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 21, of The Story of Ming Lan, 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.
For today’s episode, we will do an episode recap, then discuss the history brought up during the episode, and analyze some of the characters, and then close with book differences.
Let’s start off with the recap.
In the last two episodes, 顾廷烨 was struck with a double whammy. His father died and his mistress fled with his son. Poor guy, let’s see what happens.
常嬷嬷, 顾廷烨’s wetnurse, helps 顾廷烨 prepare for his father’s funeral. 顾廷烨 is wearing white and a light hemp jacket, the traditional clothes for a funeral. It’s a grand funeral procession, but 顾廷烨 is not allowed to participate. He can only watch on the sidelines in full funeral attire with his good friend 盛长柏.
顾廷烨’s older brother, 顾廷煜, leads the procession as the eldest son and new Marquis. After paying his respects, 顾廷烨 leaves the city with his daughter 蓉姐儿 and loyal servant 石头. 盛长柏 sees them off. 顾廷烨’s top priority is to find his son and vows to comb the empire to find him. He’s off into 江湖 – which, to folks familiar with kung fu shows, means basically means for him, out of society and hanging with rougher crowds (i.e. gangs). He’s giving up his life as the son of a marquis, bringing his audghter to seek his son.
We now turn towards the Duke of Qi and his wife the princess – 平宁郡主. They are the parents of 齐衡, the young duke. It’s the princess’s birthday but due to the recent passing of the Marquis of 宁远 or 顾廷烨’s father, the princess decides to have a low-key birthday this year.
The young duke, 齐衡, is busy preparing presents for his mother. Some of his presents include paintings of his mother but his actual thoughtful gift is presented during dinner. For dinner, he has requested the services of a chef from 樊楼, the famous restaurant mentioned quite a few times in the show. What’s new about the birthday meal, is that this chef will present the meal in a new technique – stir fry! In mandarin, the word is 炒.
The princess has never had stir fried dishes before and is excited to try it out. I never thought about the fact that stir fry wasn’t as common during the Song dynasty, but hey this was almost 1000 years ago! It’s cool that stir fry has been around for that long, but also quite crazy that it wasn’t introduced until the Song dynasty. Stir fry is a staple of Chinese cuisine today! We’ll talk about this more in our historical analysis.
For the last present, the young duke has his servant bring in revolving lanterns or 走马灯 with paintings of his mother. It’s quite a sight and the Princess is very pleased.
After the meal – the conversation turns towards 齐衡’s future. The princess still wants him to perform well at the Imperial exams and become a 进士. The duke agrees – once 齐衡 becomes a 进士, he’ll be able to marry well. 齐衡 however, changes the direction of the conversation. He wants to marry first before entering court. The Princess, face still serene, immediately changes tone and asks, what do you mean?
齐衡, confesses that he has someone in his heart. After two sentences, the Princess guesses that it’s 明兰. She turns icy towards her son. She now understands why he put in so much effort for her birthday. It wasn’t really for her birthday, it was for this exact moment, so that he can discuss the option of marriage to 明兰.
The Princess promptly rejects the notion – the House of Qi, cannot afford to lose the face of having their heir marry the 庶女 of a lowly five – rank official.
齐衡 pleads for his mother to agree – promising to perform well on the exams next time if he is able to marry 明兰。The Duke offers a compromise. Let’s make 明兰 a high ranking concubine or 贵妾. 齐衡, to his credit, immediately rejects this too. The Princess is now pissed. 齐衡 tries his best to persuade his mother. In another sign of the strict social stratification of the time, 齐衡 lists 明兰’s family’s qualifications as justification for her being able to marry him. That’s all the princess cares about.
The princess, in a surprising reversal, agrees to attend the wedding of 盛长柏. 齐衡 is ecstatic! He believes he’s persuaded her.
Oh buddy, how naive you are…
齐衡 has his servant sneak a word to 明兰’s maid 小桃 notifying her of their impending arrival at her brother’s wedding to propose. 明兰 hears this and informs her grandmother. Grandma 盛, upon hearing this, urgently tells the maid 小桃 to never repeat this to anyone. She orders the other maids to be on high alert. 明兰 seems somewhat perplexed by Grandma 盛’s actions. Grandma 盛 hurriedly asks her about this situation. 明兰 tells her the truth that she already rejected 齐衡 but she didn’t expect 齐衡 to actually bring up marriage to his mother. Grandma 盛 lays it out for 明兰 – the differences between the family’s are too large. 明兰 will suffer if she marries into the 盛 family. 明兰 looks like she’s wavering. What will happen?
