Ep 27

 

[Cathy]

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 27, 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 karenandcathy@chasingdramas.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 then close with book differences.

 

[karen]

At the end of the last episode, our main character 明兰 discovered more concrete evidence as to what caused her mother’s death.  It has to do with Mistress Lin. She provided too much heavy and oily foods to 明兰’s mother and restricted her from walking which caused her unborn baby to grow to big, causing the demise of both mother and child.

 

明兰 wants to avenge her mother and the first step to do so is get her father to be on her side. At the family shrine, 明兰 puts on a show of piety, praying to their ancestors. Her father, 盛纮, finds her there and praises her for her thoughtfulness. 明兰 then tactfully transitions the conversation to her own mothers death and adds in a few requests for 盛纮 to provide a few drops of blood as a way to ward off evil spirits or else visit her mother’s shrine at the temple. 盛纮 coldly refuses both. It’s evident this conversation makes him uncomfortable and he even reprimands 明兰 for making such demands of his father. To us and to 明兰 it’s clear that 盛纮 had absolutely no emotional connection to 明兰’s mother and does not care about her at all, even though she birthed him a daughter. Not that I want to justify or lighten the impact this has on 明兰 but I do think some of this might be a product of this patriarchal society. Men can have many concubines or mistresses whose sole purpose is bearing children. Love or romance is not part of the equation at all.

 

[Cathy]

Well with 盛纮’s coldheartedness established once again, we turn to the main event of the episode. A 答谢宴 at the Gu household or a Banquet held at 顾廷烨”s family home. It is a grand event where all the notable families in the capital have been invited. But the piece de resistance of this event really is the banquet table. It’s called a 曲水流觞席  or a Winding Stream party and fortunately, the behind the scenes episodes for this drama provides a lot of information about how they decided to create this prop so we’ll talk about it at the end of the episode but I am mesmerized by how beautiful this table set up is. It reminds me of sushi stores where you have sushi on conveyor belts that you can pick food up from except this time, it’s with a little stream on a table. 

 

This banquet is organized by Madam Qin, the Marchioness of Ning Yuan or the step mother to 顾廷烨. She invited these families to thank them for their I guess support after her husband’s death. The seating placement of this banquet is also quite revealing of importance. I don’t fully know how western seating charts work but in China, the head of the banquet sits at the top and then down from importance. That’s why, the Marchioness is at the front, and beside her are Princess 平宁, or 齐衡’s mother, and then the Wife of Prince Yong, and her daughter. 嘉诚县主。 We’ve met 嘉诚县主 before. She’s another one of the women who was viewing the polo match that featured 明兰 and 齐衡 back in episode 16. At the end of the incredibly long table is 明兰 and 墨兰。It makes sense as they’re daughters from a low ranking official. They have no place higher up on the table.

 

[Karen]

墨兰 gets distracted by men and 嫣红, whom we met in episode 16 as well, 3rd sister to 明兰”s best friend 嫣然, takes 墨兰’s place. She is our plot driving device to explain who’s at the head of the table. 平宁郡主 or Princess 平宁 generally looks down upon most people but is today rather meek in front of the Princess Consort of Yong. Perhaps it’s because she’s heard whispers of who will be the next Crown Prince and that might just be Prince Yong. 嫣红  is rather direct in telling 明兰 that Princess Ping Ning is thinking of arranging a marriage between her son and 嘉成县主.

 

At the head of the table though, the Princess Consort Yong notices 明兰 and wants to bring her over to see her more closely but is cut off by Princess Ping Ning who tells a story as a distraction. Many people hear this as a way for Princess Ping Ning to insult 明兰 which highly amuses Princess Consort Yong but does give 明兰 a chance to leave the banquet for some fresh air.

 

Out in the yard though, the Countess of 永昌 follows Ming Lan out to try to make her feel a little better over what happened in the main hall. This Countess really likes Ming Lan so she wants to try to help Ming Lan see that even though the Duke’s family might be hard to marry into, her family is not. Problem is, this little interlude is cutting into time that could be spent with 齐衡 himself because 齐衡”s servant, 不为,creates an excuse to divert the Countess’s attention before grabbing 明兰 to see 齐衡。

 

[Cathy]

In a secluded corner of the Gu grounds, 齐衡 is waiting for 明兰。 It’s a sweet scene as these two finally see each other after many months. They’re still in their puppy love phase with both of them blushing furiously at seeing each other. 齐衡 who has been feuding with his mother is noticeably thinner but he brought pastries for 明兰。齐衡 reiterates again his intentions to marry 明兰 as his wife, not mistress. He doesn’t care what his mother thinks and even shares with 明兰 his plan to request this marriage from the Emperor himself during the spring banquet in the palace. He bravely says, I will never let you down.  

