Welcome back to Chasing dramas. This is the podcast that discusses Chinese history through historical Chinese dramas! We are your hosts, Karen and Cathy!
Today we are discussing episode 40 of the Story of Ming Lan or 知否知否应是绿肥红瘦。The podcast is in English with proper nouns and certain Chinese phrases spoken in Mandarin Chinese. If you have any questions, please reach out to us on instagram or twitter at Chasingdramas or else email us. Also leave us a rating on whatever platform you listen to us to!
Episode 40 is chalk full of interesting Chinese wedding traditions which we have researched and will explain. There’s absolutely WAY too much to cover in one podcast episode so we are going to split discussing episode 40 into multiple parts. For this episode we’ll cover the wedding up until the wedding procession return to the Gu Manor. I will caveat that there are probably certain things we’ve missed in this episode so if there is indeed something you want us to further explain, let us know!
In the last episode 明兰 finally agrees to marry 顾廷烨. Her sister 如兰 gets to marry the man of her dreams 文炎敬. We don’t get to see 文炎敬 and 如兰‘s wedding though which I’m assuming is to save on production costs. Haha. Really fun fact is that this is probably the most popular recent drama to feature a GREEN wedding dress for the bride. That certainly set off a precedent so now I’ve seen a lot more dramas portray green wedding dresses.
The episode starts where we left off in episode 39. Ming Lan has agreed to marry Gu Ting Ye and is now undergoing the necessary preparations. Grandma Sheng is having a heartwarming chat prior to the wedding itself and provides Ming Lan with some property deeds. The deeds represent a steady stream of income or some personal wealth to use in the future. This is to help her secure her position with her new in-laws. After all, money is king. For me though, the most important component of this conversation is another piece of life advice about how to manage people. The phrase Ming Lan uses is 用人重信，时常查检。I don’t think the youtube translations are that accurate. It means that when using people, trust them heavily, but periodically review their work. As Ming Lan explains, even the most honest people, without supervision, may develop other thoughts. It’s a balancing act for sure. For all those managers out there! Keep this in mind for your staff!
In any case, Grandma Sheng is going through her pile of deeds she’ll give to Ming Lan as part of her dowry. Apparently, Madame Wang also gave Ming Lan the same amount she gave to 如兰 at the behest of her father, 盛纮。That’s a little surprising considering that Ming Lan is not Madame Wang’s daughter or the 嫡出. The items gifted to Ming Lan as a 聘礼 or Bride Price in order to marry her was also included in her dowry so overall, she’s pretty set. We discussed this more in last week’s episode.
Ming Lan cannot bear to part with her grandmother but both are overall pleased with this match.
Cathy explained in episode 1 of this drama what the key components of Chinese wedding traditions are. There are six rites r-i-t-e-s for the marriage to happen. The drama skips over quite a bit of it but why is all this about a dowry so important?
In imperial China, especially for bureaucratic and aristocratic families, a woman’s dowry is extremely important for the woman and their families. Dowries could include land, house deeds, servant contracts, furniture, clothes, jewelry, and of course money! For the certain elite families, elders will begin to prepare for the woman’s dowry shortly after she is born. There could be strict rules on what to prepare such as the types of clothes, the specific embroidery, and what is included for everyday use. Oftentimes, how well the bride is treated at her husband’s family can be directly attributed to the amount she brings for her dowry. The more she brings, the better off she’ll be, well because she has the money.
The first record of dowry originated all the way back during the Warring States period。 Throughout the centuries, dowries were not that extravagant but during the Song dynasty, that gradually began to change.
During the 宋 dynasty, the law changed so that a woman’s dowry was her own personal property. Neither her husband nor her husband’s family could confiscate a woman’s dowry for their own personal use. During this time, a woman who becomes widowed could actually take her own dowry with her if she remarries. Scholar officials and bureaucratic families also began to prepare extravagant dowries because in their mind, this was a very good investment to strengthen family ties and networks. However, this meant that dowries sometimes were worth a lot of money.
