Welcome back to Chasing dramas. This is the podcast that discusses Chinese culture and history through historical Chinese dramas! We are your hosts, Karen and Cathy!
Today we will discuss episode 45 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! We also have a new poll on our website! We are more than halfway through our current drama and are looking to you to vote for what drama we should discuss next! Please head over to chasingdramas.com to vote!
We will start off with the episode recap, historical analysis, and then close off with some book differences!
In the last episode, Ming Lan spent a couple of episodes earning her first victory in her household and now she’s on her next obstacle.
As the Madame of the household, Ming Lan is on a “work trip” to inspect her farmsteads and holdings. The farmsteads she visits this episode are new farms that were gifted to 顾廷烨 by the emperor. In these sharecropping agreements, 顾廷烨 is the new landlord but there is no long standing relation between the tenants and farm managers. What Ming Lan has to do is to inspect these farmsteads and look at the accounts. She is essentially acting as an auditor to ensure that the properties are running smoothly.
The first one they visit it 黑山庄 or the farmstead on Mount Black. Sounds pretty ominous right? So this 黑山庄 used to be the holdings of a Duke. Unfortunately the Duke committed some crimes and was punished. His holdings were confiscated under imperial management for a short time until the Emperor decided to gift it out to his loyal subjects. 黑山庄 was one of those lands that was gifted to 顾廷烨. Unfortunately, this also means that there has been a lack of ownership and management of the farmstead. 明兰 is handed the tricky task to figure out exactly what is happening at the farmstead, establish correct management, and set ground rules. Kind of like a new CEO!
Let’s see what she does. In the morning, 明兰 meets the farm managers for 黑山庄. Please note that even as a married woman, these overseers are not allowed to see her face. This was proper etiquette of the time. 明兰 does not ask the overseers anything about the farm, instead she exchanges pleasantries and is more interested in the main overseer’s daughter’s tea making skills. The overseers are all like…what? We had our whole script ready! This is going off script! Ming Lan was clearly trying to extend the conversation as long as possible as a distraction.
明兰’s maid 翠微 announces that everyone is assembled. Mister 屠, who is 明兰’s security, walks on up with 2 other people and plop a whole basket of money down on the ground. Who’s assembled? Why it’s the sharecroppers or tenants!
The overseers are stunned – especially the main guy 巴老福. What is the meaning of this! 明兰 jovially just says – the farmstead is under new management. Everyone’s been working hard and I want to reward my tenants.
At first the tenants aren’t really sure of what’s happening and only a few show up. They can’t believe their eyes and ears when the money is literally shoved into their hands. But word travels quickly and before long, many tenants arrive to get their money. I mean it’s free! Why not!
So what is the meaning behind this action? That night, as Ming Lan is eating dinner, we hear the purpose of these rewards.
明兰 knows that anything the farmstead overseers tell her will most likely be fake and not to be trusted. So she needed to find a way to extract the truth on the comings and goings of the farmstead. Since this is the first farmstead she visited, the tenants would be the best source of information. Unsurprisingly, 明兰 servants uncover under reported farm land and tenants. How do we know this? It was probably a little confusing in the drama. Ming Lan’s maids had a booklet with the names of every tenant on the land. However, there were people coming to claim reward money that were not listed in that booklet of names. They insisted though that they were part of the farmstead. This is not the fault of these tenants. It just means that the managers were not reporting these individuals and their income on official documents.
What’s even more egregious is that the farm managers actually registered lands from the farmstead for themselves under relatives names and have been reaping the profits! These farm managers were all servants under the old Duke’s management. When the Duke fell from grace, they should have been sold off or even exiled. It’s astonishing the gall these men have to steal from the farmstead when they themselves are in a very precarious situation. You also know that these farm managers knew of their situation and still gambled on this greed because they didn’t buy any property under their own names, butrather, their relatives. It would have been too conspicuous if they did it under their own names.
Right on cue – the farm managers arrive to Ming Lan’s hall and beg for forgiveness from 明兰. Technically 明兰 shouldn’t be meeting them without a cover but I really like this directorial choice. Notice how 明兰 never looks at the managers at all when she chastises them? She only focuses on her dinner. That’s such a power play and clearly establishes who’s boss. 明兰 doesn’t serve punishment that night but the farm managers are quaking in their boots for what will befall them.
