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 17, of The Story of Ming Lan, 知否知否应是绿肥红瘦。In the last episode, Ming Lan dazzled in a polo match. Let’s see the aftermath of her actions.
This episode is going to be pretty light on history
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.
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.
After last episode’s dazzling polo performance, we now see what that means for Ming Lan. The Sheng women head to a temple for a meal. On the carriage, 王大娘子, is of course, gossiping about how 齐衡 helped Ming Lan. She thinks that her daughter, being the 嫡女 would actually be able to match with the young duke. Even though 盛纮 doesn’t have a high position in court, her maiden family comes from generations of scholars. Why wouldn’t her daughter 如兰 be able to marry 齐衡。Thank god 王大娘子 has an intelligent and thoughtful head maid who explains that whoever 齐衡 marries, she will have to contend with an overbearing mother in law. 齐衡’s mother is herself a 郡主 which is just a step down from a princess. She will be watching her son like a hawk and will only accept another princess or equivalent as a daughter-in-law. Given 如兰”s temper and naive nature, she will not have an easy time marrying into that family.
After hearing this analysis, 王大娘子 actually backs down from this idea and she’s happy for 林小娘to make 明兰’s life a living hell. I’m not going to lie, i’m very impressed with 王大娘子 here. She recognizes that while there’s wealth and status possible in a match with 齐衡, she’s more focused on her daughter’s happiness and doesn’t bring this up anymore.
At the temple, 明兰 is cleaning her mother’s plaque in one of the rooms but who shows up? It’s none other than 小公爷齐衡 himself. 明兰 is highly anxious at seeing him because in the room it is only just the two of them. He had distracted her maid, 小桃 in order to have a conversation alone with 明兰。
Though 明兰 is uncomfortable, 齐衡 takes this as an opportunity to ask her about why she sent him knee guards before the exams. To him, it means that she is thinking of him. He wants to know why she avoids him every time he tries to speak with her.
And this is where once again, the first viewing of this episode, i’m all like “aww” this is so cute that he tried so hard to see her but now, I see it from Ming Lan’s perspective.
Ming lan actually explains her current situation to him. As a man, he could not ever understand how difficult it is to be a woman. And to me, after watching this scene multiple times, her monologue here is one of the most important explanations of what it means to be a woman in this time period. We can draw many parallels to women in western society and while this drama is fantastic in many ways, we see how oppressive Chinese society was towards women.
Ming Lan provides an example to help us views and 齐衡。 Take 顾廷烨。He is currently known throughout the capital as someone who’s a rake. He’s able to spend time at brothels, not focusing on anything but if one day, he decides to turn around, study and place well on the imperial exams, everyone will forget about his past and give him a fair shake at his career. If it were a woman, would the result still be the same?
To be discovered together, alone, in this room, 齐衡 would walk away with a barely a scratch on his reputation. People would just say oh it’s just a youthful romance. But what about for Ming Lan? Her older sister would never be able to raise her head again at her in-laws and husband’s household. Her other sisters may never be married. Her brothers and father may be reprimanded in court and their career paths ended. The same event has such drastically different prices to pay for the man vs the woman. Ming Lan is not willing to pay this price.
And this to me, is why Ming lan is such a unique female protagonist. She has her head on straight. If this were any other drama, the female lead would have been head over heels in love with the duke already and eager to marry him. He said he’ll protect her but can he really protect Ming Lan? That’s yet to be seen.
Qi Heng, upon hearing Ming Lan’s concerns, does promise that if today’s events are exposed, he will marry Ming Lan. At first, Ming Lan scoffs because she thinks he’s thinking of marrying her as a concubine. A man of his status is to marry a princess, not someone like her but he surprises her. He wants to marry her as his official wife. She is stunned he would say this and doesn’t really have much in response. His primary worry is that she doesn’t care for him but that is evidently not true. With this boost of confidence, he leaves. Ming Lan also departs not long after but chastizes her maid for leaving Ming Lan alone. She is clearly a little confused but once again, she has her head on straight and says that she should not have any expectations because once she does, the person who’s going to suffer is her. Which I think is fair.
