Welcome to Chasing Dramas! This is the podcast that discusses Chinese history, through the lens of historical chinese dramas. I am your host, Karen. It’ll just be me today to chat about episode 61 of the Story of Ming Lan or 知否知否应是绿肥红瘦。
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In the last episode, Ming Lan’s good friend, Madam Zhang was triggered into labor early by the arrogant Mistress Zou, concubine of her husband, Shen Guo Jiu. Shen Guo Jiu is the younger brother of the Empress and a skilled general. Madam Zhang herself is the daughter of a duke so both sides are extremely well off and represent important factions at court. Luckily, Madam Zhang has Ming Lan for a friend who leapt into action to help Madam Zhang. Ming Lan was able to bring the imperial doctor, who was being detained by Mistress Zou, to help Madame Zhang and in the end, mother and son were safe. However, this debacle was greatly upsetting to the Zhang family who wants a separation from the Shen family, Madame Zhang’s husband’s side. The conflict grew so great it has escalated to the imperial family and to court. That is where we start episode 61.
In episode 61, Mistress Zou is pinned down by a couple of eunuchs while being slapped across the face repeatedly by the Empress Dowager’s head eunuch. It’s her punishment for trying to harm the madame of the house. Honestly, this is a punishment she rightly deserves. Her face is swollen from the slaps and she cries in pain. Her husband, the useless Shen Guo Jiu finally cannot take it anymore and tries to plead with the eunuch to stop the punishment. This eunuch retorts back that this is the Empress Dowager’s orders. He is simply here to follow them. In a rush of emotion, Shen Guo Jiu accidentally pushes the eunuch down the stairs from where he’s standing. The eunuch is furious at this insolence and insists he tells the Empress Dowager.
Such an act is hugely disrespectful to the Empress Dowager. By pushing the eunuch, it’s essentially signaling that you don’t care about the Empress Dowager’s punishment or authority.
However, in the next scene, we find out that the eunuch fell on purpose. He tells the Empress Dowager as much. Clearly, the purpose was to create the illusion that the Shen family is rude and disrespectful which is currently working. Indeed, the Duke of Ying, Madame Zhang’s father, has a private conversation with the Emperor where he says that the Zhang family and its soldiers will always be loyal to the Emperor and that the Emperor should not have to worry about the tears of women. When the Empress Dowager heard this, she was over the moon pleased. Why? As her eunuch said, aren’t these words of loyalty? From my reading, the Duke of Ying is playing up just exactly how loyal and faithful they are to the Emperor. He’s acknowledging that his daughter has suffered in this marriage but regardless, they’re going to hold their heads up high. The unsaid portion of this is to say look at the Shen family. They are not at all focused on the good of the Emperor but instead too worried about squabbles of women. The other extremely important point here I want to note is how and why does the Empress Dowager know what the Duke of Ying said privately to the Emperor in such a short amount of time? Obviously, she has spies planted close to the Emperor.
In the next scene, Ming Lan goes to visit Madame Zhang who is currently at home with her parents. It seems that both mother and son are doing well and Madame Zhang’s entire family is grateful for Ming Lan’s actions in protecting both her and her son. The most illuminating piece of information that Ming Lan gathers though is that the Empress Dowager herself has gone to visit Madame Zhang. This shocks Ming Lan who has to ask a few times to confirm. Visiting Madame Zhang is probably where the Empress Dowager was headed on her litter earlier in the episode. In thinking through this a little more, Ming Lan decides to head to the palace instead to talk to the Empress.
Why is it so problematic to Ming Lan that the Empress Dowager met with Madame Zhang? At least to Ming Lan, it’s evident that the Empress Dowager is aligning herself with folks of the old guard, so to speak. She’s trying to ensure that she gains the favor of these court officials and generals that have worked with her deceased husband so as to build a military presence that is strong enough to combat the current Emperor’s strength.
Once at the palace, the Empress evidently is already chatting with a number of other connected women on what to do next. Her youngest sister, Xiao Shen Shi, thinks that because Mistress Zou is already under house arrest and was slapped repeatedly, that’s probably enough of a punishment. The Empress doesn’t say much and dismisses the group. However, she uses an excuse to keep Ming Lan behind so that they can have a more frank conversation.
