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 46 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, family analysis, historical analysis, and then close off with some book differences!
In the last episode, Ming Lan and Gu Ting Ye teamed up on a little auditing excursion to survey their properties. It would seem that those activities piqued the interest of some powerful people. So let’s see what happens. We left off last episode with Ming Lan and the younger sister of the Empress heading to the palace to greet the Empress. Ming Lan is rather nervous but here we are. At the entrance, a senior eunuch intercepts them and “invites” them to the Empress Dowager’s residence instead. The two women are surprised and definitely anxious. 小沈氏 warns that the Empress Dowager is not a woman to be trifled with. Well her words are “The Empress Dowager doesn’t like me nor my sister. I get lectured everytime she sees me”. Poor girl!
We know that it’s not going to be an easy audience with the Empress Dowager and sure enough right off the bat, the Empress Dowager begins with the brilliant idea of “gifting” two of her maids to the Emperor. These maids of course would enter the palace as concubines.
This is a fascinating conversation so we’ll spend a lot of time on it because it perfectly displays the power dynamic of the 4 women in the room.
The Empress Dowager’s reasoning is that she wants to keep these women in the palace so that they can come visit her often.
Why would the Empress Dowager do this? If these maids gained favor, they would rise in the ranks as concubines and act as spies for her. The Empress dowager wants to consolidate power and these concubines would weaken the Empress. If one bore a son, who knows what could happen in the future? Maybe one could seize the throne?
The Empress immediately deflects with 2 ready made excuses. 1 the Emperor is getting on in age and 2 the Emperor wants to reduce staff at the palace. The first reason is relatively weak because well, when has age stopped men before but the second reason stops the Empress Dowager in her tracks. If word gets out that the Empress Dowager gifts concubines to the Emperor, which is an added expense, that could stain her reputation as someone who isn’t frugal.
You can see the small huff the Empress Dowager not so subtly displays. She’s annoyed that this avenue didn’t work so she immediately aims her ire to the other two women in attendance. I don’t think the EMpress Dowager was seriously considering having these ladies serve the Emperor. The real targets are 小沈氏 and of course 明兰. The Empress Dowager offers her maids to their husbands and 沈国舅，the Empress’s younger brother. The word in chinese that the Empress Dowager uses is 领 – take.
This act is even more despicable if you think about it. The Empress Dowager intends to use the maids to drive a wedge between the marriages of the Emperor’s right hand men. These maids, if they enter as concubines, would have a special status in any household. The men HAVE to sleep with these maids. They also can’t be punished or treated like a normal concubine. They effectively represent the Empress Dowager and should any “mistreatment” occur, they would incur the wrath of the Empress Dowager. If these concubines bore sons, the madame of the family would have the added struggle of dealing with these sons competing with her own. Historically, Emperors and kings have gifted women to generals and officials and it usually doesn’t end well for the original marriage.
Like her sister, 小沈氏 tries to plead against this “gift”. Her reasoning? The maids are too precious! They came from the palace! How would they enter their households as in are they concubines or servants?
The Empress Dowager dismisses this excuse and says – they aren’t precious. Just some palace maids. I just want to find a place that will have a proper madame for them. The Empress Dowager, seeing that no one is saying anything, doubles down and tells 明兰 and 小沈氏 to take more of these maids.
Notice, 明兰, doesn’t say anything. She just has a smile on her face. The Empress Dowager notices and sort of trying to pick a fight, asks what’s so funny?
明兰 – responds that this is such a coincidence, we were planning on several weddings in our household too! This piques the Empress Dowager’s interest. What additional weddings? Ming Lan explains that her husband is going to be sending soldiers to the front lines. In order to help appease some of their concerns, it would be helpful for them to bring their families. But, many of the young men are unmarried. And so, Gu TIng Ye is thinking of selecting a couple of maids in the family that are also unmarried to match make. If any of them see like a good match, they will be wed immediately. Such a coincidence that their idea matches the Empress Dowager’s.
小沈氏 – jumps up to respond that this is a great idea!
The Empress however stops her – these maids come from the palace, how can they marry a lowly soldier?
The Empress Dowager uses that excuse to deny this request too. These soldiers do not deserve these maids. Um, were you the one who said earlier that these women were simply palace maids?
Ming Lan continues – there are also many single rising captains in the army. If these maids married one of them and their husbands earned medals and promotions, these maids may also earn such honors. It’ll be better than being someone’s concubine. The implication here is that these women would marry as wives, not concubines. You see the camera cut to the 2 maids standing in waiting. They’re also interested at this prospect.
