Available on: Viki, YouTube
Total episode #: 73
Dumpling-rating scale: 4.5/5
It’s been a while since I’ve enjoyed every single episode in a Chinese drama. The Story of Ming Lan 知否？知否？应是绿肥红瘦 proves that you can have a 73 episode drama where each episode actually contributes to the overall plot.
As the English title literally sets out, this drama follows ‘the story of Ming Lan’ and tracks her life beginning as a concubine’s daughter to finally being a mother and wife of a high-ranking general. Along the way, there is an epic love triangle (between Qi Heng and Gu Ting Ye), harem and empire politics.
The plot — accompanied with a beautiful soundtrack and cinematography — is not only very engaging but provides insight into life during the Northern Song Dynasty. At first, I found it difficult to follow — given the number of characters and assumed knowledge of the Northern Song Dynasty. However, after some research, it finally started to make sense which increased my appreciation of the drama even further. Given this, I thought it would be useful to introduce the main characters and some background information (if you aren’t interested, skip down to the 💕 otherwise enjoy!) —
Ming Lan (portrayed as an adult by Zhao Liying 赵丽颖) is a concubine-born daughter of Sheng Hong, a scholar. The ‘Sheng’ family is a small household of low to medium standing. Although Sheng Hong isn’t very wealthy or particularly prominent he has:
- an official wife, Wang Ruo Fu. Wang Ruo Fu is from an old esteemed family. She is the third daughter of the previous Vice Minister of Revenue. Although Wang Ruofu is kindhearted, she has a fiery temper, isn’t very intelligent and is often manipulated by the people around her;
- a first/favourite concubine, Lin Qin Shuang. Lin Qin Shuang through deception and manipulation became Sheng Hong’s first concubine. Her emotional manipulation of Sheng Hong wreaks havoc in the Sheng household; and
- a second concubine, Wei Shu Yi (Ming Lan’s mother). Wei Shu Yi was sold to the Sheng family to fund medical care for her family. Although she doesn’t any power within the family, she is gracious and kind despite being treated badly in the Sheng House under Lin Qinshuang.
Family power which is directly linked to social standing is a prominent feature in the The Story of Ming Lan which is set in the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1120 CE).
Social standing during the Northern Song Dynasty (only with respect to the ‘city dwellers’ as ‘rural population’ was governed by separate system) can be broadly divided into the following three classes (in order of ‘importance’):
- Servile Class (servants usually had a contract-like relationship with their masters)
- Commoners (there would be a range of professions and wealth in this class)
- Gentry/Noble Class (this class made between 1-2% of the overall population)
Entry into the ‘Noble Class’ by the Commoners (usually wealthy Commoners) was possible through partaking in the Imperial Exam. The Imperial Exam was a generalist exam based on classics, literary styles and policy. The purpose being that the exam would:
- foster a common culture to unify the empire; and
- the ideal of achievement by merit gave legitimacy to imperial rule.
The pass rate for the Imperial Exam would be around 1%. Passing the Imperial Exam would often be a pathway into the bureaucracy (which is why passing it is such a big deal in this drama).
A distinct feature of the Northern Song Dynasty was the growing number and importance of the ‘Scholars’. They were seen as the vanguards of high morals and would keep the greedy merchants and power hungry military men in check (this is Ming Lan’s family). While respected and ‘noble’ they were not part of traditional/established class of nobility and would often not be as rich.
Established nobility would fall into the below classes in order of importance and prestige (I know I am going on about classes/families – but it really does help explain a lot of this drama):
1. Imperial House
At the top you have the Emperor and his household (of course). This class would also include the imperial consort and his family. When you take into account the all the members of the Emperor’s family this class isn’t small.
2. Dukes and Princesses
These are ‘relatives’ of the Emperor and are ‘second’ in terms of importance/prominence. In terms of our drama, Qi Heng (portrayed by Zhu Yilong 朱一龙) — Ming Lan’s first love — and his family fall into this class.
Marquesses are next in line. Our male lead Gu Ting Ye (portrayed by Feng Shao Feng 冯绍峰) is from this class. Gu Ting Ye comes from a long line of successful military men
In relation to our drama, the Liang household — who enjoy the game of jiju — is from this class.