That concludes the visit to 黑山庄. We could say that was a rather easy audit session. Ming Lan seem to know exactly how to handle the managers. Next up is 古岩庄. This farmstead is another boss level opponent that 明兰 will have to vanquish.
古岩庄 – has been under imperial rule for over 10 years. Unlike 黑山庄, which was only recently confiscated, a eunuch from the palace has been managing the farmstead for several years. Whatever has been happening in this farmstead is a mystery because well, you don’t question imperial relations. This is going to be tricky for 明兰. She can’t replay the same tactic as she did at 黑山庄 because news would have already traveled to this farmstead of what she did. The overseers would already be prepared for her. 明兰 devises another plan and sends a couple of her guards ahead to uncover some information
On the route waiting for 明兰 is the overseer for 古岩庄, 吴光. This overseer is related to the palace eunuch and is a nasty fellow. It’s obvious 吴光 is prepared for 明兰 as he presents her with the financials, leases, and registry so 明兰 deflects and decides to inspect the grounds instead.
Unfortunately, as Ming Lan and Wu Guang are speak, a scuffle breaks out and it turns out that the guards that Ming Lan sent to investigate were caught by 吴光’s men. Ming Lan is immediately put at a disadvantage because she can’t investigate anymore. 吴光 then drops a huge bombshell. 50-60 of the tenants are in debt from overdue rent. What should he do? The amount is jaw dropping – 20,000 taels of SILVER is owed. That’s not all, there’s an additional 13,000 – 15,000 taels of silver owed from the tenants because of loans for food, medicine etc. Then, there’s other nobles who also borrowed 14,000-15,000 taels of silver.
Let me repeat – the amount owed on this farmstead is 50,000 taels of silver! That’s an ENORMOUS amount. If we just look at US dollars of $50,000. That’s still significant!
The overseer basically then threatens minglan saying that he’ll handle the affairs as long as he’s at the farmstead.
That night, Ming Lan is fuming back in her rooms. She’s been publicly threatened and the accounts Wu Guang gave her were all rotten. Nothing matches. Clearly he’s just messing with her thinking she can’t punish him. Surprisingly, Gu Ting Ye appears. It seems that he has finished his military drill sessions and was worried about Ming Lan so he came to see her. Aww, that’s sweet. He listens to her frustrations and explains to an annoyed Ming Lan the intricacies of this farmstead. It’s owned by the Imperial family but because the Emperor is new, he has no relationships with anyone. As a new Emperor, his hands are tied in the two main components of his rule – money and military. Despite being Emperor, he has little control of farmsteads such as these to provide the Chinese treasury with funds. He also has very few troops he can command readily. Since the issues with this farmstead extend beyond personal property, Gu Ting Ye tells Ming Lan that he’ll take care of it for her.
Touched, Ming Lan suggests he take a bath after a long day. We enjoy a cute scene where Ming Lan finally becomes worried about Gu Ting Ye’s wellbeing. He’s being…I don’t even know what’s the right word to use. Haha. He tells her that if he ever betrays her she can poison him with an herb called Hui Chun. This causes Ming Lan to freak out slightly. Why on earth would she want him dead? She has to rely on him for the rest of her life! Little does she know, this herb, after doign some research, originates from the Yunnan province. It is not poisonous at all but rather, has medicinal effects and is generally thought to benefit men. Gu Ting Ye was clearly making a harmless little joke.
The next day, Gu Ting Ye, keeping his word, steps in for Ming Lan. After all, it is unfortunate but as is the case in many instances today, it takes the man to have these direct conversations. In the morning, Gu Ting Ye has his servants round up the farm managers. Clearly, he’s here to interrogate these managers. The sly 吴光 isn’t perturbed though. He uses the same tactic he used against Ming Lan and raises the losses the farmstead currently faces. 顾廷烨 takes this in stride as well. He states that his wife at the Mount Black farmstead gave each farmer money so he must do the same. He asks 吴光 to round up the farmers so he, 顾廷烨, can give them a bonus as well. 吴光, though, continues his sly ways and states that it’s difficult to round up the farmers and will take a lot of time to do so. Why doesn’t 顾廷烨 give the money to the managers to hand to their tenants.
The implication should be clear. On the surface, 吴光 is thinking of saving Gu Ting Ye time by taking the funds and distributing them via the other farm managers. Sure that does save time for Gu Ting YE. But in the time and age where there’s no good audit trail, by making this request, it’s pretty obvious that 吴光 and company are going to take those funds for themselves. It is unclear whether or not the managers will actually give the tenants any of these funds.
