Welcome back to Chasing Dramas! This is the podcast that discusses Chinese history and culture through historical Chinese dramas. I am Karen and this is Cathy. Today we are discussing episode 12 of The Story of Ming Lan, 知否知否应是绿肥红瘦。
Episode 12 is rather interesting and fun. It revolves around the all important Metropolitan exam or 会试 which is paramount for any academic hoping to become an official in the Emperor’s court.
Normally, we discuss the plot recap for the episode before going into the historical references from that drama, but today we’re going to flip it and go through the Chinese imperial examination and especially how it’s done in the Song dynasty to provide color as to what’s going on in the episode. Otherwise it’s probably too confusing.
Now, again to caveat that we are going to do our best to translate this. It may not be the most official English translation so bear with us.
In this drama, the young men we see have been spending many years preparing for the Imperial Examination or Imperial Civil Service Exams.
科举 or the Imperial Examination was formally established during the Sui dynasty so 2 dynasties before where we currently are in this drama. It is how men are chosen to be a part of the state bureaucracy through a more meritocratic method. We’ve discussed this before but to recap, the Song Dynasty places very high importance on academics and those coming up through these exams were regarded highly in court and in society.
In the Song dynasty, there are 3 different examinations that a man must go through. They are respectively:
- 乡试 – the country exam
- 省试 – the provincial or metropolitan exam
- 殿试 – the palace exam
The last examination, 殿试 was established in the Zhou dynasty by the only female Emperor in China and it’s where
But of the three we just mentioned, none were the 会试 that the drama mentions. So this was rather confusing. In many articles and books, there’s only three for the Song dynasty. 会试 or the metropolitan exam as mentioned in the drama, was actually added in the 明 dynasty, several centuries later. The central exam taken in the capital city was actually the 省试, the literal translation is the provincial exam, but during the song dynasty, that served as the metropolitan exam. Regardless – in this drama, the men are taking a very prestigious exam in the capital.
Overall, the imperial examination continued through the centuries. The final exam took place in 1905. Can you imagine? That’s super recent.
There are various subjects or disciplines that you can take the exam for. The most difficult is 进士科 or the 进士 discipline or presented scholar. For the 进士 discipline, test takers were required to have a thorough knowledge on Confucian classics, history, poems, rhapsodies, inscriptions, political discourse and much more. Poems and rhapsodies were actually abolished later in the 宋 dynasty as a testing requirement. The reason is that, even if someone can write beautiful poetry, if he does not know the classics, how can he govern? This is the most rigorous discipline and the one, if you score well, will give you the best chances for entering court and climbing the ranks, so much so that it became a prerequisite for high office. Well it also does offer prestige and status. After the song dynasty, the other disciplines were slowly phased out.
Originally, these exams happen every year and the 省试 took place in the Spring. According to history books, this was changed to once every 3 years during the reign of 宋英宗, so the emperor after the one in this drama. 顾廷烨 mentions this in a later episode but this is an anachronism. During when this drama was set, these exams should still have happened every year or every other year.
For the exams, especially the metropolitan exams, they span over several days. In the drama, it is stated that it’s only 3 days, which according to my research is accurate for the Song dynasty. In later dynasties, examinees would be required to participate in 3 sessions each lasting 3 days for the various topics covered. Many could not handle the rigor and simply passed out.
The Song Dynasty held the most number of examinations and had the most number of jinshi graduates. This was in line with the philosophy during the Song dynasty of preferring the scholar-intelligentsia over the military class. The increased number of examinations didn’t mean the examinee had a better chance of placing. It was extremely rare to place especially in the 进士discipline.
Throughout the years, there have been various changes to the examination in order to make it more fair so to speak. Essentially it’s to quash corruption and cheating. Exam takers are sequestered into exam rooms in the examination hall. They are not allowed to meet or talk to anyone. They’re stuck there basically. None of the materials they bring, can have any writing on it.
