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 are back on our normal podcast series with the Story of Ming Lan and discuss episode 56 and the first 10ish minutes of episode 57. We will wrap up Shang Chi shortly in another episode. Coming back from the holidays has definitely stretched our bandwidth so appreciate the patience! 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 at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please also leave us a rating of the podcast on whatever platform you listen to us to!. If you have not already, check out our website to see which dramas we are currently watching or our drama reviews. I’m going to write up my final thoughts for Luo Yang and Sword Snow Stride to start out the year.
As for the next drama we’ll discuss on this podcast, it seems that by popular demand everyone wants us to head back to the Qing Dynasty with the Story of Yanxi Palace. We are planning on how best to recap that drama since we’ve talked a lot about the Qing dynasty already but if there are major themes or items from the drama you want us to discuss, please leave us a note. And don’t worry, we will certainly work on other dramas to discuss different historical time periods.
For this podcast episode, We’ll actually start with the episode recap, then move onto history and finally lightly touch on the book differences.
Today’s episode is mainly about politics so we will spend a decent amount of time dissecting the two main political factions. The main conflict is the power struggles between the Emperor and the Empress Dowager. The Empress Dowager doesn’t want to relinquish power while the Emperor wants to start enacting new policies but is unable to do so with this Empress Dowager stopping him. To continue to hint at the Empress Dowager she should step down, the conversation has now shifted to the title Emperor’s birth father. Because he was not the emperor, this is a little tricky and thus drawing the ire of the Empress Dowager. So for this episode, we move away from the woes of Gu Ting Ye and his sadness that his wife doesn’t get jealous over him and focus on politics. Once again, we are shown that the Empress Dowager is a force to be reckoned with and knows how to play the game just as well as any man.
We pick up right where the previous episode left off, 顾廷烨 was punished by the Empress Dowager with 20 canings for insubordination and has been hauled home by his servants. He’s now on a stretcher who still refuses to go back to his master bedroom with 明兰 and insists on going to the study.
明兰, who is surprised and worried about this news, rushes over to him. 顾廷烨 is of course happy to see her and despite his injuries, is all smiles and jokes. After dismissing the servants, 顾廷烨 reveals to 明兰 that this was all an act devised by the Emperor in which 顾廷烨 willingly acted as his pawn in a chess game against the Empress Dowager. Listeners – please pay attention that 顾廷烨’s actions in court the previous episode were agreed upon by the Emperor. This will come to our attention later.
Back in the Palace, the Empress Dowager has gotten word that eunuch Li will be speaking to 顾廷烨’s younger brother and Concubine Liu is out on a walk with the Emperor. The Empress Dowager is much more worried or I would say places more importance on Concubine Liu’s conversation with the Emperor. The Concubine, interestingly, stands with the Emperor, telling him that whoever he wants to call his father is up to him. Why this is interesting is because we’ve seen Concubine Liu very close to the Empress Dowager. Why would Concubine Liu not persuade the Emperor against his idea of naming his father the Royal Father and push the Empress Dowager’s agenda? I’ll give my hunch afterwards.
Out in a local restaurant, 顾廷烨’s younger brother, 顾廷炜 meets a eunuch named Li, who works for the Emperor, in an effort to gather some information about 顾廷烨. 顾廷炜 not so subtly bribes the eunuch and asks if the Emperor was offended by 顾廷烨’s words at court that led to his caning by the Empress Dowager. Eunuch Li responds for the Gu Family to think nothing of it because 顾廷烨 is favored by the Emperor but it’s just that it’s natural for the Empress Dowager to be angry with him.
These words of course travel to the evil stepmother Madame Qin’s ears. 顾廷炜 doesn’t think 顾廷烨 is in any trouble but Madame Qin grasps onto this “只是” or “but”. She thinks there’s more meaning to these words. Why inform 顾廷炜 if it was truly nothing. 顾廷炜 waves it off because everyone knows the Empress Dowager and the Emperor aren’t united. Madame Qin though has other thoughts, when both the Emperor Dowager’s eunuch and the Emperor’s eunuch are saying the same thing, then something must be up. She just can’t figure it out yet. What this is hinting is that the eunuchs in both sides are perhaps connected but it sounds like they’re connected for the empress dowager.
