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 the second half of ep 23 and episode 24, of The Story of Ming Lan, 知否知否应是绿肥红瘦。
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For today’s episode, we will do an episode recap, then discuss the history brought up during the episode, and then close with book differences.
Let’s start off with the recap. There are two threads for these two episodes, 明兰’s experiences in 宥阳 and 顾廷烨’s experience in the military. I’ll focus on 明兰’s first and then we’ll discuss 顾廷烨
After their harrowing escape from the bandits and being rescued by 顾廷烨, 明兰 and her grandmother arrive safely at the ancestral 盛 home in 宥阳.
They are greeted enthusiastically by the rest of the 盛 family. Leading the group is another elderly grandma. She is 明兰’s great aunt. There are two surprising guests too! The young doctor 贺弘文 and his grandmother! Recall that we’ve met these two in previous episodes. Grandmother He is friends with Grandma Sheng. 贺弘文 is her grandson. The two are here to celebrate the pending marriage in the Sheng family.
The group head into the main hall and begin to exchange pleasantries. The drama doesn’t really explain much of the relations so I’ll do that here. I’ll also be sprinkling some nuggets from the book to round out a few of the characters.
First up is 盛大太太 – or the eldest Grandma Sheng. She is 明兰’s great aunt. This woman married 明兰’s grandfather’s eldest brother who died several years back. The eldest Grandma Sheng or 盛大太太, which is what we’ll refer to her moving forward, had a son and daughter. Her daughter isn’t mentioned in the drama.
盛维 is 盛大太太’s son. He is a cousin to 明兰’s father. So he is 明兰’s uncle. He is a very wealthy merchant and has been quite instrumental assisting his cousin rise in the ranks of government. As we all know, money talks. This is a crucial distinction however. 盛维 and this side of the family are merchants. Not scholars. What did we say about merchants before? While they have all the money in the world, they are deemed the lowest class of people in society and far beneath scholars. This comes into play later on.
He is married to Madame 李. She isn’t really introduced in the drama but Madame 李 is her title in the book. The couple have 3 children in the drama. A son 盛长梧, who I referenced in the last episode, a daughter 淑兰, who’s already married, and a younger daughter 品兰, who we meet at this gathering. They are second cousins to 明兰。The children’s names here is another great reflection of Chinese family tradition. As we mentioned previously, names are given by generation. 长梧’s name follows the same naming conventions as the other Sheng sons, 长柏 and 长枫。 品兰 and 淑兰 is also pretty obvious. The girls in this generation are all to be named with the character of 兰 which means orchid.
品兰 is a very playful and spirited young woman who’s around the same age as 明兰. When she arrives to greet the family, she says that she was playing 捶丸, an ancient Chinese version of golf. This is definitely not your normal female activity of painting, incense burning or the other fine arts. 盛大太太 is content to let her granddaughter play around for a bit. 明兰’s own grandmother also agrees that 明兰 can let loose a bit during her stay in 宥阳。
品兰 and 明兰 become fast friends. The next day 品兰 drags 明兰 on a hunt with her brother 长梧 and the young doctor 贺弘文. The 盛 brother and sister are quite successful while the young doctor is over there digging for medicinal herbs. It’s quite a tranquil scene but unfortunately it doesn’t last long. The hunting party spot a group of bandits stealing from a nearby farm. There’s not much for them to do and they hurry back.
Two months later, it’s the mid-autumn festival. 品兰 and 明兰 say their prayers to the moon and are summoned back to the main hall as guests have arrived. 品兰 and 明兰 grab their rabbit lanterns and head back. As with every family gathering for American Thanksgiving dinner, 品兰 reveals that she doesn’t like certain individuals in the group of guests, namely her sister’s mother-in-law. It doesn’t take long before we find out why.
The next part of the drama should be called, the story of 淑兰. It’s a sad reflection on the tragedy of patriarchal society and the wide difference between the merchant class and the scholar class.
As the two young ladies enter the hall, the show pans to a middle aged woman gloating about her son. She says, my son is a 秀才, you know what that is? That’s a grand chancellor in the making! When he becomes grand chancellor, my nephew and 明兰 would be the perfect match!
