Ep 5



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 5 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 karenandcathy@chasingdramas.com if you have any questions. 


Today’s episode is chalk full of Song dynasty history that we want to talk about so we will be going to school just like our main characters


Now without further ado! Let’s get started on the episode recap.


The beginning of episode 5 starts where we left off – in court. The elderly Emperor is being, you could say, bullied by one of his ministers into discussing who to name as his heir and heir to the throne of the Song dynasty because the Emperor himself has no sons. The Emperor is very angry because he’s hurting that his son died and that the ministers and officials don’t understand that he’s in pain. Because the Emperor does not have a son, he must select an heir from the imperial clan aka any male member of the imperial family to be his son. 


This conflict, or lack of a direct heir, plays an important role in the conflict in this drama. What is very interesting is that in the last drama we discussed, Empresses in the Palace, there was actually the opposite problem. During the Qing Dynasty, the Emperor of that drama actually had to compete with 8 other brothers for the throne. His own children, although not as plentiful as his father, had to vy for the top spot. In this drama, during the reign of this Emperor, it wasn’t about having too many sons to fight for the throne, it was instead not having any surviving sons. 


We’ll talk about the actual history behind this as it is quite interesting.



Now back to the Sheng Family, the crew has arrived in the Capital city of 汴京 and our master and wife of the house are discussing how to prepare their children for school. There is a scholar, Scholar Zhuang who will come teach the children.


Why do these children, particularly the boys need to go to school? Why because they have to prepare for the imperial entrance exams! This will give the boys an opportunity to become officials for the Song dynasty and continue to bring glory to the family.


Exciting for the Sheng family is that the son of 齐国公 or the Duke of Qi will also come study. This is an incredible honor as the 齐 family is an incredibly wealthy and powerful family. The wife of the house is 平宁郡主。 They only have one son, his name is 齐衡 but people call him 小公爷 as a respectful title or Young Duke. 


As for the daughters of the Sheng family, they are also brought to take class with Scholar Zhuang.


And so, we have a peaceful several years where the cute children study Chinese classics and writings. The boys taking class are 长柏 and 长枫 of the Sheng Family, and then there’s 齐衡. The girls are of course, the 4th daughter 墨兰, 5th daughter 如兰 and the 6th daughter 明兰。 


Yay — as the years pass, we finally see our main actors and actresses for the drama. 赵丽颖 or Zanilia Zhao makes her first appearance as the cute and respectful 明兰。The handsome 朱一龙 makes his appearance as the serene 齐衡。


顾廷烨 we see is studying at a different academy and we see he is now being portrayed by 冯绍峰。


I personally love this scene as it reflects the calmness and naive nature but in a good way of the family in this time period. The bamboo in the background to me really makes me feel like I’m in ancient China, studying with them. It’s really adorable how all the servants are sitting on the outer rim of the room also listening to the scholar talk while their masters take class.



And of course, as with anyone going to school, flirtations are abound.


In this episode there are plenty of historical references. One day after class, Master Sheng and 齐衡 or 小公爷 discuss chinese calligraphy from various masters while the women of the family chat on other matters in a separate part of the room.


Here are the instances in this drama that really showcase the traditional Chinese etiquette of that time period. During class, the men and women are seated separately. Similarly in this scene as the family are chatting amongst each other, men and women are seated in separate parts of the room. Men are always in the front while women chat in the back.


As Master Sheng chats with 齐衡, we see the crushes and flirtations start. 明兰 is playing with her friend 嫣然 in the back. This happy scene is seen by 齐衡 who is mesmerized and can’t help let out a grin. But, his smart servant, blocks his view. I particularly love 齐衡’s side eye at his servant in this instant.



齐衡 takes this moment to use the restroom and leaves the main hall where his servant takes this opportunity to directly say that the whole reason 齐衡 wants to stay at the 盛 family’s manor for dinner is to spend time with 明兰。Clearly someone is smitten by the youngest daughter of the 盛 family.


Slight drama happens at this moment when 齐衡 realizes that he lost his handkerchief and makes a large fuss to find it. He returns to the main hall and requests help to retrieve his lost handkerchief. 王大娘子 as the wife of the family takes it upon herself to help search for the lost item.