There’s a story that involves the very famous Song Dynasty poet 苏辙 and the dowry that he had to prepare for his daughter. This 苏辙 is known as one of the Eight Masters of the Tang and Song or 唐宋八大家, basically masters of prose and poetry. He’s a big deal! He was an official, had fame, and a decent amount of money. For his daughter’s dowry, he still felt that he had to sell a plot of prime real estate to have enough money to give to his daughter. I read an estimate that the amount he received for the land is now worth millions, which is a lot of money! In private, he wrote that he basically went broke to marry off his daughter!
This story also reflected an issue of the times in which some families couldn’t prepare a dowry for their daughters. Women from families of poorer backgrounds simply just didn’t get married because their families couldn’t afford the dowry. In a southern province, an official placed a limit on the dowry amount and immediately wedding numbers rose right after. The extravagance of the dowry also exacerbated the already heavily patriarchal society or favor towards sons. Having daughters meant giving money away when she married, while having a son meant the wife would bring the dowry and spend it on future children. That’s very profitable for the groom’s family and not so much for the bride’s family. So all in all, a dowry is VERY important to a woman as it dictated whether she could marry, who could she marry, and the rights that she had. That’s why in this drama and the book, the Ming Lan’s family places a lot of emphasis and strategy with the dowry.
And now, it’s the day of the wedding! What an extravagant wedding it is! Gu Ting Ye pulls out all the stops to ensure that Ming Lan weds in a luxurious manner. On his side, he sets off from the Gu Manor by horseback, decked out in red with numerous servants lined up to help him 迎亲 which means to welcome the bride. The large red signs being held by servants on one of them says 迎亲之喜 which translates to The Joy of Going to be Married and on another says 顾盛联姻 which translates to The Wedding Alliance of the Gu family and the Sheng family. It is truly an impressive entourage. You can see the number of gifts being carried over to the Sheng family. The instrument heavily featured during this procession is I believe called the 唢呐.This is a double reeded horn instrument that has first appeared in China in the 3rd century and is a staple in Chinese events such as weddings or funerals.
And once again, the drama doesn’t explain who’s in the entourage for Gu Ting Ye so let me explain. There are 4 people – There’s 石头，顾廷烨“s trusted servant, 顾廷炜,顾廷烨‘s younger brother, 耿将军，General Geng and 段将军, General Duan. The latter 2 are trusted generals who helped the current Emperor ascend the throne and are friends of Gu Ting Ye’s from his time in Yu Zhou or when he was in the military. They were on screen briefly in episode 35 as the group helped quell a coup happening in the palace.
Next we turn to Ming Lan. She is praying to her ancestors at the Sheng family shrine wishing for good luck in her marriage.
I don’t think this is text that is required for new brides to say in front of their ancestors. After some research, the language originates from a Song and Yuan dynasty period text called《快嘴李翠莲记》. Or the Fast Words of Li Cui Lian. It’s written in vernacular Chinese which essentially means more layman’s terms. There’s no author for this book but the text was compiled into one in 1961.
One thing I don’t think we’ve really explained in this drama is how people pray during this period. As Ming Lan is praying to her ancestors, she has 2 hands folded together in a fist with her thumbs crossing over. It is called a 叉手礼。Or a cross handed greeting. Ming Lan’s right thumb covers her left thumb. This is particularly important as in Chinese tradition, men represent the left and women the right. So for women, their right thumb is on top but for men, it’s the left. This type of greeting, so to speak, became the norm in the Jin dynasty starting in 300 AD all the way through the Yuan dynasty or when the Mongols took over China about 1000 years later.
RIght after this, we see a massive crowd outside of the Sheng family entrance. At the entrance, you see all the men that are part of the Sheng family already. They are blocking Gu Ting Ye from entering the Sheng manor and basically joke that Gu Ting Ye has to pass their tests in order to enter into the manor and greet his bride. This act is called 拦们。 It’s a fun and joking way to add a festive cheer to the atmosphere. It’s customary for the male relatives of the bride to test the groom. This is also to show that the bride has support from her family and that the groom should be wary of treating her poorly!
