Welcome back to Chasing dramas. This is the podcast that discusses Chinese history through historical Chinese dramas! We are your hosts, Karen and Cathy! This is the podcast that discusses Chinese history through historical Chinese dramas.
Today we are discussing episode 36 of the Story of Ming Lan or 知否知否应是绿肥红瘦。This drama is set in the Northern Song dynasty and we are having a blast discussing the show with this historical backdrop. The podcast is in English with proper nouns and certain Chinese phrases spoken in Mandarin Chinese.
So in the last 2 episodes, the playing field completely changed in the Song dynasty. The last emperor Song Ren Zong died and a new man, Song Ying Zong, took the throne. The path to the throne was rather bloody as 2 powerful princes were killed in the process. The only royal family relation that could succeed the throne was this Song Ying Zong who was aided by none other than Gu Ting Ye.
Episode 36 raises the curtain to a new era which now has Gu Ting Ye as a powerful and respected ally to the Emperor. A completely different environment than when he left the capital several months ago. We now turn back to our key characters – Gu Ting Ye, Sheng Ming Lan and also Qi Heng.
Qi Heng we’ll talk about first. His wife was murdered OFF SCREEN during the coup over the throne so now he is a widow only after a few months of marriage. His mother avoided death by pretending to have gone crazy but was dragged out on the streets to be seen by the public which was humiliating for her and now she is rather shaken. But what is he worried about? He’s A) not in full mourning attire as i would have thought he would be, B) he is primarily excited about the fact that with the new emperor, the imperial examinations were taking place again in the spring instead of waiting another 3 years which means he has another shot to make it, and C) once he makes it, he wants his parents to help him propose to Ming Lan. Ummm let’s just pause for a moment that those are his list of priorities. He’s not sad about his wife’s passing. He’s vaguely concerned about his mother’s illness but what’s MOST IMPORTANT? Now that he has no shackles, he has to go back to Ming Lan!!!
Listeners – what do you think? The more I analyze this drama, the more I think that Qi Heng has the wrong script. Instead of a handsome young duke, he’s more like a spiteful damsel or more like your ex who can’t let go. This theme will present itself plenty in future episodes.
But the best part in episode 36 is right after this scene where we focus on Gu Ting Ye and this is such a funny scene. It’s like everyone’s dream. You were wronged by people, you hate them with all your heart and now you’re successful and can rub it in their faces. Tell me in life, what are more satisfying experiences in life?
So what happens?
Newly minted top official Gu Ting Ye returns back to the Gu Manor with a whole military entourage in tow. He just killed the leader of a coup, saved the late Emperor and helped the new Emperor ascend the throne. In chinese, the term for someone like him is called a 红人 which translate to a red person or someone who is insanely popular and in demand. Much to the surprise of his older brother, the current Marquis and his stepmother. They’re in total shock that he’s still alive and a hugely powerful official at that. Remember that they essentially pushed him out of the Gu manor and said that he caused the death of his father. There was an instance where Gu Ting Ye returned back home to grab a spear gifted by the Emperor himself. It’s his prized possession but at that time, his brother prevented him from taking the spear because his brother said the spear belonged to the Gu family. So now, Gu Ting Ye is here to rub it back in his brother’s face and to grab the spear.
His spear is in the Gu family shrine so that’s where he heads and he prays to his ancestors. He has returned, triumphant and celebrated. Shortly after, his stepmother and brother come in to see what all the commotion was about. His stepmother is still trying to be on Gu Ting Ye’s good side by being sweet to him but Gu Ting Ye is having none of it and calls her out on her fantastic acting. It was she after all who spent years setting him up to fail. He’s so funny because he’s like I’m calling you all out on your fakeness. He states he’s here to take the spear but also that he will inherit the title of marquis. This is quite the slap in the face to his brother because his brother is still alive. This type of declaration means Gu Ting Ye is essentially hoping his brother dies soon and without an heir.
Ahahahaha 顾廷烨’s whole demeanor is dripping with sarcasm but now he has the strength to back it all up. His brother and step mother have no other choice but to acquiesce to his request and return his spear to him. Ahahahahaha. The background music to this scene is also fantastic. It is nice to see that even though 顾廷烨 called her out on her actions towards him, she says that at least your younger brother, so the 3rd son of the marquis, was always true to him. That line is important. 顾廷烨‘s 3rd brother is be a worthless aristocrat as we heard he has been locked up for going to a brothel during the Emperor’s mourning period. We’ve talked about mourning periods previously. During this period of time, one is restricted on certain pleasures. Going to brothels, partying and even marrying are such examples. For the 3rd brother to be caught partying is a crime. But, he has never conspired against his brother, 顾廷烨。 That point is one we want to make very clear.
In the end, 顾廷烨‘s stepmother, daintily gives the spear to 顾廷烨 where he notes that they are wasted not being a part of an acting troupe. Before he turns to leave, he’s like, maybe I should stay for dinner. Hahahahahaha. The look on his stepmother and his brother’s faces had me rolling over with laughter. Soooo satisfying. Hahaha.