Prime Minister 韩璋 requests an audience with the Empress Dowager. She refuses to grant an audience and instead has her eunuchs inform the Prime Minister that she is ill. Prime Minister 韩璋 though still pushes for her approval and seal on naming the Emperor’s birth father as the royal father.
Several hours have passed but the Prime Minister is still waiting outside for the Empress Dowager’s decree. The Empress Dowager finally gives in and agrees to a decree will not only grant the Emperor’s wishes to have his father be conferred to as the Emperor but for his birth mother to be posthumously named as Empress. Her eunuch is surprised to hear this and is even more surprised when the Empress Dowager orders the Imperial Kitchens to serve a meal to the Prime Minister.
Has the Empress Dowager finally relented out of the goodness of her heart? That was pretty quick. There;s no way she was this nice.
During dinner back at the Cheng Gardens, 顾廷烨 analyzes the current political situation at court for 明兰 and for us the audience. It’s quite cute to see 明兰 feeding 顾廷烨. 顾廷烨 was pushed to make a stand during court after discussing with the Prime Minister in the previous episode. The Prime Minister picked a time when the rest of the Emperor’s supporters were out of the capital was so that 顾廷烨, as the sole supporter of the Emperor left from 禹州, would bear the brunt of the wrath from the Empress Dowager. The rest of the Emperor’s faction would return to court unscathed and can continue to push forward the point whilst 顾廷烨’s nursing his injury. 顾廷烨 tells 明兰 that, as he was a supporter of the Emperor way back whilst he was just a prince, he had to of course stand by the Emperor but I personally think that the Emperor also chose him to take the fall because 顾廷烨 inherited the Marquis title that is independent of his support to the Emperor. If the Empress Dowager punished 顾廷烨 too severely, she would also be reprimanded by the Imperial Censors for mistreating loyal subjects. So in a way, 顾廷烨 HAD to be the one to make the stand for the Emperor and of course be punished by the Empress Dowager. If it was anyone else, the Empress Dowager would have had much more sway with political opinion and accuse that person of bias at court.
明兰 then points out that the Emperor’s current actions aren’t supported by precedent or history. He doesn’t have a strong case to make. She states that if every adopted person who enjoys the wealth and status of his or her adopted family for a time and then simply revert back to his original name, how would that be justified in the eyes of the world? I also mention this in the previous episode. The Emperor does not have much standing as there was clear precedent that the adopted family would be the primary family to pass down the lineage and titles.
明兰 then surprises 顾廷烨 and quite frankly myself as well with her next analysis of what the Emperor also wanted to accomplish with 顾廷烨’s words at court. 明兰 compares the Emperor’s current actions to her father’s actions back when the the previous Emperor was deciding on a crown prince. Her father stuck his head down and did not engage with partisan politics because it benefited him to get a clear sense of the situation before acting. Well, this was all based on Grandma Sheng’s advice. As we see, 盛纮 has done pretty well for himself and his decision to stay out of partisan politics will be also display later in the next episode.The Emperor’s doing the same. Notice how in the previous episode, the Emperor didn’t really say anything? He wanted to watch on the sidelines as 顾廷烨 and the Empress Dowager battle it out to see where the winds are blowing in the minds of his officials and ministers. If court favors him, then he’ll continue to pursue the topic, if it doesn’t, then he’ll hold off on pressing the point until a more opportune moment. But, what’s more is that Gu TIng Ye is now safe from further retribution that may come the Emperor’s way since he’s already injured.
We return to the Empress Dowager and the Prime Minister, who are having a meal together now. The Prime Minister makes his case that he doesn’t want court to be embroiled in these rites issues else it affects the foundation of the empire. The Empress Dowager, in a very surprising move, relents and agrees. But does she really? Oh absolutely not, she is playing her own game of chess or chinese go and she’s got everyone wrapped up in her finger. This is a woman who is not to be trifled with. Let me break down what happens as she starts her machinations.
The Empress Dowager agrees to have the Emperor call his birth father Royal Father. She tells the Prime Minister to WRITE the decree and she’ll simply stamp her seal on it. The Prime Minister walks out with the decree and the Empress Dowager walks out stumbling a bit, claiming that she had too much to drink. The Prime Minister walks out all pleased with himself.