Back at the Sheng Household, multiple people are discussing what happened on the polo field. 4th sister 墨兰 and her mother 林小娘 are of course displeased to see that the Young Duke would stick his neck out for Ming Lan. 墨兰 though has captured the attention of 梁晗， the 6th son of Count 永昌. She’s playing the field and clearly hoping to marry up. It doesn’t matter who as long as she can beat her sisters. If 齐衡 doesn’t work out, 梁晗 is a good option.
明兰”s father also comes to see 明兰。But instead of asking about how things went on the field, he comes to immediately chastise 明兰. He does not think it was proprietous for her to show off like she did on the field. She tries to explain why she took to the field, it’s because her friend’s situation reminded her of her own deceased mother’s situation. But 盛纮 doesn’t really care. By taking to the field, she attracted too much attention, especially by pairing with the Young Duke. He totally ignores the fact that his son 长枫 ditched 明兰 on the field which meant she needed help. INstead, 盛纮 thinks 长枫 was actually in the right, 长枫 was trying to prevent the Sheng family from losing face. And that is all 盛纮cares about most – his reputation. Poor Ming Lan is reprimanded by her father, rather publicly. She is punished to kneeling in the ancestral shrine. Soon after, everyone in the household knows because of the spies in her yard.
Who are these spies? THe maids that 王大娘子 and 林小娘 sent over to 明兰 after she became the manager of the household in episode 15. That’s the other headache 明兰 has to deal with right now. These new maids do not listen to Ming Lan’s authority. They destroy fabrics or clothes, drop tea cups and in general focus more on spying than doing actual work. Ming Lan doesn’t get angry though. She just lets the destruction happen. Though she evidently has something up her sleeve because she tells her Grandmother’s maid that she is mindful of what’s happening. Sure enough, later in the episode, when 林小娘”s head maid comes to retrieve their monthly allowance, they see one of the maids latching on to the 3rd brother 长枫. This maid was sent over to 明兰”s yard so as not to be a distraction to 长枫 but the moment he’s around, she tried to get him to take her back. 林小娘 is furious upon hearing this but 明兰 doesn’t do anything and just lets the events play out.
While Ming Lan has been reprimanded for her public appearance with the Duke, 林小娘 is not going to just let that go. She takes an opportunity to cozy up to 盛纮 in an effort to get him to help 墨兰 match with 齐衡。 To me, this is another series of revealing conversations. Right after 林小娘 suggests that they think of 墨兰， 盛纮 immediately cuts her off. He does not think their family has any capital to marry into a Duke’s family. 林小娘 is obviously displeased to hear this and sweetly says that as long as they have enough money for a dowry, then why couldn’t this work? 盛纮 then pointedly asks where will she have this money for that kind of dowry for her daughter? And here’s where I am disgusted because 林小娘 says why can’t we use some of 王大娘子”s money. What? You personally don’t have enough money for your daughter and so you think it’s ok to use the wife’s money for your daughter?
Interestingly, 盛纮 scoffs and says that only the weakest men in the world will think of using a woman’s dowry. This is one example where 盛纮 is a respectable man, finally. We’ve actually seen 2 examples already in the drama where the husband’s side of the family used the wive’s dowry. One is 华兰’s husband’s family and the other is 顾廷烨”s family. They used her mother’s dowry to plug holes. Both are very humiliating instances but there’s not much the women’s side of the family can do if the husband’s side doesn’t care about losing face.
After repeatedly rebuffing 林小娘’s suggestions of matching 墨兰 with 齐衡，盛纮 leaves a frustrated 林小娘。 Later that night, 墨兰 is equally frustrated after hearing the same news from her mother. 林小娘 is not deterred by her conversation with her husband. 墨兰 is even more set to find a good match for herself. Her goal in life is to marry better than her sisters. They then talk about the two options they have. It’s hilarious because in their minds, they can pick whoever they want, whether it’s the House of Qi or the House of Liang. 墨兰’s even over there scoffing at the House of Liang saying oh, they only have the title of an earl. The House of Qi has the title of duke how can the house of liang compete? Oh honey, I applaud you for your audacity. The key line the 林小娘 says here is that I do not care about destroying the reputation of the Sheng Family. Who cares about everyone else as long as I, 林小娘 gain. This reveals everythin
The episode ends with 顾廷烨 bring a matchmaker to the Yu family to propose marriage for 嫣然’s hand. That is a plot point we haven’t really discussed yet in this episode. This will play a larger role in the next episode but essentially, after the display at the polo match. He realized how wonderful of a woman 嫣然 is. She’s kind and accepting so she’ll most likely allow 顾廷烨’s concubine and children to have a position in the Gu household if she marries 顾廷烨。 余嫣然 is of high birth and respectable，a perfect match for him. Unfortunately, when 顾廷烨 goes to propose marriage, he is very much unwelcome and isn’t even allowed in. The matchmaker even tries to persuade him to find another match.
