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 episode 25, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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 then close with book differences.
In the last episode, 明兰 went back to the 盛 family home in 宥阳. There she met her cousin 品兰 and got a glimpse at the terrible marriage that her other cousin 淑兰 is stuck in with the horrible 孙秀才. The 盛 family is trying to obtain a 和离 or separation from the 孙 family, but it’s tough. 孙秀才 claims that the 盛 family ha no grounds for a separation, only a divorce. He wants a prostitute to enter into the household and has bought her contract. The conversations are at a stalemate. 明兰 has an idea – the 籍契 or the registration deed is probably still at the brothel. With this registration deed in hand, the 盛 family will have leverage over 孙秀才. She, 品兰, and the young doctor 贺弘文 rush to the brothel to try and bribe the Madame of the brothel. They are successful only after paying an arm and leg for it and having 贺弘文 promise to tend to her migraines.
As for 顾廷烨’s story. He’s currently in the military and had some success.
Let’s start off with the recap.
明兰, 品兰, and 贺弘文 rush back to the 盛 family manor. Things are getting out of hand. 孙秀才 and his mother won’t back down and it’s getting physical. 盛大太太 or 明兰’s great aunt is out of ideas. 淑兰 and her mother are just sobbing in the back. It’s not looking good for the ladies in the 盛 family.
品兰 rushes into the room and gives the registration deed to his father. With this in hand, the 盛 family’s fortune turns. The prostitute registration deed is displayed for all to see. 淑兰’s father, reprimands 孙秀才 for his actions. The scum of a man used 淑兰’s dowry to pay for his brothel visits. 孙秀才 knew to buy the contract but not the registration deed. With this registration deed in hand, the 盛 family now has evidence that 孙秀才 wants a prostitute to enter the household and is willing to divorce his properly married wife for this woman. This is against the law and also propriety. As a scholar, 孙秀才 has to adhere to certain social norms. 淑兰’s father threatens to file a lawsuit against 孙秀才 and one letter to the scholars in the capital about this fiasco will strip 孙秀才 of his 秀才 or scholar title. Without this title 孙秀才 will just be another regular common man.
After seeing the registration deed, the 孙 family elders back down. 孙秀才 is incredulous! He’s like Uncles! We can’t back down. In my head, my response is equally as incredulous. Uh what? How dare you think you have any grounds to demand anything right now?
盛大太太 firmly claims that a 盛 family daughter will not lower herself to be “sisters” or i nthe same household as a prostitute. 盛大太太 proposes a compromise. The couple will 和离 and the 盛 family will even leave half of 淑兰’s dowry to the 孙 family. The 孙 family elders agree. 孙秀才’s still wishy washy. Ugh eyeroll. It’s actually 孙秀才’s mother, the crazy mother-in-law that pushes for the separation. Half of the dowry is still over 1000 silver taels which is a lot of money. She doesn’t want to work anymore, especially because the pregnant woman is very demanding. and wants to live a comfortable life. That should be enough to get by.
孙秀才 finally agrees to 和离. He demands for the dowry list. When 长梧 brings it out and tears it in half, he has the gall to say 有辱斯文 or so uncultured! UGHHH. At least he finally makes a print on the separation document, formalizing this whole separation. 淑兰 comes up to the table – in a show of her absolute hatred of this marriage, she signs or prints in blood from her finger instead of using the red ink. This is a stain in her life, that she paid dearly for.
You’d think that 孙秀才 would just leave but no, he leaves these scathing words for her. You’re dull and uninteresting. You are not a match for me. You’re only fit for a lowly butcher. Remember to be more virtuous in your next marriage.
Ugh I rolled my eyes at this the first time I watched this. How dare you! This is straight up misogyny, the patriarchy, what have you that led to this scum of a human being.
淑兰, freed from all shackles, finally retaliates, spits at him and calls him out for what he is, an unfaithful womanizing bore.
With that the 孙 family elders leave and so do the despicable 孙秀才 and his mother. That’s the last we see of them. Let’s give the two actors a round of applause for making us absolutely hate them in two short episodes. The actress for 孙秀才 should be particularly commended, she did an excellent job here.
Later that night, 明兰’s own grandmother, Grandma 盛 reprimands 明兰 for her recklessness today. Going to a brothel! What would people think of her if anyone found out?? 明兰 promises that the madame will not say anything especially since 贺弘文 promised to treat her headaches.
Grandma 盛 tells 明兰 that the tragedy of her cousin is a good lesson to her. Luckily the 孙family didn’t know about the registration deed and have a relatively low status. If 淑兰 married into an aristocratic family, the 盛 family would not have been able to help. They’re just merchants and much lower in society than nobles or scholars. 淑兰 would have been stuck in the living hell if she had married above her station.