But now that he has new property and title, he has to turn his attention then to his next endeavor which is… finding a wife! Who is this lucky woman?
Starting from this point, Gu Ting Ye’s primary attention is figuring out how to land him the wife of his dreams…But how will he do that? Step 1: Learn everything about her family and his current competition – so he questions his best friend, 盛长柏, 明兰’s older brother to find out everything about the Sheng family. And Step 2: Provide obstacles so that he has time to go fight enemies and not worry about his competition before he gets back. So let’s he how he does.
In the Sheng Household, Ming Lan and the young doctor 贺弘文‘s relationship is going swimmingly. The grandparents on both sides are rather pleased with this potential match and 贺弘文 in particular is rather attentive to Ming Lan. In previous episodes, he’s brought her fish soup, various goodies from home and even gave her medicine to help heal her cheek after she was slashed by her sister. Pretty much they’re waiting until the mourning period is over for the previous emperor so that they can set the marriage in motion.
But, as 贺弘文 is leaving the Sheng manor one day, he is accosted by a young woman who calls him cousin and basically gloms onto him. He doesn’t really know what to do so puts her on his carriage so they can speak privately elsewhere. Xiao Tao, Ming Lan’s maid hurriedly goes to inform Ming Lan about this development.
Out in a more private area, the woman, wearing a black draped cap that completely covers her face, straight up asks her cousin, 贺弘文 to take her in as a concubine. Not even as a concubine, but perhaps a lowly maid. She wants to enter his household as a way to survive. That’s a rather bold ask as she knows he’s going to get married soon to Ming Lan. She’s crying and kneeling on the ground hoping he’ll accept. Fortunately or unfortunately, Ming Lan sees this exchange.
Who is this woman as this is another instance where I don’t think the drama did a good job of explaining. Her mother is 贺弘文‘s mother’s sister so they are sisters. However, the 曹 family committed a crime or made some type of mistake that forced all men to serve in the military while all women were sold off. This cousin, 曹锦秀， was sold off to be a concubine. Due to the death of the former Emperor, it is customary to have mass exoneration. Therefore, this cousin, 曹锦秀 was able to be released from her punishment. She really has the Emperor to thank for her escaping her destitute situation.
However, 曹锦秀 also reveals that she has a tattoo on her face which essentially means that she has no future. Her life is marked with this tattoo that she was a criminal or at least was the daughter of a criminal. The only hope of any type of living now is to be a part of her cousin’s household as a concubine.
Ming Lan though, seeing the crying 曹锦秀 is not moved at all. Instead, she lays it out plainly. If 贺弘文 wants to marry her, 明兰， then 曹锦秀 cannot enter into the household in any way shape or form. Ming Lan asks, why can’t 曹锦秀 be married off elsewhere and given a good home? Why does she have to marry 贺弘文。Which is totally fair right? So Ming Lan leaves it to 贺弘文。 He decides whom he wants.
Ladies and gentlemen listening – here is another piece of relationship advice that we have to remind ourselves of. While discussing this cousin who’s trying to steal her potential husband, Ming Lan and her grandmother talk about what it means for long term marriage. When selecting a partner, you have to see if you can accept the lowest point of that person’s character. What is the worst quality trait of a person that you are willing to tolerate? For 贺弘文，he’s overall a sweet, caring and attentive person. His worst character trait is none other than being too soft. In chinese the word is 心软 which means soft hearted. That can be a positive trait or a negative trait. The negative way to look at this is to say that he is weak willed. He won’t be able to stand up for himself or potentially for 明兰。When being threatened by family as he currently is, will he be able to protect Ming Lan or will he crumple under the pressure?
This is such a great way to think about relationships don’t you think? For decades in a relationship, you have to understand what is the other person’s lowest point and evaluate for yourself if you are willing to accept that.
But why is 明兰 so combative? It’s not hard to equate this 曹锦秀 with her hated enemy, 林噙孀 or Mistress Lin. Mistress Lin entered the family by being pitiful and saying she has nowhere to go. Look what became of her entering the household. The entire Sheng family could not rest. 明兰 believes 曹锦秀 could be similar. The more troubling relationship is that 曹锦秀 at least grew up with 贺弘文 so they know each other and are family. It would be difficult to completely separate ties between the two and 明兰 would be put in a rather tough spot. The other important piece is that Mistress Lin only saw the Sheng family as an opportunity whereas 曹锦秀 saw 贺弘文 as her only lifeline. The 2 are very different circumstances. The former is easier to dismiss while the latter is solely based on the decision of 贺弘文。
Fortunately, as 明兰 points out, she has a strong family to back her up. Her brother and father are doing well in court, her sisters married well. There’s nothing to be afraid of. And this is another very interesting piece of monologue that I think is rather new for us. She didn’t say this when thinking about the Young duke Qi Heng but is able to declare this openly when discussing 贺弘文。 That’s because she knows that she cannot compete with the likes of a Duke’s household but is able to compete with the likes of the He family who are not aristocrats. The other component is that 明兰 had true affection for 齐衡 while it’s pretty evident she is only friendly with 贺弘文. They treat each other cordially but are not madly in love with each other. If 明兰 truly cared for 贺弘文 she’d be much more upset. As of now, she just doesn’t want to have to deal with a messy relationship. Nothing she says indicates she actually cares about 贺弘文 as a person beyond that they’re friendly with each other.