Before the Empress Dowager says anything else, the Empress chimes in that the previous emperor had intended to cut staff before he passed. This is an excellent solution for all!
Well, the Empress Dowager doesn’t have anything else to say at this and haughtily agrees. After all, the Empress brought up the previous deceased Emperor. What CAN she say? Before leaving though, the Empress Dowager explicitly dumps this task on 明兰 who will now have to match these maids.
Let’s give a round of applause to the MVPs of this conversation. First is of course 明兰. This is 明兰’s first time meeting the Empress Dowager. Her best armor was to act dumb and not say anything. She’s learned that quite well at the Sheng family so she used it to full effect here. If the Empress Dowager knew that 明兰 was quite intelligent and quick on her feet, she probably wouldn’t have made such a blatant request to 明兰. Look at 小沈氏. She didn’t have a good reason to deny the maids and it was almost a done deal that she would have to take these maids home. 明兰 simply smiled and it was the Empress Dowager who initiated the ask of what 明兰’s smiling about. 明兰’s idea, while brilliant, would have had a different effect if she jumped up and said oh I have a BETTER idea! The Empress Dowager would have found many excuses to dismiss this. This also gets to the second MVP, which is the Empress. Notice how the Empress was smiling/serene in this entire scene? She didn’t miss a single beat when the Empress Dowager mentioned adding people to the Emperor’s harem. She was able to defy this request with relative ease. The drama kept showing shots of the Empress glancing at the Empress Dowager for her reaction. The Empress was able to immediately seize Ming Lan’s idea and essentially force the Empress Dowager into agreeing. The Empress is on another level. 小沈氏 by comparison, is quite the novice.
I personally didn’t think the background music was very good here. It seemed to jovial? This was a very serious situation and the music made it seem like it was a more trivial matter than it was.
Outside of the palace, 明兰 is surprised to see 顾廷烨. He’s surprised at all the women in tow. But, after hearing the background from her, is pretty excited with the turn of events. I personally find Ming Lan’s silly smile at him saying she’s probably caused him some more trouble rather adorable. At home though the couple privately discuss the fact that court won’t be peaceful anymore.
In this first round against the Empress Dowager, Ming Lan has held her own quite well. Ming Lan knows this, the Empress Dowager knows this and the Empress knows this. Both ladies in the palace are now aware that Ming Lan will not be pushed around.
We continue with a focus on court now that Ming Lan’s home life is more or less sorted out. Our Emperor, Song Ying Zong is ruling over court matters. His Prime Minister 韩琦 raises that while they have made significant progress in eliminating rebels participating in the coup, the Emperor should conduct a thorough investigation to rid everyone involved. The Emperor agrees but before Han Qi is able to recommend someone, the Empress Dowager interjects. She has a person in mind of her own. It’s none other than Qi Heng. He is now 御史.
The Empress Dowager is sitting behind the Emperor and is opining on court affairs. We have not talked about this in Empresses in the Palace but it is something that has frequently happened. This is called 垂帘听政 which we will elaborate. This is the first real instance we see of the Empress Dowager undermining the Emperor.
Qi Heng steps forward. He’s currently wearing a teal outfit which implies he’s at a rather low rank.Or at least, currently lower than GU Ting Ye. Qi Heng suggests taking a highly thorough and unforgiving view of anyone involved with the rebel prince by looking at accounting books. Anyone the prince interacted with should be brought in for questioning. Prime Minister Han doesn’t think this is the right method as there should be solid evidence before people are brought in but Qi Heng rebukes this. He’s rather unforgiving in his view of how he should go about this investigation. He wants people to be punished heavily.
The Empress Dowager then cuts off all debate. She agrees with Qi Heng’s methodology and believes he will do a just job. The Emperor is clearly unhappy about this but he cannot confront her about it openly.
So who does Qi Heng go after? Next thing we know is that Gu Ting Ye’s cousins are being tied up and rounded up for questioning by Qi Heng himself. Their parents are extremely worried and agitated at this. In the evening, Gu Ting Ye’s 4th and 5th aunts plus their daughter-in-laws head on over to Madame Qin, Gu Ting Ye’s stepmother to ask for help. This Madame Qin is quite apt at pushing any responsibility or connection to help these two women. They raise the fact that the Gu Family and the Qi family are related by marriage but Madame Qin rather calmly deflects this. She is not worried one iota for these captured young men. It’s not her problem! She instead tells them to go ask Gu Ting Ye and promptly comes up with an excuse to ditch these aunts. Madame Qin also doesn’t care right now because at the end of the day, the 4th and 5th house are just leeches so she’s happy to push them to 顾廷烨。
Elsewhere, Ming Lan asks Gu Ting Ye whether he will help his cousins or not. He won’t let them die but he also won’t let them get off easy either. See, I’m pretty sure Gu Ting Ye would be somewhat willing to help his relatives if only they were nice to him even in begging him to. Unfortunately, they do quite the opposite. Everytime I watch this episode and the next episode, my blood boils with how outrageously despicable the whole lot of the 顾 family is. They’re outright shameless.
