Ep 9pt2 + 10

[Cathy]

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 the second half of episode 9 and episode 10 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 karenandcathy@chasingdramas.com 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For the first part of the podcast we always do an episode recap and then we go onto discuss any interesting historical references or explain some Chinese traditions from the Song dynasty mentioned in the episode.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! There’s so much culture and drama happening in these two episodes!

 

[Karen]

In episode 9, 孔嬷嬷 arrived to teach the Sheng daughters some important skills. Originally she was only supposed to teach 明兰 and 如兰 but 墨兰 was able to join the group. The first skill the young ladies learn is how to brew tea. We’ll talk about this at the end of the episode as this is quite an interesting and important skill. Both 如兰 and 墨兰 are complaining to their respective mothers that brewing tea is very difficult. But guess what. 王大娘子, the wife of the household, is able to brew the tea quite easily. She lectures 如兰 while doing the steps for brewing tea and the voila. 

 

This is contrasted with 墨兰 and 林小娘。墨兰 is struggling to brew tea but 林小娘 does not take part. This really shows the difference between these 2 women. Sure 王大娘子 has a temper and says lots of mean things about 林小娘 but she does set an example to her daughter that yes, I can do this. 林小娘 on the other hand, primarily just belittles her daughter and doesn’t set an example. Originally i thought perhaps 林小娘 doesn’t know how to make tea. And perhaps that is right but in later episodes we do see her making it so not sure if it’s a skill she already knew or if it’s something her daughter taught her after learning from 孔嬷嬷。 

 

Back to 如兰 though. She astutely points out to her mother that even though her older sister 华兰 married the son of an earl, she’s not doing so well because of her vile mother-in-law. Rather than try to marry into a high class family or nobility, wouldn’t it be better to marry a commoner family? That way the bride has more power in her husband’s family.

 

Her mother, Madame Wang will have none of this talk, especially since Mistress Lin and her daughter are aiming for eligible bachelors in society. What do you think, listeners? Does 如兰 have a point? Would you rather marry high or marry low? What defines a good match? That is the central question for this series. 

 

[Cathy]

The other main thread of these 2 episodes is the visit by 明兰’s maternal aunt. She is 明兰’s mother’s sister. Madame 卫 acts rather curiously during the meal when she arrives. She refuses any help from the maid 丹橘 and even tests the meal for poison with silver needles! She also adamantly requests to sleep with 明兰 that evening. There’s obviously something important that she needs to tell 明兰. That evening, with only the two of them, Aunt 卫 reveals to 明兰 that someone framed the maid 小蝶 all those years ago. Remember her? She was the loyal maid to 明兰 and her mother who got dismissed because others found stolen valuables in her room. 明兰 was too young at the time and right now she can’t figure out who would want to frame a maid. Aunt 卫’s only purpose for her trip this time is to warn 明兰 that there are those in the Sheng manor that will plot to harm her. She offers some sage advice – make sure you don’t lose anything but more importantly, make sure you don’t gain anything!

 

Hm….who could it be? I mean to me…it was obvious that it’s Mistress Lin but 明兰 doesn’t know that. Why else would 林小娘 want to keep an eye on Aunt Wei? 林小娘, upon hearing that Aunt 卫 arrived, is trying to figure out why she’s here. She even asks her head maid to see if they could get a meal together with Aunt 卫。 明兰 calmly rejects the invitation and sees some red flags. Why would 林小娘 out of everyone want to meet Aunt 卫。 She normally never cares about anything related to 明兰. What’s up with this sudden interest?

 

The rest of episode 9 is a master class from 孔嬷嬷 on the art of incense burning or 焚香. 如兰 and 明兰 aren’t doing so well and 墨兰 wastes no time rubbing it into their faces. We will go in depth on the art of incense burning. Look at all of the tools needed for this!

 

Let’s also listen to the background music for this scene. It’s absolutely lovely! This is of course the 古筝. Our intro music is a variation of this. Shoutout to the score of this drama, the use of traditional chinese instruments throughout the show has been great. 

 

[Karen]

Let’s dive right in to episode 10!

 

What do we learn today? Flower arrangements. 

