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! Today we formally start off the discussion of the Story of Ming Lan with episode 1. 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.
We are excited to officially start 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. We are purely fans of Chinese history and these dramas with the ability to speak both languages. 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.
Typically for the show, we will do a recap of the episode and then discuss our analysis and history. However, since today is the first episode, we’ll spend more time introducing the characters and providing some background to the story and setting. We will also be adding differences to the book or providing more background from the book if we think it’s helpful.
The Story of Ming Lan is set during the Northern Song time period, around 1050AD during the reign of Emperor 赵祯 or his temple name is 宋仁宗. Most historians will refer to the emperor’s by their temple name for this dynasty. So we will also be referring to this emperor as 宋仁宗。
Our drama though revolves around 盛明兰, the 6th daughter of the Sheng Family. This drama is very much about life, struggles, politics, and intrigue of family life in a feudalistic society. This show gives a sneak peak into the lives of men and women, their strict roles, and of course their confines. China throughout its history has been a patriarchal society. Polygamy was widely accepted and roles of women were always subservient to men. The previous drama that we discussed, Empresses in the Palace was all about the concubines and consorts that an Emperor had. In Empresses in the Palace though, as concubines of the Emperor, these women came from powerful families and had a certain amount of wealth and status. In this drama, the Story of Ming Lan, we will explore the status of women or lack thereof and the strict confines with which they can operate. That is not to say that the focus will be all on women, there’s a huge cast of characters that will be introduced and we will see each try to find their way through this feudalistic society.
Before we actually get to the episode, let’s explain some of the key players. Otherwise, this drama can get confusing. On one hand, it’s great that the drama just throws you off the deep end and expects you to understand what’s going on, on the other, it’s difficult to follow without repeated viewings or a good knowledge of Chinese history.
The drama starts with the Sheng Family currently in 扬州. The head of the family is named 盛纮. Whom we’ll call either Master or Magistrate Sheng, or else 盛大人 in Chinese. His wife is named Madame 王若弗. In Chinese, this is 王大娘子。There are also 2 concubines. 林噙霜 or Mistress 林 or 林小娘 played by the amazing 高露。 I want to fan girl a little bit here about 高露。 We’ve been a fan of her for years and she normally plays the moral, righteous and intelligent woman so it’s a fun ride to see her turn into a despicable and manipulative concubine in this drama. There’s also Concubine 卫. She doesn’t have a maiden name. Now on Youtube, the translations of these women are Big Madam for the Wife and Little Madam for the concubines. That’s the literal translation which we personally don’t know if we like, so what we’ll do is call the main wife, Madame, and the concubines, the Mistresses. For the daughters, we’ll call them Miss or else Lady.
In this drama, there are 6 children in the family. The birth order is as such: Oldest sister 华兰，then 2nd son 长柏，3rd son 长枫，4th daughter 墨兰，5th daughter 如兰，and lastly 6th daughter 明兰。In this society, it’s different from the last drama where the sons ranked separately from the daughters. The children are ordered simply by birth. The main wife, Madame Wang or 王大娘子 had 3 children, 1st daughter 华兰，2nd son 长柏 and 5th daughter 如兰. Mistress 林 or 林小娘 had 2 children, 3rd son 长枫, and 4th daughter 墨兰。 Mistress 卫 has one daughter, the 6th daughter and our main character, 明兰。
In total, there are 2 boys and 4 girls. All of the girls are named with 兰 which means orchids while the boys are named with 长 which means longevity. The naming conventions we will talk about more in-depth in future episodes. This drama cuts out a lot of characters from the book. The head of the household, or the father had plenty more concubines and another son. In this episode, 华兰, the eldest is of marriage age and a lot of the chaos today stems from her betrothal. The youngest， 明兰 right now is around 6 so there’s a pretty big age gap.
The most revered person of the household is the grandmother. Grandma 盛。 She plays a crucial role in the family. Technically she should be called Madame Sheng but Karen wants to call her Grandma 盛 because we like her. CRUCIAL to this drama and a key piece of information we have to all remember is that she was the main wife of the head of the household. But her son died and so she actually raised a concubine’s son to become the head of the family. Therefore, 盛纮, or the father of these children, have no blood relation to Grandma Sheng.
Without further ado, let’s get started!
The first scene provides a glimpse of the family fights that happen between the maids of the women who are in favor vs not. We’ve seen plenty of this in the last drama we discussed, Empresses in the Palace, 甄嬛传 so we’re familiar with how it goes. The more in favor you are, the more materials you receive. The less in favor you are, unless you have money and can bribe your way around, you are left to the mercy of servants who can make your life hell.