The woman turns around and spots 明兰. She immediately corners 明兰 and inspects her. She turns around and immediately asks, basically demands, to have her nephew engaged to 明兰.
Who is this woman? She is 淑兰’s mother-in-law. 淑兰 is the older sister to 品兰, the one that got married a few years ago.
We’ll call her 孙妈妈 or 妈妈孙. She’ll be referred to by her husband’s last name, as is in the book. For those of you non Chinese listeners, 孙妈妈 right off the bat is shown as a low class woman, not only by how she behaves but also by her dialect. Everyone else in the drama speaks mandarin, this 孙妈妈 does not speak proper mandarin. I don’t know exactly what accent this is but the directorial intent is clear, she is not educated and has no taste or class.
Anyways, to her suggestion of marriage for 明兰， 孙妈妈 presses the Sheng family for an answer. Grandma Sheng coldly declines the offer. 孙妈妈 then says this infuriating sentence! “She’s only a 庶女, somewhat incompatible, but if I arrange it, no one will mind”.
What! Who the hell does she think she is? Look at literally every other woman in the room, no one is looking at her. Grandma Sheng has a face of, get me out of here. 淑兰’s mother, sitting next to 孙妈妈 has a look of disgust on her face staring down on the floor.
孙妈妈 then deigns to say – if you think 明兰 is too young, don’t worry. They can get engaged first and then I’ll put some girls in his room so he’ll grow up a bit. Then they can get married.
品兰 on the side blows up and retorts – who do you think you are? Who does he think he is? He has no merit, no land. How can he compare to one of the girls from the 盛 family?
孙妈妈 then trots out the line that you’ll repeatedly hear – my son became a 秀才 at 12. The fortune teller foretold his future. He will be a grand chancellor! He’ll be able to support his own cousin. Stop being so prejudiced!
品兰 snaps right back. He became a 秀才 at the age of 12. It’s been over 10 years. He’s still a 秀才. 明兰’s brother, 长柏 is already a 进士 and has passed all of the imperial examinations. Do you think you can match that?
Yas girl. Let’s expand upon that a little bit. 淑兰”s husband became a 秀才 at age 12. As we’ve talked about the various imperial exams one must take on the way to be a scholar, a 秀才 is just the first step. Sure, it’s impressive that this man was able to pass at 12 but to not have progressed beyond that is the big issue. This 孙妈妈 consistently gloats about how accomplished her son is. Meanwhile, he is several exams BELOW the other men we’ve seen in the drama. 长柏 is already an imperial courtier, miles ahead of this 秀才 so it’s ridiculous this 孙妈妈 holds her son in such high regard.
Now this wretched woman turns her anger and embarrassment towards her daughter-in-law. Blaming his ineptitude on her. In front of all of 淑兰’s closest family, 孙妈妈 openly insults her and says, what’s the point of you, useless woman. 淑兰 fights back tears, while the rest of the family are quietly seething at this display.
Ugh, what a terrible woman. This is only a first glimpse of her too.
品兰 rushes out of the room crying to lament her sister’s terrible situation because, yea – her sister is still so young and has to endure this marriage for the next however many decades. How will her sister survive? That’s the real question for women in this time period.
The drama continues into episode 24 where we are introduced to 淑兰’s husband and see exactly what type of low life, deadbeat person he actually is. The family event where this husband, 孙秀才 is introduced is the wedding celebrations for 明兰”s cousin, 长梧。 There are quick snippets of wedding traditions in episode 24 but we won’t get into it here because there are several other weddings in the drama where we’ll go into much more detail about Song dynasty wedding traditions.
It Is customary however, that there’s a banquet to celebrate the marriage. It is at this banquet that this 孙秀才 makes a fool of himself. He is black out drunk, standing on a table, belittling the staff for not providing him with more alcohol. It is truly an embarrassing scene where he constantly raises how important he is. The line he constantly repeats to what others are doing is: 有辱斯文 which roughly translates to, it’s an insult to culture or class. This is obviously ironic because everything he is doing is an insult to class.