 

We see amongst the flowers chosen, orchids, peonies, and tea flowers! I am not an expert on flowers, so please let us know of the different flowers you see!

 

Tensions have been bubbling up between 墨兰 and 如兰 for a while now and they finally come to a breaking point during this class. 

 

墨兰 keeps trying to hog 孔嬷嬷’s attention, peppering her with questions, and refusing to allow 如兰 to talk. I’ll give 如兰 some credit, she doesn’t blow up in front of 孔嬷嬷, she waits 2 minutes after 孔嬷嬷 leaves before she blows up at 墨兰. 明兰’s over there also annoyed. 孔嬷嬷 doesn’t actually leaves but quietly watches the scene unfold.

 

如兰 is pissed at 墨兰 for hogging all of 孔嬷嬷’s attention. She pointedly asks – why are you so eager to learn these aristocratic skills when you should be focusing on learning the feminine arts?

 

墨兰 being 墨兰 brings out how she doesn’t want to let their father down. He’ll test her later, I must learn!

 

[Cathy]

如兰 does a massive eyeroll and I did too. 明兰 is on the side eyeing her maid with a face of, GET ME OUT OF HERE! 

 

After some more bickering, 墨兰 starts, guess what, crying again. She’s sniffles and says – i’m just born from a mistress, I’m extraneous, no one loves me, i’ll go and die. 

 

如兰 is absolutely hilarious – i guess she learned straight from her mom and retorts, exasperated, how are you crying again! You sound like your mother died. What are you plotting this time? You must be crying so that everyone will believe that I’m bullying you! 

 

I mean, that’s exactly what 墨兰 is doing. Cue – 墨兰 to start crying even louder 

 

如兰 if you know this is 墨兰’s tactic, stop falling for it! Do something to retaliate! You are so like your mother – is there any reason why both you and your mother always are on the receiving end of 盛竑’s anger?

 

明兰 tries to ease the tensions but fails spectacularly. Honey – you’ve got a lot to learn, especially how to handle your dear sisters. 墨兰 then does a pretty lame attempt to commit suicide. 明兰 rushes to stop her. 如兰 is so over this and honestly so am I. 

 

[Karen]

Well – what happens? All three ladies once again are punished to transcribing texts. Grandma sheng hears the news but doesn’t act. She’s confident that her good friend will bring justice to this whole fiasco and indeed she does.

 

It’s late at night and 孔嬷嬷 has requested the presence of the master of the household. This is a fantastic scene because 孔嬷嬷 is here to clearly lay out all the problems in the household, not just from the daughters, but from the parents as well. It’s fantastic.

 

盛竑, 王大娘子, and 林小娘 all arrive. After 孔嬷嬷 gives a brief intro of what happened, 盛纮 immediately tells the daughters to kneel. 孔嬷嬷 already prepared cushions for the ladies to kneel on. 盛纮 wants the daughters to face more punishment but 孔嬷嬷 steps in to  directly ask the ladies, do they even know their mistakes? And she takes this opportunity to call out each person’s problem.

 

Starting w/ 墨兰。 孔嬷嬷 knows full well that 墨兰 hogs all of her time during class and says that she should not think that everyone is dumb because she has some smarts. And immediately, 孔嬷嬷 rightly points out 2 of 墨兰’s faults. 1) she always talks about being born 庶出 or the daughter of a concubine. 2) She thinks that only if she learns skills, she will bring honor to her family. She does not think about skills for her sisters.

 

[Cathy]

In this scene, all i can say is YES, you go 孔嬷嬷. Call out 墨兰 and her facade. 孔嬷嬷 came from the palace. Imagine if 槿汐, 甄嬛’s head maid from Empresses in the Palace came over and saw this little act? She probably would be smirking at how quickly 墨兰 would have died in the palace. 墨兰’s behavior fools no one.

 

墨兰 tries to say that she didn’t do any of this! But 孔嬷嬷 doesn’t allow her to refute what she says. She then advises 盛纮 that he should treat all the daughters equally in order to have peace in the family.

 

孔嬷嬷 next turns to 如兰。如兰’s main fault is that in bickering with her sister, she says things that are too harsh. She needs to learn to change her temper in the future. What’s interesting to me in this scene is that 如兰 knows to apologize and say she won’t say such harsh things in the future. This is quite unlike 墨兰 who does not own up to her mistakes.