Grandma 盛 praises 贺弘文 and his actions towards 明兰. Grandma 盛 aptly observes that 淑兰 was too weak and meek towards her ex husband and family. She never knew to stand up for herself. The sheng family believed money could solve everything and the 孙 family took advantage of that. Grandma 盛 wishes 明兰’s life will just be smooth sailing. 明兰 correctly points out that even a match such as 淑兰 and 孙秀才, which on paper seemed like a good match, required careful management. Grandma 盛 is heartened by this.
At this point, a servant rushes into the room to announce 盛大太太 is not looking good and is about to pass. Everyone rushes to her bedside. 贺弘文’s grandmother, who herself is a doctor, declares it a lost cause. 盛大太太 calls for someone 盛纾. She is 盛大太太’s eldest daughter who died young. With her dying breath, 盛大太太 curses her long dead husband 盛怀中 and vows to take vengeance in the afterlife.
I’ll dive into this story later when discussing the book.
In the middle of winter, the 盛 family prepare for the funeral. 明兰 sends a letter to her aunt to meet back in the capital. The funeral is a grand affair and we’ll dive into the history later. Unfortunately, along the route the funeral procession is attacked by bandits. 明兰 gets separated from the group as everyone flees. As she’s running away, a soldier on horseback kills the bandits chasing her and grabs her onto her horse.
Who is it? None other than 顾廷烨。What a coincidence!
The rest of the 盛 family return safely back to the manor and they dispatch a search party immediately to search for 明兰.
顾廷烨 takes 明兰 to a small outside stall for some hot water/wine. I can’t tell. She’s surprised that he joined the imperial army. She aptly deduced that he must have gotten on the wrong footing with his superiors, otherwise, why is he here fighting bandits instead of out on the front lines? He’s surprised at how quickly 明兰 came to this conclusion. He claims that he didn’t want to rely on anyone and just wanted to make a name for himself. He’s his own master. 明兰 open admits that she admires this and wishes she was free to live for herself. 顾廷烨 insists that she can.
石头, 顾廷烨’s servant, comes back to report that the bandits have been taken care of. 明兰 can go back now. He gives her a sleeve arrow for protection. 明兰 rushes back home but of course runs into a bandit. This scene is absolutely hilarious. Both 明兰 and the bandit have a staring match. The bandit’s brandishing this large broadsword and she’s trembling as she tries to shoot the arrow. 明兰 apparently shoots the bandit in the leg and after another miss, the bandit flees. 明兰, good for you girl, but what are you doing. She tries to pick up the broadsword. It’s too big and then she just drops it and flees. Hahaha.
Out from the shadows, 顾廷烨 and 石头 emerge. 顾廷烨 was the one who actually shot the bandit in the leg, 明兰 completely missed. 石头 questions 顾廷烨, why are we hiding in the shadows to protect 顾廷烨? In a callback to previous episodes where I said 顾廷烨 very much understands the difficulty of women, responds how would it look if a single woman returns with an outside man, especially wearing funeral clothes?
明兰 returns back to the family. Everyone starts crying again. It’s actually very heartwarming. Grandma 盛 is beside herself with joy. She decides that they must quickly return back to the capital. Grandma 盛 and 明兰 head out shortly after. It’s a whole retinue but who is there behind them? 顾廷烨, his daughter 蓉姐儿, and 石头. He has two reasons to head back to the capital. One, to protect the 盛 family retinue. Two, to bring 蓉姐儿 back to the capital and receive a formal education. 蓉姐儿 is so cute. She asks all these questions as to why they’re out camping, why they’re riding so slow. 石头 is beside himself laughing at the answers 顾廷烨 gives. Oh, I don’t have any money, oh my head hurts. 蓉姐儿 is one smart cookie and and accurately says, are we riding slow to protect the big sister ahead? Aw what a smart girl.
The episode ends with the sheng family retinue going ahead. There’s a group of bandits waiting for them. 顾廷烨, carrying his daughter, actually walks straight up to them to request that they back down. When the bandits don’t, 顾廷烨 makes light work of them and dispatches the group.
Phew that was the recap for episode 25! A lot happens and there’s a lot of culture, history, and book analysis to complete today.
贱籍 describes the class of people that are the lowest class of people – akin to slaves. There are rules where people of this class are not allowed to marry quote on quote ordinary people. What’s highly unfortunate about being in this class is that this designation is generational, meaning passed down from birth. You are not allowed to participate in imperial exams, or become a government official or own property. This is because this class of people are themselves seen as property. People in this class are generally servants, slaves or for women, prostitutes.
