Welcome back to Chasing Dramas. This is the podcast that discusses Chinese History and Culture through historical Chinese Dramas. We are your hosts, Cathy and Karen! Today we are discussing episode 11 of The Story of Ming Lan or 知否知否应是绿肥红瘦。 This podcast is in English with proper nouns and certain Chinese phrases said in Mandarin Chinese. Follow us on instagram or twitter or else email us at email@example.com if you have any questions.
Normally, we do an episode recap and then discuss the history brought up during the episode but today, the conversation is rather complex so we’ll go through the historical references in the episode recap.
Let’s get started!
At the beginning of the episode, we get a respective scene with each of the 3 Sheng daughters and their reactions to the events and punishment from the previous episode by their instructor 孔嬷嬷.
First up is Mistress Lin, 林小娘 mother of 墨兰. 墨兰 unsurprisingly is sniffling and crying about her poor luck. She still doesn’t think she did anything wrong but 孔嬷嬷 knew exactly the type of person you are. In a completely different tone than before, her mother 林小娘’s now just waiting for 孔嬷嬷 to leave. Wasn’t it you who wanted to have your daughter take classes with 孔嬷嬷?
墨兰’s now despairing that her father 盛纮 will abandon them. Again, you didn’t listen to any of 孔嬷嬷’s discipline. She blatantly disregards any of the favoritism that 盛纮 has shown her before. When 盛纮 arrives, he again reinforces that he’s of course favors her over the other daughters. 墨兰 – what are you not happy about? But, BUT I do think 盛纮 learned from 孔嬷嬷’s words because he doesn’t stay. He says a few words and leaves. I feel like if it was before, he would have stayed much longer to make sure everything’s all right.
Over at Grandma Sheng’s place, 明兰 is in full fangirl mode as she recounts the events of the night to Grandma Sheng. As I mentioned in the last episode, all of this in the book was actually spoken by 华兰, the eldest daughter who’s already married, not 明兰 as is here in the show.
明兰 recognizes that learning the arts from 孔嬷嬷 is only secondary. She must learn how to navigate the world from 孔嬷嬷. 明兰 was impressed at how easily 孔嬷嬷 was able to subtly remind her father the dangers of favoring a concubine over a wife. She must learn, because who knows! Her future husband might be like this.
Grandma Sheng is impressed that 明兰 grasps the importance of these lessons and sighs that her daughter-in-law never learnt these valuable life lessons. Madame Wang lived a life of privilege and didn’t deign to learn during her youth. Now look at her, losing her husband’s attention to the mistress literally every time.
Over at Madame Wang or 王大娘子’s quarters, 如兰 has already gone to bed. 王大娘子’s bemoaning her own impulsive actions in the last episode. Her head maid, Miss 刘, also gently reminds her to be careful with her words in future. The master, 盛纮, wasn’t truly upset about Madame Wang’s punishment of Mistress 林, 林小娘. He was upset that 王大娘子 kept spewing out the words 庶子 or being born from a concubine, which is exactly what he is. Now here’s the difference between the two women, 王大娘子 and 林小娘. 王大娘子 recognizes her mistake and tries to change, whether she’s successful is another story but 林小娘 shows absolutely no remorse for her actions. For her, her and her children’s own glory and wealth is way more important the the glory of the 盛 family. 王大娘子, being the wife, does indeed put the Sheng family first.
There is another plotline with 明兰’s aunt, aunt 卫 that continues. 明兰 and Aunt 卫 are trying to figure out, who framed 明兰‘s mother’s maid all those years ago. 明兰 comes up with a good plan. She requests Aunt 卫 leave the 盛 household immediately. That way, it’ll prompt those who are guilty, to act. The two suspect that this has to do with 林小娘 but they don’t have proof. So, Aunt 卫, under the cover of night, sneaks out of the household. And look who follows them out? It is indeed 林小娘’s head maid, 雪姨。 They’re now nervous that 明兰 might know something and so they must cover their tracks. Little do they know, this is walking straight into 明兰’s trap.
With one class done, the Sheng daughters head back to class with Scholar 庄。 As the eldest female member of the family, Grandma Sheng has to agree to continue the young ladies’ education. As such 盛纮 comes asking for her permission. 盛纮’s really only asking for 墨兰.Again, his favoritism is on display. Grandma Sheng at first puts on a show waving him off, stating that she needs to think about whether the daughters should continue their educated in front of 盛纮。She, of course, knows that going to school is important for the daughters but she needs to make 林小娘 and 墨兰 worried and believe that they won’t get this opportunity in an effort to make them realize that this is not something easily obtained.
