Ep 16

[Karen]

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 will discuss ep 16, of The Story of Ming Lan, 知否知否应是绿肥红瘦。This episode is chalk full of new characters and the production value of this episode is quite high with all the polo matches going on. 

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 karenandcathy@chasingdramas.com if you have any questions. 

For today’s episode, we do an episode recap, and then discuss the history brought up during the episode, and then finally close with any book differences or character analyses we’d like to highlight. 

[Cathy]

This episode is a grand affair. By invitation from Countess Wu, Ming Lan, Mo Lan, Ru Lan and the third brother 长枫 plus Madam Wang make their way to an extravagant event. There’s games, fishing, hunting and games of polo happening.  This atmosphere is certainly joyous. 

This event gathers every well known person in the Capital and looks to be a fun event. 

Let’s take a look at who’s in attendance:

  1. 顾廷烨 is here with 魏行首 and a few other ladies from various uh brothels
  2. 嘉成县主 – daughter of 邕王 – she’s the woman in red
  3. 荣飞燕 – current 荣妃之妹 – The younger sister of an imperial concubine to the Emperor, wearing blue. Both of these women are very powerful and highly revered in the capital
  4. 齐衡 – the young duke
  5. 吴大娘子 – 永昌伯爵夫人 – The organizer of the event
  6. 梁晗 – Her 6th son. We’ve actually met these 2 before. They stopped by the Sheng household in episode 7 and where present when 明兰, 如兰 and 墨兰 tumbled out into the main hall. 
  7. 余嫣然 – she’s 明兰’s good friend
  8. 余嫣红 – is 余嫣然’s younger sister. 

[Karen]

Some background to help explain the events of what happens in this episode. 余嫣然 is the oldest daughter of the respected Yu family but her mother died young. Her father remarried and his new wife had 2 children, the 2nd son and 3rd daughter. But by having these kids, the eldest daughter 嫣然 is shunned to the side and not favored whatsoever. Even though she is still a 嫡女。The 3rd daughter, 嫣红 takes pleasure in bullying her oldest sister.

Ok with that out of the way, let’s get back to the fair. 明兰 immediately sees her close friend 余嫣然 and they catch up, chatting about embroidery and such. 墨兰 is eagerly waiting to see where the young duke 齐衡 is as she’s still hoping to marry him while he iis making poetry with 梁晗 who’s the 6th son of the Count 永昌. 墨兰 decides to just butt into the conversation. Let’s just say that it’s not very classy for her to do this and every time she does something like this, we, much like 如兰 are losing patience. 齐衡 doesn’t mind too much and 梁晗 is smitten at seeing her. 齐衡“s attention wanders over to 明兰 who is still chatting with 嫣然。

On the polo field, 嫣然”s younger sister, 嫣红 is tearing up the field and winning prizes and matches. For those of you who watched Empresses in the Palace with us, 嫣红 is the actress who portrayed 富察贵人 In that show. 

[Cathy]

Here is where the conflict for the episode comes up. The next prize for the winner of the next match is an elegant gold hairpin. 嫣然 recognizes it as an item belonging to her deceased mother which had mysteriously disappeared several years earlier. After seeing this being presented as a prize during this polo match, 嫣然 is determined to win it back. Problem is, her younger sister 嫣红 also wants this hairpin as a prize. 嫣红 won’t let her older sister have it so the two sisters have to battle it out on the field to win the hair pin.

To help 嫣然, 明兰 drags her brother 长枫 to partner with 嫣然 for this match. They get on the field and 嫣红 is clearly at an advantage. 明兰 watches anxiously on the sidelines for 嫣然 but who stops by to distract her? 齐衡。This conversation is actually hilarious to me. 明兰 is so not focused on 齐衡 right now but 齐衡 completely ignores how uncomfortable she is and plainly states that he tried to see her a couple of times and that he has kept the knee guards she made for him hidden. She freaked out when she heard him mentioning the knee guards whilst he doubles down showing his affection. Apparently, it was he who incepted into 吴大娘子‘s mind to set up this fair and then sent invitations to 华兰’s household in an effort to invite 明兰。 EVERYTHING was done so that he can see 明兰。

明兰 is totally not having any of it. She has to help her friend 嫣然 who is currently crying and losing! She decides to take 嫣然‘s place on the field to help her win that pin because her sister is bullying 嫣然 quite badly. 齐衡 runs after 明兰 at first confused how she can take 嫣然’s place because he thinks she can’t even ride a horse. Little does he know, she’s actually quite proficient at riding and once she gets on the field, she is kicking butt. Everyone is surprised, particularly 齐衡。

[Karen]

The attendees are watching intently as 明兰 is able to score a few goals, evening out the score. There’s still time left in the match and 嫣红’s brother gets injured. It’s not clear if he’s actually hurt but they ask 顾廷烨 to partner with 嫣红. This proves to be problematic because 顾廷烨 is known throughout the capital to be THE best polo player. It’d be unfair to everyone else because it’s essentially just handing the victory to 嫣红 by having 顾廷烨 on her team. He, though, says that in order to make it fair, will play with his non dominant hand and gets on the field.