Interestingly, in almost all of Chinese history, this type of classification existed through the Qing dynasty but underwent heavy reform in the Song Dynasty and was essentially abolished. During the Song dynasty, these slaves were given more rights and viewed as humans rather than property. Owners were not to kill their servants or tattoo their faces which signals they committed a crime, and were not to treat them as property for sale. There were a few examples of government officials having their careers blow up for abusing or killing their servants/concubines. Overall, during the Song dynasty, you could say there was upward mobility as this class of people were categorized as humans. This was unique in Chinese history as neighboring kingdoms retained this system. When the Mongols invaded China and destroyed the Song dynasty, this distinction between regular and undesirable people was reintroduced to Cha, as I said, all the way until the Qing dynasty where none other than 雍正, the emperor in Empresses in the Palace, abolished all forms of this slave designation.
Shortly after 淑兰 is able to separate from her despicable husband, her grandmother passes away. This is the 4th funeral we’ve seen in the drama and last major one so we’ll spend some time going through some of the customs here as I’ve skipped over the explanation particularly when 顾廷烨’s father died.
There’s actually a rather cool behind the scenes clip on youtube where the cultural teacher for the drama describes various aspects of funeral ceremonies they’ve included in the drama so I’m taking it directly from her and of course a few other books/articles I’ve researched on this topic.
Funerals in China are important events and in the Song dynasty in particular they placed additional emphasis on the various rites or rituals for funerals. As this dynasty’s scholars aligned themselves more closely with Confucius, they took the rituals from Confucius teachings more seriously. One interesting thing I’ve read is that this dynasty shied away from having elaborate burials where one is buried with lots of jewels and gold. There’s actually so much to discuss on funeral related rituals that I’m only going to scratch the surface here. We’ve talked about funerals already a few times in this podcast show so hopefully this is at least something new.
At a high level, men and women are to wear white and burlap clothes for funerals which in Chinese is 披麻戴孝. There is a vigil held for the deceased where close family members are to fast for 3 days before sending the deceased to his or her final resting place. In this drama, we mostly see the various processions of people heading to the burial place. Generally, the closest relatives are at the front of the procession. For 顾廷烨’s father, we saw his wife and eldest son at the front.
This is also to reflect something called 五服 which dictates various customs during the funeral period such as what type of clothes you wear, food you eat and places you rest. It essentially decrees that if you are very close to the deceased, such as you’re the immediate family, you have to do ABC, if you’re a generation away or second cousins for example, you do XYZ. In this period, you are to be within 5 fu or I guess relations? For this to matter. I personally do not think that the drama went that detailed into changing what each person wore based on his or her relation to the deceased. For the most part, the actors seem to wear similar clothes for the various funerals. Maybe there are slight differences. People reading english translations to this drama may not have caught this but, 齐衡 and 顾廷烨 say that they are marriage relations however, 齐衡 and I think his father at one point DID say, 他们早已出五服 which translates to that they are outside of the 5 fu. This means they are not that closely related.
One of the most severe traditions for a funeral is actually what the son or daughter has to do after their parents pass away. This is called 守孝 which is like a mourning period。 This concept will pop up later in the drama for when other people pass away. During this period, the son or daughter of the deceased are to not drink alcohol, cut nails, trim beards, cut hair, spend the night with their husband/wife, amongst other things. In the most severe cases this is traditionally a period of 3 whole years while i’ve read other places decreased this period to 3 months.
Lastly, the funeral processions in the drama are probably some of the most impressive I’ve seen. The cultural teacher of the drama discussed adding Min Jin to various scenes which acts as a flag to guide the deceased to the next life. We talked about this in episode 2 I believe. THere’s also a 魂帛 which is a chair with white cloth tied into an elaborate knot at the front. This is another way to give the departed a guidepost to lean on to the next life. This 魂帛 and 铭矝 are carried by family members in front of, for example the Sheng grandma, as they head to the burial spot. The cultural teacher also discussed that for 顾廷烨’s father’s procession, they also created a tombstone to be carried with them and also created 画翣 which are colorful cloths or perhaps tapestries covering the coffin and along the funeral procession to give it a more somber tone. I personally have not heard of what a 画翣 is before and there’s not a whole lot to tie this to the drama other than it’s a great introduction to these words. Again, I do think the drama took some artistic license to creating these funeral processions which I think is actually great because the end result looks amazing.
At the end of the episode, when 顾廷烨 is fighting off the bandits to protect 明兰 and company, 石头 tells 顾廷烨”s daughter, 蓉儿 to recite 岳阳楼记, which translates to Memorial to YueYang Tower. This is a famous essay if you will written by the renown Song dynasty chancellor, 范仲淹 in 1046 AD。This chancellor went to visit his friend, 滕子京 who rebuilt this tower and created this essay.