Back in class, there is a rather spirited discussion. The scholar says he’ll choose a random phrase from 孔子家语 which is the Family Book of Sayings by Confucius to discuss as a way to prep the young men for 会式 or the Metropolitan exams.
The random phrase he lands on is 立嫡长乎 立贤能乎 孰佳. This is super old Chinese. Essentially it means, selecting the eldest or the most virtuous, who’s better?
In English the word for this is primogeniture which means the state of being the first born child where the right of succession belongs to the first born. This in Chinese history almost always referred to male preference primogeniture. We googled this and was actually surprised to find out that male preference primogeniture changed to absolute primogeniture only recently regarding the current British royal line of succession. So if we think about it, Princess Charlotte can now inherit. Being female does not exclude her from the line of succession but before the Succession to the Crown Act 2013, she would be placed behind her younger Prince Louis.
The question that is being posed is whether you ought to name your eldest, born from your wife, or do you name your most virtuous and capable as heir even though he may not be the eldest and potentially not born from the wife?
This question is quite apt as it applies, as 长柏 notes, to current politics. How? We saw in episode 4 that the current Emperor, 宋仁宗 does not have any male heirs. Therefore, the role of heir or the title of the crown prince and the next Emperor is currently unknown. From an empire planning perspective, this is problematic as it means the future of the dynasty is not stable. The Emperor must select a man from the royal family and adopt him as a son to be the next heir.
In this current drama, there are 2 options that 顾廷烨 names 1 is 兖王， the other 邕王. And remember, 王 here is a title. Almost equivalent to Prince. Both have a certain amount of prestige to be considered for the throne. These are characters introduced for this drama. There is no real life counterpart for these 2 people and the drama surrounding these 2 princes did not exist in history. These 2 princes did exist in the book though.
So what’s the deal? From 顾廷烨 we learn that 邕王 is older than 兖王 by half a year. 邕王 has no real talent but has lots of sons and so the family line would not have to worry about being passed on. 兖王 on the other hand is the more capable Prince but he also doesn’t have many sons, potentially threatening the royal bloodline again.
This is where the spirited discussion starts between the students and each person’s own personal experience shapes their answer. Let’s take a moment to recap each person’s birth.
On the men’s side, you have:
长柏 – He is the 嫡长子 of the 盛 family. He is born of the main wife and also the eldest male. Because of primogeniture, there is no doubt he will inherit the Sheng family line.
长枫 – He is the 3rd son of the 盛 family and a 庶出, born of a concubine. He’s younger and not born of the main wife and therefore, has no real claims to titles. His only route to fame and fortune right now is through the civil service exams.
顾廷烨 – He’s a second born 嫡子。 His family has 3 sons, each of which are 嫡子, one each from the wives that his father married. No one is a 庶出。Even though he was born from a wife, at this point he will not inherit because his elder brother 顾廷煜 will inherit everything.
And then there’s 齐衡 – He is the 嫡子 but also the only heir to the Duke of Qi. He of course, will inherit, and has no knowledge of the struggles between siblings.
On the women’s side, as we know, 如兰 is the 嫡女 while 墨兰 and 明兰 and 庶女 though 墨兰 wants to be better than just that.
So, 顾廷烨 says that 邕王 should be heir. He’s older and has lots of sons but just isn’t talented. This is rebutted by the Sheng Family 3rd son, 长枫. Remember, he’s the son of a concubine. He chimes in that sure 兖王 is younger and only has 1 son, but he is more capable. Why shouldn’t he get a fair chance at the throne. 顾廷烨 is rather focused on the fact that even though 兖王 is younger by half a year, he’s still younger. There’s rules that society has created.
长柏 is asked for his opinion. And now we get to go through the gamut of Chinese Emperors so hold on to your horses as we go through everyone. He things that it should be 嫡长 who becomes heir and brings up the anecdote that 秦始皇 废长子扶苏 立胡亥 秦朝二世而亡. What does this mean? Ok now we’re getting into the meaty history portion of the episode.
秦始皇 is the famous Emperor who unified China in 221 BC. He’s the one who has his terracotta warriors uncovered in 西安。While you would think that because this guy unified China, his dynasty would endure. But nope, this dynasty only lasted 2 generations. 秦始皇’s eldest son 扶苏 did not become heir and but it was instead 18th son 胡亥. There was an internal coup where 胡亥 killed most of his siblings to pave the way to the throne. Unfortunately, 胡亥 was not fit to be Emperor. Just 3 years after taking the throne in 210 BC, he was forced to commit suicide in 207 BC and the Qin dynasty dissolved.