We open the episode with a cute little girl crying because she wasn’t given any charcoal for her mistress to heat up the rooms for winter. Another maid 小蝶 hears of this and immediately storms over to the kitchen to gather supplies. She is haughtily greeted by Miss Gan who doesn’t comply and refuses to give her coal. Another maid, Miss Zhou who seems kind, intervenes and tries to tell 小蝶 to stop this ruckus. Oh ho, however Miss Zhou is an absolute two faced snake so keep that in mind for the rest of the drama.
However, today is the engagement of Lady 华兰, the servants shouldn’t be causing a commotion! But, 小蝶, the maid, argues that her mistress is pregnant and needs supplies. She threatens to bring this up to the Madam of the family. Miss Zhou finally agrees and tells Miss Gan to fetch charcoal from under the stove. Miss Gan ponders this for a moment, lights up and hurriedly agrees. The maid 小蝶 only takes her allotment and hurries out. She misses the smirk on Miss Zhou’s face.
Once this conflict has been established, the other main drama of the episode is introduced in the form of an argument between Madame Wang and Master Sheng. The main husband and wife of the household. On youtube, the translation for his title is Magistrate Sheng but he’s often referred to as Lord. That is unfortunately not accurate since he is not titled to be a noble. He is only a scholarly civil servant with a small role in court. He is not a noble or lord by any means.
In the main bedroom, the madam of the house or the primary wife, Madame Wang is throwing a hissy fit. She’s angry at her future in-laws, the Yuan family. Why? Today is the betrothal gift ceremony or 纳征 for her first born daughter Lady 华兰. We’ll talk about this ceremony at the end of the episode. The Yuan family is currently in the capital city of 东京 or 开封 but they sent only the first born son to send the betrothal gift or 聘礼. This is a huge slap in the face. It’s customary for either the in-laws themselves to bring the bridal price or a clan elder. Madame Wang is furious at this affront. She’s worried that her precious daughter will be treated poorly at her husband’s house. Which to be fair, is an actual worry.
Madame Wang is going to be the life of the show, because she is actually hilarious. She’s also not very intelligent and generally becomes upset at the smallest things. She’d get eaten alive if she were in the palace with Zhen Huan.
The man of the house 盛纮 is busy trying to mollify his wife. How can he not dote on his daughter? He found his daughter a great marriage! He himself is currently only a magistrate but his daughter is marrying into the family of an Earl or a 伯侯! The second son of the main wife too! This is quite an honor. No matter what, she won’t worry about luxury and comfort and she’s definitely marrying up.
Madam Wang finally relents and allows the groom’s party to arrive for the celebrations. So, here’s conflict number 2. The 袁 family and 盛 family are to marry. The 袁 family is more powerful and wealthy, being nobility. However, they’ve already shown that they are disrespectful. This will come into play later.
At last we get our first glimpse of our main character, the young Ming Lan and her impoverished living conditions as a daughter of an unfavored concubine! She’s only 5 or 6 at this point. The coal that the maid 小蝶 procured earlier is not suitable for use in rooms. The smoke is too strong. Remember when xiaodie procured the charcoal? Miss Zhou explicitly said give her charcoal from beneath the stove. Miss Gan did just that – the coal from the stove is too smoky for use in the rooms. Poor Mistress Wei and her family still can’t use coal to keep warm. Mistress Wei, who is pregnant, is shown to be kind and understanding but also poor. She trie to push a silver bracelet to 小蝶 to try to pawn for money to turn into coal. Ming Lan, seeing this doesn’t want her mother to pawn the bracelet. It’s the last of her dowry. Her mother kindly urges Ming Lan to spend time with Grandma 盛。 There’s an opportunity to stay by Grandma 盛’s side which will mean better educational opportunities. Ming Lan’s mother wants 明兰 to try for this opportunity.
Without her mother’s knowledge, 明兰 comes up with the idea that they exchange the unusable coal for some usable coal. Even if it’s not a lot, it’s still something to use. From this scene, we see that 明兰 is intelligent and caring. She loves her mother deeply but they are in a destitute situation. Her father does not know they are not being given their monthly allowance of materials and he doesn’t care enough to know which tells us 卫小娘 is not favored.
For those of you who watched 芈月传 or the Legend of Mi Yue, the young actress for Ming Lan is the same as the baby Mi Yue. I remember when that show came out, everyone was so in love with baby Mi Yue because she was adorable. In this drama, Young Ming Lan shows her amazing acting chops.