Let’s talk about the author really quickly. 范仲淹 is one of the most famous Song dynasty politicians and writers. Born 989 AD and died 1052 AD, in modern day Su Zhou, he rose through the ranks to become chancellor. He helped the current emperor in the drama, 宋仁宗 with various issues that arose during this Emperor’s reign including the conflict to the west with the 西夏 kingdom. Within Song Dynasty borders, 范仲淹 championed many reforms including educational, agricultural, and military improvements. His texts, including this Memorial to Yue Yang Tower, are still part of the Chinese literary repertoire today. As Americans, Cathy and I did not study this in school but based in the comments from youtube, chinese students had to memorize this 岳阳楼记 in school which shows how important this text is.
The most famous line in this text text that 蓉儿 interestingly does not recite is:
The rough translation or meaning of this phrase is that – first worry about the troubles of 天下 which in this case means your country or people, then be happy when your country or people are happy. What he’s trying to say is that, as government officials, the primary duty is to focus on your society’s improvement and happiness. Only then, can one enjoy happiness. From this line alone, you get a sense that 范仲淹 cared deeply about the Song Dynasty and its stability. He worked tirelessly to create reform and work with the Emperor on enacting changes that while not all worked for various reasons, made a lasting impact on Chinese culture.
Back when 顾廷烨 was taking the imperial examinations, he apparently wanted to be like 范文正公 which is the official title for 范仲淹。
Funnily enough, in the drama 清平乐 or Serenade of Peaceful Joy, which I’ve referenced a few times now in this podcast show, 范仲淹 is portrayed by none other than the actor who portrays 盛纮, the father of Ming Lan. I think he does a great job depicting 范仲淹 and his scholar aesthetic but I won’t lie, it’s odd seeing 盛纮 being actually helpful rather than the flawed character we see him here in this drama.
From a book perspective, let’s dive into the separation between 淑兰 and 孙秀才 first. As I mentioned in the last episode, 明兰 played no part in retrieving the registration deed from the brothel, that was all 盛大太太 or 明兰’s great aunt. The younger generation were not allowed to be in the hall, including 淑兰 herself.
The book also provides more backstory as to why the 盛 family adamantly refused to allow a prostitute into the household. This goes back to 盛大太太 and her husband 盛怀中. 盛怀中 became besotted with a prostitute and forgot about his family. He lavished gifts on her and spend a significant amount of money on brothels. The amount he spent was so much that the very manor the family is staying in now had to be sold to pay off his debts. With no other choice, 盛大太太 had to take her children away and live in relative poverty. During that time, 盛大太太’s eldest daughter 盛红 or 盛纾 in the drama fell ill and died. In the book it seemed like the prostitute that seduced 盛大太太’s husband had a hand in it. The girl wasn’t even 10 years old. By her sheer willpower and some support from Grandma 盛, 盛大太太 was able to turn the family’s fortune around. This took several years, if not decades but 盛大太太 was able to buy back the manor. 盛大太太’s husband died a destitute wreck. 盛大太太 brings this story up when discussing the separation between the sun family and the sheng family and it really provides some perspective as to why the sheng family is adamant about this case. In the drama, this statement just didn’t have as much punch.
The final separation is the same. 淑兰 does spit in 孙秀才’s face, much to everyone’s satisfaction. The book goes into much more detail about the fates of these two characters. It turns out 孙秀才 was the infertile one. The pregnant prostitute? She actually had a fling with another man, resulting in the pregnancy. Once 孙秀才 received the money from the rest of the dowry? She steals that money and flees with her lover. Hahaha, serves him right. 孙秀才 remarries another widow and is put in his place. His mother still dreams of riches for his son but the last we see or hear of them is of the townsfolk mocking both of them for treating 淑兰 so poorly and 孙秀才’s new wife mocking him for his lack of “abilities”.
淑兰 on the other hand remarries a kind man and actually has multiple children! Two sets of twins! So 2 boys in one round and a boy and a girl in another! Now this is kind of a fairy tale ending but hey, at least the author gave us that!
Moving on, the book combines two trips to 宥阳 into one so 淑兰’s separation and the death of 盛大太太 all happen in one trip. We only hear a little bit about 盛大太太’s hatred towards her husband and the prostitute and I explained earlier one what happened.
The bandits didn’t come attack the funeral procession so 明兰 didn’t have to be saved from 顾廷烨. There’s a lot more involved with the politics during the story and the drama condenses a lot of it which we’ll find out more about in the next episode. 明兰 and grandma 盛 do return to the capital shortly after.
Well that’s it for this episode of the story of ming lan! As always, if you have any questions or comments or want to let us know what topics you’d like to have us cover, let us know! Otherwise, until next time!