Later that night, 淑兰 finally is able to share everything she’s suffered so far in this marriage. She is the wife of the family but after 3 years of marriage, has not been able to become pregnant. This is the main mark against her but who could blame her? Who would want to spend time with her husband to get pregnant? Every time the couple fight, her mother gifts the husband’s family another property or 2 to appease them but this only lasts so long. 淑兰’s husband beats her constantly. The worst thing? This 孙秀才 got a prostitute pregnant and wants to have her in the family as a mistress! A prostitute! According to the Sheng family, there are rules where women of this status are not allowed to be in the family. But does 孙秀才 care? Not at all. What a despicable man. I just want to hurl as many insults as possible to this man for treating 淑兰 so poorly.
The challenge for these women is that they feel stuck. If 淑兰 is divorced from this family, that would be a great stain upon the Sheng Family. It would impact the other 盛 daughters and their marriage prospects. In this society, it’s always that the women have to be perfect in order to survive whereas men like this disgusting 孙秀才 can do whatever they want. It is unfair by every measure. Fortunately, 明兰, after listening to 淑兰”s plight, offers sage advice and plots to save her cousin from this tragic marriage.
The first step is to ask them to separate or 和离 which means no one is getting divorced. This is a much better look than divoce. Of course, 孙秀才 and his mother do not agree. So, 明兰 comes up with another tactic – cut off 孙秀才’s income. This guy and his family are actually incredibly poor. The only money they have comes from 淑兰”s dowry which they now spend without a second thought. This is yet another example of a husband’s family using his wife’s dowry for his own personal use which is culturally not acceptable.
After a few days of no money or servants to take care of them, the Sun husband brings his mother and other clan members to instigate a scene at the Sheng family. In the main hall, 孙秀才 threatens 淑兰 with divorce and belittles her for not allowing a prostitute into the family, particularly one that’s pregnant. The horrifying truth we learn is that this Sun 秀才 already has another 22-23 mistresses on top of a wife and this prostitute. Interestingly, none of these other women have given birth. Just this prostitute. 孙秀才 and his mother demand the Sheng family give them money that is 淑兰”s and demand that they allow this prostitute into the family. This is probably one of the most infuriating scenes in the entire drama. I’m struggling for words to best describe these people. Disgusting is probably most apt.
明兰 is in a separate room with 品兰, figuring out ideas to help 淑兰 as it’s evident the Sun family will not easily back down. In a stroke of genius, 明兰 rallies 品兰 and 贺弘文 to head over to the brothel where this prostitute originated from. The goal? Is to procure the registration deed that states that this woman is indeed of the prostitute class. As described in the drama, each person whether it’s a slave, servant or a mistress, will have 2 documents. One is the selling contract of that person, but the other is the deed that tells what class this person is in. I don’t think the drama does a good job explaining what happened but it can be assumed that 孙秀才 bought only this prostitute’s selling contract or 卖身契 and not the other registration deed or the 籍契 because it’s something only managers of households would know. 孙秀才’s family would have been too poor to understand the intricacies here. By having this, it’ll allow the Sheng family to outright say that 孙秀才 is cavorting with a prostitute and thus gain more leverage in negotiating a separation.
This is a daring adventure as women of 明兰 and 品兰”s status would not dare to go to a place like a brothel. But they wear veiled hats and leverage 贺弘文 to secure an audience with the Madame of the brothel.
In the next episode, we’ll see what actually happens in this confrontation to save 淑兰。
With all this excitement with 淑兰, we must not forget the other storyline in these 2 episodes and that’s 顾廷烨’s first experiences in the military. Spurred by 明兰’s words, he joins a local regiment. He has a recommendation letter from 赵宗全, the man he saved in episode 22.
He was hoping to be placed in a good regiment, but the commander, after seeing the recommendation letter, instead places him and his servant 石头 in the lowest regiment. They’re stuck digging graves with little hope of seeing battle which means they will never move up in the ranks to make a name for themselves.