Why is it so important for 齐衡 to let everyone know he lost the handkerchief? As 明兰 explains to her friend 嫣然, a handkerchief is a very personal item. Per our research, it can also be used as a token of love. If this was taken from 齐衡, particularly for a man of his status, this could lead to unwanted rumors if discovered in the wrong hands and result in scandal. That’s why he needs to make everyone know that he lost the handkerchief so that people will not get the wrong idea if it does indeed show up somewhere else.


Surprisingly, the thief was found rather quickly. The handkerchief was on a maid in the family. She’s screaming that she didn’t know how it came upon her person as she’s being beaten. 明兰 and 嫣然 analyze the situation because something seems rather off. Why would this maid keep the handkerchief on her person if everyone was searching for it? After some smart deduction, 明兰 was able to deduce that someone on the main hall must have planted the handkerchief on this unsuspecting maid because he or she could not leave.


This deduction is overheard by 小公爷 who evidently followed the young ladies. He stops them to say he will save the maid from any injustice.  



A couple of things are revealed in this scene, one is that 明兰 is indeed quite sharp. She was able to accurately deduce the flow of events that happened. Two, is that she is quite focused on decorum and maintaining distance with 小公爷. In every scene she has with him, she’s backing away and trying to keep a respectful distance between her and him. Three, while he’s clearly smitten with her, he also does have a strong sense of justice and is prudent in recognizing the potential issues that arise from a lost handkerchief.


So who exactly took the handkerchief and planted it on this poor maid? It has to be the 4th sister, 墨兰。


The second half of the episode revolves around 齐衡 trying to be nice to 明兰 but we see just how problematic that can be for her.


Back at school, 齐衡 gives a powerful monologue on his thoughts of the 秦 dynasty. He lists a bunch of Song dynasty scholars as his evidence to support his thoughts on the unification of the 6 kingdoms that ultimately brought about the 秦 dynasty. 


After this thoughtful discussion though, the scholar asks for 明兰 to stay behind where he reprimands her for her poor calligraphy writing. 齐衡 makes an excuse to stay behind to hear what’s going on with her. The scholar is not happy with 明兰’s poor calligraphy and tells her to copy The Discourse on Salt and Iron as punishment. This is a common punishment for students. If your writing is not good or you make some type of mistake in class, you have to copy or transcribe an entire text. Maybe not the Discourse on Salt and Iron but certainly other texts.  Somewhat like in detention where you rewrite lines over and over again.



After 明兰 and her maid 小桃 leave, they are stopped by 齐衡 who tries to engage 明兰 in conversation, even offering to help her copy some of the text. She politely refuses but in the end, he shoves a container of water chestnuts and two extremely valuable calligraphy brushes for 明兰 to help her improve her writing. Clearly, he’s trying to show he cares about her and wants to help.


Unfortunately, this scene is seen by 如兰。


Why is 明兰 so courteous and distant towards 齐衡 and why is she stressed by the gifts he gives her? We see immediately why. As the 3 sisters cross paths, 5th daughter 如兰 wants to goad 4th daughter 墨兰。Because the two girls have different mothers, they are often antagonistic towards each other.  墨兰 often wants to be seen as better than she is especially given her birth status of a 庶出 or daughter of a concubine and therefore focuses heavily on her academic studies. She is hoping to capture the attention of a powerful individual to marry. The best option right now? Is 齐衡 of course, the son of a duke.  如兰 cannot stand 墨兰’s attitude and, seeing 明兰 there, directly goes into 明兰”s case where she stored the two calligraphy brushes 齐衡 sent her and takes those two brushes out. 


如兰 waves around the two brushes in front of 墨兰 who immediately becomes jealous. This puts 明兰 in an awkward position because she does not want to anger either of her sisters. She continuously pretends to be weak and backs down from any conflict. To appease both her sisters and saying that these brushes won’t save her terrible writing, she actually gifts the 2 brushes to her sisters. This calms both of them down and 如兰 actually grabs 明兰’s hand to play, super happy with this new gift.


墨兰 discusses the turn of events with her mother, the concubine 林小娘。林小娘 is primarily worried that 小公爷 or 齐衡 actually likes 明兰 but because 明兰 gave away these two brushes, 墨兰 was able to say that 明兰 probably knows her place and does not care for 齐衡. Otherwise, why would she just give these away?