In the Song dynasty, the dynasty we’re in now, new rules were set to reduce bribery, corruption, and cheating. Some measures included that the attending examiners could not be from the same county or prefecture where the exam is taking place. Names on the exam papers were covered in order to anonymize the exam papers. Future changes also included having the exam responses themselves be copied by someone from the examination bureau in order to prevent the examiners from recognizing handwriting. This was all done because people used to bribe their way into certain positions so this presented a fairer exam experience. It also prevents the examiner from showing any undue favoritism to any of the exam papers they see. Each exam is reviewed by multiple examiners before determining a final verdict. It’s not to say cheating didn’t happen, but yea…it was tough to cheat.
With that background for the Imperial examinations, let’s dive into the recap!
In this episode, it is the day for the 会试 which technically should be 省试。The hopefuls get ready to take this exam.
4 male characters in the show will be rolling up their sleeves and head off to the examination compound.
They are, the two sheng family sons, 长柏 and 长枫, the young duke 齐衡, and 顾廷烨.
齐衡，the young duke orders his servant to bring gifts to the 盛 family as a way of thanking them for all their years of study. But in reality, he wants to send gifts to 明兰 such as another one of the nice calligraphy brushes that she had to give to her sisters. 明兰 takes this opportunity to gift him a pair of knee guards she made herself. She puts them in the basket that the servant brings without telling anyone. 齐衡 originally was rather disappointed that she didn’t say anything but figured out that these knee guards were from her and was absolutely over the moon about it. He realizes that she does indeed care about him, even if she doesn’t say it. It’s quite cute – he figures it out because on the knee guards, she sewed in the form of a silver tael or 元宝. His courtesy name is 元若, it sounds somewhat similar. Aw, he’s so happy that she finally reciprocated his feelings!
Shifting focus to 顾廷烨, he’s prepping for his exams in the arms of his mistress 曼娘. The watchful 常嬷嬷 prevents them from getting too handsy before the exam. 曼娘 professes her undying love for 顾廷烨. 顾廷烨 is thoroughly touched whilst 常嬷嬷 rolls her eyes.
The day of the exam arrives and the various families send their sons off. The entire Sheng family is there to send off 长柏 and 长枫. 齐衡 rides in in a very stately manner with his family behind him in carriages. 顾廷烨 on the other hand, comes by foot. So what I want highlight here that in order for these young men to take the 省试， they all had to have passed the 乡试. That means that these young men all at least have some potential. Now, they’re hoping to get to the next step.
After a round of goodbyes and well wishes, the men head into the examination courtyard. Each one occupied his allotted room to spend 3 days in the exam.
Back in the 盛 family, and this is probably one of my favorite scenes in the episode and actually the whole drama, 王大娘子 is praying practically to anyone and anything, hoping that her son will pass. The three people she prays to is later revealed to be 儒释道 which are the three teachings that most people prayed to in China. The three are Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism respectively.
王大娘子 is praying for her son’s performance at the examination. Her husband walks in on the scene is thoroughly amused and slightly exasperated. He quotes from Confucius – basically stating to not put too much stock in the gods. His wife hilariously responds – 油多不怪菜 too much oil won’t ruin a dish, and 礼多人不怪 no one will fault more gifts. She’s basically like if I pray to all 3, one of them will give me divine intervention right?? Her husband 盛纮 is in a pretty happy mood but he chides her gently stating that if their son 长柏 didn’t have the chops, no matter how much praying she does, he still won’t score top marks. 王大娘子 doesn’t care – she’s only praying at home! Look at the Duke of Qi’s family – they’ve gone to the temple and donated a bunch of money! Something will work. She then tries to persuade 盛纮 to pray a little bit too but he’s like – I’m a court official, I’m educated, I will not partake! As soon as his wife leaves for a second, he hurries to pray, doing basically the EXACT same thing his wife was doing. He hurriedly stands when she returns and pretends to be all stoic. When his wife does some more prodding, he still waves her off. BAHAHAHA.
Really quickly, in the book, 王大娘子 prayed to the gods and was like, whoever works I’ll keep praying to that one in the end. She’s so funny!
