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This is the podcast that discusses Chinese Culture and history through historical chinese dramas. We are your hosts, Karen and Cathy.
Today! We are discussing ep 64 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 spoken in Mandarin Chinese. If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to us at our email firstname.lastname@example.org or else on instagram and twitter at chasing dramas. Also do please leave us a rating on whatever platform you listen to us to!
In this episode, we finally see an ending to the saga of Grandma Sheng’s poisoning. We start where we left off the last episode. Grandma Sheng is still in critical condition while the Wang family matriarch, her son, his wife, and Aunt Kang’s son have arrived to try and quell matters. In the last episode, Ming Lan plainly laid out the evidence of how Aunt Kang paid a daoist priest to create poison that was then used on Grandma Sheng via pastries that Madame Wang provided. The back and forth was quite intense but it ultimately fell onto Grandam Wang, so Madame Wang and Aunt Kang’s mother, to choose who to blame for Grandma Sheng’s poisoning.
That’s where we start this episode. Grandma Wang is up to her tricks as Aunt Kang who is absolutely distraught tries screaming and kicking her way out of the main hall. However, she is blocked by Madame Wang’s head maid. AUnt Kang should not be allowed to leave so easily. And indeed, you can see the cogs turning in Grandma Wang’s head. She turns to Sheng Hong, Ming Lan’s father, to try to allow Aunt Kang to head home. She implores that Aunt Kang is currently not in a right state and wouldn’t it be better to let her leave, get better and then accept punishment?
Sheng Hong is almost going to agree to Grandma Wang’s words. She uses the words 贤婿 which is a term of endearment to her son in law. It’s to try to make him feel better and elevate his status. He is soooo easily swayed. But then Ming Lan angrily shouts NO WAY. What if Aunt Kang runs off?
Grandma Wang then tries to appease her by saying, who do you think we are? We’re from a wealthy and established family. If she runs, that would be quite humiliating for us. But Ming Lan retorts that Aunt Kang already poisoned her grandma. What couldn’t they do? You see that Grandma Wang is annoyed but silenced. We know full well that trying to hide Aunt Kang away is exactly what she was going to do. The moment Aunt Kang is able to leave the Sheng family, Grandma Wang was going to whisk her away from the Capital to escape punishment for her actions.
This Grandma Wang tries to put Ming Lan in her place by repeatedly lording over the fact that Ming Lan is being disrespectful to her elders to Sheng Hong but seeing that Ming Lan wasn’t going to back down, Sheng Hong actually agrees that Aunt Kang should remain in the Sheng family. There are plenty of rooms for Aunt Kang to stay. And so, she is dragged off.
Now, it’s time for Grandma Wang to use all of her wiles and abilities to sway Sheng Hong. She knows full well that in the family, Sheng Hong is the one she needs to convince to let things go. And so, she goes on this long story about how she always thought very highly of Sheng Hong. He has great character and had a great future ahead of him which is why she was willing to allow her daughter to marry him when they were younger yadda yadda yadda. You can see Ming Lan almost rolling her eyes at how easily her father is swayed.
After Grandma Wang finishes her sob story to try to get Sheng Hong on her side, Ming Lan interjects with a passive aggressive comment. She says, ok well maybe not as aggressively, that wow, she didn’t know Grandma Wang was their familie’s savior. She didn’t know that Grandma Wang was the one to raise her father, to hire teachers for him, to help him pass the imperial entrance exams, to help him marry a wife and raise children. Once Sheng Hong here’s this, he’s like what are you talking about. Grandma Sheng was the one to do this for me. Then it dawns on him that wait a minute, no matter what Grandma Wang has done for him, the person who has done more is Grandma Sheng.
Sigh. I just want to shake him away. Like dude, Grandma Sheng did so much for you and you are soooo easily swayed by the words of another woman. What a waste from Grandma Sheng.
But it is funny to see Grandma Wang’s reaction. She’s clearly pissed that Ming Lan was able to drag Sheng Hong back onto her side when she was almost able to convince him otherwise.
This Grandma Wang keeps getting shut down by Ming Lan in every instance so she asks what the Sheng family wants as punishment for what happened. Everyone pauses for a while before Ming Lan steps in and says that Aunt Kang should pay with her life. It’s only fair. The whole Wang family side of the room is shocked. And Uncle Wang says something absolutely despicable which is look Grandma Sheng is already poisoned and probably won’t be in the same state afterwards so why cant you just be forgiving and let this go? Like what? How can you even say that?
