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 8 and the first part of episode 9 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 firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions.
For the first part of the podcast we always do an episode recap and then we go onto discuss any interesting historical references or explain some Chinese traditions from the Song dynasty mentioned in the episode. Finally we’ll end with any book differences that we’d like to share.
Let’s get started with the recap. For this podcast episode, we’ll break our recap out into 2.5 topics to discuss.
The 0.5 is 齐衡, the young duke and his mother. We finally meet her and see that she is incredibly strict but sharp. 齐衡’s mother is 平宁郡主 or Princess 平宁. In her first entrance in the episode, she is seen stopping a maid who has her hair down and is evidently trying to win the young duke’s attention. The Princess harshly calls out this maid and has her sold from the estate. The princess then declares to the rest of the maids that they are not to try to tempt the young duke.
After this stern lecture, she goes to visit her son who is daydreaming. She asks what he’s thinking about but he deflects the question and instead requests that she visit the Sheng family, specifically Grandma Sheng. She needs thank them for including 齐衡 in their academy! Immediately, the Princess can feel something is out of the ordinary. Why would her son be so adamant about her visiting the Sheng Family? He usually never likes or cares about these types of functions.
She leaves without accepting this proposal but she has a hunch. He is interested in one of the Sheng girls. That HAS to be what he’s thinking about. Without skipping a beat, she summons her son’s servant, 不为 and directly questions if her son has spoken with any of the Sheng daughters. 不为 responses is littered in half-truths because he of course, wants to protect his master. He shares that his master doesn’t speak to any of the girls out of turn and that they are currently learning manners from a maid from the palace. He is dismissed but she is not fooled. She knows he’s lying but given the focus on her son’s studies, she’s not willing to rock the boat for now as long as nothing too egregious happens.
In this first introduction, we see how powerful and astute this princess is. She has an iron like grip on her household. No one is to distract her son and no one unworthy is to become her formal daughter-in-law. On one hand, it makes sense. Her family is incredibly wealthy and powerful. Her son’s future wife must also be of similar stock. No maid can match what is needed in a wife of the future duke. This mother also picks up on everything. With just a few sentences she can see that her son is infatuated with someone and that her son’s servant is lying about his interest. In a few short scenes we are warned that this mother is one tough cookie. She will be very difficult to please.
顾廷烨 – Ok, onto the heavier topic of these 2 episodes and that is 顾廷烨’s backstory. 顾廷烨, second son of the Marquis of 宁远。This is important context for the drama and fighting that happens in his family. In these 2 episodes, he has brought his nanny back from his old home to the capital in order to care for his mistress and two young children. These few years, this young man has been studying elsewhere and it was outside the city that he met this woman and had a family. The Marquis’ household, primarily 顾廷烨”s older brother and step mother want to find where this concubine and the children are, not because they want to take care of the children, but rather to eliminate them. This concubine is not of noble birth and was previously, you could say, a prostitute. This type of woman cannot be allowed to step into the Marquis’s household. Therefore, 顾廷烨 brought his nanny back from 扬州 to take care of this family in the outskirts of the city.
After arriving, this nanny, 常嬷嬷, gives a full recount of how 顾廷烨”s mother came to marry into nobility. It’s very odd because 顾廷烨’s mother is actually from a merchant family. We’ll explain this a little more at the end of the episode but merchant families were seen as lower class and generally did not marry into aristocracy. But as we saw in the first 2 episodes, 顾廷烨”s mother’s side of the family were extremely wealthy and managed the salt business. Thus he has both wealth and titles.
So what happened? 顾廷烨’s father, 顾偃开 was already married with a wife. Why did he marry 顾廷烨”s mother then? Apparently, the first wife died and the older marquis and marchioness, so 顾廷烨”s paternal grandfather and grandmother personally came to 扬州 to ask for this marriage with the 白 family, which is 顾廷烨”s mother’s family. Given this grand honor, and the rumors that 顾廷烨’s father is a respectable man, unlike his brothers, the 白 family agreed. 顾廷烨”s mother, with a very respectable dowry, married into nobility as the main wife.
However, upon arriving did she realize something was amiss. Her new husband, 顾偃开 humiliated her by not consummating the marriage for several months. He was rude to her and the relationship soured even further after 顾廷烨’s birth.