At court – the two factions are back sniping at each other, with the now super annoying young duke 齐衡 leading the charge against the Prime Minister. Notice, 沈国舅 is now back and the biggest proponent for the Emperor apart from the Prime Minister now that 顾廷烨 is still on sick leave. The Prime Minister presents the Empress Dowager’s decree. In a surprising reveal for the rest of court, the Empress Dowager has agreed to not only acknowledged the Emperor’s birth father but also agreed to posthumously confer the Empress title to his mother. Qi Heng and his faction refuse to believe this decree and attack the the Prime Minister of flattery and raise the opinion to have him demoted. Qi Heng noted that the Empress Dowager was not at court today presses on to reinstate the Empress Dowager to listen again. This puts the Emperor in a tough situation because that’s the last thing he wants and is exactly what he’s been trying to move away from. All of this talk about recognizing his father was really only to try to push the EMpress Dowager away from having authority at his court. As Gu Ting Ye explains to Ming Lan that once the Empress Dowager backed away, the Emperor also backed off. This power conflict is one of the new power coming in while the old regime is trying to hold on.
For the last quarter of episode 56, we’ll see the Empress Dowager continue to play her chess game against the Emperor. She targets 齐衡 as her willing pawn. It’s quite glorious to watch. 齐衡’s parents can tell that 齐衡’s jumping headfirst into matters he doesn’t understand but are powerless to do anything and once again, we are appreciative that Ming Lan went with Gu Ting Ye instead.
The Empress Dowager has summoned 齐衡 and puts on a beautiful act. First, she gives a sob story saying how she wanted nothing more but to have a harmonious relationship with the Emperor and Prime Minister. Then, she paints the Prime Minister in a very nefarious light, stating that the Prime Minister got her so drunk that she eventually agreed to sign the decree. This is an outright lie! She then goes onto say that the late Emperor and herself decided on the current Emperor during a time of crisis. The late Emperor instructed the Emperor to rule benevolently and to take care of the Empress Dowager but this was all a farce! What can she do! She has nowhere to go. The Empress Dowager, in tears, tells Qi Heng to be nice to his mother.
Qi Heng upon hearing this is flabbergasted! How could the Prime MInister do this! He summons the records from the Imperial Kitchens and confirms that the Prime Minister and the Empress Dowager did meet. Qi Heng returns home to inform his fellow officials of what he’s learned. His faction resolves to file complaints against the Prime Minister the next day.
At court, 齐衡 makes a stand and accuses the Prime Minister of forging the decree and taking advantage of the Empress Dowager to stamp the decree while she was drunk. The Prime Minister of course denies any of this. Qi Heng’s factions then use more details on rites to forcibly reopen the discussion that naming the Emperor father as the Royal Father, accusing the Prime Minister and his faction of putting the Emperor in a non virtuous position. Qi Heng’s faction once again presses to have the Empress Dowager attend court again to prove their claim. The Prime Minister agrees. He believes he has nothing to worry about. Oh how wrong he is.
The Empress Dowager is brought to court. The Prime Minister requests that the Empress Dowager clear his name and inform the court that he didn’t forge the decree nor force the Empress Dowager’s hand. The Empress Dowager simply just replies with “这还有什么说的” or What else is there to say about this matter? She does not admit to that the Prime Minister and her had a cordial meal and conversation nor does she admit that she agreed to the proposition. She only admits that the seal was stamped on the decree – what more is there to say! What a masterclass of muddying the waters! The implication is quite clear even though she didn’t outright say it.The Prime Minister recognizes that he deliberately walked into a trap that the Empress Dowager set. She doesn’t lie at court but her words to 齐衡 are an admission that she’s being held captive by the Prime Minister and isn’t able to freely discuss the matter. This leads us straight to episode 57.