Fortunately, Gu Ting Ye knew this was going to happen and tells 吴光 calmly that it’s no worry. They’ve already rounded up the tenants. At this, 石头 shows up with a crowd of tenants in tow. He reveals that there were many guards and fighters surrounding the tenants but they have all been dealt with. This means that 吴光 and the other managers have been essentially imprisoning these tenants under heavy watch. Why else would there need to be heavy guard presence around farm tenants?
吴光 is certainly not pleased at this. You can look at his face. Hahahaha.
The tenants step forward and it’s obvious they are in destitute conditions. Their clothes are shabby and their appearances unkempt. 顾廷烨 asks the group to tell him how their living conditions have been on the farmstead. At first, the tenants are hesitant. They’re worried of the possible repercussions of sharing anything with Gu Ting Ye. After all, he’s a new face that they don’t know.
Gu Ting Ye, knowing what they’re worried about, declares that they do not need to worry. The management team will change and he, Gu Ting Ye, will be their ultimate landlord. What he says goes. And then, almost immediately the floodgates open. Several tenants share the horrible atrocities these managers have subjected them to. They have very little food, water, clothing, not to mention any additional savings. They are beaten, raped, and taken of everything they have. It’s absolutely infuriating to hear this. What’s more infuriating is the look on Wu Guang’s face. He’s not sorry at all for behaving this way. He’s more upset at being publicly exposed.
Fortunately, Gu Ting Ye doesn’t skip a beat and summons the local magistrate. The purpose of summoning this guy is to write down evidence for future court judgement. It’s a small detail that isn’t really fully explained but Gu Ting Ye wants to do this by the book so that no one can say he or the tenants made anything up in accusations against Wu Guang and company.
Wu Guang, though, still is rather self-righteous. He doesn’t think Gu Ting Ye can do anything against him because of all the debt the property is in. If Wu Guang is removed, the debt will be revealed and this will be a slap in the face against the royal family as the farmstead was previously owned by them. This will not look good for the royal family.
Gu Ting Ye actually chuckles at this form of blackmail. It’s just money right? Is that something he’s worried about? Nah. He motions for his servants to bring up the documentation of outstanding debt. In front of the entire crowd, his servants dump the papers into a large pile on the ground. In what is probably one of the most attractive scenes by Gu Ting Ye, he straight up burns the letters of credit. He will pay for all outstanding debt for the tenants and for the property. The management must change.
The tenants are so grateful they all fall to their knees for saving their lives.
And with that, the challenges at the farmsteads are resolved. In the carriage back home, Ming Lan is still pouting. She’s upset because apparently, Wu Guang wasn’t prosecuted for his crimes. Instead, he was given a ton of money and told to leave. Anyone would be upset. Gu TIng Ye explains that the outstanding debt he can take of but they also have to protect the reputation of the imperial family. The money was given to Wu Guang more or less as hush money. Ming Lan continues to be annoyed. How can they just leave in peace? Gu Ting Ye smiles, leaning back in his seat. I don’t think they’ll actually be able to leave in peace…
Turns out, that these corrupt farmsteads took the money but met bandits not too long afterwards. These farmsteads had the money taken and their legs broken. They’ll inevitably struggle for the rest of their lives. Or so that’s what Grandma Sheng shares with Ming Lan after returning home.
News of Ming Lan and Gu Ting Ye’s activities traveled fast. Not only does Grandma Sheng know the details of their excursion, but the Empress Dowager herself has also heard the news. We will see much more of the Empress Dowager in the future and will do a deep dive analysis of the Empress dowager in the next episode. The Empress Dowager explains that while Gu Ting Ye had to use his own funds to pay down the debt for the properties, the Emperor must be over the moon with joy. Sure, Gu Ting Ye lost some money but is he wanting for cash? No. He’s also the wealthiest ally the Emperor has. By changing the management team of the farmstead, the Emperor and Gu Ting Ye now are able to place their own people to manage the estate. This is income for Gu Ting Ye but if needed, the Emperor could also use that income.
Why have the Empress Dowager explain this to us the audience. In my view, it’s because the matters of the farmstead have much bigger implications and consequences for the court and the empire. Ming Lan may be struggling with auditing these farmsteads at a micro level but there are macro level concerns that the Emperor is focused on. It does sound like the Emperor gifted these properties to Gu Ting Ye specifically for him to fix the issues on the farmstead.