At the core, it’s again about the conflict between the new regime and the old one. The Empress is trying to figure out how to maintain the peace between the two cohorts. It’s not like they don’t know that what Mistress Zou has done is out of line, but they are bound to the gratitude they feel for the original Madame Zou that saved the Empress. That’s on a micro level. At a macro level, if the Emperor and Empress do not resolve this conflict in a satisfactory manner, the safety of Prince Huan and many other people in this current regime are at jeopardy.
And so, Ming Lan recounts 2 relevant stories. During the Three Kingdoms Era, the renowned Cao Cao had decreed that if anyone’s horse galloped through and destroyed farm crops, they would be beheaded. However, his own horse was spooked and caused him to accidentally run through some crops. He didn’t shy away from his punishment and cut his own hair as a replacement for his head to show that he honored his word. With this act, more people believed in his integrity and moved to follow him.
Let’s pause to explain this a little bit more and why this story is important. Cao Cao is one of the most famous names in Chinese history. Born in 155 AD, he was one of the most crucial individuals in the Three Kingdoms era, laying the groundwork for the Kingdom of Wei after the fall of the Eastern Han dynasty, which he contributed to. His reputation is mixed but his brilliance in statehood and leadership are all agreed upon. In order to become the leader that he was, he had unparalleled charisma. The story that Ming Lan recounts is an example of how he was able to create a following after the fall of the Eastern Han Dynasty.
The other story Ming Lan recounts is about the Tang Dynasty General, 郭子仪’s son, 郭暧 who married the Tang Dynasty princess at the time. However, this 郭暧 was rude and even shouted at the princess. In the face of this treatment, the princess went back home to complain. Yet the Emperor, her father, admonished his daughter for being difficult and stated that the general, 郭子仪 as the potential and ability to be emperor. With those words, the Guo family remained loyal.
郭子仪 was an important general and statesmen that helped quash the renowned An Lu Shan rebellion. This rebellion, and we’ve talked about it in our podcast before, was a critical blow to the Tang dynasty and almost ended it. It caused the then Emperor, Li Long Ji to flee the capital and left a number of people behind but this escape also resulted in the death of the famous Yang Yu Huan. Because of Guo Zi Yi’s contribution to saving the Tang dynasty, you can see his importance.
Now this quarrel between his son and his wife the princess does also have historical documentation. Indeed, it is stated that when the princess ran back home to complain about her treatment, her father, the Emperor 李豫 did admonish her and said that it’s only that the Guo Zi Yi didn’t want to be Emperor which is why they are able to retain their position. This 郭子仪 was a loyal man as once he heard of this, he actually detained his own son and punished him with canings for his treatment of the princess. I didn’t know this but this story is also the plot of the Chinese opera, 醉打金枝. It is through the Emperor’s words that ensured the loyalty of this powerful general who probably did have the capability to become emperor if he wanted to.
With those stories, the Empress simply says, understood.
After sitting for an entire night, the Empress takes her next steps. She tells her maid to take the large pearl from her phoenix headdress and gift it to the Zhang family. She instructs the maid to tell the Zhang family that everything that has occurred is the fault of the Shen family and for them to accept the pearl as her apology.
Next, she tells her maids to remove her lavish outer robes, and remove her makeup. She walks out of her quarters in front of all of the other women in the imperial harem wearing a simple white outfit and with her hair completely down without any embellishment or accessories. This shocks the group. The Empress then heads over to the Emperor’s study where he is currently being backed into a corner by Prime Minister Han as to what he should do about this situation. Outside his study, the Empress announces that she is here to repent for her family’s mistakes and requests punishment. What’s important is that she does not announce herself as the Empress. Instead, she uses the words 罪妇 which directly translates to a woman who has committed a crime.
The Emperor is taken aback by her earnestness and the husband and wife pair head over to the Empress Dowager to both request punishment to atone for their mistake. This visit also takes the Empress Dowager by surprise who can only say that they must work together for the betterment of the empire.