It wasn’t until several years later, did 顾廷烨”s mother overhear a twisted version of the truth. She, heavily pregnant, heard that the only reason she was married into this family was because the Marquis’ household had major debts and that it was she who killed the former wife. Her dowry was to be used to repay those debts. Angrily, she goes to confront her husband. Not only was she used for her dowry, but her husband’s first wife was also first divorced in order to marry this merchant family’s daughter for that money. The first wife died of illness after the two remarried. It was not, as the story was told. The wife had already died and therefore, needed a replacement.
Unable to handle the truth, 顾廷烨”s mother tries to storm off. In the rush of the emotions, this 8 month pregnant woman passes away with the child. A year later, 顾廷烨”s father, marries his original wife’s younger sister. 顾廷烨”s current step mother.
顾廷烨 is heartbroken at this revelation. I mean, who wouldn’t. It’s terrible to see how badly the Marquis’ family tricked the Bai family. They traded aristocracy for money in order to repay debts. Once the money was in hand, they did not deign to treat the Bai family well. It’s also why 顾廷烨 was so eager to help 明兰 when she was looking for a doctor for her mother. BOth of them had mothers that passed away due to child birth.
And who was the woman saying that 顾廷烨”s mother killed the first wife? If you take a close look, it’s actually the current step mother to 顾廷烨。 She was telling his older brother, 顾廷煜 to always hate 顾廷烨 and his mother because those 2 were the culprits in his mother’s death. What a devious woman. We’ll certainly see more of her but now we understand why no one in the 顾 family cares for 顾廷烨。 It’s a combination of lies, the fact that 顾廷烨’s mother is from the merchant class, and the sheer shamelessness of the 顾 family for using a young woman for her money.
The other component of 顾廷烨’s story in these two episodes is the introduction of his concubine, 曼娘, and their 2 young children. He has asked 常嬷嬷 to take care of these 3. Immediately you can tell that 常嬷嬷 is not a fan of 曼娘。曼娘 in turn seems nice on the surface, but is actually rather disrespectful to 常嬷嬷。 顾廷烨 can’t see through this facade for now but this will most certainly bubble up in the future.
With this settled, let’s move on to the more interesting topic of the Sheng daughters taking class from 孔嬷嬷。
If you recall in ep 6 + 7, the Sheng daughters made the blunder of falling in the main hall in the company of guests, particularly external males. This was quite the mistake and so 5th daughter 如兰 and 6th daughter 明兰 were punished to kneeling in the ancestral shrine to repent their actions. Crafty and manipulative 4th daughter 墨兰 was able to escape punishment. In order to save 如兰 and 明兰 from further punishment, Grandma 盛 came up with the idea to ask her old friend 孔嬷嬷 to come teach these 2 young ladies manners and various arts.
孔嬷嬷 is an experienced maid from the palace. 嬷嬷 is a respectful term for a maid who is older and more knowledgeable. Generally, they’re also of a higher position. This woman has taught numerous women in the palace ranging from all sorts of ranks in nobility and this is a great honor for the daughters to be taught.
But before girls even start their classes, the concubine Lin, or 林小娘 cannot accept that her daughter is being left out of these lessons. But does she have a say here? Her daughter was able to escape punishment from the earlier fiasco after all. The whole reason 如兰 and 明兰 are taking lessons is because they need to be taught manners. 林小娘 though doesn’t see it that way. And technically, she’s right. 孔嬷嬷 has a wealth of knowledge. It would be a missed opportunity for her daughter if she doesn’t take classes. So, 林小娘 does what 林小娘 does best -seduce her husband with sweet talk into trying to get her daughter into this class.
This part is rather funny. Master Sheng first sheepishly goes to ask Grandma Sheng to see if 墨兰 can get into this class. Grandma Sheng is not to be trifled with. She knows that 林小娘 is the one behind this request and does not want to get involved. She also knows that these matters are technically the decision of the wife of the family. Why did Master Sheng go over his wife and directly to Grandma Sheng? Why obviously it’s because he knows his wife won’t agree. He was hoping Grandma Sheng would force his wife into this but oh no. Grandma Sheng knows this is not something she wants to get involved in.