But at long last, Sheng Hong is able to parse out across the three families – the Sheng, the Kang and the Wang families, who has the most to lose right now. If this plot is outed to the public, the Sheng family would be seen as the victim. Obviously, it was Grandma Sheng that was poisoned and Madame Wang was tricked by her sister. SHe’d be ridiculed for a bit but that’s pretty much it. The Kang family would immediately rid themselves of Aunt Kang. Aunt Kang’s husband, Uncle Kang would just divorce her because they don’t have a great relationship so the Kang family would be free of the drama. The Wang family, though, has the most to lose. Both women involved in this saga are from the wang family. If word gets out, then the Wang family’s future would be at jeopardy. The daughters who are married off or waiting to be married would have their prospects ruined. Uncle Wang’s position at court may be revoked and even their father, the deceased Wang head who is 配享太庙 may also be removed. So, as Sheng Hong analyzes, why should it be the Sheng family that has to just accept what happened? Sheng Hong then says that in his mind, they should punish Aunt Kang and then not let the truth out so that everyone still retains their reputation.
At this point, Grandma Wang is not able to play any more games. She just straight up says, what if I simply say no. She then turns it around to threaten the Sheng family. When the truth gets revealed, how will that look for the Sheng family children? Chang Bai? Chang Feng? What about Hua Lan and Ru Lan? Sheng Hong is of course rather paralyzed at the thought. He cares about the Sheng family reputation more than anything in the world and to have to jeopardize that for Grandma Sheng is not worth it. Madame Wang is really upset to see how her mother is treating her. She clearly cares more for Aunt Kang than her and it is breaking her heart.
It’s an interesting directorial choice but as you see Grandma Wang gaining the upper hand, she also moves to the head of the room to sit next to Sheng Hong. It’s to show that she’s taking control of the situation. At first it was to test the waters but seeing that Sheng hong doesn’t protest, she knows she has it in the bag. Ming Lan sees all of this and is furious. She doesn’t hold her fury any longer and shouts that if she wasn’t thinking about her siblings, she would have already killed Aunt Kang. Grandma Wang thinks nothing of it and is relishing in knowing that she’s going to win.
Just as Ming Lan is tearing up in fury, none other than Gu TIng Ye and Sheng Chang Bai show up. YAYYYYY Ming Lan has back up now!!!! Ming Lan is dumbfounded to see that Gu Ting Ye is here because they’re supposed to be on assignment but you can tell is relieved that he’s here. Gu Ting Ye immediately takes it upon himself to stand up for Ming Lan. He questions what happened here to cause his wife who is as innocent and scared as a little lamb to start talking about violence. Everyone in the room is scoffing at his words because they’ve seen how ruthless Ming Lan really is but can’t refute Gu TIng Ye because of his title. YAYYY Gu Ting Ye. Not taking crap from anybody, especially the likes of this old crow. He throws her words right back at her and all I can do is applaud. HAHAHAHAHA.
Chang Bai also steps forward. Madame Wang immediately throws herself into his arms and the Wang family thinks they have won. After all, he’s the leader in the family and will surely take care of his mother. He, however, is quite frank. The punishment for a daughter-in-law who tries to harm her mother in law ranges from beheading which is light, to death by a thousand cuts which is the most severe. Once these words fall from his mouth, the room is shocked.
It is clear that Gu Ting Ye and Chang Bai are fully aware of what happened at the Sheng family the last couple of days. Chang Bai knows that it was Aunt Kang who poisoned Grandma Sheng. Grandma Wang is extremely upset to hear Chang Bai describe these punishments. It’s his mother he’s punishing to death! And Chang Bai here officially has taken the mantle of the best brother in any drama! In the face of the pressure from the Wang family and his mother, he upholds the law and adamantly decries the vile actions of Aunt Kang.
Grandma wang tries to corner Chang Bai by asking that since his mother committed this crime, does he think he can escape punishment as well? And this is where Chang Bai once again shocks the room. He bows to his father respectfully and explains that on the way here, he already drafted a resignation document. After his current salt tax examination is completed, he will submit his resignation. Again, the room is utterly shocked. Everyone knows that Chang Bai is the best child of the Sheng and Wang family line. He’s favored at court and his political career is on an upward trajectory. Madame Wang, Sheng Hong, and the Wang side of the family are all trying to dissuade him but he is adamant. And with this, the entire Wang family defense falls apart. Grandma Wang resorts to wailing and trying to kill herself which does not work on Chang Bai whatsoever.