While they’re struggling to get coal, the Yuan Family is arriving with the betrothal gift for the eldest daughter 华兰。 We researched and the translation SHOULD be bridal price but Cathy thinks it’s too barbaric so this time, we’ll go with the Youtube translation – the betrothal gift. We’ll explain this at the end of the episode. It’s an impressive scene. There is a huge procession of servants carrying a wide array of gifts and most prominently featuring a pair of geese or 雁。 This emphasizes to us that the Yuan Family is indeed very wealthy. The Sheng family is lined up in their main entrance room to greet the procession. All of the children and Master 盛 and Madame 王 are ready to greet the procession. Notice how the 3 young girls are lined up with Ming Lan at the end? She’s the only one without any ornaments in her hair. As the daughter of an unfavored concubine, she doesn’t have anything to wear for an event like this. This scene I really like because it shows us a glimpse of what this type of ceremony might actually have been like during that time period. There’s a servant that runs up requesting the acceptance of the betrothal gift and after some hesitation where the Master looks at his wife to ensure she will actually agree, the two announce that they agree to this marriage.
The yuan family is allowed in and there’s a joyous celebration. Everyone is having a great time. We want to clarify that this isn’t even the actual wedding, just the acceptance of the betrothal gift. There’s food on tables, games and relatives arriving for a fun time together.
The excitement lasts for like 30 seconds before a potential scandal happens. In this society and honestly in general, a lot of Chinese society, 脸面 or your reputation/prestige , is absolutely crucial. The third son, 长枫 is playing what translates to Pitch Pot or Arrow Toss with his sister’s betrothal gifts as the bet. The literal translation is 投壶. Particularly, the 聘雁 or the betrothal geese. He’s playing with a boy who’s tagged along for the procession and has been losing and is almost about to lose all of her gifts. While 长枫is just a child, losing the betrothal gift is a big stain on the Sheng Family’s reputation. We’ll explain this later in this episode but the geese are very important betrothal gifts and losing them is not good.
As the child is losing this game, many parties are already freaking out about what to do. Madame 王 is huffing her way over to the scene. Magistrate 盛 is already having a tense conversation with the Yuan Family representative, the Yuan’s oldest brother and his wife. Master 盛 thinks the Yuan family should ask the winning child to call off the bet while the Yuan family doesn’t think it’s their job. The Yuan family ultimately refuses to do anything to appease this humiliating situation and Master 盛 storms away from the conversation.
In the end, this humiliating scene happens because the 3rd son, 长枫, got drunk and was goaded into this bet. He’s still young, probably in his early teens but still, this is a bad reflection of him, his mother and the whole family. His mother is the Mistress 林, a concubine. To the outside world, it’s not his birth mother who will be ridiculed, but Madame Wang, the woman of the household. His mother is very cunning and recognizes that this does not look good for anyone. She actually gets a slap to the face by Madame 王 because of her son’s behavior and she immediately starts scheming on how to save him by punishing him severely.
Back to where this bet is happening, Madame 王 catches up to her Husband who’s sneakily trying to watch the game’s progression. It’s actually hilarious because she’s rightly furious and he’s also freaking out about what to do. The two are of course embarrassed and head over to 长枫 who’s steadily losing. Master 盛 whispers in his son’s ear that if he loses, he’ll beat him to death. The poor kid freaks out and backs away. Master 盛 tries to chorale everyone back to the banquet and move their attention away from this bet, hoping to save face.
At this exact moment, our main character 盛明兰 steps in. This little girl picks up a fallen arrow and successfully tosses it into the pot. Everyone is stunned. Her opponent, a young boy in blue, says that if he competes with this little girl, it won’t be fair. He’s willing to back away from the game. Technically this is the result that everyone wants but 明兰 is adamant in wanting to compete. She acknowledges that her older brother lost the previous rounds but she is willing to bet that back.
Because she’s our main character, at her young age, she tosses the arrows and each one she’s able to get in. Her opponent ups the ante and tosses two arrows in at the same time. It looks like she might lose but in the end, she tosses a game winning arrow. Without a doubt, she won that round. The 盛 family is ecstatic at this result. Before the 袁 family can ask for another round, a strong wind blows through, forcing everyone to move indoors for food. This effectively ends this rambunctious interlude to what originally was supposed to be a fun day.
As everyone goes inside, the young boy who was competing against the 盛 family accidentally bumps into 长柏 the 2nd son of the family. They have an initially heated exchange because 长柏 is understandably annoyed that this boy came to humiliate his family but become acquainted after the boy swears he will never toss arrows and gamble again.