This is a quick aside, maybe i’m reading too much into it, but when 盛纮 prays, the first name he says is 长枫 not 长柏. It could be that he’s more worried about 长枫, his son with Mistress Lin, but again that favoritism!
While the men are locked up taking their exams, the three daughters, or 如兰 and 墨兰 continue their bickering. It’s the usual. Sigh – will these two ever stop? 明兰’s getting updates from her maid about the comings and goings of Mistress Lin – so that plotline is still progressing.
As all the families are worrying about the young men’s performances, we get a few brief scenes of how each is doing in the examination hall. It’s late at night and 长柏 sits quietly in his exam room, rather at ease with himself. At least he doesn’t look too stressed. 长枫 on the other hand is there sleeping soundly. Clearly not worried about his performance or just doesn’t care. 顾廷烨 is actually doing a workout. This hints to us that he is physically adept and can withstand the pressure of the 3 day exam. 齐衡 over there is reciting love poetry, staring at the knee guards that 明兰 gifted him.
- Um, just by these 4 people’s reactions, who do you think will perform well? 长枫’s over there taking it easy and 齐衡 is just focusing on the moon and 明兰…it’s pretty obvious right?
After 3 days, each of the family members come to pick up the men and shortly after, the time comes for 放榜 or the day results are posted. 王大娘子 is once again so hilarious. She eagerly stomps out of her courtyard dreaming that her son will place well and 长枫 places poorly. Just as she’s saying this she totally trips and falls through the doorway. Well now she sprained her foot and can’t go to see the results.
I guess the praying to the gods did help? But uh her punishment for praying to all 3 was to sprain her ankle? Haha
There’s a saying when the drama first aired that Madame Wang is the source of all my happiness. This is the most perfect example. I think there were a ton of tik tock videos on this.
This gives 明兰 the perfect opportunity to accompany her sister to see the results as a messenger on behalf of Grandma Sheng. Grandma Sheng is doing this also because she can tell th at 明兰 and 齐衡 like each other, and this gives 明兰 the perfect excuse to see him as well. While Grandma Sheng likes 齐衡 she’s very aware that his family is incredibly wealthy and powerful. It’ll be a tough life for 明兰 if she marries over there. 明兰 isn’t fooled and this is the first explanation we see of 明兰 recognizing the challenges of being in a relationship with someone so wealthy and powerful as 齐衡 whereas she is just a 庶女 daughter of a lowly ranked official.
Anyways, all the families head over to see the results. And apparently, it’s was a thing that people waited in the crowd for results to see who placed well. If a man placed well, certain families such as merchant families pretty much kidnap the young man to marry their daughters. There will also be plenty of matchmakers scouting for potential matches for their clients. We get a glimpse of a few men eyeing 长柏 and 顾廷烨. WHen they find out it’s 顾廷烨, everyone scoffs and discard him as a potential son-in-law. When we see that 长柏 found out he had placed, he immediately becomes surrounded by these men, hoping to take him in as a son-in-law. Quite hilarious to watch.
Let’s take a look at the detail on the notification too! From what I can make out, the notification not only has his name but age, his mothers last name, where he placed in the county exams, his father’s court title, his grandfather’s placement, and where the family is from!
But how exciting! 盛长柏 placed as a 进士 and in 13th place! The 盛 family is absolutely ecstatic because, as it is repeated quite often later on in this episode, placing after just one exam is extremely rare.
It seems that unfortunately, 长柏 is the only one out of the 4 young men we’ve been following to place. 长枫, 齐衡, or 顾廷烨 all failed to see their name on the results board. 长枫 is furious, 齐衡 is disappointed and 顾廷烨 feels like a failure for his family.
Interestingly 齐衡 is probably the most ok out of all of them. He is of course sad at not placing but he steals a conversation with 明兰 who provides him with some encouraging words and he is immediately pepped up again. His mother, who is very intuitive about these things, notices that right after he talks to one of the 盛 daughters, he’s like a ray of sunshine again. She cannot accept this and wants to nip it in the bud. She’s a Princess and her son’s a duke. What titles do the Sheng daughters have? Her husband is completely opposite. He’s like is she pretty?? Ah men.
