglecting 明兰 and her mother. But before he can do anything, we see that 盛纮“s servant had already exposed this news to 林小娘, to help prepare her for what’s to come. Of course, for a heavy fee.
When 林小娘 is asked to come to the main hall where 盛纮 and 王大娘子 are sitting, she is fully prepared with fake records indicating she never lied about giving 明兰 and her mother their allotted items. When asked then, where the materials went since 明兰”s room is indeed freezing, 林小娘”s camp suggests that someone must have stolen it.
Now this is where we see the manipulative and devious nature of 林小娘 vs the overly kind 卫小娘。The entire family goes to search the rooms of 卫小娘 and her servants to find that all of the missing items were in the maid 小蝶”s rooms. They grab all of the items and presents them in the courtyard where 盛纮，王大娘子 and 林小娘 are. The maid 小蝶 is accused of stealing all of these items for herself. Obviously we know that’s not true. They must have been planted by 林小娘。
It turns into a whole fiasco with multiple parties crying and accusing each other. 盛纮, the master, who a favors 林小娘 and b doesn’t care for matters of the household, wants to kill 小蝶 and be done with it. Only with the reminder that it’s still 华兰’s betrothal ceremony and unlucky to spill blood does he change his mind. In the end 小蝶 is banished from the household and sent to hard labor.
This scene, as infuriating as it is, is incredibly revealing of each character.
林小娘 – she is devious and manipulative. She knows how to plot to harm others and has money to pay for spies in the household. She was the one to frame 小蝶 but does so without raising too much suspicion. She plays up the inexperienced woman and easily garners pity. We just want to roll our eyes at this but it’s quite effective. She also shows us why she’s been able to run the household so smoothly to reap the benefits for herself. She has herself a network of loyal servants or spies that will inform her of any news! Of course she’ll pay them.
卫小娘 – Ming Lan’s mother is kind but overly meek. She tends to just take everything that happens and does not fight back. One could say that this is the best way to avoid conflict and to live peacefully, but by being too much of a pushover, she is easily trapped by plots like these. However, when you listen to her begging for mercy, she manages to raise key points as to why 小蝶 should not be killed. This, and other examples from this episode tells us that she’s intelligent. Just unfortunately, too weak.
王大娘子 – Her main problem is that she has a temper and she looks for easy wins but she’s not that unintelligent. She stated that she does not believe 小蝶 must have stolen everything and therefore she’s happy to essentially call the police. Unfortunately, her husband cares too much about his face for this to happen. To be fair, she just wants an excuse to punish 林小娘. I don’t think she much cares about 卫小娘. We’ll talk about her background and upbringing in future episodes but she has a major chip on her shoulder that irks her husband and quite frankly the rest of the household.
This leads us to 盛纮 – He cares too much about his reputation and not enough about his family. He’s not ready to call the police or 报官 as they say it because it would mean everyone would know his family may have been burglarized. This looks bad for him. He cares more about that than ensuring that not wrongfully accusing someone of theft. He also overly favors his concubine, 林小娘 and gave her too much power in the household which created quite an imbalance in the family. His own personal backstory is a driving force for his behavior and as the drama progresses, we’ll dive deeper into all of this.
Before much else can happen, we hear news that the eldest son of the family, 长柏 has been beaten. 盛纮 and 王大娘子 rush out to see their son.
What happened here?
The other main thread in this episode is the pleasant outing between 长柏, and the mysterious boy from the first episode. His name is 白烨。 长柏 and 白烨 seem to have hit it off really well and went off on a large boat to enjoy a wonderful meal. Unfortunately, bandits raid the boat and kill many people. Luckily, 白烨 knows some martial arts and is able to fend off quite a few folks. 长柏 is pushed off the boat and falls into the water. 白烨 also falls into the water after a heated battle.
In the evening, news of 长柏 and 白烨’s harrowing experience reaches the 盛 family. While 长柏 returned, 白烨 is no where to be seen. This causes an uproar because we find out that 白烨 is actually 顾廷烨，the 2nd son of 宁远侯, the Marquis of Ning Yuan. He changed his name to make it easier to travel and came down with the Yuan family for the betrothal ceremony. If anything happens to 顾廷烨, the son of a marquis, there would be huge problems.
The entire city is sealed as the magistrates and city officials search for 顾廷烨。 There’s a massive manhunt and they finally find a body with the clothes that 顾廷烨 was wearing that day. It looks like this poor guy has drowned.
On 明兰”s side, the maid 小蝶 is banished from the household but it looks like 明兰 and her mother are now provided with the right amount of coal and food. 明兰 is really happy to hear this but you can tell that her mother is uneasy.
In her rooms, 林小娘 is plotting in her own way. She saying all the right things and providing all the necessary services to 卫小娘 during her pregnancy but we have to watch out for her.
The episode ends with some random dude wearing colors of mourning, telling the elders of his clan that in 2 days, it will be a good day for a funeral. Who’s funeral and who is this dude? We will find out in the next episode!
Let’s get on with our historical analysis!
First up is the poem that 墨兰 recites.