Let’s see what happens in the next episode.
There’s not much to discuss from a historical analysis perspective this episode.
- There’s a quick scene with 如兰 in her carriage where she’s watching her crickets fight. We haven’t seen fighting crickets yet, so let’s talk about this past time. Fighting crickets, or 斗蟋蟀 was a popular pastime in China. Reliable records of cricket fighting date back to the Song Dynasty but it looks like it started during the Tang Dynasty. It became a favored pastime of the aristocracy and indeed even Emperors. Over the centuries, the pastime trickled down to the commoners.
- Cricket fighting is a seasonal sport. As crickets only live for around 100 days, the season occurs during the fall. It’s always of two male crickets fighting. As we see in the drama, the crickets are placed in elaborate gourds. I remember going to 北京 when I was young and saw old men still placing bets on cricket fights.
- Cricket fighting was banned during the cultural revolution but is making a comeback in modern times. I personally don’t know the environmental impact of modern day cricket fighting. Hopefully it’s not too big but there is still a lot of cultural significance to this sport.
I want to dive into several different characters.
First up, let’s focus on the men. In my mind, this episode clearly lays out the unequal reality between men and women during Imperial China. As mentioned earlier, men can basically do whatever they want and recover but one misstep from a woman, and she and her family will be scorned for life.
The three men I want to discuss are the young duke, 齐衡, minglan’s father, 盛竑, and 顾廷烨.
We’ve already talked at length about 齐衡 earlier. 齐衡, raised as the heir apparent to his father’s title. He has a princess for a mother and no other younger siblings. He has known no real hardships in his life and believes the world to be serene and pleasant. To his credit, he’s a pretty upstanding guy. He is filial. He is obedient and doesn’t mess around with other women. It’s very rare that a nobleman will willingly sit through the Imperial Examinations especially since he will inherit a title. 盛长柏 has to take the exam because his father is a simple bureaucrat and he must also earn a position in court. 顾廷烨 is the second son and will not inherit his father’s title, which is why he also went to take the exam. In many other dramas and many other books, 齐衡 is the perfect Prince Charming. He loves 明兰 and has eyes only for her. It’s quite touching but this drama puts us relatively close to reality. 齐衡 is woefully ignorant on the struggles of women in his society and all of the dangers that he is practically imposing on 明兰 with all his advances. 齐衡 wants to marry for love. I 100% commend him for it. However, his attentions place 明兰 in a very tough spot. As the 庶出 daughter of a lowly official, 明兰 has literally no chance to marry 齐衡. 齐衡 can ask for her hand in marriage, but his mother will not agree, neither will I guess high society. Nothing will really happen to 齐衡, but if word gets out that he proposed to 明兰, gossip would turn against 明兰. People would call her a schemer or even a harlot. She must have bewitched 齐衡. Gossip would now turn towards her family. They would question her father’s intentions and ruin her sibling’s chances for a good marriage. In the drama, 明兰 calls him out for his naivete. Sure, he can try to marry for love, but what are the costs to her? Has he thought of that? I don’t think 齐衡 really ever did. I can’t really fault him for it but it’s refreshing to see in a drama that 明兰 keeps her head cool.
I personally think the actor for 齐衡, 朱一龙, did an amazing job portraying the bestowed young man completely over his head about his first love. My main point for bringing this up is again to highlight how difficult it was for women in 明兰’s station to even reciprocate any type of feelings for someone like 齐衡.