With that, the final punishments for the Shen family is announced. Shen Guo Jiu, the husband, is to be caned 20 times and salary forgone for a year. Mistress Zou is to be slapped another 50 times, her title removed and confined to bleak quarters. She is not to tend to Shen Guo Jiu any further. The Zou brother who detained the doctor which caused Madame Zhang to suffer in labor is to be caned 30 times and must give the Zhang family 10,000 strings of silver. And lastly, Zou Ming, a relative who was giving out high interest loans that resulted in the death of a person, is sentenced to exile 3000 miles away.
As for Madame Zhang, despite her parent’s planning, she agrees to stay at the Shen family. As she says, why can’t she take charge and create her own world. I really like this woman. She is another sufferer of the time she lives in but with her family’s support and the support of her friends such as Ming Lan, she is strong enough to take ownership of the hand she’s been dealt.
To round out this conflict, we end with a party at the Shen family where friends and family from all over the capital arrive to celebrate the new Shen family son. Despite the festivities, Mistress Zou is bound, gagged and dragged away from the Shen manor. She will live out her days in the countryside.
The younger Shen sister is upset at this scene and goes to find Ming Lan. Ming Lan and Shen Guo Jiu retreat to Mistress Zou’s room to discuss what happened. At first, the Shen sister is upset with Ming Lan and Mistress Zou’s treatment. After all, this Shen sister still feels their family is indebted to the Zou family for Madame Zou’s sacrifice. But finally, Ming Lan lays out the cards to explain exactly why everything that’s happened is the fault of Shen Guo Jiu.
UGH FINALLY. Gosh Ming Lan. This Shen Guo Jiu definitely needed a slap in reality.
Ming Lan explains that Shen Guo Jiu was wrong from the beginning. He wanted to support the Zou family for their help but he’s always only seen this younger sister as a sister. That’s why he was so hesitant on marrying her. But since he didn’t marry her as wife, he should have continued to treat her as a younger sister and found a good match for her. But then deciding to accept her as a concubine is another fault.
It’s evident that this Shen family has not thought long term. What about the Prince of Huan? What about Shen Guo Jiu’s current children? Particularly, the daughters Shen Guo Jiu shares with his deceased wife. If Mistress Zou stayed, many families would shy away from marrying these two daughters because they would be raised by a concubine, rather than the main wife of the family. Their future prospects would be ruined. With that, everything seems to finally click for the Shen family that they really need to be cold hearted towards this Mistress Zou in order for the Shen family to survive. To which I say, finally. Geez, you guys are such easy targets for the likes of the Empress Dowager. You have to really thank Ming Lan for explaining all of this to you and helping you out. If it wasn’t for her who knows what additional trouble you’d be in.
The episode ends with news from Ming Lan’s family that Grandma Sheng is ill. Ming Lan rushes home to the Sheng manor to find that Grandma Sheng is being tended to by an imperial doctor but has not yet woken up. The doctor is hesitant to explain what he thinks is causing Grandma Sheng’s illness in front of MIng Lan, Sheng Hong and Madame Wang. The climax of the drama will finally unfold in the next couple of episodes as we find out exactly what happened to the adorable Grandma Sheng.
Let me take a few moments to elaborate on what happened in this episode. At a micro level it is about the fight between Madame Zhang and Mistress Zou but it is also a fight between the Empress Dowager and the Emperor. The Empress Dowager throughout this episode was moving chess pieces to throttle the stability of the Emperor’s alliance with old generals and court officials
So why was the Empress Dowager and basically everyone so shocked at what the Empress did?
Ming Lan’s stories essentially illuminated to the Empress just how much the ruling party can or should step down in order to secure future stability. Cao Cao showed he was not above his own rule and the Tang dynasty emperor elevated the status of the Guo family to such heights that the subjects willingly stayed loyal. In this instance, the Empress, the Emperor and the Shen side of the family were clearly in the wrong. The Emperor and Empress were wrong to put together the match between Shen Guo Jiu and Madame Zhang. THey had good intentions because they wanted to new power and the old regime to become partners through this marriage. However, they are stuck by their gratitude towards the Zou family as the deceased Madame Zou sacrificed herself so that the Empress would live. Thus, the Emperor, Empress and the rest of the Shen family more or less turned a blind eye to the despicable deeds the remainder of hte Zou family did. If only Mistress Zou and her brothers and relatives knew their place. None of this would have been a problem. But no, they had to be arrogant and acted above their station.