The atmosphere abruptly changes. A small group of men in armor are fleeing a group of what look like bandits. The small group of men are outnumbered and men keep dying. Who happens to just be wandering in this path? Why it’s 顾廷烨!
We get a few really nice action scenes of 顾廷烨 being a badass. It gets quite intense, so I recommend just watch and enjoy! Well, it’s a tv show afterall, the small group of men are saved by 顾廷烨. He literally shoots a man out of midair.
We find out that the small group of men are protecting a father son duo – 赵宗全 and 赵策英. During the chase, the son yelled that murdering members of the royal family is a crime punishable by 诛九族 – or Nine familial exterminations. The bandits also shout out – to fight for Emperor 昭德. There isn’t really a historical counterpart, so this name was created for the show. However, these two phrases hint that 赵宗全 and 赵策英 are probably very much related to the current royal family if someone wants to murder them. The two thank 顾廷烨 who only introduces himself as 白烨 which is his mother’s last name. At this point, after being kicked out of the 顾 family, he has decided he will not allow himself to use this identity anymore. Not that he wanted to. Thus, he’s called 白烨。 I love how his daughter, on a horse, and his servant 石头 finally show up and she starts waving. How cute.
We’ll definitely see more of this storyline in the future.
Now let’s shift gears back into the hot mess that is 明兰’s courtyard and how she’s managing the household. To be honest, I feel like this story line just draaagged on. It’s been what 7 or 8 episodes where the household is still a hot mess. In any case, 明兰 has laid the trap for long enough and now needs to bring in the net.
The instigation of the conflict in the yard is the pending marriage of the second brother 盛长柏. He’s to marry a woman from the 海 family. As is customary, 王大娘子’s head maid brings over the dowry listing from the new sister-in-law. 明兰 understands it’s not technically her place to look at her new sister-in-law’s list as she will have a higher status in the family once she moves in so minglan does just a once over of the list. But, the new sister-in-law gifts ming lan a box of hair accessories which she can then use to give to her friends and or her maids.
明兰 takes this wonderful opportunity to gift it to her maids which causes quite a conflict. One of the maids, 银杏, cries her eyes out at seeing the gifts because of course, she likes the 2nd brother 长柏 so she’s upset at seeing him marry. One of the other maids ridicules her for this behavior and then a cat fight breaks out.
You could say that this is perfect timing because 王大娘子”s head maid saw this scuffle and immediately went to tell 王大娘子。 They all think that 明兰 is too weak. She doesn’t want to punish or maybe doesn’t know how these maids who could potentially threaten the reputation of the entire family and the pending marriage of 长柏. Of course 王大娘子 can’t have that so arrives at Ming Lan’s yard to clean house. She is willing to remove her “spies” so to speak in order for her son to not have any issues with his marriage. As we saw with 顾廷烨, a marriage proposal can fall apart very easily and 王大娘子 wants to prevent her son from getting his marriage foiled by the likes of lowly maids.
So, 王大娘子 arrives with a demanding presence and you can tell all the maids kneeling on the ground are immediately frightened. At first, 明兰 is still like, mother I already punished them to which 王大娘子 totally ignores and says 明兰 needs to learn how to better manage these individuals.
It’s actually quite satisfying to watch how 王大娘子 deals with these maids. The first maid she reprimands is the daughter of her head maid. This maid doesn’t receive too heavy of a punishment other than pulling her back to 王大娘子’s yard to serve so as not to cause more trouble. The next maid, maid number 2, was the one seen chatting with the 3rd brother, 长枫. 王大娘子 straight up tells her servants to beat this maid and sent back to 林小娘 who sent this maid to Minglan’s place in the first place. To oversee this punishment, she tells maid number 3 to count the beatings. Maid number 3 is the one we saw earlier that was crying over the 2nd brother’s pending marriage. This scares maid number 3 to no end and is also brought back to 王大娘子”s yard. And the last maid, maid number 4 who has been consistently breaking 明兰’s dinnerware and searching through her materials, is told to be sold off. We dont’ need to tell you that’s quite a severe punishment.
