Gathering the Troops
Welcome Back to Chasing Dramas! This is the podcast that discusses Chinese history, through the lens of historical chinese dramas. We are your hosts, Cathy and Karen. Today we are discussing episode 68 of the Story of Ming Lan or 知否知否应是绿肥红瘦。
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If you are new to the podcast, please check out our intro the podcast and intro to the drama episodes. As we normally do for our podcast episodes, we will do a drama episode recap and then talk about culture and or history referenced in the drama and finally end with some book differences.
Now, it’s time for the formidable foes of Madame Qin, Grandma Wang and the Empress Dowager to fight back. The episode is constantly being cut across a few different story lines so I prefer to aggregate exactly what these two ladies have in mind and then discuss some of the other plot points in the episode. These ladies all have different motivations for what they’re doing but the end goal is the same – eliminate Gu Ting Ye.
Last episode, Grandma Wang was not pleased to see Madame Qin bring the body of her beloved daughter, Aunt Kang. Not only did Grandma Wang immediately see through the fact that Madame Qin’s tears were fake, she surmised that Madame Qin probably had a hand in contributing to Aunt Kang’s death. Madame Qin originally thought that Grandma Wang would not help her bring down Gu Ting Ye but we begin this episode with Grandma Wang, wearing a grand outfit, bringing her son to the palace to see none other than the Empress Dowager.
Grandma Wang kneels in front of Empress Dowager and cries about how upset she is that her daughter has died by the cruel hands of Gu Ting Ye. Hilariously, the Empress Dowager isn’t moved by her tears whatsoever. She talks down to Grandma Wang here because she, the Empress Dowager never had children that lived to adulthood so she cannot empathize with Grandma Wang. In fact, the implication is that because Grandma Wang is crying about her deceased daughter, she is being disrespectful to the Empress Dowager who does not have children. You can see Grandma Wang’s face change when the Empress Dowager reminds her she has no children of her own.
The Empress Dowager is rather quick to dismiss Grandma Wang and her son but not before a rather interesting act. She’s playing with a candle in front of her and goes in to trim the wick. The first cut with scissors is fine but with the second cut, she cuts too far which causes the candle to go out. She exclaims that look, the flames have gone out to which her head eunuch responds that this was inevitable. Only if you trim the wick can the flames last longer. With that, the Wang guests are escorted out.
After they leave the palace and Grandma Wang and her son have a bowl of noodles while discussing what just happened. Grandma Wang is still seething that the likes of Gu Ting Ye could kill her daughter. If they were back in their hey day, no one would dare cross the Wang family because they were so important. They continue with the metaphor of the wick. Let me take a moment to explain it. For the Empress Dowager, I feel there are two ways of interpreting the candle wick and the need to trim it.
The first interpretation is that Aunt Kang’s death was needed to ensure the longevity of the Wang family. It’s known that Aunt Kang was not an ethical person by any means and caused many issues for the Wang family. Now that she’s gone, the wick has been trimmed which means that the Wang family can enjoy longer prosperity.
The second interpretation is to highlight that Gu Ting Ye is the one that needs to be culled. The Empress Dowager wants to ensure the longevity of the Song dynasty and the rule of the current emperor. She doesn’t necessarily think it’s the Emperor who’s at fault but rather is too influenced by the likes of officials like Gu Ting Ye. Therefore, to ensure that the Song dynasty continues on,Gu Ting Ye must be trimmed. The Empress dowager does not out right say this but only uses the metaphor of the candle wick for the Wang family to decide what they want to do next. Also, that way, she has plausible deniability if they don’t understand her meaning.
Outside when the Wang mother and son duo are discussing next steps, they also refer to the candle. For Grandma Wang, the flames of prosperity of their family are flickering towards its demise. She is focused on how they can keep those embers alight. The Wang family ultimately decides to align with the Empress Dowager in bringing down Gu Ting Ye.
With this chess piece in place, the Empress Dowager takes her next step. She’s been working with Concubine Liu or 刘贵妃 to undermine the Empress. The Empress Dowager requests that Liu Gui Fei gives her son to the Empress Dowager to raise. The reasons she uses are that this will allow Liu Gui Fei to focus on helping the Emperor and it will also allow the Empress Dowager to experience what it’s like to raise children. This shocks Concubine Liu. As we all know from watching other dramas, taking one’s child is essentially taking them hostage. You are bound now to do the bidding of the person taking care of your child. Concubine Liu is understandably upset and spends the day drinking and crying over what she should do but ultimately she bites the bullet and brings her son over to the Empress Dowager. In her mind, she is doing what’s best for her son’s future. She hopes that by aligning herself with the Empress Dowager, her son will become the next emperor. The Empress Dowager also agrees to give Concubine Liu’s brother in law additional military duties. This is a way to repay the Concubine for her actions. It’s all about transactions right now and the Empress Dowager is making all the right moves.
