Welcome back to Chasing Dramas. This is the podcast that discusses Chinese History and Culture through historical Chinese Dramas. We are your hosts, Cathy and Karen! Today we are discussing Episode 3 + 4 of The Story of Ming Lan or 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.
Now without further ado! Let’s get started on the episode recap.
Episode three is quite tragic and therefore we won’t spend too much time on the tragedy but instead focus more on the culture and history that is portrayed to us in these 2 episodes and also level setting what’s going on as it can get confusing.
The episode begins where the last one left off…at a funeral. But who’s funeral? In the last episode, we found out that the boy who played in the arrow toss against our main character Ming Lan is actually the 2nd son of the Marquis and his name is 顾廷烨。 The problem is that there were bandits on the boat he was on and is now believed dead. So could this be his funeral?
No. It’s not. In the first shot of this episode, we see a flag saying that this funeral is for a Bai family elder, not for 顾廷烨。 The people at this funeral are of the 白 family. There’s a young man of the 白 family leading the funeral rites. For some reason, 盛纮, 明兰’s father is at this funeral and so is his son, 长柏。 They, along with another official, pay their respects to the deceased.
As the funeral rites continue on, it is interrupted by 2 people. First, is a wet nurse or you could call a nanny. She is 顾廷烨”s nanny and very loyal to him and his mother. The second person to interrupt the funeral is none other than 顾廷烨 himself. Punches are exchanged, there’s lots of name calling and yelling and it all really boils down to…inheritance.
It’s quite confusing so let me try to explain. 顾廷烨’s mother is from the 白 family. Her father, so 顾廷烨’s maternal grandfather, is the one who died. He is eldest brother and the family head. The 白 family, is also an incredibly rich merchant family who manages the salt business. Now, the only remaining heir of this grandfather’s line is none other than 顾廷烨. The young man who was leading the funeral rites, is the son of the grandfather’s brother which makes him an uncle of 顾廷烨. He does not have direct ownership of the wealth but clearly wants it. The only person in his way of this money is, is of course, 顾廷烨。
We can reasonably assume that this uncle of 顾廷烨‘s is the one who actually sent those bandits to try to kill 顾廷烨。 If you watch the last few minutes of the last episode, he receives a note. I’m assuming it’s to confirm that 顾廷烨 is indeed dead. The only reason 顾廷烨 is still alive, as he tells 长柏 is because he swapped clothes with one of his servants. That’s how he managed to escape.
Fortunately for 顾廷烨, he also has a written will from his grandfather that he presents to all in attendance. I personally don’t know how that letter didn’t disintegrate in the water after he fell in but i’m not going to think too hard about that. Of course, his uncle doesn’t want to believe it’s a real will and refuses to accept it. There’s some back and forth but 顾廷烨 is ultimately able to claim his grandfather’s salt business.
As of now, he is quite a powerful young man. Not only is he the son of a marquis, he also has his grandfather’s salt business. So, he has both power and money.
The second part of this episode is nothing but tragic. The Master and Madame of the 盛 family are not at home. They instead left to say goodbye to family members. Grandma 盛 is also not at home.
That leaves 明兰 with her very pregnant mother, and 林小娘, Mistress 林. The concubine. 明兰 and her mother now have all the tasty food they want but her mother doesn’t feel like this is right. Before long though, 明兰’s mother starts going into labor. We see fully how 林小娘 crafted this trap for 明兰’s mother. All of the necessary materials needed for birth and even the midwives of the household had been called away or else manipulated into not being available. Poor 明兰 and her mother are left to fend for themselves.
明兰 escapes the household to search for a doctor. She’s desperately trying to find someone to help. On the street, she runs into none other than 顾廷烨。 顾廷烨 doesn’t give another thought and helps her search for a doctor. He even rushes the doctor back to the 盛family to tend to 明兰”s mother.
Unfortunately, it is too late. The doctor arrived too late to save 明兰”s mother. 林小娘 managed to prevent 卫小娘 from getting any care and passed the point of saving. The unborn child is also too big and drained too much of 卫小娘’s energy. Both 卫小娘 and the unborn child die in this horrific incident.
Before she passes, 卫小娘 reminds 明兰 to call her 小娘 instead of 阿娘。 小娘 is a term for a concubine. 阿娘 is the term for a mother. 明兰 doesn’t want to but is forced to as her mother’s dying wish. Her mother also tells 明兰 to thank 顾廷烨 for everything he’s done for them today and to give him a pair of knee guards that she just embroidered. Poor 明兰 is overwhelmed at seeing her mother die in such a tragic way and also falls unconscious.