 

Ming lan is really touched but in the next scene where she is sitting by herself with her maids eating the pastries that 齐衡 brought, she plainly says, this is not something that can happen. She clearly hopes that 齐衡 can make this happen but is aware that this will be an uphill battle. You can see that she’s trying to keep her head straight but definitely wavering. I mean, you have a handsome young duke confessing his undying love for you, who wouldn’t?

 

None other than 顾廷烨 butts in to say that he also does not think 齐衡 can make this happen. Ming Lan is surprised to see him in the Capital but 顾廷烨 says he’s here to pick up something of his before leaving this family. Apparently 顾廷烨 heard Ming Lan’s entire conversation with 齐衡 and brings up an anecdote he thinks is apt to fit Ming lan’s relationship with 齐衡.  The anecdote is between 唐明皇 and 杨贵妃. We’ll talk about this anecdote at the end of the podcast. Essentially, 顾廷烨 tells this story to compare how when a guy like 齐衡 is threatened with his family and status, he will have to forgo romance in order to protect those other things. 明兰 is annoyed to hear this and starts bickering with 顾廷烨 but since it’s out of decorum for them to be seen together, they depart.

 

[Karen]

I feel like this servant 不为 picked a poor place for 明兰 and 齐衡 to meet because not only did 顾廷烨 see them, but so did 齐衡’s mother. Once home from the banquet, Princess Ping Ning immediately drags the servant to see her. She is furious he helped 齐衡 meet with 明兰 secretly and orders him to be beaten. 齐衡 of course tries to reason with her and begs her to let him go but it’s too late. When the screaming stops and 齐衡 rushes over to 不为, it’s only to find that he’s been beaten to death, just as his mother promised. 齐衡 promptly faints.

 

[Cathy] – this entire scene was shocking to me! I didn’t expect 不为 to actually die! This is a complete reversal to how shows normally progress! This just raised the stakes for 齐衡 and 明兰.

 

[Karen]

When he wakes, he is distraught. His closest friend and confidant has been killed by his own mother. He fights with his mother that no matter what, he will marry 明兰 and tries to head over to the Sheng family to ask for marriage.

 

However, his mother makes the claim that if he tries to marry 明兰, that will mean the demise of his family. His mother reveals the truth behind the chaos that happened at the lantern festival in the last episode. It’s all because 嘉诚县主, daughter of Prince Yong, fell in love with 齐衡 at first sight during the polo match. Her mother, the Princess Consort we met earlier in the episode, requested an audience with 齐衡’s mother to secure this marriage. But, another person has already requested this marriage and that is the younger sister of the Emperor’s concubine, 荣飞燕。Remember her? She’s the one who was kidnapped in the last episode and committed suicide because she was humiliated in both body and spirit. It turns out that 平宁君主 had told this Prince Consort Yong about 荣飞燕’s intentions to marry 齐衡。 The Prince Consort could not have anyone compete with her daughter for 齐衡 and thus concocted this plan to rid her daughter of the competition. 

 

[Cathy]

It’s not confirmed that it was the Yong family that did this, but even the Emperor’s Imperial Guard could not find the culprit to such a high profile kidnapping, the only person who could have done this is Prince Yong. Prince Yong is the eldest of the clan members and has the most support for being the next Emperor. If 齐衡 goes off to marry 明兰 and causes tensions between the families, if this Prince Yong becomes the next Emperor, it will mean the downfall for his entire family. His father and mother will become targets and their titles will most likely not remain.

 

Right on cue, as Qi Heng is digesting this information, the episode ends with news that his father went to Prince Yong’s household but has not returned. Now that the truth has come out, it can only be assumed that his father has been kidnapped as a way to force Qi Heng to agree to this marriage.

 

The brief scene we didn’t really touch on is 顾廷烨. He returned to the 顾 manor to grab his spear. Unfortunately, he was accosted by his sickly older brother. They get into an altercation. 顾廷烨 relinquishes the spear this time but stakes his claim that one day, he will come back and the family will hand the spear back to him with both hands. So…family relations are nowhere near mended here.

 

[Karen]

 

Ok.