Fortunately the drama of this gamble comes to an end but through this conversation, we find out that the older 袁 brother is not a nice person. The boy said it was this 袁 brother that told him to make this bet. Therefore, it was the 袁 older brother who came here to try to humiliate the 盛 family. That’s a rather despicable thing to do and we get a glimpse of what type of family 华兰 will be marrying into.
While the family was able to save face thanks to 明兰, it does not mean they’re not going to punish 长枫 or the 3rd son for almost humiliating them. We end the episode with 王大娘子 angrily storming over to where 长枫 is. He’s already currently being beaten by his mother 林小娘。His father is also there. 王大娘子 of course wants to beat the kid for almost destroying her daughter’s engagement party. 林小娘 doesn’t try to ask for forgiveness. Instead, she proactively asks for severe punishment for her stupid son. This surprises 王大娘子 a little bit but she’s happy to hear that this kid is receiving punishment and lets the beating happen.
Unbeknownst to her, this was all part of 林小娘’s plan. She knows that this time her son made a huge mistake. The only way to save him is to seek punishment for him. That way, 王大娘子 will be appeased and 盛大人 will also feel happy. If she had asked for forgiveness, 盛大人 will annoyed at her and her son which will in turn cause them to lose favor. It’s all about maintaining favor with the head of the household. This time, she takes a short term losing position in order to stay in favor in the long term. You’ll notice 林小娘 specifically asked for 东荣, one of the Master’s servants, to beat her son. She’s already contacted him on how the beating will happen so as to not beat her son too badly.
That’s it for the episode. I do want to highlight 华兰 here. I actually forgot about her for a bit when I watched this drama the first time and was so confused as to who she was. She is shown to be quite wise and very caring. While the bet was happening, she actually came up with the idea that as long as her mother and father remain on the same page and behave as one unit, the result won’t be too bad. Both her family and the Yuan family will lose face. But if her father and mother start fighting against each other, then only her family will lose face. This tells us that 华兰 is intelligent and knows how to resolve these types of family squabbles. We also find out that she gifted 明兰’s mother with a warm cape at the beginning of winter. She, the eldest daughter of the family and the daughter of the wife with a strong family backing, marrying into nobility, does not need to do this for a concubine. But she did. This shows us that 华兰 is very kind to her family regardless of family status.
We also met Grandma Sheng very briefly. She plays an important role in 明兰”s life so we’ll talk about her more in the next episodes.
Ok. That was a LOT to take in. Now, we’ll talk about some of the history and interesting pieces of culture presented in this drama.
The drama is currently set in 扬州, which is in modern day 江苏 province, not too far east from 南京. It’s a historically significant city known for great merchant families, poets, artists, and scholars. The city itself is constantly referenced in novels, poems, and history. Due to its location at the northern bank of Chang Jiang, the city became prosperous from commerce. During the Sony Dynasty, trade flourished in the city. In 1126, 扬州 briefly became the capital of the Song Dynasty when the Jurchens invaded and captured the capital city of 开封.
Ok, moving on, the main action of the episode revolves around the wedding gift exchange or 纳征. This is the 4th step of 6 in accordance to historical Chinese Wedding traditions.
The six steps are
The proposal 纳采 – the man’s parents request the matchmaker to propose marriage with the woman’s parents. Before this of course, the matchmaker would discuss potential matches with both the man’s and woman’s family. Once the woman’s parents agree to the proposal, then we move to the next step.
Next is request of the name and birthdate 问名. The man’s family would ask the matchmaker to obtain the woman’s name and birthdate.
Then we move to divining results and preparing betrothal gifts 纳吉. The matchmaker would then match the name and birthdate information between the man and woman to see if it is an auspicious match. The name and dates include the 8 characters of year, month, day, and hour of birth which would be used to divine the fate of the marriage. If it is deemed auspicious, the man’s family prepares for the betrothal gifts or bride price, which is the 聘礼 that is so prominently featured here.
Then we move to the 4th step which is featured here in this episode of 纳征. The now groom’s family will send the betrothal gift to the bride’s family. There is to be a banquet for this ceremony. The groom’s family will send a list that details the contents of the betrothal gift. Originally, the contents included furs, pelts, silks. Over the centuries, precious metals and jewels were added to the list. The betrothal gift of course is determined based on the status of the woman’s family and to a certain extent the man’s family. There’s a delicate balance on how much should be put into this gift. If it’s too little, it would be insulting to the bride’s family and the bride’s family might not allow the groom’s party to continue with the ceremony.