The coward of a brother, 长枫 who is currently paired with 嫣然 and then 明兰 becomes scared and backs out. He knows how good 顾廷烨 is and doesn’t want to lose face by losing the match which leaves poor 明兰 on the field to fend for herself.

The onlookers are all wondering what will happen and seeing that she’s alone, 2 people offer to partner with her. One is 吴大娘子 and the other is 齐衡。 齐衡 wants to help 明兰 win the pin. Initially 明兰 is very reluctant to allow 齐衡 to be her partner but given that she wants to win the pin, she has little other choice. And so, the handsome young duke is now on the field, attracting everyone’s attention.

[Cathy]

The match continues with 齐衡 and 明兰 both on the field competing against 嫣红 and 顾廷烨。The competition is very heated and after several bouts of intense battle on horseback, 明兰 is able to win with the most number of goals. 

明兰, 嫣然 are ecstatic while a slew of people are furious. 嫣红 stomps away, 墨兰 is frustrated that 齐衡 would partner with 明兰, 荣飞燕 is also annoyed that 齐衡 is helping an unknown 庶女 while 嘉成县主 thinks that 齐衡 is interesting. The episode ends with the daughters leaving the fair and 墨兰 starts insulting 明兰 for her behavior.

In this episode, there are lots of matches or at least interests being expressed. 吴大娘子 is mightily impressed with 盛明兰 and clearly wants her son, 梁晗 to pay attention to her when she’s on the field but he is too busy paying attention to 墨兰。

顾廷烨 is told by his female companions about the virtues of 余嫣然 and he has now taken a very keen interest in her. She is of high birth, a 嫡女 and seemingly very kind. A quality catch by every means.

[Karen]

The problem with 齐衡 participating in this match is that he has captured the attention of 2 very powerful women. 荣飞燕 is the woman in blue who threw away her cup after 明兰 and 齐衡 won the match. She doesn’t understand why 明兰 is worth 齐衡 sticking his neck out for him. 嘉成县主,the woman in red, is also expressing interest in 齐衡。

Now here is a question for the group. What do think of 齐衡“s actions in this episode. My first watch through, I thought hey, this guy is super cute. He clearly cares for 明兰 and is willing to help her. After watching this several times though, it’s clear to me that he is acting too much on impulse and not thinking about how his actions would impact 明兰。 明兰 is just a 庶女 with no connections or power. 齐衡 doesn’t care about her position but he also does not recognize how difficult her life is. He consistently over-steps boundaries in order to speak with her and to show her how much he likes her, not recognizing that this may actually cause her problems or does he recognize how uncomfortable he makes her. He doesn’t understand that by pairing up with her, the entire capital will wonder what type of relationship they have. It’s not normal that a man of his title would help a 庶出 daughter of a lowly official. 

[Cathy]

Indeed, right after the match, 明兰 is mercilessly belittled by 墨兰. And as we saw, 嘉成县主 and 荣飞燕 both now have their eye on 齐衡。 How is 明兰 to compete with these two ladies?

On the flip side, 顾廷烨 is able to explain to his female companions that 明兰’s life is very difficult. She may seem like a ray of sunshine on the field but her life at home is tough and she rarely has the opportunity to shine. I personally think that he may have let 明兰 win because he wants to help 明兰 and 嫣然. From this episode, for me, I can see who actually understands 明兰 and it is unfortunately not 齐衡. 

齐衡”s too naive in how restrictive this world is. Even his servant offered a couple of ways to help 明兰 without getting on the field. He could create the exact same pin and give it as a present to 明兰 or her friend at the very least. Even if they lost, they’d still have that pin. 吴大娘子 also offered to partner with 明兰. Either of these solutions would have been better than for 齐衡 to partner with 明兰。

This episode is the first glimpse of why 齐衡 and 明兰 will have a tough road to secure a relationship.

[Karen]

Historical Analysis

A lot happened in today’s episode so let’s dive into the main event!

Polo!

Legend has it that polo was introduced to China during the late Eastern Han Dynasty and the Three Kingdoms period from the west, possibly from Persia. 曹植, the self proclaimed King Chen, who lived from 192 – 232AD, was the brother to the first Emperor of Wei during the Three Kingdoms era, mentioned polo or 击鞠 in one of his poems 名都篇. 

Over the centuries, polo grew in popularity and became a favored pastime of the aristocracy. Archeologists have unearthed paintings depicting polo matches and 唐三彩 or Tricolor Glazed Pottery of females playing polo. Tang Dynasty Emperors also favored the sport and competed against teams from neighboring countries. One Emperor, 唐穆宗 sustained a catastrophic injury while playing polo and suspended court for 3 years! During this time, polo wasn’t just a sport, but it was also a way for people to showcase military strategies and tactics.