春江花月夜 by 张若虚. My translation of the title is “a moonlit night by the spring river”. Written by the Tang Dynasty poet in 张若虚, this poem has been praised as 孤篇盖全唐 or one poem that stands above the rest of Tang poetry. This is extremely high praise if we look at all of the poems that were written during that time period.
The poem has 36 verses. The first section depicts the beauty and tranquility of the evening with the moon shining brightly on the river bank. The middle section is a reflection of life. The last section is about the longing and wishes of a wistful wife and a lonely wanderer. The two lines that 墨兰 quotes,
昨夜闲潭梦落花, 可怜春半不还家 – Last night, I dreamed of flower blossoms falling into a pool, but for me, the spring is already half over and I haven’t returned home.
It’s a beautiful poem. It is rumored that the poet stood along the banks of the river in 扬州 and was inspired to write this piece.
张若虚 himself was born around 647 and died around 730. He was a famed scholar and civil servant during his time. However, his poems were not widely mentioned or quoted for several centuries. It was only during the Ming Dynasty were his poems included in collections of the Tang Dynasty. He only had 2 pieces, including this one 春江花月夜 included in 全唐诗 or the Book of Tang Dynasty poems, a comprehensive collection of around 49 thousand Tang Dynasty poems that was commissioned by Emperor 康熙 in 1705 . But hey, if even one can be included that’s high praise.
There’s a famous traditional chinese melody with the same name and widely performed.
When the master 盛纮 finally visits Mistress 卫, he praises 明兰’s arrow throwing or pitch pot abilities. He says a line, 君子六艺, 射为其五. The translation is this – a gentleman has six arts. The 6 arts are the basis for chinese gentlemen’s education and this tradition dates all the way back to the Zhou dynasty over 2500 years ago.
The six arts are 礼、乐、射、御、书、数.
Specifically for archery, there were five ways to master the skill which is why it’s called 五射 or five type of archery. This also ties to the origins of pitch pot or arrow toss. Last time we mentioned that during the Zhou Dynasty, men were expected to know archery. The 6 arts is a reflection of this tradition.
Next let’s discuss the strict social structures of the household, especially with regards to children, wives, and concubines.
In the drama, the Madame 王 or 王大娘子 is the wife. The literal translation is Big Madame. She is the wife to 盛纮. She properly married him with all of the bells and whistles that we saw in the previous episode. The main wife or big madame usually is the daughter of a wife from another family. 林小娘 and 卫小娘 are mistress of this household or concubines. The literal translation of 小娘 is little madame. Usually, mistresses were from poorer households, from a lower social strata, or the daughter of a mistress. The wife or 大娘子 should typically manage the household. We’ll see in this drama that it’s not the case here and expand in future episodes.
Children of the family are strictly divided too. Every child in the family, no matter who your actual mother is, must refer to the wife or 大娘子 as mother or 母亲. If your mother is a mistress such as 明兰’s mother 卫小娘, 明兰 can still only call her birth mother as 小娘 or little madame. She cannot refer to her birth mother as mother. Ok in private maybe, but in public, there is only one mother for the children in the household and that’s the wife or 大娘子. Listen when you watch the drama, this distinction is made very clear, especially in public. The children of 林小娘, which include 墨兰 and 长枫, don’t bother in private but that’s already against tradition.
These restrictions will constantly be the source of conflict in this story. We’ll expand on this as well but we want to lay the groundwork here.
Differences from the book –
Let’s discuss some differences in the book and some analysis on the characters.
The maid 小蝶 doesn’t exist in the book. She’s a character that was added to correctly highlight the cunning and wiles of 林小娘 and the naivety and meekness of 卫小娘, 明兰’s mother. 明兰 herself is but a child but her mother is no match for 林小娘. I mean, the madame 王大娘子 isn’t so…it’s a pretty sad state of affairs. We won’t see much more of 小蝶 in the drama but she’s our first introduction to the casualties of women’s battles in a home.
In the novel, 顾烶烨 never comes to 扬州 as a teenager and doesn’t befriend 盛长柏. He shows up way later in the book. The whole scene of him and 盛长柏 encountering assassins on the boat doesn’t exist. The next episode revolves around 顾烶烨’s family so we’ll provide more backstory there.
Here we also get a glimpse more of the slimy behavior of 华兰’s future brother-in-law. He’s happy to sit back and watch the fun when he heard wind of potential scandal in the 盛 family but as soon as he hears of 顾烶烨’s potential death, he immediately begs the 盛 family for help. Let’s just say that 华兰’s life in the Yuan Family will not be extremely peaceful…especially with these in laws.
Lastly, the little actress for 小桃 is so cute! I love her! She’s one of 明兰’s most loyal maids and will stay that way throughout the show.
That is it for the second episode of the Story of Ming Lan. We’re meeting the players in the 盛 family household. What happened to 顾烶烨？ We’ll find out in the next episode!
The music you heard in this episode is the Chinese Zheng version of the main theme of the show. The sheet music is written by 玉面小嫣然 and played by Karen.
If you have any questions or comments on the show or what was presented in today’s episode, please let us know. Thank you all so much for listening. We will catch you in the next episode.