长枫 though provides a counterexample of 汉武帝 who was not the eldest born but became another imposing figure of Chinese history. We’ve talked about 汉武帝 quite a bit in our last podcast drama discussion. He is the 7th emperor during the Han Dynasty ruling for 53 years between 141 – 87 BC. He’s well known for having expanded China’s borders and fending off the Xiong Nu. He established the silk road and named Confucius teachings as the primary philosophy. He was not the first born of his father, but rather his 11th son.
However, 顾廷烨 pokes a hole in this counterargument because while 汉武帝 was not the eldest, he was still a 嫡子 because his father deposed of the original Empress and named 汉武帝’s mother as Empress. Thus, he is the natural heir to the throne as 嫡子。
At this point, 墨兰 points out that 西晋惠帝 became emperor because of his status as 嫡长子 despite his developmental disabilities, leading to the destruction of the empire and turmoil of China lasting several hundreds of years.
晋惠帝 is the second Emperor of the Western Jin dynasty and ascended the throne in 290. Unfortunately, due to his developmental disabilities, many nobles and aristocrats attempted to seize power through a regency. The most notable was his wife Empress 贾南风. Due to her disastrous efforts, she spurred the War of the Eight princes, leading to the 五胡之乱 or the Five Barbarian Rebellions. The Jin dynasty lost control of the northern and central territories as a result of her regency and China was plunged into turmoil. According to 墨兰, this could have been avoided if primogeniture was not followed.
墨兰 also brings up 唐太宗 who wasn’t 嫡长 the eldest but born from the wife and was still was able to create a era of peace. This though isn’t the best example. 唐太宗 is another one of the most famous Emperors in Chinese history. This Tang dynasty Emperor ruled from 626 to 649 and while true he wasn’t 嫡长子，he killed his 2 brothers – the crown prince and the 3rd prince, and forced his father to step down from the throne so that he could be Emperor. This is the famous 玄武门之变 or Xuan Wu Gate Incident。So…not entirely the best example in my opinion.
顾廷烨 however retorts back that second born sons also don’t have a stellar record. Just look at 隋炀帝, the second Emperor of the 隋 dynasty. He was the second born son to the wife and due to his extravagant spendings, lost his Empire to the Tang Dynasty after only a few short years. Ok for Emperor 隋炀帝, there’s been more controversy about him and his legacy. Previously, he’s been viewed as a villain but now scholars argue for his importance in Chinese history. He was the one who actually began the imperial civil service exams during his reign. However, the point still stands that he did indeed lose his Empire and died pathetically at the hands of his nobles.
With all these anecdotes and examples being shared, the Scholar notices that 齐衡 nor 明兰 made any comment.
He pushes them to answer but 明兰 tries to avoid the question as it touches on politics which is not something she thinks they should have an opinion on. 长枫 instead shifts the question to be closer to home – what happens if there’s a capable 庶子 but an average 嫡子? Who would you pick to inherit? Who would you pick to run the family?
At this point, 明兰’s sisters all push her to answer. 齐衡 tries to help but is stopped by 顾廷烨. Surprisingly 顾廷烨 jokingly states that 明兰 should be able to handle herself. If the young duke keeps trying to protect 明兰, her sisters will get more and more irritated.
Karen – interesting…
Let’s see how 明兰 reacts. She begins not by answering the question but asking the same question instead to 齐衡 and 顾廷烨 and how they would respond for their families.
顾廷烨 kind of waves off the question – he has two brothers. If his younger brother is more capable than him, he should inherit.
齐衡 points out, this is not the same because all of 顾廷烨’s brothers are of course legitimate sons. In the grand scheme of a clan and family’s success and reputation, having a 庶子 inherit would disrupt tradition and bring shame to the family.
Well these two then get into a discussion that fully reflect their own personal upbringing and history. 顾廷烨 is on the camp of the 庶子 should inherit but 齐衡 believes the 庶子 should aid and assist the 嫡子. 顾廷烨 is the cynic who believes its every man for himself whereas 齐衡, with no brothers, is naive enough to believe customs and norms will be followed.
After all this discussion, the Scholar asks for Ming Lan’s thoughts. And I think her response is certainly something we should reflect on. She says that no definitive response, is the definitive response. Being virtuous or not, is something that can be faked, but your birth rank is not something that can be forged. If the 庶子 is truly virtuous, he would not aim to destroy his family clan for personal gain. On the flip side, if the 嫡子 knew how to effectively manage his brothers so they do not have these alternative thoughts, the family will also remain prosperous. She then ties this back to the earlier discussion about who should inherit. She says men should love their country, why not understand each person’s place and not be involved in meaningless fights?