In at 5. Viscounts and 6. Barons – there aren’t any notable Viscounts and Barons in The Story of Ming Lan so I’ll leave it at that. Phew! That was a lot of background Thanks for sticking around. I can finally get into the actual review.
💕 The Story of Ming Lan has one of the best Chinese plot lines I’ve watched to date. The pacing was also very well done. Each of the ‘arcs’ below although stories in themselves flowed very well into each other and didn’t have a filler feel.
An added bonus was Sheng Ming Lan and Gu Ting Ye’s chemistry. They really portrayed a loving couple in an understated yet convincing manner. It all made perfect sense when I found out that they are in fact married in real life and recently announced they were expecting a baby boy.
In the story, both Ming Lan and Gu Ting Ye are considered ‘geniuses’ in their own right. Both had also endured a lot of suffering as a result of their families. However, their personality types could not be more different.
Ming Lan is guarded. She does everything in her power to remain out of sight and out of people’s way. Ming Lan deals her challenges covertly. Gu Ting Ye is the exact opposite. He is bold and confident. He deals with his challenges out in the open and with gusto.
Given how much I loved this story, I really enjoyed putting together this episode arc. Before I get started please note that there are ‼️major spoilers‼️
The Story of Ming Lan can be divided into the following six arcs, I’ve listed them below and placed a 🌟 next to my favorites :
- Arc 1 | Episodes 1 – 4 | Ming Lan’s childhood
- Arc 2 | Episodes 5 – 22 | First Loves
- Arc 3 | Episodes 23 – 35 | Life and Bloodshed
- Arc 4 | Episodes 36 – 40 | Ming Lan marries 🌟
- Arc 5 | Episodes 41 – 67 | Ming Lan and her ‘family’ 🌟
- Arc 6 | Episodes 68 – 73 | Family and the Nation 🌟
Arc 1 | Episodes 1 – 4 | Ming Lan’s childhood
The first four episodes provide necessary background into what drives Ming Lan and also shows how far her relationship with Gu Ting Ye actually extends.
Of Sheng Hong’s three wives, Ming Lan’s mother lives in the poorest conditions with barely enough supplies to feed her family and keep them warm. The subsistence living is attributable to Lin Qin Shuang greed and as she has control over the harems finances she ensures that Ming Lan’s mother barely gets enough to live.
Lin Qin Shuang’s greed and intent on pushing Ming Lan’s mother causes her death after Lin Qin Shuang refuses to let a doctor see her during childbirth. Only Gu Ting Ye assists Ming Lan to get a doctor. His kindness greatly affects Ming Lan.
After Ming Lan’s mother passes away, Grandma arrives to take Ming Lan away with her. One of my favorite scenes is when Grandma reprimands Sheng Hong when he suggests that she should instead adopt Mo Lan as she is the better child. Grandma — knowing full well that Lin Qin Shuang’s deliberate actions resulted in Ming Lan’s death — is appalled by her own son and calls it how it is: since when is a guilty party to be rewarded for their actions. With that Ming Lan starts a new life under Grandma.
Arc 2 | Episodes 5 – 22 | First Loves
This is a relatively long arc and it is not where our couple pair up (which was slightly confusing to watch – I did begin to wonder if Qi Heng was in fact the first lead). What we get is the beginnings of Ming Lan’s fraught relationship with Qi Heng and Gu Ting Ye’s relationship with the psychotic Man Niang.
Ming Lan and Qi Heng’s relationship was very PG. Qi Heng’s admiration and fascination with Ming Lan was adorable but not in touch with reality. This was particularly obvious when he kept misunderstanding how his actions would cause Ming Lan problems (more than she already had) with her household.
Qi Heng naiveté in believing that he could be with Ming Lan was also quite painful to watch especially when all he could do was plead with those in positions power (his mother) and not actually ever step up. His words were not followed up by actions and that was frustrating.
Quite the opposite was Gu Ting Ye’s relationship with Man Niang which was quite scandalous (to say the least!). Against the counsel of every around him, Gu Ting Ye ‘buys’ Man Niang, tears up her servant contract and has two kids with her.