And so now, the person who has to clean everything up is the Empress. She proactively removed all pretense of her power and authority as Empress and instead, humbled herself to the lowest status possible to ask for punishment. This action and the gift of the pearl to the Zhang family shows that she is willing to lose face in order to sincerely request forgiveness. Any person on the receiving end would have newfound respect for the Empress. I like to think of it in today’s terms. If the Queen of England kneeled, gave me a huge pearl and asked for forgiveness on something, wouldn’t you accept that graciously and be impressed with her ability to do that given her status?
This is also important because we’ve heard the contrasting arguments throughout the episode. The women around the Empress, except for Ming Lan, were all saying that the Empress has done more than enough. She’s the Empress. What else can she do? Only Ming Lan’s words illuminated to her another path. This is also why the Empress Dowager was so taken aback by how far the Emperor and Empress retreated in accepting their faults in this marriage between Madame Zhang and Shen Guo Jiu plus the behavior of Mistress Zou. No one was expecting it at all. Very few people would humble themselves in this way but by doing so, the Empress and the Emperor were able to win back the hearts of court.
In this round, the Empress Dowager lost. She thought she could turn the likes of the Duke of Ying against the Emperor but instead, their bonds are now even stronger. This is evident because at the party Madame Zhang and Shen Guo Jiu hosted, 8 dukes and their families attended. Almost all the generals went and about half of the scholar ministers went as did members of the Censurate. And if they didn’t attend, they sent gifts. The Empress Dowager’s head eunuch is fuming that they suddenly all turned towards Shen Guo Jiu and in turn the Emperor but given the actions of the Empress, it’s little surprise that they did.
Once again in this drama, the women, 明兰, Madame Zhang, and the Empress have to clean up after their men. The main “problem” man in this episode is of course State Uncle Shen or Shen Guo Jiu. Every single time I watch this episode, I wanted to slap the man because his wishy-washiness caused all this pain and suffering for himself and his current wife. His own marital troubles endangered his own clan with his older sister left to pick up after him. He is a man who does not own up to his mistakes, wanted everything, and has the women in his life bear the brunt of the downfall. Shen Cong Xing is punished in the end but the Empress had to suffer a huge humiliation, his wife Madame Zhang barely survived childbirth, and mistress zou, as despicable as she was, was severely punished and tossed out. He walks away scott free in comparison. Ladies and gentleman, please do not be this guy.
Ok rant over!
Let’s move to book differences
In the book, the standoff really is between the Emperor and the Duke of Ying. When the Duke returns to court, he doesn’t mention anything about the incident between his daughter and her husband. He only states that he and his family continue to be loyal to the Emperor. The Emperor, after hearing this, ponders the subtleties of this statement and slowly turns his wrath towards the Shen family. That is because with his statement, the Duke cleverly juxtaposes his family with that of the Shen Family. The underlying message is – everything my family has done is for the Emperor. We are loyal to you. What has the Shen family done? They have allowed a mistress to upstage the wife of the family. What is the meaning of the Shen family? Are they unhappy with the Emperor? Is that why they’ve treated Madame Zhang so poorly? Are they still loyal to you?
The Emperor cannot have disloyal subjects. He then shuns the Empress and criticizes their sons. 沈国舅 is constantly being berated at court for his actions and other officials numerate all of his and the 邹 family’s misdeeds. This is a warning sign to the Shen family that the Emperor is pissed off with their actions and as a reminder that he is now the Emperor and not a lowly Prince. The book only has one sentence mentioning the Empress removing her Empress headdress to beg for forgiveness. The drama of course spends much more time emphasizing this act. The Empress dowager doesn’t play much of a role in the book. The focus is much more between the old guard and the new guard with them vying for favor and power with the Emperor.
In the book mistress 邹 accosts Ming lan in a desperate attempt to regain favor but that comes to no avail.
I’ll discuss the events of grandma sheng in the next episode.
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