Polo was still extremely popular during the Song Dynasty. It’s popularity also trickled down to the common people. Perhaps surprisingly, to me at least, women could actually participate in the sport. The first Song Emperor, 赵匡胤 very much enjoyed playing polo and often competed against members of his own court. One Song Emperor, 宋徽宗 actually personally picked and trained a team of female polo players from the palace. He wrote several poems praising women playing polo. Although, reading his poems, I don’t know if he was more impressed with the women or their skills. As during the Tang Dynasty, polo was a common activity played in the military.

During the Song dynasty, the ball was about the size of a fist and painted with a red color. The mallet was more reminiscent of a hockey stick. Flags were used to indicate points. The drama uses a black ball instead and the mallets look more modern. As with modern day polo, there were specific uniforms needed to play polo. In the drama, the players just tied up their sleeves, that was definitely more in service of the drama. 

Polo declined in popularity during the 明 and 清 dynasties. Women also became more and more repressed during this time. It was rare to see women participate in activities such as polo. During the middle to late 清 dynasty, it was forbidden for commoners to privately own horses, further exacerbating the decline of the sport.

We’ll see a bit more of polo in this drama in the upcoming episodes.

[Cathy]

Next up – a poem that Countess Wu recites when she tries to get her son to pay attention to the match.

The two lines she quotes are 

坚圆净滑一星流,月杖争敲未拟休

These two lines come from a Tang Dynasty female poet called 鱼玄机. The poem itself is called 打毬作 or the Polo Match

The youtube translation is quite good so we’ll quote from there – clean and slippery, flying like a shooting star, moon-shaped mallets view and whack without end.

The rest of the poem roughly translates to if there are no barriers, it’s easy to play. The ball flies away from the mallet, only afraid that it won’t score a goal. In the end, scoring a goal will win and I hope he does.

鱼玄机 is one of the most famous female poets of the Tang Dynasty. Born in 840 by the name of 鱼幼薇 her intellect and talent were obvious from a young age. She met the poet 温庭筠 in her youth and wrote several poems to him. she became a concubine to 李亿 at the age of 16. 李亿was the 状元 at the time. He placed first in the Imperial Examinations. She was happy for a time. 李亿’s wife however forced her out of the household and she became a daoist nun, adopting the name 玄机.  During the 唐 dynasty, a nun could actually still be a courtesan and had many sexual adventures. Unfortunately, legend has it that she got into a fight and allegedly strangled her maid to death. At the age of 28, she was executed for her crimes. Roughly 50 of her poems are compiled within the complete Tang Poems.

We’ve talked about several female poets in our show now. Unfortunately it seems many of them didn’t have happy endings. 鱼玄机 is one of them.

[Karen]

Character Analysis

顾廷烨 – earlier in our podcast, we discussed how 顾廷烨 knows how hard 明兰 has it and praises her. He knows how tough her situation is but he won’t do much about it. At the end of the day, why should he?

I do want to point out that he has his own agenda at this gathering. He asks the courtesans with him about 余嫣然 several times. What intrigues him most about her, is the fact that, according to the courtesans, 余嫣然 is nice to everyone including courtesans. Something’s formulating in his mind.

Countess Wu – the hostess of the gathering, Countess Wu has her eyes on a certain someone. That would be 明兰. Her son, however, seems to be more interested in 墨兰. Notice what Countess Wu says about 墨兰 after one glimpse – she doesn’t care for the 吟诗作赋 act or the poetry-reciting act that 墨兰 displays. For her and other women of the nobility, they are looking for daughter-in-laws who can manage a household, not just recite poetry. She’s pretty taken by 明兰 because 明兰’s performance in the match reminds her of her younger days, and since was raised by Grandma Sheng, can probably manage a household. She’s impressed by 明兰 but not at all by 墨兰. Countess Wu has seen enough of 墨兰’s type.

I do want to reflect though, at this point, what ARE some other avenues for 墨兰? She wants to marry well but her status as a 庶女 means that it’ll be really tough to do so. In her mind, her poetry skills are ways to catch that big fish. I’ll just say again, it’s a tough world for women. 如兰 of course doesn’t care because she’s a 嫡女. I’ll give 王大娘子 credit, she isn’t super jealous of 明兰 in this scene.

[Cathy]

Ok – tangent

For the drama, it’s pretty obvious who can/cannot ride a horse. The actor for 顾廷烨, 冯绍峰, has acted in many dramas and is a pretty good rider. He’s shown actually riding his horse. For the ladies, 赵丽颖 does have some scenes where she’s on the horse, but all of the closeups aren’t of course of her actually riding a horse. Just merely commenting on this. 

Lastly, let’s discuss book differences!

The book placed the story in a similar setting to the Ming and Qing dynasties. As such polo was not mentioned in the book. This scene in the drama was included to introduce several characters to the audience, such as 余嫣红, 嘉成县主, and 荣飞燕. The drama also of course really allows 明兰 to shine. She absolutely dazzles the onlookers in this scene. The book simply introduces many of these characters at a normal gathering. This is much more exciting

[Karen]

That’s that for today!

Well that is it for this episode of the Story of Ming Lan. We were introduced to new characters and saw an exciting game to boot! Let’s see what happens.

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.

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