Ming Lan, who is now calmly watching on the side looks on with dead eyes. Only know that when the pain has turned back onto them, does it actually matter. Now they have to deal with the fallout for what happened because the Chang Bai’s sacrifice exposed just how treacherous and vile the Wang family is.
Sheng Hong also finally sees things more clearly. He points out to the room that the reason why Aunt Kang has done so many terrible things is due to her mom, Grandma Wang, stepping in at every instance to help clear up her messes. Aunt Kang has probably killed multiple people but everything has no consequence because this GRandma Wang is extremely capable of managing these messes. It’s honestly so despicable.
Just as the Wang side of the family is wailing on the side, news travels to the main hall that Grandma Sheng has woken up and the entire crowd rushes over to her bedside. Phew! Another huge sigh of relief. But ugh, the person that takes center stage is the despicable Grandma Wang. Like who are you and who do you think you are to be the one to be next to Grandma Sheng when she wakes up. It’s clearly all an act so that the Sheng family will consider forgiving Aunt Kang because we all know Grandma Wang doesn’t actually care about Grandma Sheng. Things calm down as Grandma Sheng seems to be ok now and the crowd disperses.
It’s night now, Sheng Hong sends off the imperial doctor tending to Grandma Sheng and Grandma Sheng calls Ming Lan in for a private chat. Ming Lan is crying silent tears of happiness at seeing her beloved grandmother at least awake. And even in her frail state, Grandma Sheng’s primary concern is Ming Lan’s safety. Ming Lan is still furious at how Aunt Kang and the Wang family treated Grandma SHeng but Grandma Sheng patiently helps Ming Lan dissect the current delicate political climate. She urges Ming Lan to not act too rashly at this point and to be forgiving. That way the all three families will still be able to survive peacefully moving forward. Ming Lan does not want to simply let it go because they hurt her beloved grandmother but fortunately for her, she has others to stick up for both her and Grandma Sheng.
In the next scene, we’re back at the main hall. However at this point, it’s only Grandma Wang, Madame Wang, Aunt Kang’s son, Chang Bai, Ming Lan and Gu TIng Ye. Clearly, Sheng Hong doesn’t want to deal with this drama anymore and therefore told his son to manage the affairs. Grandma Wang is again sitting at the head of the room and is adamantly trying to prevent Aunt Kang from suffering too much punishment. But, our favorite brother is having none of it. He point blank states that Aunt Kang will be both caned and sent to prison. It’s not one or the other.
Grandma Wang protests that this is too harsh. After all, Grandma Sheng is still alive! To which Gu TIng Ye interjects that sure she’s alive, but who knows how this impacted her health? Before this, she may have lived to 118 but now can only live to 108. Who’s to pay for that loss in longevity? What a great way to say it? Hahaha He’s still saying Grandma Sheng will live long but just not as long.
Aunt Kang’s son retorts that sure everyone is so quick to punish his mother but what about Madame Wang? She also had a hand in poisoning Grandma Sheng. And here, I’m honestly so impressed. Chang Bai announces his punishment to his mother. She is to pray to the deities for Grandma Sheng all the way in the Sheng Family hometown of You Yang for a full 10 years. This stuns his mother. Ten full years and in You Yang? Chang Bai explains that only with this type of punishment will Madame Wang understand the extent of her misdeeds. As he notes, if she stays in the Capital, she’ll always rely on him which will not force her to repent for her crimes. Only if she’s placed in a highly uncomfortable position will she actually repent for what she’s done. Madame Wang is so upset that she pushes Chang Bai down but then storms off.
The episode ends with Chang Bai overseeing Aunt Kang’s canings while Gu Ting Ye takes Ming Lan back to her rooms to rest. Overall, the immense trial that was Grandma Sheng’s poisoning comes to a close.