The worst person here has to be 林小娘. She clearly was planning this and did everything in her power to prevent 卫小娘 from getting care. There were too many things that went wrong today which caused this tragic incident but it was all instigated because of 林小娘。
This is certainly a devastating turn of events but what happens in the wake of this tragedy is more interesting.
When the master and madam return, the pair is nothing but furious. 盛纮 beats the servants for not handling this well. 王大娘子 is also screaming at maids. Of course 林小娘 also cries and garners pity for being inexperienced even though we know that she was the one to cause this all to happen. She isn’t actually punished for what she’s done.
On the other hand, we see how 王大娘子 and her godsend of a daughter, 华兰 behave. 华兰 actually cares about 明兰 and her deceased mother but moreso cares about being a tactician for her mother. She reminders reminding her mother that as the wife of the family, she must prepare a generous funeral procession for 卫小娘. That’s how she must act as the wife of the house. She is also not to bring up with her husband, getting the keys to the family back. They are currently with 林小娘 which means she has been managing the household lately. 王大娘子 doesn’t fully understand why but agrees with her daughter. The thing is, 王大娘子 doesn’t really care that 卫小娘 died. When 华兰 showed up, she was mad yes, but she also wanted to show her daughter pearls she received from her brother. That’s not how to act when someone dies. In this instance, we see that 华兰 has more empathy and compassion than 王大娘子。
Episode 4 starts with poor Ming Lan in bed. Her aunt, or her deceased mother’s sister, has come to tend to her and settle Mistress Wei’s affairs. We’ll call her Aunt Wei. Aunt Wei is deeply saddened by the turn of events and requests a meeting with Madame Wang.
Aunt Wei first thanks Madame Wang for the respectful funeral for her sister and makes a request, she wants to bring 明兰 back with her to the country to tend to her illness.
Madame Wang, of course, doesn’t care. Ming Lan’s not her daughter, why would she mind? Before Madame Wang can say anything, her maid Mrs. Liu immediately chimes in, instead of bringing 明兰 to the countryside, why don’t you just stay a little while longer. Mrs. Liu then goes to the door to have another maid fetch the master.
He comes in shortly after but not before Aunt Wei gets angry at Miss Liu for believing that she’s making this request to get more money. Master Sheng has to placate Aunt Wei and he is surprisingly adamant that 明兰 stay in the Sheng Household. Aunt Wei continues to make a fuss about 明兰’s living situation until finally Madame Wang promises that she will personally care for the child and make sure the child recovers. This is what Aunt Wei came for, she didn’t actually want to bring Ming Lan back to the countryside, not that she doesn’t love Ming Lan, Aunt Wei already knew that Master Sheng wouldn’t agree. However, she needed to protect her niece and the only way to ensure Ming Lan’s safety is if Madame Wang and Master Sheng believe that she’ll make a big deal out of Ming Lan’s health. This again is just a threat to the Sheng family reputation. Madame Wang probably couldn’t care less about Ming Lan but for the family reputation, she’ll grudgingly take care of her.
Grandma Sheng, who was also away, finally returns to Sheng Manor. Her son, Master Sheng, visits her and he is acting like a guilty child. She doesn’t immediately scold him, but reminds him of how her son died, at the hands of some lowly mistresses. His son just died, in the same way. She’s now angry. Master Sheng immediately kneels and begs for forgiveness but Grandma Sheng scolds him for not adhering to traditions. He so pampers his mistress that his wife’s station and status in the household is threatened. Look at the mess this mistress caused. Master Sheng’s own son died!
Let’s dissect this a bit because it is very revealing of how the family dynamics work. Grandma Sheng had a son who was killed by a concubine of the family. 盛纮， this man is not actually her son by birth, but a concubine’s son. That is often a point of contention in the family because he doesn’t fully listen to her since they are not real mother and son. Secondly, the reason why he is so caring of his mistress or 林小娘 is because he was separated from his own 小娘 when he was young and experienced hardships because of that. He doesn’t want 林小娘 to experience the same difficulties he did. This gives us a better picture of how and why he behaves the way he does. However, that does not condone the fact that a mistress has as much power as 林小娘 does in the Sheng household.
In the end though, clearly no one in the family, not 王大娘子，林小娘，or 盛纮 care that 卫小娘 died. They also don’t care that much that her unborn child died as well. If there’s anything that can be said about this time period, is that it reflects to us how little human lives were valued.