 

As for 明兰, she hasn’t made any mistakes but the lesson here is that the honor of the Sheng family is at the family level. Any mistake from a member of the family will impact the entire unit. Therefore, she will also have to endure punishment. 

 

[Karen]

But before the punishment can be enacted, 林小娘 steps in. And this is my favorite part of the scene because she just gets completely SHREDDED by 孔嬷 嬷。林小娘 gets up and sweetly says that she knows it’s not her place to say anything but since the troubles all originated from 墨兰 why not let 墨兰 also take 明兰’s punishment. When 孔嬷嬷 says this is not the way to teach the ladies, 林小娘 then kneels and says that since she hasn’t taught her daughter well, she requests to be punished as well. 

 

Look at the differences in reactions between the master and madame of the house.

盛纮 – he’s like – omg, what a lovely woman, look at the compassion she has! How can we punish her?

王大娘子 – she rolls her eyes and huffs – this whole charade again? Is there anything new?

 

[Cathy]

You can see 孔嬷嬷 also wanting to roll her eyes at this. 孔嬷嬷 was also waiting EXACTLY for 林小娘 to say something like this because she needs to catch 林小娘 red handed before exposing her to 盛纮. This scene is so satisfying because 孔嬷嬷 absolutely destroys 林小娘.

 

孔嬷嬷 says that a person’s value is in self-awareness but there are 2 things 林小娘 does not know. 1) is speaking out of turn. She’s a concubine but is talking while the master and madam of the house are there. 2) She continuously knows that she is doing things out of line with propriety and custom, but she continues to do it. She says she knows she shouldn’t speak but continues to speak. She says she doesn’t know much etiquette but tries to butt in on the daughter’s education. 

 

林小娘 is humiliated by this and is scolded by 盛纮 to leave. We’re just like YAS 孔嬷嬷。 You go girl. 盛纮 for once sees how inappropriate 林小娘’s behavior has been and doesn’t protect her. This is also probably the first time he is humiliated by someone else for how he runs the family as well. You can also see that 王大娘子 is like YES, finally, someone sees through this concubine’s facade.

 

Well anyways, the episode ends with the daughters getting punished. 盛纮 actually goes to see 明兰 and console her. He recognizes that he needs to treat his daughters evenly after hearing 孔嬷嬷’s words. But he’s pulled away because 王大娘子 is beating 林小娘。 Not out of character of her but we do wish she learned to calm her temper. 盛纮, after like 15 minutes of distancing himself from 林小娘, falls back into her arms. 王大娘子 – did you not learn ANYTHING?

 

Grandma Sheng looks after 明兰 but 明兰 is totally in awe of 孔嬷嬷 . She thinks 孔嬷嬷 is so prudent at knowing exactly how to handle the mess within their family and resolves to continue learning from her.

 

 —

[Karen]

Phew that was a ton to recap but now lets get to the art and culture of these two episodes!

 

In the Song Dynasty

四大雅事 – 斗茶﹑插花﹑挂画, and 品香 

 

These are the ‘’Four Arts of Life’ — tea brewing, flower arranging, painting appreciation and incense burning that were viewed as favored pastimes during the Song Dynasty. 

 

We’ve seen several scenes already in the drama showcasing three of the 4, tea brewing, flower arranging, and incense burning but in these two episodes we have 孔嬷嬷 here to teach the young ladies of these arts. 

 

Let’s explain a bit more!

 

First up is tea brewing

 

We see 王大娘子 going through the full number of steps to show 如兰 that tea brewing isn’t too difficult as she’s over there complaining nonstop.

 

What is tea brewing. There are different ways of brewing tea but in the Song dynasty, the art of brewing tea is called 点茶。 It first originated in the Tang dynasty but became incredibly popular in the Song dynasty. At first glance, this type of 点茶 looks familiar to the japanese tea ceremony. The powder that is used also looks very similar to matcha from Japan we are familiar with today. And it certainly looks to be the case that the Japanese tea ceremony was influenced by this Song dynasty skill.