On the Sheng family side, we see 明兰‘s brother-in-laws. 墨兰’s husband, 梁晗，如兰’s husband, 文炎敬，and I think that’s 华兰‘s husband, 袁文绍。Ming Lan’s second brother 长柏 is quietly in the back watching this all unfold. Telling you again! This drama doesn’t label anyone so you don’t know who they are! On Gu Ting Ye’s side, it’s his group of 4 there to help him with these tests.
Liang Han is first to test Gu Ting Ye. Gu Ting Ye is now a general so Liang Han asks a military question. If my army has 10,000 troops and the enemy has 10,000 troops and they meet on a flat plain, how do we win? General Duan steps in to poke holes in his question. What types of troops are these? And where are the enemy troops from? 完颜家，耶律家，西夏李家。This is a throwaway line but further emphasizes the troubles of the time in the Song dynasty that there are plenty of enemies along various borders. The 完颜 family is pointing to the ruling family of the Jurchen people or in chinese the Jin dynasty to the North east of China. The Jin dynasty wasn’t established until several decades after the setting of this drama so it may be an anachronism or simply that the General wanted to name the threat from this family. Next is the 耶律 family which points to the ruling family of the Liao Dynasty that covered Northern China and was a powerful adversary of the Song dynasty during this period. The last family named is the Li Family of 西夏 which is the Western Xia empire to the northwest of the Song empire, ruled by Tangut people. These 3, the Jin, Liao and Western Xia empires were the biggest threats to the Song dynasty during this period.
Back to the wedding! The crowd throws their support to Gu Ting Ye’s side as these are all good questions and definitely shows the group’s military acumen. 文炎敬 then steps in to ask why doesn’t 顾廷烨 make a poem to help urge the bride to hurry up. The general term for this type of poem is called 催妆诗 which directly translates to Urging Make Up Poem. What I like about this 栏们 activity is that it showcases 顾廷烨’s ability to pivot between both military or more physical attributes but is also highly learned and scholarly. The term in Chinese would be 能文能武，or 文武双全. Normally, someone who is highly athletic or focused on fighting is not a scholarly individual. Or vice versa. As you can see, his friends do not have the capability to help him create a poem. Here, it is clearly displayed that 顾廷烨 has the ability to do both.
In any case, in front of the crowd, he makes a poem that is quickly relayed over to Ming Lan who chokes on her glass of wine as the poem is stating exactly how she’s feeling. Luckily, 丹菊 already translated and explained the poem for us. Ming Lan is getting shy and afraid to get on the wedding litter. She should drink some wine to help with her nerves. After the wine, she’ll be braver and her cheeks will be flushed so then she won’t even need to put on blush for her cheeks. It’s a cute scene as it shows just how well Gu Ting Ye knows Ming Lan.
丹橘 – the maid now refers to 顾廷烨 as 姑爷. This is how the husband of a woman is referenced amongst her own family and of course the servants. The woman at home is called 姑娘 and so the husband will be called 姑爷. It might be a bit confusing if you’ve never heard the term before so I wanted to clarify it here.
Outside at the main entrance, the other brother-in-laws are still giving Gu Ting Ye a jokingly hard time but he ultimately pushes through. Gu Ting Ye’s younger brother starts chucking money on the ground and giving out 红包 or red envelopes to help clear a path and stop people from blocking their party. Red envelopes, obviously, are still used today to give money and good luck.
Hilariously, 长柏 is inside the threshold of the Sheng household but he’s lamenting how they’re defenses fell and pretty much judging the other brother-in-laws for not putting up more of a fight. Only to reveal to 小桃 that a few days ago, 顾廷烨 gifted him a painting by the Song dynasty artist 高克明。This is a real guy in history and the timing is apt as he was painting around Song Ren Zong’s reign and a little earlier. Xiao Tao is like, uh so you received a painting but are saying how the other brother in laws were spies or did not have the will to put up more of a fight? Chang Bai is like, I received the painting so I can’t block 顾廷烨 but that doesn’t mean I can’t judge the other guys. Lol. He’s hilarious.