Let’s talk about this for a bit. While 明兰 is now raised by her grandmother, because her birth mother is gone, she is more or less left alone to deal with her sisters. Her sisters are both very confident – one the daughter of the wife of the family, one the daughter of a favored concubine. Both are treated very well in the household, particularly 林小娘 and 墨兰。 Look at the clothing color choices for these mother daughter pair. It’s bright pink. One could say it’s a little trashy to have this color especially when compared to the rest of the household that has more muted colors but it does showcase the status of this pair in the family.  


The moment 齐衡, this young Duke, tries to show any favoritism towards 明兰, then she would be put in danger so to speak. Her two sisters would be incredibly jealous of her and would want to put her down. That is why 明兰 does not try to win any favors with 齐衡 but instead tries to keep him at arms length. She doesn’t give a second thought about giving away his gifts because otherwise, she’d become a target for her sisters, and their overbearing mothers. 



Another theme we see is very important is that we hear how 明兰’s calligraphy writing is very poor. However, 小桃 said that whenever Grandma Sheng teaches 明兰 horseback riding and the Chinese form of polo, 明兰 can pick that up very quickly, but for calligraphy, she just cannot improve her writing. This showcases to us 明兰“s true nature. She is a girl that likes the arrow toss and horseback riding. Otherwise known as someone who is more free and wild. But, we see in this episode, she is always trying to hide and back away from conflict. Currently this is her only survival tactic in the household.


The Episode ends with the return of 顾廷烨 to study with the Sheng family. It is revealed that he actually has a family already. One interesting juxtaposition is that he has a handkerchief on his person from what is actually a well known prostitute. The third brother 长枫 found the handkerchief beautiful and 顾廷烨 just gifts it to him. While he clearly does not care too much about this handkerchief, it’s evident he also doesn’t care that the world knows he is close with a prostitute. 


On the way to class, 明兰 is leaning on her maid’s back, taking a nap. 齐衡 seeing this sight stops to tease 明兰 a bit but are both startled by the arrival of 顾廷烨 and 长柏. It turns out, 顾廷烨 and 齐衡 have generational familial relations and so the group head off to class.



So – what do we think? Are your hearts fluttering yet with how cute Zanilia Zhao is and how smitten the young duke is with her?


I think 朱一龙, the actor for the young duke epitomizes the serene and calm nature that a traditional gentleman is described to be. 


In this instance, 明兰’s eldest brother 长柏 allows 明兰 to nap for a few more minutes. The maid 小桃 doesn’t think much of this but 明兰 is quick to point out that her brother is giving her an easy out to NOT walk with 顾烶烨 and 小公爷 齐衡. There’s two reasons for this. 1. 顾烶烨 and 小公爷 are still men outside of the family, it broke tradition to have 明兰 walk with them especially since there isn’t another adult female around. 2. Like we said earlier, if 如兰 or 墨兰 saw 明兰 walking together with 小公爷, they would get jealous and potentially retaliate against 明兰. 明兰 is grateful for this repose and heads off to class. 



Before we get on with the historical analysis, let’s actually level set on the key characters and their personality traits.


Here are the children of the 盛 family


First daughter – 华兰, daughter of the main wife – beautiful, intelligent, and already married

2nd son – 长柏, son of the Main Wife – Fair, studious, intelligent. He behaves as the righteous older brother and student prepping for his exams.

3rd son – 长枫,  son of Mistress Lin – outgoing, likes to make connections but not as academically gifted as his older brother. He also enjoys time with the fairer sex and has no problem accepting the handkerchief of a prostitute.

4th daughter – 墨兰 – daughter of Mistress Lin – judgmental, manipulative, proper and academic

5th daughter – 如兰 – daughter of the main wife – cute, shallow, arrogant, and naive. She is bossy and always flaunts her status as the daughter of the main wife, 王大娘子. She’s not very studious and doesn’t put in any hard work. As such, she can never win any argument against 墨兰 with whom she has a terrible relationship. Her relationship is a bit better but she mainly bosses 明兰 around. 

6th daughter – 明兰 – calculating, quiet, reserved. She knows her place in society and tries her best to balance between her two sisters and other family members.






-Let’s talk about the Emperor. The Emperor portrayed in this drama is none other than 宋仁宗, We talked about him briefly in our intro to the drama episode but here’s a recap. He was born 1010 AD and died 1063 at age 52. He was the longest reigning Song emperor, ruling for 41 years. His title of 仁 means benevolence and he is depicted in history as indeed a benevolent ruler.