 

So how does this work. First up, and it’s something we do not see in the show, is actually grinding tea into powder. You take 团茶 which are compressed tea medallions and either pound them or else grind them into fine powder. Of note, this is normally not the fine green powder of matcha.

 

After the tea is ground into fine powder, it is placed into a sifter so only the finest powder is kept. With that done, the tea is placed to the side.

 

Next up, is preparing the tea cup. You first place a certain amount of hot water in the tea cup which is called 盏。 It’s more like a bowl than a cup. You swirl the hot water around to allow for even warmth along the bowl.  Dump the water out and clean the top of the bowl.

 

After this, you place a few teaspoons of the tea powder into the cup and start adding hot water. At first, only enough to be at the amount of tea powder in the bowl. Then, you take a tea whisk and start whisking. This step is called 调膏。

 

Whisking starts slowly in a circular motion until the tea texture becomes creamy. Next, you continue to add hot water and continue to whisk. You see in the drama, 王大娘子 adds water several times as she continues to whisk. After starting off slow, the whisking increases speed quite significantly until the final texture is beige, creamy and frothing with bubbles!

 

And that my friends, is Song dynasty 点茶。There are lots of articles and youtube clips around this if anyone wants some recommendations on how this all works. It’s certainly very different from tea brewing we’re used to today. Just pop in a tea bag or else put in loose leaf tea. 

 

[Cathy]

Next up is flower arrangements

 

Flower arrangement in China can be traced back to the earliest dynasties in China. From the Zhou Dynasty, to the Warring States period, and so forth, there were rudimentary forms of flower arrangements, such as those made as ornaments. 

 

By the Han dynasty (3rd Century BC to 3Century AD, formal flower arrangement began to take shape. According to historical records, the Emperor 汉惠帝 had potted flower arrangements placed in his bed chambers.

 

By the time of the Northern and Southern dynasties (5th-6th century AD), flower arrangements were primarily placed as offerings for buddhist temples. To maintain freshness of the flowers, people began experimenting flower arrangements with soil and water. 

 

During the Sui and Tang dynasties 6th – 9th century AD, flower arrangements continued to grow in popularity. Emperors held imperial gatherings to admire flower arrangements. Flower arrangements also began to become more formalized. For example, 牡丹 or the peony flower would have its own special flower arrangement festival with specific steps, rituals, and customs. 

 

Flower arrangement reached its zenith in popularity during the Song dynasty, which is when this story takes place. Flower arrangement wasn’t only for entertainment. It now came to reflect a person’s philosophy, artistry, and temperament. Elegance was favored over the opulence from the previous dynasties. The Song people favored pine, cypress, bamboo, orchids, and osmanthus flowers for their flower arrangements. This activity wasn’t reserved only for the upper class or only for women, all people during the Song dynasty participated in flower arrangements and there are many records and paintings dating back to this time period depicting tranquil scenes where flower arrangements are clearly visible.

 

Flower arrangement continued its popularity during the Yuan and Ming Dynasties but declined in popularity during the Qing dynasty. 

 

For flower arrangements, the focus was always on balance. They should look like a poem, natural and serene. As stated in the drama, the arrangement should avoid parallels and clashes of color. 

 

Finally incense burning or 焚香 or 品香

 

The history of incense burning dates back to time immemorial in china. At first, the burning of certain woods was used to ward off certain bugs. Over time, incense burning became associated with ancient chinese religions and ceremonial rites. Incense and incense burning was used for various rituals for formal occasions for the emperor, to praying to ancestors and deities for commoners. 

 

By the Han Dynasty, there were many different types of censers and the first 香炉 was developed during this time. 香炉 are the smaller censers that can be used indoors or as we see in the show. Previous to this, the censers would be huge tripods or basins used for formal rituals and used to pray to the gods. With the introduction of Buddhism in China and the rise in popularity of Daoism, the practice of incense burning became more and more widespread. 

 

Over the centuries, incense burning transformed into an art form and developed into what we see in the show. Throughout the drama we’ve constantly seen Grandma Sheng preparing for the various stages of incense burning. Her son 盛纮 has helped as well. Both men and women learned this art and as mentioned before, was meant to reflect a person’s disposition. 