Man Niang, knowing full well family status tries to make her way to Gu Manor only for her and Gu Ting Ye to be thrown out (we can also thank Gu Ting Ye’s legitimate mother and his extended family for this).
After Man Niang is caught by Gu Ting Ye selling his birth mother’s dowry she runs away essentially kidnapping they son Chan’er.
Arc 3 | Episodes 23 – 35 | Life and Bloodshed
There were four main plot lines in this arc:
- Ming Lan assisting her cousin divorce from her wretched husband;
- Ming Lan’s failing relationship with Qi Heng;
- Ming Lan avenging her mother’s death; and
- welcoming a new emperor.
The arc was by far the most traumatizing to watch. It provided a glimpse into the lives (and deaths) of the servants and those low born, particularly in relation to Ming Lan and Qi Heng’s failing relationship plot line. I developed a deep resentment of Qi Heng’s mother during this arc and could not get over her utter disregard for life.
We have waited a while for this but Ming Lan is finally is to avenge her mother’s death in this arc. By fooling Mo Lan and Lin Qin Shuang into believing she is interested in Liang Han (whose mother Lady Wu really wants Ming Lan as a daughter-in-law) she in some ways contributed to Mo Lan engaging in a scandalous affair with Liang Han.
While Mo Lan was able to marry Liang Han (as his main wife, which was super prestigious as he is a ‘Count’) the affair resulted in the death of her mother. Ming Lan was able to visit Man Liang before her death and remind her of her conduct towards Ming Lan’s mother.
Meanwhile, Gu Ting Ye is slowly climbing the ranks. Aligning himself with the future Emperor, he valiantly crushes the attempted coup by Prince Yan, reinstates the existing Emperor and is a part of the new Emperor’s ascension to the throne.
Gu Ting Ye’s is back. More powerful and revered than before. He triumphantly returns to Gu Manor and takes his rightful place.
Arc 4 | Episode 36 – 40 | Ming Lan marries 🌟
It has taken us a while to get here but Ming Lan finally gets married. And to none other than Gu Ting Ye.
We had been getting early hints that he was interested in Ming Lan (since Gu Ting Ye saved Ming Lan from drowning in episode 23) but who knew he was that interested!
Gu Ting Ye (the genius) knows that he has a reputation of being a libertine and understands that Grandma would not permit Ming Lan to marry him under normal circumstances. So what does he do? He devises a plan to draw Ming Lan away from He Hong Wen — an honest doctor and grandma’s choice — but also to essentially get the Emperor to endorse their marriage, something not even Grandma can refuse.
Ming Lan is initially horrified by Gu Ting Ye’s actions (especially because it gets Ru Lan into a lot of trouble) but is finally moved by Gu Ting Ye earnest and heartfelt profession of love in Episode 39. So moved that she happily agrees to marry him in Episode 40.
Meanwhile, Qi Heng — who is now a widower — passes the Imperial Exam. His mother –after all the destruction she has witnessed and caused — consent and asks on his behalf for Ming Lan’s hand in marriage. However they are too late, Ming Lan is already betrothed to Gu Ting Ye and Qi Heng is devasted. Although he goes and pleads to Ming Lan, he is turned away and Ming Lan in her wisdom tells to Dan Ju “we never look back.”
Arc 5 | Episodes 41 – 67 | Ming Lan and her ‘family’ 🌟
Being married into Marquese and a powerful general is not all its cut out to be as Ming Lan finds out. However, as her in-laws soon also find out, Ming Lan is not to trifled with and she definitely can hold her own.
This was one of my favorite because:
- Gu Ting Ye and Ming Lan are finally a couple, and Gu Ting Ye absolutely adores and dotes on Ming Lan;
- Ming Lan on the other hand is still getting use to being the subject of such affection and is learning to love Gu Ting Ye.
However, their marriage is anything but smooth as Ming Lan’s in-laws employ a number of tactics to control and disrupt their marital bless.
Amongst, many other things, Lady Qin (and her co-conspirators) introduce and force Ming Lan to accept servants who they intend to use as spies and seductresses.