Next up, let’s talk about 明兰’s father, 盛纮.
So far, we’ve seen that 盛纮 doesn’t really care about 明兰 as a daughter. In this episode, we have probably the longest scene with the two of them alone together. All 盛纮 does however is to just reprimand her daughter’s audacity to compete in a match of polo with the Young Duke. He’s primary concern was that his daughter could have potentially damaged his reputation in front of the rest of society. What if she lost? What would people think seeing her out there with the young duke! They will think he daughter to actively solicit attention from 齐衡! What will happen to him at court!? They will reproach him for having amoral children!He didn’t care that his daughter competed for her friend and won. He instead praises his son 盛长柏 for quitting the competition.
Let’s again reiterate how unfair it is to 明兰. Her father didn’t care that his son was a coward at the match. He didn’t care that 明兰 played for her friend. He just cared about his reputation and to save face. For many fathers, their daughters, especially 庶女 were just meant to get married, not well of course. As long as they didn’t cause any trouble, that’s all the fathers cared about. 盛纮 is a better father in that regard, but he will always place his reputation first. In the drama, he’s portrayed more as a bumbling but competent bureaucrat. In the book, 盛竑 does actually care for 明兰. Ok, if anyone crosses his line of losing face, he will also be severely displeased, but at least he doesn’t outright dismiss 明兰.
Lastly, for the men, let’s talk about 顾廷烨.
In this episode 顾廷烨 decides that he will propose marriage to 余嫣然, 明兰’s good friend. He’s already split verbally with his family but he also wants to split financially and establish his own house. In chinese it’s called 分家. However, to do that, he must have a family aka, get married. Based on what he heard at the polo match about 余嫣然, he will propose marriage to her because he’s sure that she’ll accept his mistress 曼娘. The kind 常嬷嬷 immediately tells him to not speak of such things again. Fair, what woman wants to hear that you are proposing marriage so that you can give your mistress a place in the household?
I guess I’m just annoyed at him because he constantly says I’m gonna be my own man, screw convention. Then, what does he do? He stays very much with convention and tries to find a nice girl to marry. Once again, at no point does he even think of actually marrying 曼娘. She will always only be his mistress.
What do you think about 顾廷烨’s decision? I guess he believes that marrying 余嫣然 is the best option. She’ll treat his mistress kindly. They’ll get along and live a happy life? Well again, the sorrows of this patriarchal society. Is it sad that 顾廷烨 thinks that his actions are noble? What about 齐衡’s actions? They both believe they are acting for love. Who of course will get hurt? The woman.
Well, Enough with the men. I feel like I talk about 顾廷烨 every single week.
Let’s now turn our attention to 林小娘. In this episode, her ambitions are on full display.
I will commend 林小娘. She has a great line – your father’s just a man. He doesn’t understand the intricacies of a household. She 100% believes that her daughter 墨兰 can marry the Young Duke 齐衡. When she talks to her daughter in the evening, their conversation is very revealing. 墨兰 is still worried that she might take actions that would embarrass the Sheng family. 林小娘 scoffs at this and says – I don’t care about the Sheng family reputation, I only care about my reputation. If the Sheng family is embarrassed to give me dignity, I will gladly embarrass the Sheng family. Remember this, because this will come to bear fruit, for better or for worse.
Again, 林小娘’s goal is to increase her own wealth and standing. She doesn’t care one bit about this family. I bet she’ll gladly kick her husband to the curb if she found another man too. I mean, she almost did that already.
What’s also revealing is that in 林小娘’s mind, writing poems and enjoying art is what makes her daughter stand apart from the other daughters of the 盛family. Theses are the skills she believes her daughter can compete against the 嫡女. However, do you remember what Countess Wu said in the last episode? Countess Wu scoffed at 墨兰’s whole act – she said who wants this whole coquetry act? While searching for a daughter-in-law, these mothers are looking for someone who can manage a household. 林小娘 hasn’t considered this yet but to be fair, if 墨兰 couldn’t even read or write, how else could she even compete?
Book differences – not much to say about this episode as it doesn’t track much with the book. In the book, we only hear about 顾廷烨’s decisions about proposing marriage to 余嫣然 after the fact.
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.