Welcome back to Chasing Dramas! This is the podcast that discusses Chinese culture and history through Chinese dramas. We are your hosts Karen and Cathy! Today we are excited to introduce the next drama we will be discussing. Follow us on Instagram or Twitter at Chasing Dramas or else email us at karenandCathy@chasingdramas.com with any comments or feedback.
This podcast is in English but with proper names and historical phrases said in Mandarin Chinese.
知否知否应是绿肥红瘦 – or The Story Of Ming Lan
The reason we picked this drama to discuss is because it presents many interesting opportunities to discuss Chinese culture and history. It is one of those rare dramas in the last few years that is not only a great drama to watch but one that is incredibly dedicated in presenting us with a more accurate depiction of Song Dynasty history and culture. That is primarily what we are interested in exploring and discussing. We will go through each episode and pick out the interesting pieces of history or culture presented in that episode for further discussion. It’s a fun exercise for us because we also learned a lot.
The show first aired in December 2018 and became one of the highest rated shows of the year. I remember following the show when it first came out, literally chasing every episode. So I’m super excited to discuss this show!
The drama is based off of a book by the same name. I actually read the book and throughout our discussions of the drama, I’ll point out my thoughts on differences and similarities between the book and the show.
A key disclaimer here is that we are not professors or academic scholars. We are simply Chinese history and Chinese drama fans looking to discuss this drama and the history presented in the show. For today’s episode, much of the Chinese history comes from a book by 余蔚 called 宋史 that goes over Song Dynasty history in detail. And see? For you all listeners, we actually went out and not only read the original book the drama was based on, but also bought physical Chinese history books to better fact check. Still, we recommend continuing your own research on the topics we present.
In today’s episode, we will first provide an explanation of the historical backdrop the story is set in and then discuss more about the drama itself – the main characters, the actors and actresses and any interesting facts about the production.
Without further ado, let’s get started.
Song Dynasty –
This drama is set in the Northern Song Dynasty which existed between 960 AD to 1127 AD and was founded by the soldier 赵匡胤 and thus the ruling family had the last name of 赵 and they are Han people. The capital city of the Northern Song Dynasty was 汴梁 which is Modern Day 开封 in 河南 Province.
I’m going to have a quip about the Capital city. It has a bunch of names referenced throughout the drama and I was so confused watching it. This drama does a great job referencing history and so I actually got lost watching it the first few times. The capital city called 汴梁 is also referred to 东京 or else 开封府。My question is, WHY.
The Song dynasty came to existence after a splintered period in Chinese history called the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms. The founding Emperor 赵匡胤 came from humble origins as a soldier. He started his military career at just 20 years old and worked his way up the ranks serving the Zhou Emperor, 柴荣。 At 32, 赵匡胤 was already the top military official for the Zhou Emperor. When the Zhou Emperor passed, the throne went to his young son who was only 7 at the time. 赵匡胤 took this opportunity and incited a relatively painless coup where he requested (ahem, forced) the young emperor to abdicate the throne. The young Emperor had no real power to stop this coup and acquiesced to 赵匡胤’s request in 960 AD. Thus, the Song dynasty was founded. Over the next several years, he worked to defeat the remaining kingdoms in the mainland for a unified Empire.
In total, during the Northern Song Dynasty, there were 9 emperors. In 1127, another group, the Jin dynasty of Jurchen people, who used to be a part of the Liao Dynasty headed south and invaded the Song Capital City. The Jurchen ransacked the capital city and captured the Emperor and his father. The remaining Song court fled south and created a Southern Song Dynasty. Seven Emperors ruled during the Southern Song Dynasty while the Jin dynasty took over the northern territories. The Song dynasty came to an end in 1279 due to the invasion of the Mongols.
The main adversaries for the first part of the Song dynasty was the Liao empire to the north. If anyone wants to watch a drama about this period, watch the Legend of Xiao Chuo or 燕云台 by Tiffany Tang that just aired at the end of 2020. It’s an Ok drama and does give some perspective on this group of people. Despite several attempts to conquer the Liao dynasty, the Song dynasty was not able to do so and historically han territories of places like He Bei province and present day 北京 were left to the Liao for decades. There was also the Xia people and the Da Li people amongst several others to the west and south of the Song dynasty that were constant threats. By land mass, the Song is considered one of the smallest dynasties to rule a unified area.