Next they push Ming Lan to accept multiple concubines into the household including Gu Ting Ye’s ex Man Niang. Man Niang in her short time in the manor stabs Gu Ting Ye, almost straggles Rong’er to death and reveals that their son Chang’er (who Gu Ting Ye has been endlessly searching for) is dead.
At their worst, Lady Qin brings Lady Kang (who is Ming Lan’s legitimate aunt) back into her life. Lang Kang (colluding with Lady Qin, Gu Ting Ye’s legitimate mother) intends to instate her ‘legitimate daughter’ as a concubine in Ming Lan’s household. Lady Kang’s motive is for her legitimate daughter to commit suicide and make it look like a murder in order to frame Gu Ting Ye.
Upon finding this out, Ming Lan’s grandma is furious and takes it out on her daughter-in-law Wang Ruo Fu for failing to protect Ming Lan against her aunt. Wang Ruo Fu upset, is manipulated by Lady Kang and inadvertently poisons Grandma.
Ming Lan in obviously furious and adopts some underhanded tactics to capture Lady Kang and bring her to justice.
Thankfully, Grandma survives and Ming Lan’s second brother in his justice banishes his mother for 10 years and intends to punish his aunt the same (I like him a lot). The Kang and Wang have no option but accept. But before they can, Molan always wishing ill on Min Lang, releases Lady Kang (set on revenge) goes to Lady Qin once more…
What I particularly like about this arc was its subtle messaging on who family really is. As it is made clear by the protagonist of this drama (Ming Lang and her second brother), it is not who is blood related to you but who has been there for you. The best example is Grandma. Grandma is not Sheng Hong (who was concubine born) or Ming Lan blood relation however she took them, loves them like her own and does her very best by them. That is family.
Arc 6 | Episodes 68 – 73 | Family and the Nation 🌟
The Story of Ming Lan definitely left the best for last and I have already re-watched these 5 episodes countless times.
This arc commences with Ming Lan about to give birth, their manor on fire and Lady Kang on the loose. In the commotion, Lady Kang attempts to kill Ming Lan’s reborn son. As she is about to stab them, Gu Ting Ye come in and puts a sword through her chest.
However, the consequences of his action are ‘grave’. Lady Qin and Lady Kang’s family take advantage of her death to bring Gu Ting Ye down. It first looks like they have succeeded and Gu Ting Ye is apparently banished by the Emperor to the far borders of the kingdom.
Qi Heng really redeems himself in this arc. He takes action (finally) and with the help of his wife provides assistance to Ming Lan. Qi Heng also realizing what a gem he has finally is able to let go of Ming Lan and start his life with his wife.
It is our main couple though who have my heart. It is revealed that the Emperor’s harsh treatment of Gu Ting Ye was all a rouse to flush out the rebels and ill-wisher in his court including the Dowager Empress, the Imperial Consort, her brother-in-law and Lady Qin.
During the attempted coup, Man Niang is killed (while she tries to kill Ming Lan’s son) and Lady Qin realizing she had been outplayed by Gu Ting Ye kills herself. The Dowager Empress (after the failed coup) realizes that the new Emperor is far more competent than she thought and finally cedes all her power over (its sad that so many lives had to be lost for her to realize this).
Another pivotal moment was Rong’er calling Ming Lan “mum” (*tears*). Ming Lan obviously moved was even more resolute in protecting her new family. There was a real moment relief and triumph when Gu Ting Ye comes through the gates of the manor to Ming Lan’s side. I truly love this couple.
The final scene was also exquisitely done (and I don’t say that about many Chinese dramas) — Ming Lan is surrounded by her loved ones and living a peaceful life. Finally, fulfilling the wish of her mother and grandmother.
The only part I felt uncomfortable with was the return of Mo Lan. She acted abhorrently throughout the drama and yet her entire family ignore it. I suppose karma works in a weird ways? Her husband (that her mother died for) does leave her for her maidservant, that could be punishment enough?
Aside from that objection, I absolutely adored The Story of Ming Lan and will be re-watching it.
What did you think of The Story of Ming Lan?