And so, he goes to ask his wife, who as we expected, does not want 墨兰 into the class. But seriously, Master Sheng, you play favorites wayyy too much. It’s so obvious you care more about 墨兰 than you do 如兰 and 明兰. In this instance, I’m totally standing with 王大娘子。
This heated exchange is overheard by 孔嬷嬷 who says it’s ok. I’ll take 墨兰 as a student and so the 3 ladies start taking class. Of course you have the usual banter between the sisters. 墨兰 tries to be better than everyone else, sitting farther up in the room and presenting 孔嬷嬷 with a book of her poems. 孔嬷嬷 is not impressed and kindly rebukes 墨兰。We’ll see that 孔嬷嬷 sets things straight.
That night, 孔嬷嬷 and Grandma Sheng are drinking tea. I love this scene from these two old friends. 孔嬷嬷 in just a few lessons can see that 明兰 is the smartest of the bunch. 明兰 takes notes whereas her sisters don’t bother. Grandma Sheng tries to play this off that 明兰 is actually dumb with poor memory. That’s why she needs to take notes. They get into a bit of a disagreement because 孔嬷嬷 doesn’t understand why Grandma Sheng belittle’s 明兰 so much even though it’s clear she’s the smartest. 孔嬷嬷 even almost up and leaves!
Only at this point does Grandma Sheng explain the truth. She cannot be too favorable to 明兰 because her sisters will then see her as a threat and potentially cause her harm. It’s not that Grandma Sheng doesn’t care for 明兰 but it’s that they have to hide and tolerate a lot in order to not be bullied by the rest of the family. The only person in this family who cares for 明兰 is her grandmother and her grandmother is only supported by 明兰.
After hearing this, 孔嬷嬷 understands the situation in the family. She hastily says that she hasn’t had enough of the tea here so even if Grandma Sheng kick her out before finishing tea？Hehe and with that, 孔嬷嬷 stays, nowwith the knowledge that even if 明兰 is the smartest, she must not be praised in front of her sisters.
Let’s stop there for this podcast discussion. The skills that 孔嬷嬷 teaches are steeped in culture so we’ll go through them together in our next podcast episode.
小公爷 – 平宁郡主
Let’s talk about 平宁郡主. She is the mother of the young duke 齐衡. 郡主 in Chinese, depending on the era, is a title usually granted to daughters of Princes or brothers of the Emperor. In english, she would still be called a Princess, but in chinese, there is a distinction between daughters of the Emperor, who are called 公主 and other royal relations.
平宁郡主 isn’t actually royal. Her father was actually the marquis of 襄阳 or 襄阳侯。 However, she grew up in the palace in her youth. The Empress named her as her goddaughter and hence the title of 平宁郡主 was bestowed on her by the Emperor.
平宁郡主 grew up and married the Duke of Qi or 齐衡’s father. Over the years, she’s held a tight grip on the household. She dismissed the concubines that Duke of Qi originally had and has forbade any other concubines from entering the household. As such, her son 齐衡 is the sole heir to the title for the Duke of Qi. That makes him one of the most eligible bachelors in the Empire.
As we saw with her handling of the maid, she watches her son like a hawk. Ready to dismiss anyone who even thinks of tempting the young man.
She will play an important role in her son’s life. Not all of her decisions will be good – we’ll see.
Next, let’s analyze the tragedy that is the marriage between 顾廷烨’s father and mother and specifically the his mother’s background from a merchant class.
At a high level, in China there were four occupations for men 士农工商 or the gentry scholars, the peasant farmers, the artisans, and finally the merchants. The first mention of the 4 occupations was in the philosophical text called 管子 compiled during the warring states period over 2000 years ago, and named after the philosopher 管仲 who lived in the 7th century BCE.
Now, these aren’t necessarily castes per se as people could move between the four occupations in China. It also wasn’t necessarily hereditary nor a definite measure of socio-economic status but as we’ll see in the drama, the family occupations often define a family for generations.
The two that we’ll focus on here is 士 or gentry and 商 or merchant. The gentry during the Song dynasty includes the aristocracy and scholars and bureaucrats. With the expansion of the civil service examinations, more and more bureaucrats became part of this class. The Song dynasty in particular, placed heavy emphasis on this class.