On Madame Qin’s side, she’s turned to someone we haven’t seen in a while. Bai Da Lang. He is Gu Ting Ye’s relative who is upset that Gu Ting Ye has all the wealth from the Bai family when he is left with nothing. Recall that they are related because Gu Ting Ye’s mother is from the Bai family and her father left Gu TIng Ye with all the Bai family wealth accumulated from their salt business which is highly lucrative. Bai Da Lang has tried for years to take over that wealth but has had difficulty displacing Gu Ting Ye. Madame Qin knows this and now reaches out to him to see if he can be an ally in their mission of killing Gu Ting Ye. He gladly accepts the invite to the Capital.
We get a brief scene of the Emperor with his son. The Prince shares his grand ambitions to retake lost lands. The Emperor however coldly asks if this is a suggestion from the Prince or from gutingye. The Prince quickly bows and tries to give an explanation. The Emperor simply continues to warn him to not be so agreeable to gutingye’s suggestions. Out of the corner – let’s look at who’s standing watch. A eunuch.
Back with Madame Qin – she has entered the palace to visit Concubine Liu. The two have a conversation on making good tea. One must not be too hasty and must always be attentive. It’s quite genius as it’s clear what the two women are up to. Concubine Liu turns the conversation towards the generosity from the Empress Dowager. It’s evident that Madame Qin will align herself to Concubine liu. While the women meet, the Empress Dowager’s eunuch goes to talk to Bai Da Lang. They have a discussion about tribute salt. This is salt that is specifically sent to the palace and a very lucrative business.
On the way outside of the palace, Madame Qin and bai da long have a debrief in which bai da lang is completely clueless. The wheels are turning in Madame Qin’s head as she figures it out that Concubine Liu’s son will be the pawn that the Empress Dowager will use to usurp the Emperor.
Now that the troops are gathered for the Empress Dowager, let’s turn to what happened on Gu Ting Ye and Ming Lan’s side. I feel like there’s an inconsistency in the drama from a timeline perspective because Gu Ting Ye heads over to Qi Heng’s residence to thank him for his actions the previous day. But all of this that’s happened doesn’t seem like it was over 24 hours. Whatever, just something that i noticed and irked me.
In the last episode, we saw that Qi Heng finally grew a backbone and rushed to help Ming Lan when the fire was raging at the Cheng Gardens. He ignored his wife and parents who urged him not to go and followed his heart to do what’s right. It was a bit random but it was his epiphany moment that everything he did in the past was also a choice and now he had the choice to save Ming Lan and he finally did it. Gu Ting Ye saw this and came to thank Qi Heng for his actions. Qi Heng at first was a little guarded because he thought Gu Ting Ye was here to reprimand him for helping but Gu Ting Ye’s gratitude reaffirmed that Qi Heng did the right thing. For Qi Heng, it was also his opportunity to finally let his feelings for Ming Lan go. The two men, after months if not years of animosity over Ming Lan, are finally able to speak as friends again because in the end, they’re all doing what’s best for their friend or loved ones. Last episode and this episode were key turning points in Qi Heng’s growth and he is now once again on Ming Lan and Gu Ting Ye’s side.
He has also started to take notice of the fact that his wife, Madame Shen, does actually care for him. She thought Gu Ting Ye was going to harm Qi Heng so she hid out of sight with a dagger hoping to protect Qi Heng. When Qi Heng saw this, it warmed his heart and decides to start opening up to her more. Yay, marriage improvements!
The funny thing is that while Qi Heng and his wife are starting a relationship, Ming Lan is also turning into the woman that Gu Ting Ye has pined for forever. After giving birth to her son, Ming Lan is primarily focused on caring for him. Understandably, given the stress of his birth, she is incredibly protective of him. Not only that, but she has also become much more emotionally attached to Gu Ting Ye so much so that she has now learned how to be jealous!!! Because of the fire, many parts of the Cheng Gardens were ruined. One area that suffered heavy damages was the residence of the forgotten concubine Feng Xian. She was planted there by Gu Ting Ye’s paternal aunt and Madame Qin. Gu Ting Ye has never touched her or thought of her in any way but given she is now homeless, he went over to check up on the damage to her rooms. It’s not like he says a whole lot to her but the fact that he’s there traveled to Ming Lan. So, when Gu Ting Ye shows up to check in on Ming Lan after seeing Feng Xian, Ming Lan gets all annoyed. She’s like, get away from my son, you’re going to get him cold, I’m going to sleep (even though she just woke up). It finally clicks for him that Ming Lan is actually jealous of the fact that he went to spend time with Feng Xian which she hurriedly denies but her temper gave it away. She yells at him to stop telling her maids to help him out and instead use his own servants. I guess many other partners would have been annoyed at such a telling off but GU Ting Ye is chuckling with glee. She finally is jealous over him! Yay!!!!!!