Luckily, an opportunity comes straight for 顾廷烨。 One night, as he’s on watch, he detects that the surroundings are too quiet. There’s no howling or chirping from wildlife which must mean that there are enemies in the forest. Remember the bandits that he saved Minglan from earlier in the episode? This is probably the same organization of people, hoping to clear out military presence in the region to continue to plunder goods. The commander doesn’t want to listen to 顾廷烨 but as 顾廷烨 suspects an assault on the military camp that evening，he 顾廷烨 rounds up those that will listen to set up a trap for these bandits.
In a heart racing fight scene, 顾廷烨”s group of soldiers manage to trap and defeat the enemies as the real commander wakes up from his sleep. 顾廷烨 pretends like the idea came from the commander so as to protect the soldiers who listened to him and the commander is happy to take ownership of the glory. In the next episode, we’ll see where 顾廷烨’s career continues.
The last thread in this trip to 宥阳 so far is the interaction between 明兰 and 贺弘文。This kind young man gravitates towards 明兰 which does not go undetected by Grandma Sheng. This man understands the trials and tribulations of women and actually respects women, having been raised single handedly by his grandmother. This is a rare quality that Grandma Sheng reminds 明兰 of. If 明兰 were to marry 贺弘文, her life would be peaceful which is all Grandma Sheng wants for 明兰。
Historical analysis – Marriage is a key theme in this entire drama. In episode 23, 24 and 25, a key goal is getting 淑兰 to separate rather than be divorced from her husband so as to save face. In modern day, separation and divorce don’t have has much of a distinction but in Ancient China, the distinction was stark.
For a divorce or the more formal term is repudiation where a husband renounces the wife, the wife must have committed one of 7 acts. Chinese word is 休妻 for divorcing a wife. If the wife committed one of these 7 acts, then the husband has every right to divorce his wife.
They are: The wife does not respect parents, does not have children, is jealous, is promiscuous, speaks too much, has an incorrigible health condition or commits thievery.
This seven acts come from 周礼 or the Rites of Zhou which is a work on bureaucracy and organizational theory. It first appeared in 2nd century BCE so more than 2000 years ago. As you can see, men have all the power here. He can pretty much say that his wife committed any of these, give her divorce papers and she is kicked out of the family. By doing so, the woman’s reputation and that of her entire clan is ruined. Is it shocking that there’s nothing for 休夫 which means a woman divorcing her husband?
休妻 – 女子犯了“七出之条”。所谓“七出”包括：不顺父母、无子、妒、淫、口多言、有恶疾和盗窃。休妻中男方占据主动权，女方则是被动的一方。如果被男方一纸休书赶出家门，那此女子后面就很难再嫁，也会给整个家族蒙羞。
Separation, however, or 和离 is much milder. 和离 is where the man and woman exit the marriage contract and both sides are equal. This type of more equitable exit to the marriage first appeared in the Tang dynasty and is less ruinous to women than a divorce.
Now we know why the Sheng family are trying so hard to secure a separation rather than a divorce but also why the Sun Family threaten divorce. They want to control the Sheng family and this is the only way they can do it.
顾廷烨’s side – 赵宗全 is the descendant of the first emperor of the Song dynasty but is just a descendant. Family trees can extend very rapidly and it looks like this guy is not well respected by the public. Or at least, the military commander 顾廷烨 sought out for a position.
Let’s conclude with book differences. The drama dispenses with many secondary characters in the 盛 family that live in 宥阳 and minor plot points. The main storyline still revolves around 淑兰’s predicament but 明兰’s role in the whole story is minimal. 盛大太太 or 明兰’s great aunt is the one who devises many plans to help 淑兰. 明兰 at this point in the book is only like 12. She didn’t drag 品兰 over to the brothel to try to find the registration deed.
淑兰 in the book is actually a rather plain, meek girl. We get a surprising cameo from 张含韵 who’s been in quite a few shows in recent years as 淑兰. She’s wayy to gorgeous to be deemed plain but I’m just glad she’s here.
Well that is it for this episode of the Story of Ming Lan.
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.