The Empress Dowager continued her show in front of the entire court to make it seem that she was coerced and intimidated into approving the decree. She leaves court allowing Qi Heng to step up. Qi Heng is so upset by the supposed bullying that the Empress Dowager was subjected to that he formally kneels and requests the Emperor demote his position at court because he cannot do his job. This is his threat to the Emperor. He won’t resign if he takes a look at his allies and recognize the evil ones that are pushing the Emperor to make bad decisions. The Emperor should remove the titles of the Prime Minister and his allies. So it comes down to this, the Emperor should demote the ones he thinks is incorrect – either Qi Heng and his allies or else the Prime Minister and his.
Here we see the challenges of being Emperor because he’s being categorically bullied and tricked on both sides. He’s in a tough spot by the likes of Qi Heng who thinks he’s doing the right thing but doesn’t realize he’s being used as a pawn. In the End, the Emperor angrily decrees that Qi Heng and group are to be demoted.
And that is where we’ll end off this recap! So in this round, the Emperor ultimately won some independence from the Empress Dowager but lost a lot of authority and loyalty by a large portion of court. It’s not a good position for him either. As we see, the Empress Dowager did not go down without a fight and now the Emperor is in a much more precarious position than he would have liked.
2 things before we move onto the historical analysis.
1, Do you see that when these factions of court ministers kneeled to force the Emperor to make a decision? THere were brief shots of Sheng Hong and Sheng Chang Bai. Ming Lan’s father and brother. Neither of them kneeled to bully the Emperor which Chang Bai being more resolute than his father. This echoes the earlier view from Ming Lan that they should try to stay bi-partisan and shy away from taking sides. It’s extremely rare as we saw most of court leaning one way or another but I think this speaks to their character in some sense. They did not partake in bullying the Emperor which I think will be recognized in the future
- I want to briefly discuss the conversation that Madame Qin has with her maid because it’s actually quite funny. Madame Qin is beside herself with glee that 顾廷烨 and 明兰 are not sleeping in the same room anymore AND it seems as though 顾廷烨 has lost favor from both the Emperor and Empress Dowager because no one has paid him a visit. What’s funny is she has this all completely wrong! Sure, 明兰 and 顾廷烨 aren’t sleeping in the same room but it’s not like they aren’t spending all their time together. Yes, they have a small quibble but nothing as Madame Qin imagines where the couple is at odds with each other. Next, 顾廷烨 and the Emperor were in complete agreement with regards to his punishment and the two are waging a long political fight with the Empress Dowager. People HAVE come to visit but just not formally. In a previous scene, 顾廷烨 mentioned that the Prime Minister and 沈国舅 will visit disguised as servants. So once again, Madame Qin is completely wrong about this point. She’s all smug with her knowledge, believing that 顾廷烨’s done for at court but she doesn’t realize that she’s the one who’s been hoodwinked. Finally – 顾廷烨 and 明兰 are upping their game against this vile woman.
The Royal Father debate was the main topic of discussion for the past 2 episodes so let’s take a look at what actually happened in history. Hint: the Emperor doesn’t come out well.
宋英宗 was finally declared crown prince in 1062 but when he ascended the throne, he was quite disrespectful to the late Emperor and the Empress Dowager. According to an article, during the funeral for the late Emperor, 宋仁宗, the Emperor at first refused to attend the funeral and was finally persuaded to go by highly ranked remonstrance official 司马光 but he didn’t shed a single tear. His behavior was not well received.
The Emperor 宋英宗 then began butting heads with the Empress Dowager 曹太后, not unlike in the drama here. Shortly after 宋英宗 ascended the throne, Prime Minister 韩琦 and official 欧阳修 presented a proposal to name the Emperor’s father as the Royal Father and sent this for approval to the Minister of Rites. As mentioned in the previous episode, precedent was not in the Emperor’s favor so what to do?
. I would say that the Prime Minister and his supporters wanted to gain favor with the new Emperor and pushed forth this proposal. Unfortunately, they underestimated the strength of the late Emperor’s legacy and how much the remonstrance officials were willing to fight for that legacy. The remonstrance officials put up a fierce fight. This debate lasted 18 months and was named as the Debate of Pu because the Emperor’s birth father’s title was Prince of Pu (pú). The drama condenses a lot of that to of course just two episodes but the opposing officials did push forth demotion for the Prime Minister for his proposal.