Let’s talk history. Grandma Sheng recounted the story of Xiang Yu, Liu Bei and Han Xin when trying to urge Ming Lan not to push for justice and retaliation further and used a couple of idioms and anecdotes to get her point across. Let me explain what’s going on. We’ve talked about these key characters before. The setting is that after the fall of the Qin dynasty 2000 years ago, there were two opposing sides vying for power over the mainland. On one side you have Xiang Yu, the other Liu Bang. In 202 AD, Liu Bang along with his allies trapped the formidable Xiang Yu in an elaborate trap. Xiang Yu was surrounded by Liu Bang’s troops on 10 sides. It should have been a decisive victory but Han Xin decided to leave an escape opportunity for Xiang Yu. As Grandma Sheng describes, it’s to prevent him from risking his life in a suicidal retaliation because in that circumstance, the outcome would be difficult to predict and contain.
That’s where Ming lan comes in and says that Han Xin did not want Xiang Yu to 背水一战。 This is another idiom which references a fight that happened in 205. Same conflict and same dude Han Xin. He was trapped in a corner by an incoming army but he chose to tell his army to turn their backs against the river behind them thereby cutting off all means of escape. Through this tactic, his army because they had no other option, overcame the attacking army. The story is that if you push someone to the brink, if they have nothing to lose, they will unleash everything to fight back. Grandma Sheng did not want Ming Lan to experience the wrath of the Wang family yet in her current state which is why she tells Ming Lan to back down.
I have a lot of thoughts about this episode. It is one of those episodes that I go back to often because there are so many facets of human nature on display, both the good and bad.
This episode also highlights a lot of what I dislike about society at the time. Primarily the patriarchal society and the focus on reputation . Grandma Wang and the Wang side of the family leverage their status and seniority to bully Sheng Hong and Ming Lan into silence. Grandma Wang threatens or simply reminds Sheng Hong that if this scandal comes to light, his children’s future are all in danger. He has to think about them and must sacrifice his mother, Grandma Sheng, in order to ensure that they have a future ahead of them. From how swiftly Grandma Wang thought of this, it’s not hard to believe that she’s probably used this line to protect her devil of a daughter from other similar deeds. All of this comes back to the what Ming Lan mentioned in episode 62. Only if you are willing to go all out and sacrifice everything is one able to gain justice. She and Sheng Hong have too much to worry about because in that society, reputation and face were everything. You may have all the right in the world but even as the victim, you have to decide how the world will view you after the scandal is exposed. That’s not too different from today though it has gotten better. It still makes my blood boil though.
The saving grace really is that Ming Lan married Gu Ting Ye and that she has a rockstar brother in Chang Bai. Chang Bai is the one who is willing to sacrifice everything to carry out justice for Grandma Sheng. The patriarchal society only works when the man in charge actually has a conscience. Grandma Wang shot herself in the foot by continually highlighting that it’s the man of the house who would make the final decision. When Chang Bai announced that Aunt Kang should be punished, she was shocked but couldn’t refute it. They are in a patriarchal society after all and she has to listen to him even though she’s the elder. He is the leader of the house after Sheng Hong but has actually more sway because he is blood related to both Madame Wang and Aunt Kang. Grandma Wang has no option but to accept her daughters’ punishments. Same thing for Madame Wang. Madame Wang was furious to hear her son announce her punishment but apart from calling him an ungrateful and unfilial son, she didn’t shut him down or ignore him like she would have if Ming Lan tried to give the same punishment. It’s unfair but that’s the truth.
Chang Bai is also one of the rare scholars who actually follows what he has learned. Books and law are supposed to teach you right from wrong but evidently, when faced with the real human attractions of fame and fortune, people generally forgo what’s right and wrong for their own gains. In this instance, Chang Bai has not allowed even his closest family to sway him from doing what he knows is right, which is punishing Aunt Kang and also his dearest mother. Any lesser person would have backed off from the pressures that they’re his closest relatives so I really must commend Chang Bai for his sense of righteousness. We really need more people like him in the world.
For the next couple of people, I’ll add in the book analysis with the character analysis to provide more context.
盛纮 – I’ve refrained from discussing 盛纮 too much in the previous episodes but since we’ve reached a resolution in this episode, I’d like to spend a bit more time on this character. We have seen time and time again that his reputation and face is the most important thing to him. He will act as the loving husband and filial son only if it benefits his social standing.