And with that, all 4 maids that were gifted to 明兰 by both 王大娘子 and 林小娘 when she first became the manager of the household are no longer there. 王大娘子 thinks it’s because 明兰 is too weak but Grandma Sheng knows better. In the final scene of the episode, Grandma Sheng questions Ming Lan about what happened.
It turns out, Ming Lan’s so-called weakness and unwillingness to act was itself an act. Our amazing Grandma Sheng saw right through it. Ming lan recognized that she had no authority to reprimand these maids because they came from more powerful actors in the family so Ming Lan just let these maids believe they could behave however they wanted. She was waiting for the opportunity for 王大娘子 to not be able to take it any longer and deal with these maids herself. That way, 明兰 can have a quieter courtyard and rid herself of the spies without it looking like she purposefully did it.
It’s really ingenious because as we saw in previous episodes, Ming Lan can be really aggressive and powerful when she wants to be. If she wanted to punish these maids, she absolutely could have but she knew that the best way to do so was not by her hand and so this was her plot all along. What a clever girl right? I love it!
And that is it for this episode!
At the beginning of the episode we saw the whole funeral procession for the late Marquis. We talked about chinese funerals in episode two and there’s a little more to discuss in a later episode so we’ll consolidate all research about Chinese funeral customs later on.
Stir Fry – 炒
Next, let’s talk about stir fry! Or 炒！In the meantime, we’ll also mention a little bit on the history of cooking/cuisine in China.
Well what is needed for stir fry – well a wok or 锅 and of course oil! The 锅 or woks were made of iron.
The earliest type of 锅 in china were actually called 鬲 (li4). These were essentially large iron tripod cauldrons, primarily used for boiling water and cooking rice. 鼎 then appeared for cooking meat. Over the centuries, 鼎 were used more for rites and rituals. You’ll see many of them today at temples. These are large tripod cauldrons with handles on the side.
By the time of the warring states period, over 2500 years ago, more bronze cookware were invented. However, the primary method of cooking was still boiling. Some of these were also used for torture but that’s another rabbit hole that we won’t dive into.
During the warring states period, iron was mined for use. However, the amount produced was extremely low. By the time of the 汉 dynasty, so roughly 200BC, the iron and its allocation was tightly controlled by the government. Iron was used primarily for farm tools and of course, weapons. Over the centuries, iron production increased. By the time of the Song dynasty, iron production increased to a point that more common household items such as woks or 锅 could be produced with iron to some scale.
Oil production was similar – During the Song Dynasty, oil – whether vegetable oil or animal produced oil increased in production so that there was enough oil to actually be used for stir fry.
There aren’t that many records of 炒 before the Song dynasty. Now, it’s not to say that people didn’t stir fry but it wasn’t very common. There are a couple of recipes from the Northern Wei and Tang Dynasties referencing cooking techniques similar to stir fry. However, it was really during the Song dynasty that the stir fry methodology or 炒 really developed and became popular. That also ties back to the availability of iron. Thinner woks were created and chefs experimented with how oil, heat, and raw ingredients played with each other.
东京梦华录 – The Eastern Capital: A Dream of Splendor, a travel book, first printed in 1187, which is roughly around 130 years after the events of this show. This book, consisting of 10 volumes, offers a fascinating first hand account of culture during the Song dynasty. It includes descriptions of urban life, restaurants, dishes, nightlife, and trade. The book clearly includes records of stir fry dishes. So we know that by this time in the Song dynasty, stir fry dishes were part of at least high society and culture.
As to the scene in the drama, it was probably true that only the nobility could eat stir fry or pay a hefty sum for it.
Next let’s briefly discuss the revolving lanterns or 走马灯 that 齐衡 created for his mother. The literal translation is horse trotting lanterns.
The revolving lanterns can be traditionally seen during holidays such as the lantern festival or mid-autumn festival. The earliest records of a type of revolving lantern dates back to the Han dynasty under a different name. There are clear records of 走马灯 by the Southern Song Dynasty or the 13th century AD.