Grandma sheng then makes an announcement to 盛纮. She will raise 明兰. He’s shocked and immediately tries to offer 墨兰 instead. He clearly favors 墨兰 as a daughter. Grandma sheng immediately retorts, I leave a motherless child to raise Mistress Lin’s daughter? What world is this? Aunt Wei doesn’t really want to bring Ming Lan back to the countryside. She needs to make sure her niece is well taken care of. Grandma Sheng raising 明兰 is the best solution. She then makes it very clear to her son that this whole fiasco was poorly handled. Mistress Wei died and there was a funeral. There’s nothing wrong with that, but immediately servants were beaten and sold from the Sheng Manor. Anyone could have guessed that something happened to Mistress Wei due to these servants. If an political enemy decided to tattle to 盛纮’s superiors, what will he say? That he left his mistress in charge and caused 2 deaths? That will stain his reputation and jeopardize any prospects for promotion. This immediately shuts 盛纮 up.
Grandma sheng shows us that she’s the only one in the family who has clearly thought this through. No one else thought about the potential political ramifications nor potential stains to the Sheng family name. This is why Grandma sheng holds so much sway in the family.
Grandma sheng then gifts 盛纮 a phrase.
It doesn’t come from a classic but the meaning is as this – how thou loves your children should be honored as how others love their children.
Grandma Sheng gives Master Sheng a copy of Mencius as to how to behave.
So why does everyone want to have Grandma sheng raise a granddaughter? First and foremost, Grandma sheng is the sole daughter of a Marquis. Her family ties, titles, and status still hold clout in the Empire. She will look after the prospects of the granddaughter she raises and find a good match for marriage, much better than whoever Master Sheng can find. Master Sheng at this point is a lowly magistrate. Families won’t want to have their sons marry his daughter, but they will want their sons to marry the granddaughter of a Marquis’s daughter. Even if 墨兰 or 明兰 are daughters of mistresses or concubines, their marriage prospects will increase significantly. Second, Grandma sheng was raised in the capital and a frequent guest in the palace in her youth. She understands proper etiquette, is well learned, and wise in household affairs. Any granddaughter raised by her will do well in their future husband’s households. 华兰 is an excellent example. Grandma Sheng raised 华兰 and look at how she’s able to persuade her mother, Madame Wang against the wiles of Mistress Lin. All of the adults want one of the three remaining daughters to be raised by Grandma Sheng and Ming Lan was chosen.
Master Sheng is in Madame Wang’s rooms discussing the burial for Mistress Wei the following day. Madame Wang listened to her daughter and has spent a good amount of money on a proper burial. She’s doing a hilarious job trying to act all sad. Notice how she’s not shedding actual tears? Master Sheng doesn’t notice this and continues on. He is very pleased with her actions. He actually compliments Madame Wang and agrees to have her manage the household again. Madame Wang is shocked and can barely hide her glee. See – listen to your daughter, Madame Wang. Be that composed and proper wife. Stop yelling at people, it helps no one. By doing the right thing and without outright asking to manage the household, Madame Wang impressed her husband into giving it to her.
The next day, Mistress Wei’s funeral procession is led by Aunt Wei. She carries a red banner which we’ll talk about. However, as a mistress, her funeral procession is of course pretty stark compared to the one we saw in episode 3.
Over the next several days, Mistress Lin becomes sidelined due to her role in Mistress Wei’s death. Everyone, including Master Sheng, gives Mistress Lin the cold shoulder. Seeing that bribery doesn’t work, Mistress Lin or 林小娘 returns to her quarters and begins smashing things, scaring her daughter 墨兰. For once, 林小娘 is worried about her future prospects within the Sheng household. Without favor from the master, her and her children’s lives will be pretty difficult.
After the funeral, the entire 盛 family as well as 顾廷烨 head off to the capital city of 汴京 also known as 开封。 The 盛 family head to the Capital because 盛纮 has been promoted to a post there. 顾廷烨 leaves for 开封 to return to his family. Before they depart, young 明兰 gifts the knee guards that her mother embroidered to 顾廷烨. You’ll notice she also paid him very important respects in the way she curtseys to him. It’s very formal. With that, they head off on boats to the capital.
Of course, 林小娘 will not allow herself to be given the cold shoulder for too long. On the boat she is playing her 古琴, trying to get Master 盛’s attention. In the end, after pleading and making a scene, passing out due to crying and begging for forgiveness, 林小娘 successfully regains Master 盛’s affections. 王大娘子 is left fuming because she can see through this act but does not have the skill to uncover 林小娘’s mask in front of her husband.
At the end of episode 4, we see the crew arriving in 汴京。What i find incredibly interesting here is how 顾廷烨”s mother and his younger brother is here to see him. It looks like his younger brother is actually quite fond of 顾廷烨 and they have a loving relationship. This is an important scene and will be a recurring theme throughout the show.