In a surprising turn, an official edict comes down from the Empress stating that she agreed to have the Emperor name his birth father as the royal father. What happened? The remonstrance officials did some digging and found out that during a banquet, the Emperor along with the prime ministers and other officials got the Empress Dowager drunk by constantly toasting her. In her drunk state, she stamped her seal on the edict!
The remonstrance officials were enraged at this! At court, they again pushed to demote the Prime Minister and his faction, giving the Emperor an ultimatum to either take back the imperial edict or else demote them. The Emperor of course demoted the remonstrance officials.
This is a complete reversion of what happened in the drama! In the drama, the Empress dowager lied saying that the Prime Minister got her drunk and forced her to stamp the edict. In history, the opposite was true. The Empress Dowager did get drunk and in her drunk state, agreed to stamp the edict. That’s very um reprehensible of the Emperor. As in the drama, the Emperor got what he wanted after a long drawn out battle and he demoted the remonstrance officials.
However, this whole debate ended with nothing actually happening. As fate would have it, the Emperor 宋英宗 dies only 4 years into his reign. So basically 2.5 years after the debate. Court didn’t even have time to officially pass down any subsequent edicts or build memorials before the Emperor died. His son, 宋神宗 didn’t want to do anything to anger the court at the time so he didn’t push to pass any of these edicts. So in the end – literally nothing happened. It was all just a waste of time that sullied quite a few people’s names including in my mind the Prime Minister.
韩璋 – 韩琦 – we introduced him when discussing episode 46 and 47 but I want to give him more air time today as he was very crucial in this whole Royal Father Debate.
Let’s introduce 韩璋 or in real life 韩琦 1008年8月5日－1075年8月8日. He was a very important political figure during the reigns of 宋仁宗, 宋英宗, and 宋神宗. He is what you would call 文武双全 – someone who excelled in both the arts and in fighting. He was a shrewd politician and had a brilliant military mind.
He passed the Imperial exams in 1027 at the age of 19 and steadily rose through the ranks, gaining praise for his handling of natural disasters in 四川 and his ability to stamp out corruption. In 1038, the Prince of Xi Ping rebelled and established the kingdom of Xi Xia. 韩琦 led troops against the new threat and brokered an uneasy truce. He became Prime Minister in 1058 and helped enact many reforms with regards to agriculture and taxes etc. He was also a noted calligrapher of his time.
So in this episode, there were a lot of court titles and positions being thrown around. We’re going to walk through them to provide more context.
中书省 – Palace Secretariat – Its earliest iteration originated in the Han dynasty and evolved over time. Generally, it was responsible for policy making and drafting imperial decrees. In early Song dynasty however, its power greatly diminished and was largely responsible for processing less important documents.
御史台 – Censorate – The Censorate is a supervisory agency created all the way back during the Qin and Han dynasty period. It gained more power during the Tang dynasty and gained judicial authority. This agency monitors court and identifies when infractions against rules such as corruption, occurred, generally by court officials.
谏官 – remonstrance official – This is 齐衡‘s position at court. He is a remonstrance official as part of Jian Yuan which is the Remonstrance Bureau, created in the Song dynasty and worked together under the Censorate. This Remonstrance Bureau’s primary job was to discuss policy issues to raise to the Emperor and sometimes, even point out the errors of the Emperor himself.
In this case, it’s 中书省 or the Palace Secretariat on one side and 御史台 plus the underlying 谏官 on the other.
Not too much to touch on today – much of this doesn’t occur in the book1 since this is based on history and the book wasn’t based on historical events. We converge more with the book starting in the rest of episode 57
That is it for today!
That was a lot of historical references to go through and I certainly learned a ton doing research for this episode so hope you enjoyed it!
As always, feel free to reach out to us if you have any questions on what was discussed on our podcast. Like I said, I’m currently binging Luo Yang and Sword Snow Stride which are both rather enjoyable so if you’re looking to chase something, those are some pretty good options right now. We would also like to point you to our sponsor, Jubao TV where if you are in the US, you are able to check out a number of Chinese dramas and movies for free. Those do have english subtitles and can be accessed via the website xubo or on tv through xfinity and cox contour.
The music you heard is the zither piece called Lan with sheet music by 冰酒蜗牛军 and played by Karen!