Now in China, merchants were often viewed with suspicion and placed at the bottom of the four occupations. Similar to Ancient Greece and Roman cultures, the Chinese disapproved of this class because they viewed merchants as profiteering from other’s labor. Agriculture was the bedrock of chinese civilization and Emperors often prioritized the farmer occupation over the merchants.
In the story, the Gu family, is a member of the 士 or gentry occupation as part of the aristocracy. Same with the Qi family. 顾廷烨’s mother – the 白 family are strictly from the merchant class. They were salt merchants and extremely wealthy.
The sheng family, is now also a member of the 士 or gentry occupation because 盛纮 is a bureaucrat, as was his father before him. However, the broader 盛 clan has roots in the merchant or 商 occupation, which as we’ll see later means that it’s hard to find respectable marriages despite their wealth.
For many in the gentry class, the existence of the merchant class always proved to be a dilemma. They needed their money but didn’t want to be associated with them.
The Marquis of 宁愿 or the Gu family did not manage their finances well and fell into heavy debt. 顾廷烨’s paternal grandparents needed to find a way to settle their debts. Reputation was of utmost importance to any family. The last thing the Gu family wanted was for their destitute position to be known to the world. Not only would they potentially lose their aristocratic status, be forced to sell land, but also be the laughing stock of the capital! The horror! What better way to fix this problem than to use a future daughter-in-law’s dowry to settle all of these debts? No one would know.
If this was normal times, there was no way that the son of a Marquis, and the future Marquis, would marry a woman from such a quote on quote lowly status. Her dowry, as mentioned in the drama, was 500k taels of silver. Now, I won’t convert to current dollar amounts, but 500K of anything is a HUGE sum of money.
The Marquis’s family 100% manipulated the 白 family into believing that this marriage will be beneficial to both families. Sure the 白 family can now boast a Marquis as a son-in-law, but at what cost? A dead daughter, one whose reputation is smeared by vile rumors, and no more dowry. I’d be as pissed as 顾廷烨 if I found out the truth.
This is the first time we are introduced to 曼娘, the mother of 顾廷烨’s two children. She comes from a very lowly status as a singer. Let’s pay attention to this woman throughout the show. She is cunning and manipulative, especially towards 顾廷烨.
As a woman, Nanny 常 sees right through her schemes facade and tries to point them out to 顾廷烨. However, as a man, he is oblivious to her actions.
At this point, we’ve learned of his father and mother’s tragic marriage and well the issue of money that contributed to it. However, I will just come out and say it, 顾廷烨 at this point is a cad. He pretends to be a respectable man but he’s not. He’s already frequents brothels and is now dismissing his academics. As an unmarried man, he already has two children with another woman. 曼娘 isn’t even considered a concubine like 林小娘, she’s merely a 外室 or the literal translation is an outside woman. This is extremely improper behavior for a member of the nobility. As other family members have discussed, who will marry him now? He has no intention of making her his wife, only a concubine.
He’s a product of his upbringing, in which I mean, without proper upbringing because no one taught him what to do. Having women is not uncommon, but having children before being married is improper.
He tries to portray himself as a gallant man because he saved 曼娘 and also wants to care for her because 曼娘 cares for him. Buddy, open your eyes. You’re the son of a Marquis…if she truly loved you, she wouldn’t not have behaved so disrespectfully to 常momo.
Sure – he has family issues but he’s also creating a bunch of issues for himself.
Finally let’s talk about book differences. The book doesn’t go into detail about 曼娘’s stay with Nanny 常. It’s just briefly referenced.
As for Nanny 孔, she actually comes to the 盛 family to primarily teach manners to 华兰. This is in preparation for her marriage. The other 3 girls were just there to learn as well.
So far in the drama, we see 明兰 constantly napping. That is pretty true to the book. She LOVEs to nap. She also decided when she was young to focus on sewing, because in her mind, if everything fell apart, she at least had one actual skill to make a living. As for the notes that she copies, in the drama, she just takes small notes, but in the book, since 明兰 is a time traveler she took notes with the alphabet. It’s hilarious in the book, because Grandma sheng took a peek at her notes and were all like, what are these mysterious squiggles?
That’s that for today!