The episode ends with Ming Lan heading into the Palace by invitation of the Empress. It’s her first official visit to meet the Empress and she’s a little apprehensive. Accompanying her is the Empress’s younger sister, Xiao Shen Shi. Gu Ting Ye, being the doting husband, also follows her to the palace.
In the next episode, we’ll see how her visit to the palace goes!
One other character we are introduced to in this episode briefly is Liu Gui Fei. She’s a concubine of the Emperor with a young son.
And now onto historical analysis!
Sharecropping in China has been around since the Warring States period over 2500 years ago. The first forms of regulated sharecropping developed during the Qin and Han Dynasties so in the 3rd to 2nd centuries BC. Due to the large numbers of peasants fleeing disasters, the court decided to develop a sharecropping system. By the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, tenant farmers usually worked on land for aristocratic families and were considered the family’s property. Sometimes these men would not work the fields but instead worked on construction or became part of the family’s private militia.
Sharecropping was reformed during the Sui and Tang Dynasties in the form of legal and meticulous contracts. From the time of the Sui Dynasty all the way to the Yuan Dynasty, legal contracts between landlord and tenant were executed. A legal system was established and this was the first time the tenant was protected by court. So it is quite fascinating in the drama that we do see all of these records shown to 明兰 because well, the farmsteads were required to have them!
In previous episodes and for our discussion of Empresses in the Palace, we discuss money. So let’s discuss this topic a bit more here. I’m going to provide what the author meant with her currency valuation, and I’ll try my best to estimate the value today.
In this episode, 明兰 gifts each family 一贯钱 and 300钱 for every elderly family member.
We see the 一贯钱 shown as a string of coins. It literally was a string of coins! Historically, 1 thousand coins would equal 一贯钱. One of the strings of coins would equal 1 tael of silver. I’ve read some estimates that 1 tael of silver back then would equal around 600 RMB or roughly $100 USD. It might not seem like much but this was a significant amount of money back then.
The author estimated that 1 tael of silver was the equivalent of either ½ or ⅓ of a family’s earnings! There’s a saying that if someone is extremely rich, then they have 万贯家财 – this translates to a fortune of 10 thousand guan. That’s very wealthy. If we convert it to my rough estimate, that’s around $1M dollars!
Let’s extrapolate, we learn that 古岩庄 owes 50,000 taels of silver in debt. If we convert it, then that’s like $4M USD of debt. It ’s very suspicious that the tenants would accumulate such debt. If the author stated that 1 tael of silver is half a year’s salary. A tenant family earns 2 taels of silver a year. For the 50 tenants living on the land, to repay the 35,000 taels of silver. That would take like 350 years to pay it back. Dynasties would have changed by the time this debt was repaid. This was most definitely was predatory lending. For the Song Dynasty, that’s an unheard of amount! It also goes to show that 顾廷烨 is like a wealth multi-millionaire because he doesn’t bat an eye about wiping away this debt.
庶女 vs 嫡女
Let’s also take a pause to actually discuss 明兰’s capabilities this episode. She was left to mainly her own devices to face these despicable overseers. But, she had the acumen and wit to trump the overseers at 黑山庄. How was she able to do that? A, there’s her own intellect, but B, it’s all thanks to her grandmother’s tutelage. Her Grandmother taught her how to manage a household including arithmetic, reading and writing. Her Grandmother brought her up as a 嫡女 who would be able to manage a household. Typically, 庶女 wouldn’t have the capabilities 明兰 had to dispatch these foes. Let’s take a look at 墨兰, she’s now a madame of a household but she spends her days battling her husband’s concubines and not really managing anything. 林小娘 taught her how to seduce a man but not actually run a household. Say what you will about Madame Wang, her daughters 华兰, 如兰 both learned how to run and manage their own households.
In the book, before going to the two farmsteads as shown in the drama, 黑山庄 and __, 明兰 actually visits some of the farmsteads under her name. These are some of the farmsteads that Grandma Sheng gifted her for her dowry. Those visits were much smoother because she’s visited them before and Grandma Sheng is a very generous tenant. The farm itself is quite bountiful.
That was like level one. Then the book describes the events of 黑山庄 and 古岩庄. 黑山庄 is level two and 古岩庄 is boss level. Most of the events in the episode for the 2 farmsteads follow the book.
That is it for today!
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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!