Despite this, the Northern Song Dynasty enjoyed great economic prosperity in its earlier years as well as scientific and artistic growth. It is considered one of the most prosperous dynasties in Chinese history. One of the reasons for this was the heavy emphasis on academics and scholars instead of military prowess. Given the lessons learned when 赵匡胤 came to power, he recognized the threat of military power. His own coup was successful because he had immense military might and recognizing this gap, he sought to prevent others from inciting a coup against him. So, the Song dynasty sought to decrease and decentralize military power.
Scholar Officials or what the Chinese call 文官 were held in extremely high regard in this dynasty, moreso than most other dynasties in Chinese history and they held posts that were previously occupied by military officials. A key aspect of the expansion of scholar officials or 文官 is the expansion and standardization of the Imperial Examination. While the Imperial Examination has existed for many centuries, the number of individuals selected to become civil servants is rather small. In the late Tang dynasty, each exam saw only around 10 people enter service. In the Song dynasty, the peak was around 1000+ people entering service per year. Of course that was overkill and it normalized to around 1-200 or so in later years. Due to the focus on Confucius and academics, many schools were set up across the country in order to train for the entrance exams. In this drama, the Story of Ming Lan, the Imperial Examination plays an integral role in the lives of the main characters and therefore we will definitely be discussing this more in the future.
This focus on scholars did bring back more emphasis on Confucius studies and also brought about generations of masters that are incredibly well known even today. In particular, under the 4th Song Emperor, 赵桢 or 宋仁宗‘s rule, you had 范仲淹, 苏轼，欧阳修，富弼，崔白， 包青天， incredibly talented scholars or painters provide their scholarly insights, writings or paintings. Many of their writings and paintings are still revered today.
If anyone is looking for a drama on Song Dynasty history, this one that came out last year called the Serenade of Peaceful Joy or 清平乐 describes in great detail the life of the a famous Song Dynasty Emperor and his subjects. It stars 王凯 as the Emperor and fans of Nirvana in Fire or 琅琊榜 will remember him as 靖王 from that show. My recommendation is to only focus on the history portion of the drama and the first half of the show because it gets very depressing at the end. It does a great job of depicting the Emperor’s life and many of these important servants and scholars but isn’t a drama I’d go back to watch.
This drama that we’re talking about, the Story of Ming Lan, is also set during this Emperor’s rule. That places us at around 1050 or so AD at the beginning of the drama. 宋仁宗 is the longest reigning Song dynasty emperor, ruling for a full 41 years which brought about stability and prosperity in the Empire. However, he did not have any surviving sons and thus his throne went to his adoptive son. The contention for the throne is a key conflict for this drama. In the last drama we discussed, Empresses in the Palace, the Emperor’s father, 康熙 had too many sons which caused the sons to fight over the throne. In this drama, the emperor does not have any sons which led to royal male family members fighting amongst each other for the title.
Before going onto discuss the drama, let me introduce you to 李清照. She is the one who wrote the line which this drama is named after.
We’ve talked about her before actually in our discussion of Empresses in the Palace. 李清照 is a Song dynasty female poet, one of the most famous in history and perhaps the most famous female poet in Chinese history. Born in 1084 ad, she came from a family of scholar-officials and she was very well educated. During her lifetime, she was well known in various circles for her talented writings. Despite being a ubiquitous writer, many of her writings were lost to history. She died at the age of 70 in 1155 after having experienced the fall of the capital to the Jurchens and fleeing her home to HangZhou where the Southern Song Dynasty established themselves.
Let’s talk about this title for a sec. The original ci or a form of essay is called:
如梦令· 昨夜雨疏风骤 written by 李清照 when she was younger.
The full form, only 33 words is as such:
昨夜雨疏风骤, 浓睡不消残酒, 试问卷帘人，却道海棠依旧。知否，知否？应是绿肥红瘦
The rough translation of the poem is this:
Last night it rained, and the deep sleep does not remove the last of the liquor. Questioning the curtain raiser, who says that the begonia flowers are still there. Does she know? Does she know? There should be more green than red.
On the surface, the poem is about flowers. The flower observer is lamenting the fact that the flowers are going to wash away after an evening of rain and was therefore drinking liquor to ease that pain. When she awakens from her deep sleep, despite the liquor her first thought is to ask of the flowers. Though the curtain raiser maid says the flowers are still there, she knows that there are more green leaves than red flowers. This poem is evoking the author’s helplessness at the inevitable. Those flowers are now gone and will not be coming back. She is able to observe this tragedy while her maid does not notice anything amiss which speaks to the author’s attention to detail and her loneliness that others cannot share her sentiment.