First, the 4th and 5th uncles try to plead for their sons case to 顾廷烨. Now they play the family card – you can’t let the Gu family go to shame. They don’t even play it that well! They quickly begin accusing 顾廷烨 of not caring about the family. 顾廷烨 then drops a nasty piece of information – his cousins are currently under investigation for women from the jiangnan area of china. These women were then sent to various officials and generals’ homes as an attempt at bribery. It’s clearly written in the accounting books. His cousins can’t escape from these crimes. They won’t die but it won’t be easy to get acquitted. Enraged – the 4th and 5th uncles then try to appeal again to 顾廷烨’s pathos – saying stuff like c’mon we’re all members of the gu family, you’ve got to help us!
顾廷烨 rightfully retorts back – oh now you think I’m a member of the 顾 family? Where was this family when you guys refused to let me see my father for the last time?
That’s right! The gall of these two uncles. You and your sons are pretty worthless and they got themselves into this mess. Why do you think 顾廷烨 would agree to help at all? Not with this attitude. 顾廷烨 walks away ignoring his two uncles. Nice!
Now we turn our attentions to 齐衡. He’s busy working and a women joins him. This is his new wife Madame 申. We don’t really know how long they’ve been married but 齐衡 hasn’t slept in his wife’s room for a month. Madame 申 is somewhat dismayed and unhappy with this. 齐衡 is quite courteous but that’s it. Madame 申 hears rumors that 齐衡 was enamored with a 庶女 from a lowly official and orders her maid to gather more information.
Ok – pause. Girl – what more do you want! You have a husband who respects you and someone who doesn’t randomly sleeps with other women, what more could you want at this point in time! She’s all pouty that 齐衡 doesn’t open his heart to her. What have you done to deserve it?
Let’s return back to the Cheng Gardens. Now it’s the women’s turn. The aunts and cousin-in-laws all corner 明兰 to plead their case. Once again, they play the family card. If our sons are indicted and sentenced, it doesn’t help 顾廷烨 yada yada yada. I’m even rolling my eyes.
Before long, 小桃 comes running in to inform that 蓉姐儿 has gone missing. Right on cue, 明兰 rushes out and just leaves her guests. Haha, we see that this was all a fun ploy concocted by 明兰. 蓉姐儿 is happily writing with her father.
Seeing that 明兰 won’t help, the Aunt from the 5th house visits 齐衡’s wife madame 申. It seems that they are relatives of some sort? The 5th Aunt uses the excuse of a delayed wedding visit to come see Madame Shen. Unfortunately Madame 申 doesn’t agree to help. What’s more she “accidentally” lets slip that 齐衡 was close to 明兰. They must keep their distance. She then “accidentally” lets slip that 明兰 was almost engaged to another family before marrying 顾廷烨. She’s impressed at 明兰’s capabilities.
The words Madame 申 uses are 小庶女 – a little girl not born from the main madame. That is very derogatory especially since 明兰 is now married to a general and is a proper madame. Right here Madame 申 is implying that 明兰 is a gold digger to the 5th Aunt because Ming Lan was almost engaged and then ended up marrying the vastly more powerful 顾廷烨. Here words are quite scathing if you think about it – what would society think of 明兰 if this was true? This is very useful information to the 5th Aunt or so she thinks.
The episode ends with Madame Shen and her maid gossiping even MORE about 明兰. The maid has the audacity to call 明兰 temptress because apparently she seduced 齐衡. Again, how dare they? 明兰 is a proper madame right now. What has she done to Madame 申? This is literally her husbands fault.
Before we move onto historical analysis let’s discuss the family here.
Now that we’re in the thick of 顾 family shenanigans, let me walk through who’s who. The 4th house has a son called 顾廷炳. In the book, he’s only a 庶子 or a son not born from the main wife. The 4th wife doesn’t go to as much lengths to save him cause he’s not her son. The 5th house has a son called 顾廷狄. In the book, he’s the second 嫡子 of this house. Each are married respectively so that’s why you’ll see their wives also crying to 明兰 in this episode.
So we don’t get any detail, really right now about who she is. Madame 申 or 申和珍 is the daughter of 申国公, with also the rank of a duke. She is barely mentioned in the book but she’ll have an outsized role in the drama.