What a weirdo. Hahahaha
And the episode ends with Gu Ting Ye – headed back to the brothel. We’ll see what happens next!
She mentions having 3 kids. That’s false – she never had kids
Grandma Wang Clothes – Grandma Wang wears specific clothes when she meets the Empress Dowager. We’ll let this go for now because we’ll group that into the discussion when Ming Lan wears something similar.
Now – let’s move on to the quick meal that Grandma Wang and Uncle Wang have. It has many nuggets from a cultural perspective.
索饼 – just called 面条. These aren’t your thin noodles that you think of for chinese noodles nowadays. These are a little bit wider. This is shown actually in the drama when Grandma Wang and Uncle Wang get a late night meal. The noodles themselves are much wider. Typically, at least for me, noodles are called 面. But when the servant asked for two bowls of noodles, she asked for two bowls of 索饼. Which is rarely used so I thought – let’s do some research!
One record of the name comes from 释名 or Explanation of Names, which is a Chinese dictionary written in the late Eastern Han dynasty so around 200CE 东汉末年刘熙. I couldn’t find a very good reason for the name. However, it is one of the earliest instances of boiled noodles recorded.
During the same meal, Grandma Wang is lamenting how far the Wang family has fallen, to which Uncle Wang responds, yes I never rose to the level of father but 宦海沉浮 I still have some respect.
宦海沉浮 – means the unpredictability of the political arena. So for Uncle Wang, he has navigated through the complex political arena over the years.
This idiom is actually an anachronism! I did a little bit of digging and the first use of this idiom actually come from the book Midnight 子夜 by the author 茅盾. That’s his pen name – his real name was 沈德鸿. The novel was written between 1931 and 1932 and depicts contemporary life of Shanghai during that time. It’s one of his most influential novels. I think I’ve read snippets of his work previously. I think this is the second time that we have a more recent idiom referenced in the drama.
Ok the next one is 火中取栗 or the direct translation is pulling the chestnut from the fire. This is our next anachronism! This is actually a translation from the fable, The Monkey and the Cat or le Singe et le Chat from a collection of Fables from Jean de La Fontaine, which was published in the 17th century. The english idiom is actually “a cat’s paw” – which means according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as ‘one used by another as a tool’.
The story goes as follows – the Monkey Bertand persuades Raton the call to pull chestnuts from the fire, promising him a share. The cat burns his paw in the process. The Monkey eats all the chestnuts and the cat is left with nothing.
How cool is that! A french fable is in turn used as a Chinese idiom!
Uncle Wang uses this idiom when asking his mother – why entangle themselves in the political fight and be a pawn for the Empress Dowager? Why should they be the ones pulling the chestnuts from the fire?
To which madame wang responds 父母之爱子，则为之计深远. This saying is mentioned twice in the episode. The translation again is to the love of a parent, means that they will plan long and far for their children. We discussed this at length for ep 22-23 pt 1.
Madame Wang then quotes Mencius – with 君子之泽，五世而斩 . The youtube translation is pretty good – the achievements of a lord will be exhausted after several generations. 5 to be exact. Mencius is of course a confucian philosopher who lived from 372-289BC. Madame Wang wants to ensure the fame and glory of the Wang family.
Lastly, let’s discuss the lines 春风又绿江南岸 from 泊船瓜洲.
The eunuch quotes this line – 春风又绿江南岸 when he meets with 白大郎 to discuss the salt business.
The poem was written by the poet 王安石 who lived from 1021－1086. So this is right around the time the drama takes place. The time the poem was written is up for dispute, some say 1068, some say 1074 or 1075. These times actually all take place AFTER this drama because 宋英宗 dies in 1067 which is the current emperor in the drama.
My translation goes like this – I’m standing at the ferry place at 瓜洲 looking south, there’s only a river separating 京口 and 瓜洲. My home in the Zhong mountain is hidden by some mountains. The warm winds of spring have made these fields of jiang nan green. When will the moon shine the way back home?
Finally, book differences – this is short and sweet! The drama has charted its own path and diverges from the book. So not much of this episode is actually in the book. The fire from the previous episode did happen in the book but not much else is similar. Let me know if you guys want me to nitpick and point out my thoughts on the adaptation for the next couple of episodes.
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