There are several times where this is displayed in this episode alone. The first instance of this is when Aunt Kang gets dragged off and Grandma Wang tries to stop 明兰. Grandma Wang wants to bring Aunt Kang home. Ming Lan stops this action and puts her foot down. She says – If I have to, I’ll post wanted posters all over the streets. In the book, she even says, I’ll go to the local magistrate and go to court! Sheng Hong originally was about to agree to basically letting Aunt kang go. He changed his decision because he knew that Ming Lan would make good on this threat and actually go to the local magistrate! This cannot do! The Sheng family cannot stomach this kind of shame! Sheng Hong then quickly decides that he cannot risk Ming Lan’s rash actions, which is why he agrees to keep Aunt Kang in his custody. This decision was not due to some altruistic reason, it was due to him wanting to save face. Sheng Hong then says – If I don’t do something, I won’t be a worthy son! Again, this is to round out his persona that he’s a filial son.
The next example is when of course Grandma Wang tries to remind Sheng Hong of the gratitude that he should feel for the Wang family. She’s all sad and reminiscing about how the 3 families shouldn’t quarrel with each other. The Wang family did so much for Sheng Hong, all that jazz. Sheng Hong was about to agree and it’s only when Ming Lan pointedly says – hm, if i recall, it’s grandma sheng did everything for you.
Once again – Sheng Hong has to be reminded of the fact that he has to be filial. There’s no world where a son prefers his mother-in-law over his mother. So of course, he again changes face to be a good son and turns down Grandma Wang’s appeals.
Then, when Sheng Hong voices out the analysis of the 3 families and who would be the most implicated, in the book, it finally comes to him that the Wang family’s whole goal is to have the Sheng family take the blame. He’s furious! He did absolutely nothing and look how the world turned out! He again gets super pissed thinking about this when Chang Bai comes back. Chang bai is willing to relinquish his position in court for his mother. Sheng hong though? No, He’s not thinking at all about this mother. He’s again thinking about his standing in the world.
Next, i’d like to move on to Grandma Wang. She is a formidable woman. She is cunning and she’s daring. We’ve mentioned all of her tactics earlier in our discussion so I won’t dwell on it now. In the previous episode, it looks like she chose Madame Wang over Aunt Kang but I said that wasn’t really the case. Grandma Wang essentially threatens Sheng Hong with ratting out his wife’s, her own daughter’s deeds, betting that he won’t agree. Now in the book, it is true that Grandma Wang prefers her eldest daughter, AUnt Kang, but what she’s really doing here is making a bet. She’s betting on who is willing to go the distance on each of their threats. Her threat is that she’ll drag Madame Wang into the mud if Sheng Hong punishes Aunt Kang. It seems very heartless but she’s doing this because she has no other option. It’s either this threat or else Ming Lan will truly make good on her threat and kill Aunt Kang. In another show, Grandma Wang would have won. The problem is for Grandma Wang, Ming Lan is more than willing to make good on her threats too. So before Ming Lan can act, she’s cut short by Chang Bai and Gu Ting Ye. These events in the drama really follow the book to a T. I truly wish the author didn’t have the men intervene cause I wanted to see what Ming Lan would have done.
For Madame Wang, while throughout the last three episodes we’ve seen that she never intended to truly harm Grandma Sheng, she still thought very highly of herself that she would escape punishment especially when Chang Bai returned. It was only when Chang Bai said he would resign did she finally realize the gravity of her mistake. She repeatedly ignored Grandma Sheng’s warnings and punishments when she told Madame Wang to stay away from Aunt Kang but Madame Wang never listened. She was sorry that Grandma Sheng was poisoned by her hand albeit unknowingly but still, it was Grandma Sheng. Not someone she cared THAT much about. But finally when Chang Bai said he’d resign, Madame Wang’s world shattered. Her entire identity is revolved around her status as a great mother and a good wife. Without Chang Bai’s position at court, she’d literally have nothing.
Well – it’s a bit different for Madame Wang. She truly loves her children. Once she understands the gravity of her mistake, she finally accepts her fate. Compare this to her sister who still refuses to do anything.
And similarly for her punishment. Chang Bai was right in shouting that she didn’t actually want to repent. She relies so much on her husband and Chang Bai to clean up her messes that she thought she could get away from punishment. Thankfully, Chang Bai recognized that only when one is stripped from her comforts will they actually take time to think about why they were wrong and make changes. For this, I am still rather disappointed in Madame Wang.