The original book that the drama was based on was simply called 庶女明兰传 or the The Legend of Ming Lan. I think the writers made the apt choice to rename the drama with this title because it conveys the main character’s journey during her life and it is set in the same dynasty as the drama. The translation is quite somber but in this drama – the main character, due to her situation as not being born from the wife, has to fight through adversity and challenges posed by society in the ways that she can, through intellect and perseverance. She is not the bright red begonia but the green leaves that will flourish in the end.
The author first began publishing chapters online in 2010 and completed the book in 2012. The official book was published in 2013. This book set off a wave of similar novels/stories that focused on 庶出 or children not born from the wife. As you’ll see in the drama, social hierarchy and constructs were rigid in Imperial China and it was especially difficult for women not born from wife to find a place in the world. The main character in the book is actually a time traveler. She’s a young woman working as a legal secretary and wakes up to find herself in the body of 盛明兰 after suffering an accident in present day. This is a super popular trope in Chinese novels. I personally don’t like this genre very much because it gives the main character basically supernatural powers to deal with issues. Ok – not supernatural powers, but they’ll use modern day solutions or have modern day thoughts when dealing with issues. I think it’s kind of a cop out but hey – if it was real life, literally every main character would have died a thousand times over. Just look at what happened to the ladies in 甄嬛传, Empresses in the Palace. The book also isn’t clear of what time period the story is set in. The author noted that it’s a random world with customs similar to those of the Ming Dynasty. The drama here is of course set in the Song Dynasty.
There are a ton of characters in this show and we’ll introduce each person in time. Today we’ll quickly introduce the two main leads.
盛明兰 – 赵丽颖
The drama revolves around the life of 盛明兰, the 6th daughter and 庶出 daughter of a concubine of the 盛 family from when she was a young girl. She is portrayed by 赵丽颖 or Zanilia Zhao.
赵丽颖 is one of the most popular Chinese actresses today in the Chinese entertainment business. I would say she is quite distinguished in her background as she did not come from a well known school like the Beijing Film Academy. Instead, she has a much more humble background and through her tenacity built an incredible career. I was first introduced to her in the new 还珠格格 or My Fair Princess where she played 晴儿. The entire drama was trash but she was certainly a highlight. From there, she has been in many well known dramas such as the Legend of Lu Zhen, a story about the first female prime minister that helped her gain more widespread recognition, The Journey of Flower or 花千骨, Noble Aspirations 青云志, and most popularly, 楚乔传 or Princess Agents. This past week, her latest drama, 有翡 just finished airing.
She is considered by many in the business to be a guaranteed viewership success. Of the dramas I just named, I think all of them were the highest watched dramas when airing or else had very strong ratings.
The Story of Ming Lan, though, is probably my favorite drama of hers. It really showcases her acting abilities as there’s no special effects or martial arts that she has to do here. She gets to show her strength in a way that doesn’t require her to wield a sword and I think that’s very powerful.
顾廷烨 – 冯绍峰
The main male lead of the drama. He is the second son of the Marquis of Ningyuan or 宁远侯. He’s an intelligent man but is a bit of a rake early in the drama. Through different trials and tribulations, he and 盛明兰 finally marry and try to keep a loving relationship whilst balancing all the different factions with their households and court.
冯绍峰 has been in the entertainment industry for a long while. I was first introduced to him in a drama with Ruby Lin called Boy and Girl – I absolutely loved that show but he was a cheating asshole there. He gained a ton of popularity after staring in the drama 宫锁心玉 or Palace in 2011 alongside Yang Mi. He was in Prince of Lan Ling alongside Ariel Lin in 2013 – that was decent. Over the years, he has had a bit of a reputation of being a playboy. He did have several high profile relationships over the years.
However, 赵丽颖 and 冯绍峰 are actually now married in real life. They married in October 2018 and 赵丽颖 gave birth to their first son in March 2019. This was a super high profile announcement because well, she is one of the most famous tv actresses in China, and he is quite popular too. It was quite a surprise to everyone because both parties didn’t acknowledge anything until they just posted their marriage certificate. I remember the web sort of went crazy over this bombshell. The two had known each other for many years even before they started dating because they’ve acted in other dramas and films together too including 锁清秋 or Love Tribulations back in 2009.
The last piece of information about the show today! The show was produced by 正午阳光 or Daylight productions. They have a very good reputation in the entertainment industry in China, having produced smash hits such as Nirvana on Fire, 琅琊榜, Ode to Joy, 欢乐颂, All is Well, 都挺好 in recent years. The company did have a few duds ratings wise with dramas such as 清平乐 Serenade of peaceful joy but the production values and acting have all been top notch. It’s quite competitive these days to star in one of the shows produced by this company. If you need recommendations on shows to watch – check out the ones we’ve just mentioned. They’re all very good!