The crucial line she says is 不如做个纯臣. Which means – why not be the simple and loyal subject? So why is this line important? Well because by bickering and splitting into factions, the Emperor or the head of the family can’t tell who is loyal to him. He would become suspicious that those bickering want to usurp his power. Regardless of who inherits, he needs to show loyalty to the current head of the family.
Essentially what she’s saying is that why should there be a discussion of who to name as heir? This fight over eldest vs most capable? If everyone knew their place in society this type of quarrel would not happen.
Quite wise words for such a young woman. Both the scholar and Ming Lan’s father, who heard this response from 长柏, are very impressed at hearing such wisdom.
And with that, this highly entertaining discussion comes to a close. What do you all think? Learned anything from all of this? Do you have your thoughts on who ought to be heir? Or do you agree with 明兰? One could say that her response is her way of not answering to avoid conflict, which is her preferred stance.
After the class, 齐衡 who is so smitten by this young woman stops 明兰 in order to ask about why she gave the brushes he gifted her away. 明兰 has to point blank tell him that the better he is to her, the more trouble that causes for her. He needs to stop treating her so well. Look at her body language. She is trying very hard to maintain propriety and not be seen in a way that could compromise her reputation. 齐衡 doesn’t seem to mind. He just wants to talk to her. This boy is clearly in love.
The remainder of the episode shows that it is spring time and the sons are getting ready for the imperial exams. The exams they’re taking right now are 会试 or the Metropolitan exams. 明兰 is busy making knee guards for her brothers and an extra one for someone else. Once completed, she sends them over to her brothers rooms where we see that each of their mothers are frantically helping them pack for the exam date. 王大娘子 is at least appreciative of 明兰’s gift for her son because it means she’s thinking of them. 林小娘 doesn’t care for the gift at all and sees it as poor taste. Each of these mothers are hoping their sons will place very highly on the exams and bring honor to the family.
In the next episode, we will see these young men head off to take their exams.
We went through the historical references already so I want to dive a little bit deeper into the education of women here.
Earlier in episode, 盛纮 requested for his daughters to continue their education with scholar 庄. Grandma Sheng delayed her response. When 明兰 was asked by her grandma about the importance of education, 明兰 responds that of course education is important! If it wasn’t, why do men all strive to be educated? The lack of education is nothing more than a cage with which to lock women into. Grandma Sheng concurs and states that throughout history, women from the most prominent clans and families were all well educated. Their families knew the importance of education and made sure their daughters all received a decent education.
I bring this up because I want to put this conversation in the context of Chinese culture and tradition. China has always been a very conservative, patriarchal society and restricted women in many many ways. As we continue to watch the show, we need to remind ourselves that everything each woman does is to find a good husband. 墨兰 learns poetry and the fine arts to catch the eye of an eligible bachelor. 如兰 has it a bit easier but she must also remember to remain proper when required. 明兰, the youngest, still must behave accordingly because at the end the day, she also needs to find a respectable husband. An education would increase their chances to find that decent husband and manage the household. Most women did not receive an education. If the family had some sort of means, then the priority was always for the sons to go to school. The women just had to learn household chores.
Sometimes it seems like we judge 墨兰 harshly but she has to survive somehow. I don’t agree with her methods but I will point out that it is true that each woman has to find a way in the world and 墨兰 is using whatever methods she can to grasp onto the best for herself.
The judgements we’ll make, again are going to be in the context of this patriarchal society, which is so hard for women.
Book differences –
During the class, we also see that a barrier was placed to separate the men and women. Right now, there are two “outside” men in the class 齐衡 and 顾廷烨. It was improper for outside men to blatantly be in the presence of unmarried women without supervision and as such the barrier was erected. It’s also I guess for story purposes. In the book, the 3 盛 daughters weren’t even allowed to continue class with scholar 庄 once 齐衡 arrives to take classes with the men so this is a welcome change.
The atmosphere in the book was also much lighter, 明兰 instead questioned her maids different questions about the young girls in the family to make a point about who’s the eldest, who’s the most virtuous, leading to much laughter. This scene is actually also the first time 齐衡 meets the girls in the book. 明兰 didn’t know he overheard her and this is the instance where she gave 齐衡 such a lasting impression.
Now the phrase of 不如做个纯臣 or why not be a loyal subject was spoken as the punchline by scholar 庄 in the book. His underlying point is that no matter who becomes Emperor, you must be loyal to whoever is the Emperor. As this topic is directly related to current events, the scholar couldn’t openly teach this to his students and thus used this roundabout manner to teach this lesson.
That’s that for today!
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.