The episode ends with a hilarious encounter. 明兰 can’t fall asleep so she goes out for a nighttime stroll. It’s kind of sad because she wishes that she could live for herself for once but she doesn’t dare hope for it. She turns around and sees a woman secretly talking to another man. Who is it?! Why none other than 如兰!
明兰 hurriedly turns around to walk away but 如兰 stops her and drags her to her place. Once in her room, 如兰 accosts 明兰 and orders her not to tell anyone. 明兰 at first doesn’t think much of it but 如兰 drops a bombshell. Whos the man? Why none other than 文炎敬. The same man who was supposed to be engaged to 墨兰！明兰 immediately believes that he’s a schemer but 如兰 quickly tells her the truth that 文炎敬 is a pretty upstanding guy. Aw, 如兰’s in love! This 文炎敬 guy is the one we met earlier who picked up 如兰’s handkerchief. Now that 明兰 is in on 如兰’s secret, what will happen next?
Alrighty, there’s not much on history today but we’ll discuss one aspect!
This is the first time I’ve paid attention to a woman having received this punishment. In chinese the term is 黥刑 but in english is more or less the punishment of getting a tattoo on one’s face and is one of the 5 major punishments for criminals in Chinese history. This is definitely the first time I’ve heard of there being a formal uh categorization of punishments people received in China. The other punishments are rather gruesome so I wont get into it. All I can say is geez, Chinese people were brutal to criminals. Or you could say that ancient China was brutal in general. I would not want to time travel to this time period. No thank you.
Tattooing one’s face after committing a crime is one of the oldest punishments in Chinese culture, spanning thousands of years and only ending during the late Qing dynasty in 1906 when Emperor Guang Xu abolished it. Crazy right? It is the lightest major punishment one receives but you are marked for life with the fact that you were a criminal. The tattoo, true to its name, does not come off so everyone is able to see this punishment. For a society so focused on propriety and shame, this type of mark is humiliating for anyone to have received it which I guess is why it’s so effective. While 曹锦秀 probably should not come try to take someone’s husband, it’s understandable why she has nowhere to go and is to be pitied.
Alrighty – let’s discuss book differences!
First off – the mourning period in the book lasted quite a while, like I think a year. During that period, you couldn’t marry, really party, what have you. It’s not really clear in the drama the length but probably not that long because 齐衡 is already taking the Imperial exams again and that usually happens in the spring.
Well in the book, 齐衡’s mother wasn’t really mentioned as to having a large role in the death of 齐衡’s wife as shown in the previous episode. 平宁郡主 recovered from the coup a little bit differently. The next we see of them is actually a couple months later so she’s not in a daze. She’s extremely regretful of her decision to force 齐衡 to marry 嘉成县主. In the book, the Qi family wasn’t outright forced to marry 嘉成县主. 平宁郡主 only had a hunch as to what happened to 荣飞燕 and who had a hand in it. 齐衡 is now a widow and even as a man, that makes him, in society’s eyes, damaged goods. She actually is now willing to propose marriage for 齐衡 and 明兰. 齐衡 doesn’t outright ask his mother. But alas, nothing comes of it. In the drama, of course we see 齐衡 asking first.
Next up, let’s talk about the 曹 family!
In the book, Grandma Sheng and 明兰 visit the 贺 family. That’s where they first encounter the dreaded cousins or the 曹 family. Grandma 贺, 贺弘文’s grandmother, and matriarch of the 贺 family is very cold towards the 曹 family and point blank reveals that the cousin, 曹锦秀 is no longer a virgin and was a concubine to a military official while the family was in exile. It’s not mentioned in the book I believe if she has the tattoo on her face though. During this first encounter 贺弘文 wasn’t around.
The next encounter is similar to the drama, 贺弘文 pays a visit to the 盛 family. The cousin, 曹锦秀, basically falls into his arms and laments her situation. She wants to be his concubine. The book offers a bit more information on how detestable the 曹 family is. 曹锦秀 is 嫡出 so born from the main wife. Yes, what happened to her was terrible, I won’t deny this. In the book though, it is revealed that all of her 庶出 sisters, so basically 明兰 equivalent, were left behind in their exiled state to stay as concubines. No one bothered to save them from their situation. The family also basically leeches onto the 贺 family. While in exile, they asked for money. Now that they’re back, they asked for connections for trade, houses, and money, and of course a marriage to 贺弘文.