Again – 齐衡’s focus was on Ming Lan? How could he have placed well?
As for 顾廷烨, we see that his younger brother came to support him. Unbeknownst to him, his father and stepmother also came. It’s obvious that his father’s nervous but he refuses to let his son know about it. Sigh – these two will never have a good relationship even though they care about each other. What a waste
Back at the Sheng manor, 盛纮 and 王大娘子 are absolutely over the moon about 长柏 placing. 王大娘子 hobbles out to greet her son and immediately orders the servants to prepare for a grand banquet and set off firecrackers! She’s hilarious!
It’s a different story for the 3rd son, 盛长枫. He can only enter through the side door and be chided by his sister and mother.
The rest of the family hurry over to deliver the happy news to Grandma 盛. She’s also extremely pleased but immediately sets out to stop any of the celebrations that 王大娘子 ordered. As the daughter of an earl, she understands all of the political ramifications of this act, but 盛纮 and 王大娘子 are puzzled.
She sighs and spells it out for them – out of the four men, only our son passed. How would the other families think of us if we’re out celebrating? Especially as the other families include a Duke and a Marquis? 盛纮 finally get it and orders the servants to stop. 王大娘子 is disappointed but hey – this is how a family survives in the capital!
The topic then turns towards 长柏’s marriage prospects. 盛纮 didn’t want to arrange a marriage before the exams for one main reason. A new 进士 is worth way more on the marriage market than not! A future daughter-in-law’s family will be more willing to aid a son-in-law in his career. This is exactly what Grandma sheng did for 盛纮. 盛纮 did well in his exams and successfully proposed marriage to the Wang family. Remember 盛纮 is a 庶出 or son of a concubine but he was still able to marry 王大娘子 who is 嫡出, the daughter of the wife. The reason is exactly because he passed his exams and was made a 进士. Well that and also the fact that Grandma Sheng, the daughter of an earl, was the one who proposed the marriage. 王大娘子 agrees to this and immediately tries to set her niece up with 长柏. 盛纮 is instantly worried that Grandma Sheng will agree but she brushes 王大娘子 off. We’ll see more of the Wang side of the family in the future. Let’s just say – they aren’t that great.
At Mistress Lin, 林小娘’s place, everyone is moping. 林小娘 is berating her son for his poor performance whilst he’s sulking about. 莫兰 isn’t helping either and this side of the family continue to bicker about 长枫’s poor results.
At a local restaurant, 顾廷烨 is also drowning in his sorrows with alcohol even though they should be celebrating for 盛长柏. 盛长柏 doesn’t understand how 顾廷烨 did not pass the exam and asks 顾廷烨’s to see if his father can ask the examiners to divulge their reasoning.
Elsewhere, 长枫 resumes his partying ways with his fellow pals. They get drunk and some people begin to discuss current political events, including who should be named heir. One guy subtly praises 兖王 or the prince of 兖 and belittles 邕王 or the prince of 邕. He tells 长枫 to not be too obvious – 长枫 doesn’t get the hint and immediately continues to praise and fawn over the prince of 兖. Unbeknownst to him, his words are being carefully listened to by the supposedly drunk guy next to him. 长枫 doesn’t know what his words might cost him.
长枫 returns home the next morning hungover. He’s once again chastised by his mother – he claims he was out networking. Whatever buddy.
The episode ends with surprisingly, 顾廷烨’s father indeed asking the examiners on feedback for his son’s examinations. What will he find out?
That’s it for the episode recap!
The last piece I’ll say about the exam and examination compound is that the examination compound shown in the drama is like 100x better than what it was in real life. Examinees were all sequestered into tiny rooms just enough to sit and there were no doors/curtains. There was barely enough space to sleep let alone do push ups.
In the book – 齐衡 also doesn’t pass the exams on his first time. Although the reason for that was more due to lack of studying. His parents took the family home over the lunar new year and he didn’t have enough time to prepare. 顾廷烨 again, wasn’t in the picture.
Regardless! The Sheng family now has one son who’s a 进士! This bodes well for the family fortune!
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.