Additionally, this is the first time we see the Song dynasty court. 盛纮, after arriving at the capital city, also attends court and meets the Emperor. This court scene is very different than what we’ve come to expect during the ming and qing dynasties. We’ll explain some of the distinguishing characteristics in this episode but expand in future episodes. I found this scene hilarious because the Emperor calls 盛纮 to speak and you can tell he’s scared out of his mind. He kind of gets sidelined by more powerful officials hoping to speak on a more personal topic and 盛纮 is kind of shuffling out of the way. I was dying laughing at this.
And that is that for the episode 3 + 4 recap. We’ve set the stage for how the 盛 family establishes themselves in the Capital.
明兰 is now to be raised by her grandmother.
Let’s first discuss the funeral as there are several traditions mentioned here. There are several funerals in the drama and we’ll discuss each in turn.
Red Banner – 铭旌
The red banner has the name, rank, and position of the deceased and they placed it on the west side of the coffin during the funeral and funeral procession. The banner will lead the deceased soul to its final resting place.
魂帛 – soul silk
This is placed on a chair before the coffin in episode three. This also serves as a guide for the deceased soul
When the elders say 打幡 or raise the funeral banner, the eldest male of the main wife will carry the banner and lead the procession. This again is to lead the soul to its final resting place
Shatter the crockery – 碎瓦
The bowl is usually a ceramic or clay bowl/pot that is shattered as is shown in the drama. It represents food for the dead. Once it’s shattered, then the deceased will be able to use the bowl in the afterlife and not worry about hunger. There’s also an idiom called 岁岁平安 or May you have peace year after year. 岁 means year which sounds exactly like 碎 or shatter. By shattering the bowl, the living also wish the dead peace in the afterlife.
停灵 means to keep the coffin somewhere before burial. The phrase actually is first mentioned in 红楼梦 or Dreams in the Red Mansion. That novel was written during the Qing Dynasty in the late 18th century, some 700 years before the events of this drama.
This is an extremely famous ballad written by the poet 司马相如 when he was trying to woo the beautiful widow 卓文君. This was written during the Han dynasty over 2000 years ago.
The literal translation is Phoenix chasing the Phoenix. In chinese though 凤 historically meant the male phoenix and 凰 meant the female phoenix. In this story 司马相如 is the 凤 and 卓文君 is the 凰。
卓文君 was a beautiful and intelligent woman who was unfortunately widowed at the young age of 17. She came from a wealthy family. The wandering poet 司马相如 fell instantly in love with her when he was a guest at her house. He performed the piece 凤求凰 in front of an audience to profess his love. Moved by his sincerity, 卓文君 professed her love for him. Unfortunately, this union was not approved by her father so the couple eloped during the night. They lived for a time in happy bliss, making and selling wine to get by.
The story does not end happily for 卓文君 because well…司马相如 betrays her. We’ll leave the story here.
凤求凰 is a ballad accompanied by music and is part of classical chinese repertoire. In this drama, 林小娘 plays a bit of the music on the 古琴.
Lastly, let’s mention a bit about the attire of the court officials. This is quite different from what we’ve seen in Empresses in the Palace. First and foremost of course, is that we’re in a different dynasty with Han people rather than a Manchu ruling dynasty. A unique feature in the Song dynasty is that the clothing is rather simple. There are no intricate or elaborate designs embroidered on to the clothes as is custom in many other dynasties. Instead, just straight colors.
The colors of the court officials reflect each individual’s rank and position at court. At court, we see 3 colors. Purple are for those ranked tier 3 and above, Red for tier 5 and above and Green for tier 7 and above. Those below tier 7 wear blue.
Those ranked tier 3 or above are also required to wear something called a 鱼袋。 This is where we need some actual scholars to tell us how this is translated. The direct translation of this is a fish bag. Essentially it’s like a pendant you tie to your belt almost like a pendant and it contains an identifier of your person and status. This fish bag or pendant was first established during the Tang dynasty and continued through the Song dynasty as an important identifier.
In the book, a lot of events revolving 顾烶烨 are merely mentioned and not shown or recounted later in the book. He doesn’t save 明兰 or help her with the doctor. I will applaud the creators for not having 顾烶烨 magically jump over the walls of the Sheng Manor. A young boy in his early teens shouldn’t be able to do that.
In the book, the story starts basically in episode 4 when 明兰 is sick after the death of her mother. The events of how her mother died though are fairly faithful to the book. She wakes up to find herself in this world, alone and helpless. She’s also only 5 or 6 in the book and not 8 as mentioned by Aunt Wei.
Because the setting is now in the Song Dynasty, the family makes only one move from 扬州 to the capital. In the book, there’s another move before the family finally moves to the capital.