Inside the main hall, we finally see Ming Lan and Gu Ting Ye conducting the festivities at the Sheng Household. The room is bedecked with signs of the word 喜 which means happiness but written twice which signifies the double happiness for the bride and groom. There is red everywhere as it is the color of weddings in China and red means good luck in Chinese culture. Ming Lan’s outfit is extravagant. The wedding crown you could say is exceedingly lavish. Interestingly, she is wearing a green dress and instead of a red cloth covering her face as we are used to seeing in other dramas, she is only holding a fan to cover her face.
Let’s explain her outfit and we’ll contrast this with her older sister 墨兰‘s outfit as it is quite stark. Let’s start with the fan. This is called a 却扇 which is primarily used in this dynasty time period to help a woman hide her shyness during the wedding ceremony. The other usage is to ward off negative spirits. Only until after the wedding ceremony should the woman remove the fan which signifies the end of the ceremony. This practice had documentation as far back as the Jing dynasty though certain dramas portray this even earlier.
Ming Lan’s fan is circular or 圆de which hopes for the marriage to be 圆满 or fulfilling. Interestingly, 墨兰’s fan is pear shaped. In Chinese, that translates to 梨 which is the same sound as 离 or separation. I’m pretty sure the director purposefully chose the shape of the fans as a way of foreshadowing the future of Ming Lan and Mo Lan’s marriage.
Now onto clothing. Ming Lan is wearing green when most weddings in China have the bride wearing red. The custom for the groom to wear red and the bride to wear green began in the 隋 dynasty or late 6th century and became popular during the Tang dynasty. The clothing is called 绛公服。It is clearly documented in the 旧唐书 or the Old Book of Tang which is a historical book on the Tang Dynasty. The book documents the fashion required for these events for both men and women. For men, red represented good luck and power. For women, the use of the color green has some meanings to it. According to my research, the green was preferred by the women of the 唐 dynasty. It did have a meaning of a green leaf making the red flower better. That’s pretty misogynistic. There’s also the saying that red for men represented power and the green for women represented wealth so the red and green together was very auspicious. The color also has to be green or 绿, not 青 or cyan. Green is the proper color for a main wife and also for wealthier families who can afford the green dye and fabric. Even if the bride is a 嫡女 or daughter of the main wife and she is not marrying as the main wife or 正妻, she cannot wear the green. It’s similar to later centuries and the use of red. A concubine cannot use red, only pink.
Ming Lan’s outfit is more intricately embroidered compared to her sisters.
On her head, 明兰 is wearing a headdress or crown. In chinese it’s called a 凤冠 – the literal translation is a phoenix crown. Early records of a 凤冠 dates back to the 1st Century BC and because more widely used during the Sui and Tang Dynasties and then by the Song Dynasty, these headdresses became very extravagant. They were used for very formal occasions and this one specifically is for 明兰’s wedding. You’ll see a small bird on top of it and I think the red pieces are actually made of coral, but I can’t confirm this. This headdress is very extravagant, again to show the importance of this wedding. Later in the drama, we’ll see 明兰 wear another 凤冠 but in a blueish color. Now, the Empress and palace concubines could wear a 凤冠 regularly. Wives of officials could wear one for special occasions and then commoners could wear a 凤冠 mainly for the woman’s wedding.
Overall, everything about Ming Lan’s outfit reflects how much 顾廷烨 values her and wants the best for her. Her sister Mo Lan, on the other hand, married into a Count’s family but her wedding outfit was cheap to the extreme.
Now onto the next part of the wedding!
At the Sheng manor, the newlywed couple, with 顾廷烨 performing the duties, presents tea to his new father and mother-in-law. This act is called 敬茶. By accepting the tea, the parents of the bride accept and bless this union. The main wife or 王大娘子 is the one to receive the tea. Even if Ming Lan’s mother was alive, she would not receive it. This is a very important act and as you see in the drama, 顾廷烨 presents the tea with both hands, to show his respect. The couple will do this twice. The first time is at the bride’s home with the groom performing the duties to pay respects to the bride’s family and then again at the groom’s home in which the new bride performs the duties. This practice of 敬茶 is still performed today. Depending on how strict the family is, there are also rules on how to prepare the tea, the hand placement, etc all need to be followed.