 

There are usually 4 major steps for incense burning.

 

  1. Preparing the charcoal – on a small flame, burn the wood charcoal until it is bright red and the wood is no longer emitting any flames or smoke
  2. Preparing the ash – place the ash into the bowl and mix the ash. This is where you see the ladies mixing using chopstick-like tools. 
  3. Placing the charcoal – once you’ve mixed the incidence, using a utensil, create a small hole in the middle of the bowl. The size of the hole should be just enough for you to place your charcoal in the hole. Cover the hole and use the various utensils to pat down the incense and brush away any leftover incense. Once done – poke a small hole at the top of the ash directly down to the charcoal.
  4. Place the incense – over the hole, place a small silver leaf or gold leaf to separate the fire. Then on top, place the incense that will be used. Common ingredients as incense include 檀香 or sandalwood 沈香 or agarwood. In episode 9, 如兰 forgets this step and just places the incense into the whole, which is why there was so much smoke. If you decide to do this at home don’t forget the separator!

 

Incense was brought out when there were guests at the house or if you wanted to perform a piece, or just read a book. It was used to calm the mind. Just as we light candles nowadays, people in China lit incense.

 

In current chinese culture, incense burning still occurs. In my experience, you can find them at various temples and pray to the various deities. The art of incense burning has lost popularity but thanks to shows such as this, interest in these art forms has risen. You can buy similar sets in China and I watched a video of all of these steps. It’s quite fascinating.

 

[Karen]

Book differences

 

In the book, the main purpose for 孔嬷嬷’s arrival at the 盛 family was to prepare 华兰 for her marriage to the 袁 family. The 盛 family are only bureaucrats, not nobility, and as such Grandma Sheng wanted her granddaughter 华兰 to be prepared for her marriage into the aristocracy. The 3 younger sisters were there to just learn what they can.

 

孔嬷嬷 also arrived at the family before Master 庄, the scholar who has been teaching the children in the 盛 family. 

 

Because the eldest sister 华兰 was still living at home, many of the lines spoken by 明兰 about 孔嬷嬷 were actually spoken by 华兰 and as a reminder to her mother 王大娘子 on how to deal with 林小娘。 

 

[Cathy]

Let’s dive however into the master of the family – 盛纮.

 

In the drama, at least to me, he is portrayed as a bumbling man who overtly favors his mistress 林小娘 and her children over his wife 王大娘子. To me, the drama portrays 盛纮 as a person who can’t discern propriety and tradition over the whims of his “ahem” love. In past 10 episodes, we’ve seen many scenes where 盛纮 openly disrespects his wife in favor of 林小娘. 

 

In the book, 盛纮 of course still favors his concubine but he’s often referred to as cautious and calculating. He has a lust for power and is constantly plotting for his next promotion and to build the reputation of his family. 

 

The drama really diminishes the intellect of 盛纮 and has reduced him to be an average bureaucrat dealing with trivial matters of home which are of his making.

 

The difference is on display in episode 10. When 孔嬷嬷 admonishes 林小娘, the whole point of her words were actually directed towards 盛纮. 孔嬷嬷 criticizes 林小娘 for speaking out of term, but who indulged her to do so? Why is that 林小娘 is able to speak out of term in front of outside guests such as 孔嬷嬷? It’s of course 盛纮 has indulged and favored her over the years!

 

In the book, 盛纮 immediately understands that it was 林小娘’s behavior and her methods of child rearing that brought about 墨兰’s actions and feels a sense of disgust towards 林小娘. He slightly owns up to his own behavior internally of how he has handled family matters and also scolds 林小娘. What is different from the drama is exactly how 盛纮 reacts to these events. He feels a sense of remorse to 明兰 and tries to make up for it in small but subtle ways. This is not the case in the drama. He also becomes more distant to 林小娘 than shown in the drama. For 盛纮, his reputation and career is the most important. He needs his sons and daughters to be on the quote on quote “righteous” path and will not allow the lowly schemes from a concubine mess with his plans. Book 盛纮 is way more calculating and I get how he became the official that he is. In this drama? Not so much…

 

[Karen]

That’s that for today!

 

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