Here’s how the lantern works. There’s a frame on the outside with the parchment or a scene that you want to depict. Connecting the frame is a piece of wood or bamboo, what have you. In the middle of the wood, you would hang a sort of light paper wheel. THere could be little shapes tied to the wheel. The purpose of the wheel is to create a fan. Then for the final piece, light a candle under the wheel. The heat from the candle will turn the wheel, creating the movement from the lantern. People still make them today and they look quite nice.
During the Southern Song, many of the depictions were actually of men riding horses to create the illusion of movement, hence the name 走马灯.
The lanterns in the drama a slightly different in the sense that the whole lantern with the frame revolved but the movement is still there
Now – let’s get to some character analysis!
First up is our love struck young duke – 齐衡.
In this episode, he finally makes it known to his parents of his heart’s desire. He wants to marry the lovely 明兰 as his wife!. Can we call him Prince Charming? I sincerely applaud his nerve for asking his parents to propose to 明兰. However, during the entire exchange with his parents, we see just how naive the boy is. He believes that his mother, the haughty princess, will agree to for her son to marry a 庶女 from a lowly 5th ranked official. How little he knows his own mother. She has much bigger plans for him. He’s to marry princesses or duchesses!
Here’s the next kicker. 齐衡 also promises that he’ll do well in the next round of Imperial Examinations if he marries 明兰. I don’t know about you listener, but I saw warning flags all over the Princess’s face. In my interpretation of what 齐衡 just said, is that, he’ll only be able to study and do well IF he marries her. Not, he’ll study, do well, and THEN marry her. 齐衡 is predicating his performance on his exams on his marriage to 明兰. I bet the Princess right now thinks 明兰 seduced 齐衡 to make him say this.
Grandma 盛 is absolutely right. 齐衡 will never understand the intricacies of home life, of dealing with mother-in-laws, or the dangers of a Duke’s house. He ecstatic when his mother says she’ll attend 盛长柏’s wedding. He believes she agreed to the marriage! I read in the youtube comments that some people wrote – the worst decision he made in his life was to tell his mother the truth about his feelings for 明兰 and it’s true. We’ll see what happens in the next episodes, but it does not end well.
Let’s actually dive into 明兰 and her behavior/performances this episode. First up, is when 明兰 finds out that 齐衡 actually asked his parents to propose marriage and will, according to him, propose to her at her brother’s wedding. Despite her previous rejections, to me at least, it’s clear that she’s wavering. She’s stunned that 齐衡 actually asked and we see that she actually does like him. Poor girl, her loving grandmother immediately tries to get these thoughts out of her head. The bridge between them is too far. 明兰 is in for a rude awakening.
Next, let’s talk about 明兰 and her excellent handling of the maids in her courtyard. During her management of the household, each and every person has called her meek, weak, mild. They’ve expressed their disappointment in how she’s handling her staff and how she’s a pushover. Let’s applaud her shall we! That’s exactly what she needed to do to a. Protect herself and b. Clean house. If 明兰 transformed into let’s say 王大娘子, everyone in the 盛 family would become very wary of her. She’d be the target for sabotage, gossip, and potential murder. I mean look at her mother. By keeping a low profile, she was able to keep under the radar of everyone and let everything simmer until 王大娘子 just dealt with everything. Even after the punishment of the maids, 明兰 can still keep the charade. 王大娘子 will just think she’s a pushover, and 林小娘 will turn her anger towards 王大娘子. It’s a win for 明兰. 明兰 has proved to be extremely intelligent and has learned at least some ways to manage the women of a household. She’s no pushover. Interestingly, 顾廷烨 is the only one who sees that.
Now in the book, the young duke 齐衡 doesn’t make many appearances. However, he is infatuated and falls in love with 明兰 all the same. In the brief moment that the two have together, 明兰 very clearly rejects him. She doesn’t have strong feelings for him as we see in the drama but nevertheless does have some for him. She just clearly knows that it’s impossible with the two of them. 齐衡 plays a much bigger role in the drama. In the book, 齐衡 tries to fight for 明兰 but he will be thwarted by his dear mother all the same.
That’s that for today!
Well that is it for this episode of the Story of Ming Lan. I know Cathy has been harsh on 顾廷烨 in the past couple of episodes but here’s where he begins his redemption arc in my eyes. Unfortunately at a terrible cost. His world came crashing down on him. Let’s see how he’ll survive this.
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.