 

There is a lot, a LOT to digest in this episode. Primarily it’s about 齐衡”s marriage and his mother’s role. While it is despicable that she beat her son’s servant to death, after her explanation of the delicate situation they’re in, you somewhat have to understand where she’s coming from. In a previous episode, 盛纮, Ming Lan’s father noticed that the Qi household rarely had any scandals which must be because this Princess Ping Ning is intelligent enough to know how to manage the various societal and political powers in the capital. I do not think she actually wants to prevent her son from happiness, but in the face of her clan’s benefit, she has no choice but to push him towards marrying the 县主 or princess. This is evident during the banquet when Princess Yong requested to see 明兰。 It was 齐衡”s mother who sensed danger and cut off Princess Yong with a story. The story is about how a lowly scullery maid got into a fight with one of her close maids and how such a lowly scullery maid has no place or rank to even be considered. While on the surface this is an insult to 明兰, it is precisely this story that diverts Princess Yong’s attention enough for Ming Lan to escape. 齐衡’s mother knew that this Princess is dangerous. If she felt that Ming Lan could be a threat to her daughter’s marriage because Ming Lan is prettier or has a nicer figure, as what 嫣红 mentioned, Ming Lan and her family would be toast. 齐衡’s mother knows full well Princess Yong has the power to destroy Ming Lan’s family so she stepped in skillfully. This is not something that many people caught but I do in this instance, respect 齐衡’s mother a lot more. She rules with an iron fist but has to be like this in order to protect her family. 

 

Now let’s talk about 齐衡 a bit. He will be the main focus of the next episode as well. This episode though, we are seeing his weakness. Sure, he wants to marry 明兰 but his initial solution to forcing his mother to acquiesce to his marriage proposal, and his solution to preventing the Prince Yong from forcing his marriage is… his own death. While that is very honorable, and perhaps younger me would be touched that this guy would choose death as a way to escape his conflict, present day me finds that as a reflection of his weakness. For one, there’s a saying in Chinese for women which is, 一哭二闹三上吊, which means, first cry, second fight, and third hang yourself. What it means is that women, per this saying, generally use these tactics to get what they want. In my view, this is one of the weakness ways for anyone to get what they want but this is exactly what 齐衡 does. instead of reasoning with his mother and truly fighting for 明兰, he stops eating and causes self harm as a way to fight. He doesn’t come up with many other strong ways to fight back other than this recent suggestion of asking the Emperor to arrange the marriage. Does this reflect a man who will stand up for you in a fight against his mother or other forces?

 

If you’re not convinced, another more powerful example is the death of his beloved servant, 不为。 Sure, his mother ordered 不为 be beaten to death but what did 齐衡 do? He just begged his mother and watched his servant die. In his mind, that was enough for his mother to listen but he did not jump on top of 不为 to take a few hits. He did not fight to drag 不为 off the table where he was beaten. He simply begged and watched and passed out. This will be contrasted heavily in later episodes when Ming Lan’s sister’s maid is beaten and even she has the mind to lay on top of her maid to take a few hits to protect that maid. 齐衡 on the other hand, is full of disappointment. He doesn’t understand how the world works as he has been too coddled as the only son of a duke and princess and is not brave enough to stand up for himself. This is why deep down, even though 明兰 would love to marry him, she is never fully sure he can make it happen. 

 

There’s a ton of history in this episode so lets dive in.

 

曲水流觞席

 

First up is the 曲水流觞席  or a Winding Stream party featured prominently in the episode.

 

After the 3rd day of March or 上巳节, which is a holiday in China in which people bathe to remove the evil spirits from their bodies, people then went to the nearby stream to celebrate the day. Upstream, cups of wine would be sent down the stream and wherever the cup stopped, the person would drink from the cup. This is to ward off evil spirits. This practice dates back all the way to the 周 dynasty over 2500 years ago.  

 

The Winding Stream Party was specifically mentioned by the famous poet 王羲之 in his poem 兰亭集序 written in 353AD. It was popularized and quite frankly memorialized such that in the 浙江 area of China, this tradition continue for millenia. There are several gorgeous paintings that depict the scene painted over the centuries. I highly recommend even going to the wikipedia page to take a look at the painting posted to get some idea. 

 

For the drama, the showrunners wanted to showcase this piece of history and cleverly utilize the winding stream party to move the story. There was a lot of ingenuity in this whole set. The set or table is custom-made. Water is poured on the side at the top of the table by the maids and the water flows down the bottom. There is an area that catches the water and maids would scoop up the water and walk back up to the head of the table to recycle the process. 

 

We can’t see it, but under each plate, foam was added to assist with flotation down the table. Each lady has 2 pairs of chopsticks, one larger to grab food from the floating plates and another for eating. 

 

This setup also allows the conversations from the head of the table, where the Princess (齐衡’s mother) and Prince Consort (六王妃) are seated, can travel down to the bottom of the table, where 明兰 sits. This is actually very impressive and in interviews for the shoot, the cast mentioned how in awe they were of the set in front of them. Kudos to the crew!