A lot of the authors we’ll mention later on that the main characters reference in this episode lived under 宋仁宗’s reign. He pushed for a higher focus on academics and one could say that it was because of his benevolent rule that we have such famous scholars today. If you take a look at a top list of the most famous Chinese scholars, many of them are from the Song dynasty, and many of those were writing during this emperor’s reign.


As mentioned previously, the drama 清平乐 or the Serenade of Peaceful Joy does a really good job of portraying the life of 宋仁宗. It’s a more accurate depiction than what we have here and certainly introduces many of the scholars mentioned in this drama. 


Despite 宋仁宗’s long reign, one of his biggest regrets is not having any surviving male heirs. He had three sons but none of them survived to adulthood. Many of his daughters also did not survive. Infant mortality really was a problem during that time and therefore he struggled to find an heir. Interestingly, he raised a clan member to be his son for some time but then he birthed a son and therefore let this adopted son leave to return to his family. But after this last son died, the Emperor had no option but to bring back this previously adopted son to become his adopted son again. 


What a whirlwind for this adoptive son right?


In the beginning of this episode, we see that the Emperor had just lost his son and is still in the throws of mourning.  He’s not wrong to be angry with his ministers for being so heartless towards him losing his son, but his ministers are also not wrong in bringing up the fact that if there is no heir, there is no stability in the empire. Without a direct heir to the throne, there will be turmoil as people fight for the right to be Emperor. It’s certainly a tough discussion topic but as we’ve discussed, one that will drive much of the conflict in this drama.




陶渊明 归园田居








The poem that Scholar Zhuang recites when the students first start class is called 归园田居 or for my translation, Returning home.


It is by the scholar 陶渊明. He lived 365~427during the eastern 晋 dynasty. He was a famed poet and the considered the father of 田园诗 or pastoral poetry which focused on the serene nature of the countryside, the rural landscape, or the garden. 


When 陶渊明 was in his youth, he traveled to many counties and prefectures or to become a civil servant. However he tired of civil service and in 405, he retired to the country where he turned his attention to poetry. 


归园田居 – the poem recited by scholar zhuang is a prime example of pastorale poetry. There are 5 parts to the overall poem and the one recited in the drama is the first one. The poem describes a youth who originally loved the country and nature but was misguided to enter the world of politics and left his beloved home for 30 years. He finally decided to return to the country where he built a small house with 8-9 rooms on 10 acres of land. Willows and pear trees are planted near the house. The poem then goes on to describe the sounds and sights of this serene site. 


It’s a lovely poem but it’s interesting to me that the show decided to have Scholar Zhuang teach this poem. The poem recounts a man who tired of civil service and returned home but the whole point of study for these men is to enter into civil service. I guess this scene is more of a reflection of peaceful family life in the Sheng family, which, then it is pretty apt for this scene.



In the drama, Master Sheng or 盛纮 is discussing calligraphy or 书法 with the young duke 齐衡. They mention a couple of names but the one person of focus in the discuss is this one 王右军. At first I didn’t recognize the name or title but after doing a bit of research, this 王右军 is none other than 王羲之, sometimes known as 书圣 or the Master Calligrapher!


Born in 303–361 during the Jin Dynasty, he hailed from the famous 琅琊 Wang family. He entered into civil service as an adult. 王羲之 also had military merit, rising to the rank of General of the Right which is why he is referred to 王右军 in the right. 王右军 is shorten from Wang右将军 or the Wang General of the Right. 


He was a master calligrapher, especially of running script or 行书. His most famous work, or at least to me is 兰亭序 pr Preface to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion written in 353. It is considered the foremost example of running script. 


For chinese calligraphy, samples and records of works have been passed down through the generations for us to learn and compare different calligraphy styles.  Unfortunately,  no original work from 王羲之 has survived. Over the centuries, emperors have gathered originals and made copies of his work. There has been debate on the authenticity of some of the styles, but to me, there is no doubt in the contributions that 王羲之 had towards chinese calligraphy. Not only is he revered in China but also in Japan. 


The two written characters mentioned in the drama by 盛纮 and 齐衡 are 平安 which means peace. Different calligraphers have different styles of writing even in the specific scripts and it is often a topic of discussion and debate on who is your favorite calligrapher or style. I know I certainly have mine.  