After the tea is presented to Ming Lan’s mother and father, the newlyweds turn to leave the premises. It is at this point where Grandma Sheng tearfully grabs Ming Lan’s hand. She’s sad to see Ming Lan go and wants her to live well. It’s really sweet to see the bond the two have and it’s lovely to see Sheng Hong tearing up as well. Let’s again contrast how Ming Lan’s sister 墨兰 was married off. For Ming Lan, her family is actually sad to see her leave. During Mo Lan’s departure, only her mother cared. The rest of the family was almost more than happy to see her leave but also depressed at what Mo Lan did to secure her marriage. The atmosphere was totally different.
Ming Lan is escorted out of the Sheng Family and brought to the wedding litter or palanquin. Something interesting to point out is that this is a 八抬大轿。Yes I counted. What that means is there are eight people, and I counted, eight people, carrying her on this litter. 轿子 is a type of transportation method where you are carried by individuals. A 轿子 or litter was first documented in the Xia dynasty which existed in 1600 BC. By the Qin dynasty it was a popular transportation method for royalty. In the Song dynasty, it became more popular to use. The wealthiest would have 8 people carry the litter. In some dynasties it represented class and wealth as only people of a certain class could use 8 people for the litter. The most common was 2 people to carry the litter. You could also use 4 people. Having 8 people carry the litter during a wedding was a way to show off and to show how much the husband valued his new bride. In plenty of dramas, the main lead would say stuff like even if you use 八抬大轿 or these litters with 8 people, to come propose to me, I still would not marry you.
There’s also a custom in which the bride cannot touch the floor between when she leaves her family home and enters her husband’s home. Typically what would happen the route for the bride to walk on would either be covered by a red carpet or she would be piggy backed by a male relative when she leaves her home or else her husband when she arrives at her husband’s home. We saw a glimpse of that all the way back in episode when her cousin 长梧 got married and he carried his new bride on his back. We don’t see it for this wedding though.
On the road over to the Gu manor, none other than 贺弘文 and his cousin / concubine watch the wedding procession. 贺弘文 is clearly lamenting the fact that Ming Lan is now marrying another. He tells his cousin that he is off to the mountains to learn and study herbal medicines. He will be gone for a few years at least. To me, this is his way of clearing his head and getting away from his cousin as he advises her not to follow. This is the last time we see 贺弘文 in this drama.
We will stop the episode recap here. We already covered a lot of history so we’ll continue with the rest of episode 40 in the next podcast episode!
The drama completely skips 如兰’s wedding but she does get married before 明兰. Similar I guess to British society, it was customary for the older daughter to marry first. That’s why during 明兰’s wedding, 如兰’s husband 炎文敬 is referred to as 五姑爷.
The book was not set in any particular time period but drew heavily from the 明 dynasty, so the clothes described during the wedding were more for 明 dynasty weddings instead.
I want to close out on 贺弘文’s story as told in the book. 明兰 and 贺弘文 never meet again in their lifetimes. 贺弘文 marries later to a woman from a military background. She’s sassy and competent. This woman also married later (well late is like in her 20s). The cousin, 曹锦秀, is quite despicable and tries to have one of her servants seduce 贺弘文 but 贺弘文’s wife caught 曹锦秀 and the servant red handed. 曹锦秀 lives a pitiful life. 贺弘文 stays true to his word and treats her well but refuses to grant her any favor or power. His wife holds all of the power in the household. 贺弘文 and his wife have a daughter and son and live a relatively tranquil life. His wife had a childhood sweetheart that she was supposed to marry but he died tragically in a coup. 贺弘文 also never forgets 明兰 but he has a loving and respectful marriage. This is the best happily ever after for this couple.
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The music you heard is the zither piece called Lan with sheet music by 冰酒蜗牛军 and played by me!