 

千层糕

 

Next up, let’s discuss the sweets that 齐衡 brought 明兰. He claims that it’s 千层糕 or thousand layer cake made from a chef from 扬州. First time I saw this, I was surprised. This doesn’t look like any thousand layer cake I’ve had before. After doing a bit of research and watching cooking videos, I believe I’m right in saying that the drama mislabeled the dessert! It’s not 千层糕 but 云片糕 or Cloud Cakes. The dessert 明兰 eats definitely looks more like the latter. The Thousand Layer Cake usually has different colors based on the ingredients that are used in it, whether it’s dates, coconuts, what have you. 

 

Both however are out of place, timeline wise. Legend has it, the 千层糕 or thousand layer cake was created during the early days of the Ming Dynasty so around 200 years after this time period. The 云片糕 or cloud cakes were invented even later during the Qing dynasty during the reign of Emperor 乾隆, so like 600 years after the show. 

 

长生殿

 

When 顾廷烨 reveals himself to 明兰 and tells her that he heard her entire conversation with 齐衡,he says I saw a display of 长生殿。This is an anachronism as this is a play or book written in the early Qing dynasty, several hundred years after the setting in this drama. But this book or play doesn’t really matter, what matters is the actual story which depicts the tragic love story between the famous Tang dynasty Emperor, 唐玄宗 and his consort, 杨贵妃。 We’ve mentioned this story in the past – 杨贵妃 is one of the four renown beauties of Chinese history. To flatter 杨贵妃, the Tang emperor spent lavishly. A famous story is how he exhausted large funds and physical labor to just provide this consort with the fresh lychee fruit, destroying farmland along the way to bring this fruit. 

 

Unfortunately, the Emperor stopped paying attention to state matters which led to a revolt led by 安禄山。 The Emperor, court ministers and this favored concubine had to flee. But in the face of pressure by court ministers, the Emperor forced 杨贵妃 to commit suicide as a way to appease everyone’s anger. She is deemed as a scapegoat. In the end the revolt was quashed but the Emperor would lament the death of his love. 

 

You could say that yes 杨贵妃 was the root of this revolt but you could also say that it’s the Emperor’s fault for focusing more on pleasure than ruling the empire. Regardless, the Emperor gave up his supposed love after many declarations that he will always be there for 杨贵妃. This is the warning 顾廷烨 is trying to give to 明兰。齐衡 may not have an empire to run, but he does have societal pressures to contend with. Would he be able to stand up to those pressures to fight for 明兰? Deep down 明兰 knows the truth but just doesn’t want to believe it herself. 

 

褒姒 妲己

 

Finally – I’ll briefly discuss two women that 齐衡 brings up in despair as he expresses his sorrow for the situation the 齐 family is in. 褒姒 妲己 – these two women are two of the most famous 妖姬 or you could say enchantresses or royal consorts of China. They are 2 of the 四大妖姬 in Chinese history or 4 most famous enchantresses. The word 妖 translates to demon, so this description right off the bat is very negative and honestly quite misogynistic. All 4 of these 妖姬 were actually royal consorts or concubines to kings. They all lived during different times in China but basically, legend has it that all these beautiful and seductive women bewitched their respective kings. The kings, under their influence, disregarded their usual royal duties and led their kingdoms to destruction. These women were of course blamed for it. 褒姒 and 妲己 are two women that 齐衡 mentions and are probably the more famous ones out of the 4. He actually compares himself to 褒姒 and 妲己. Women are fighting for him, leading to unrest and tragedy. I think this is a bit extreme of a comparison, but an innocent woman 荣飞燕 and his servant 不为 already died for him. Who knows what else the Prince of 邕 will do to have 齐衡 for his son-in-law? Hopefully this discussion clarifies a bit as to why 齐衡 mentions those two names.

 

Lastly:

Let’s discuss book differences. The tragedy of 荣飞燕 is only briefly mentioned in the book. 齐衡 makes his decision shortly after in the book. In future episodes, even more terrible events occur that will conclude this storyline that I won’t spoil here. Suffice it to say that in the book, 齐衡 didn’t really do much to fight for 明兰. In the drama, they really showcase his struggle. His mother, the princess, is as ice cold as ever but in my mind, her killing the servant 不为 was a step too far. She casually kills him and begs for forgiveness later? Um? No thank you.

 

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! 

 

I spent covid time brushing up my zither or 古筝 skills and learned this version of the theme song to the drama. Sheet music is written by 崔江卉。 Definitely check out her youtube, she has tons of great zither renditions of popular Chinese pieces. 

 

Otherwise, until next time!

 

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