六国论 – In the middle of the episode, 齐衡 discusses his thoughts on the six nation discourse, or more accurately, the unification of these nations under the Qin dynasty. While there’s a lot to be said about the reasons for unification by the Qin dynasty, I am more interested in the scholars that 齐衡 references in his argument. In quick succession, 齐衡 mentions 苏洵, 苏轼 and 苏辙。These three men are included in the Tang and Song dynasty 8 great scholars, all coming to prominence during this time period under 宋仁宗’s reign. These 3 are related. 苏洵 is the father and 苏轼 and 苏辙 are brothers. Each one of these gentlemen wrote their own version of this six nation discourse and they are prominent writings of historical importance, though I believe the discourse from the father, 苏洵 is more well known. 


These brothers, 苏轼 and 苏辙 are not to be discounted. Their writings have transcended through time and their poems are well known even today.


What I really liked about this brief monologue by 齐衡 is that it made us reference these three Su masters and think about this text. 


Another person that we must bring up is poetry by 晏殊。墨兰 is reciting two verses of his before 如兰 barges in to goad her.




This is from a poem called 寓意 which means implied meaning.  The full poem is more or less about lost love and reminiscing of old times with someone they love.


The more interesting part of this to me is the author. 晏殊 is another well known poet, calligrapher and statesme n who served under 宋仁宗’s reign.  He created thousands of works though only a few survive today.


I bring these up because it’s interesting that these scholars have their poems and writings so widely read probably during their lifetime, and again how amazing it is that so many of these famous scholars created literary masterpieces during a similar time frame in Chinese history.



盐铁论 The Discourse on Salt and Iron


It was a debate held in 81BCE during the Western Han Dynasty on the salt and iron enterprises of the empire. Economic, political, and military policies were discussed during the debate. It was compiled by the historian 桓宽


The discourse has a total of 10 volumes and 60 chapters. 


I don’t know about you guys, but that’s a crazy amount to copy in 4 days!


We meet another character today, 明兰’s friend 余嫣然. She is the granddaughter of a high ranking court minister. She’s been raised primarily by her grandparents as her mother passed away when she was young and her father remarried. Because she was born from the main wife, she doesn’t have as many considerations as to proper etiquette as 明兰 and it showed here in this episode. 明兰’s grandmother has good relations with 余嫣然’s grandmother and the two families meet relatively often. 


She’s portrayed by the lovely 邓莎 who’s been in several dramas such as 2010’s 美人心计 or  Beauty’s Rival in Palace. We won’t see much of her in the drama but she is 明兰’s first friend we see in the show.



Book differences and some analysis. 


In the drama, it’s never clearly stated how the family ordered it’s children. Traditionally, the boys and girls of a generation of the family are ordered separately. Sometimes, with a large family clan, the children are ordered according to their birth order in the whole family clan.


In the book, the boys and girls in the 盛 family are ordered separately and children who have passed away are still accounted for.


In the book, 盛纮 had 4 sons, the eldest died in infancy and is unnamed. Therefore, 长柏 is still ranked second, and 长枫 is number three. There’s another son 长栋 in the book who’s ranked 4th but the drama removed this character.


As for the daughters, 华兰 is the eldest, the 2nd and 3rd daughters died also in infancy, and the remaining children of 墨兰, 如兰, and 明兰 are still 4th, 5th, 6th respectively. 


It doesn’t matter how they ordered the children in the drama but the overall order is the same.


Let’s talk about school and academics. In the episode, Grandma 盛 pushes for 明兰 to get the opportunity to study with Scholar 庄. Women usually did not need to get an education, learning a few characters, arithmetic, and how to manage a household was the primary education for women. However, Grandma 盛 accurately puts it that no matter what, education is a must for the women of the family.  In the book, 王大娘子 only knows a few characters but can manage the household. It’s never stated in the drama her level of education but at least she can read. She is juxtaposed by 林小娘 who for a concubine is extremely well educated and a reason why 盛纮 favors her. 


In the book, 齐衡 doesn’t study with them for several years and only joins later. In the book, by this point the girls are all under the age of 15. The boys are a few years older. We’ll discuss later in the drama but 15 is the crucial age for women in Imperial China. 

The actors and actresses are of course older than this so age isn’t really mentioned in the drama. 

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