The 5th step is 请期 or arranging the wedding. The groom’s family would select an auspicious day for the wedding ceremony and bring gifts to inform the bride’s family. The Chinese were extremely superstitious so it was important to avoid unlucky days for weddings.
Finally is the wedding ceremony or 亲迎. The groom would arrive at the bride’s home with a wedding procession to bring the bridge home to his household and conduct the actual wedding ceremonies.
Note – throughout this entire time, the bride and groom do not need to meet. Marriage was between two families and as we just described, the traditions revolved around the two families, not necessarily the two individuals involved.
In the drama, the two geese are prominently featured. A pair of geese has long been used as a symbol of marriage in Chinese tradition dating back for more than 2 millenia and were written down in various such as 仪礼 the Book of Etiquette and Ceremony written during the Warring States period.
Why geese? Well, there’s several reasons, all basically to put a female in her place. First – geese will fly according to the seasons without fail. It represents when it comes to marriage, there cannot be any delay. The second, geese fly towards warmth. They will fly south during the winter and north during the summer. From cold to warm. In Chinese tradition, female represent 阴 or cold and male represent 阳 or warm. The flight pattern of geese represent the 阴 always flying towards the 阳. In a marriage, the wife will follow her husband wherever he goes. Third, when geese fly, they always fly in formation representing structure and order. When a woman marries into her husband’s home, she must follow the strict social structures and maintain order. Lastly, geese mate for life with only one partner. When one in the pair passes, the other will not mate again. A pair of geese represent faithfulness. As for wedding traditions, this is to wish the newlywed couple a life of prosperity and happiness till death do they part. Again, this really only applies to women cause as we see in the drama, the man can do whatever he wants.
Well – to be fair, a man can only have one wife 妻. He can have concubines or 妾 but they will never receive the same ceremonies as the wife. So I guess this whole geese thing does still work?
Interestingly enough, geese are featured in 5 steps of Chinese wedding tradition. 纳征 which is what we see here in the drama is the only one that’s not. In 明史, the History of Ming Dynasty – the goose was explicitly stated as not being needed for this step of the wedding custom of 纳征.
The 5th step 请期 explicitly requires live geese because when the groom’s family brings the geese to the bride’s family, it represents that the dates have been set and the geese must return at the arranged date, just as the geese will return for their normal journeys in the wild.
In the drama we also get a shot of 2 golden bowls containing 2 live goldfish in each bowl. This is also customary at the time to send as an auspicious gift. Fish or 鱼 is a homonym for words idioms such as 富贵有余 which means bountiful in wealth and fortune. So this is sent for good fortune and luck. Props to the drama for showing this in one shot.
Tou hu or pitch pot or arrow toss is an old game dating back to the Warring States period. During the Warring States period, it was customary for the host of a ceremony or party to invite guests into archery competitions. It was rude for guests to refuse and seen as an insult to the host. During this time, all male guests were expected to know archery. It was embarrassing if one did not. Over the years though, guests indeed did not know archery and tossing arrows into pots replaced the traditional archery games. Before the Eastern Han Dynasty, 投壶 was primarily played as a ceremonial rite. After the Eastern Han Dynasty, 投壶 was played more and more for entertainment.
The Song Dynasty scholar 司马光 actually scoffed at the entertainment transformation of 投壶. The whole point was about building character, building morale.
Historical paintings of the 投壶 are exactly like what is shown in the show for this time period. The two ears on the side of the pot were added during the Jin Dynasty.
Let’s clarify here that the title of 伯 = Equivalent to a Count or in other countries an Earl. It’s a titled position and means you’re a member of aristocracy. Not the highest, but still quite good. We’ll try to match these titles to the British nobility so that it’s easier to translate into English.
Right off the bat there are some significant differences between the book and the drama. 华兰’s wedding doesn’t happen for a few years in the book and we are introduced to her as a loving elder sister. 华兰 is only a few years older than Ming Lan in the book so she’s around in the book for much longer. The whole pitch pot fiasco doesn’t happen in the book and the older brother of the Yuan family isn’t an asshole during this ceremony. We’ll find out who the young boy who competes with 长 is but Ming Lan doesn’t meet him for a long while in the book.
However, I like the introduction of these characters in this episode. We know immediately who is the madame of the house, who are the mistresses, and how differently servants, children, and women are treated in the house based on favor from the master of the home.
Well that is it for the first episode of the Story of Ming Lan. Certainly a lot going on and many characters already introduced to us but also many interesting aspects of Chinese history that were presented.
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.