Ok – let’s move to our historical analysis section!
大娘娘 – The Empress Dowager! This Empress Dowager or 太后 is just as formidable as the 太后 in Empresses in the Palace. Pretty much at this point, this dramas have conditioned us to know that all Empress Dowagers had to have been competent in order to get to that level.
Her real life counterpart is Empress 曹。 Empress Cao came from a very powerful family. Her father and grandfather were important figures at court. So, when the time came, it made sense for her to marry the likes of the Emperor. I bring up this drama a lot but Serenade of Peaceful Joy shows the life of Empress Cao in depth. It is rather infuriating actually because Empress Cao was not actually that favored by the Emperor. Part of the reason was because she was arranged to him as a second Empress. Song Ren Zong had a previous empress already that he then deposed. But instead of choosing someone he wanted as his empress, political pressures dictated that he wed Miss Cao. There’s conflicting reports that she was also previously wed or at least betrothed but in any case, she married the Emperor at 18 and became Empress. He was not happy about it and certainly favored his concubines to her. I did not like that about the drama.
Why was I furious? Because through the drama and from historical record, Empress Cao was learned, poised and composed. She managed the imperial harem with grace kept everything in line. She was the epitome of what a wife should be. Sadly, this did not mean she felt the favor of her husband. It’s not evident where the problem came from but she never had children, despite being Empress. This matches with what we see in the drama. The Empress Dowager does not have any surviving children. But as with the drama, because of the Empress’s intellect and wisdom, she was actually revered as Empress Dowager and respected by the following Emperors. History remembers her as a virtuous woman.
Part of the reason she had a good relationship with the Emperor following her husband is because in history, the boy was raised in the palace for the years the Emperor had no sons. During those years, Empress Cao was kind and thoughtful to the young man. If you recall, in history, this guy came from the clan to live in the palace to one day become Emperor. He did get sent away when the Emperor had a son but then came back after his son died. Empress Cao did not treat this Song Ying Zong poorly and thus was treated well in kind in her later years. As in the drama we see, she participated in a number of political affairs to help new emperors at court.
In the drama, the new Empress’s last name is Shen. In history though, her name is 高滔滔。 She’s actually related to the Empress dowager. Their mothers were cousins so she is a niece of sorts to the Empress Dowager.
We’ve talked about
This is the first time we really see the Emperor and Empress Dowager at court together. This is an example of 垂帘听政 or regency behind the curtain.
Typically it would be refer to the Empress, Empress Dowager, or Great Empress Dowager. Due to societal norms, women were not able to address members of the court directly. Hence why, there’s a veil or some sort of curtain that separates the Empress Dowager in this show from the rest of court.
The first instance of 垂帘听政 was during the warring states period with Empress Dowager 宣 from the state of Qin. She’s actually 芈月 from the Legend of 芈月. She ruled until ~265BC
The first time the use of 垂帘 or behind a veil was recorded was actually in reference to the then Empress 武则天 when she managed state affairs alongside her husband. Empress 武则天 would then become the first and only female Emperor of China.
The first time 垂帘听政 was used was actually in recorded in text was in 东都事略 or Events of the Eastern Capital published in 1186. The phrase is actually in reference to this Empress Dowager or Empress Dowager 曹 of the Song Dynasty. Since we’re still in the 1060s, this phrase is used inaccurately or maybe people spoke of it but it wasn’t recorded.
Surprisingly the Sony dynasty had 9 women reign as regent, the most of any in Chinese history. The most recent regency behind the curtain was Empress Dowager Ci Xi of the Qing Dynasty who effectively ruled the Qing Dynasty for 47 years and died in 1908.
Let’s discuss book differences!
When 明兰 met the Empress Dowager, in the book, there were a lot more ladies there. The phrase that 明兰 said at the end of the scene in the drama was – I think marrying these captains is better than being someone’s concubine. That phrase was spoken by a princess, which was way more appropriate. I didn’t like that it was 明兰 who said it in the drama because she’s basically belittling the palace maids. If the Empress Dowager really wanted to pick a fight, she would have with those words.
The drama also puts 齐衡 in the forefront of investigating additional ties to the deceased prince. In the book, there’s no mention of him being involved. It makes sense that 齐衡 is NOT involved. His first wife’s family, while all murdered, during that coup, nevertheless was integral in inciting the coup. If his wife’s family hadn’t killed 荣飞燕, they probably wouldn’t have died such a gruesome death. At the same time though, his first wife’s father, PRINCE X, basically did rebel. I doubt the current Emperor would have been ok with 齐衡 investigating because of those relations.
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!