Skip to the final section for a quick, spoiler-free rating.
The Story of Minglan (Chinese title: 知否？知否？应是绿肥红瘦) follows the lives of various characters and families as they navigate the upper echelon of Song Dynasty society. That is, of course, the bare bone description of an incredibly intricate, seventy-three-episode long Chinese period drama. A full-blown plot breakdown would take me too long, and anything in between would not do it justice. That being said, Wikipedia provides a summary that scratched the surface.
Since discovering The Story of Minglan back in late-2019, I’ve watched this drama in its entirety and in pieces about eight billion times, give or take. Yes, it’s that good!
An Ensemble of Grounded, Complex Characters
Sheng Minglan is undoubtedly the drama’s lead, but the rest of the characters are such that each of them could have carried their own show. I would’ve loved to watch a whole drama about Grandma Sheng’s life from her disastrous marriage into the Sheng family to her raising a concubine’s son to adulthood, or how Liu Xiaodie made a life for herself after being cast out of the Sheng household, or Granny Chang’s struggle to raise the only surviving child of her mistress, or Madam Zhang’s day-to-day struggle after she married General Shen, or-
You get the point.
But for brevity’s sake, I’ll just focus on why the two main leads are reasons enough that everybody must watch this drama.
Sheng Minglan (Zhao Liying) is a quiet and restrained leading lady. At least, that’s how she started out. Thanks to the early trauma of witnessing her mother’s death during childbirth, Minglan grows up a careful, reserved, and risk-averse person who’s unwilling to draw any attention to her intelligence and skills. We only see her real personality come out when her loved ones get hurt, as in the case of her childhood best friend Yu Yanran being bullied. It’s not until Minglan’s eventual marriage to Gu Tingye, and through his active encouragement, that she really comes out of her shell and into her fullest potential.
Minglan is a person who understands her exact position in her household and in society, and who knows how to use every bit of social propriety and expectations to her advantage. She’s introspective, empathetic, patient, and kind. Equally, she’s calculating, stubborn, ruthless, and not afraid to use each and every person around her to achieve her goal. This makes her an immensely satisfying protagonist to follow—she makes absolute certainty that her enemies get the justice they deserve, and it’s beautiful to watch. There’s a strength in her that you rarely see in the main characters of any other Chinese drama, of all genres, male or female led.
Unlike his wife to-be, Gu Tingye (Feng Shaofeng) is abrasive, outspoken, and hot-tempered. He wears his tattered reputation as a thing of pride at first, and then later as sword and shield. He’s the perfect contrast and complement to Minglan.
It’s not often that a male lead has a growth trajectory completely independent from the female lead. Usually, a male lead’s character development hinges on his romantic feelings for the leading lady, but that’s not the case here. While Minglan goes through her own trials and tribulations, we see Gu Tingye’s backstory paralleling hers in real time instead of through angsty flashbacks like we typically see in other dramas, which is a huge reason why he’s so incredibly refreshing.
A Main Pairing That Made No Sense Until It Actually Happened
Prior to them becoming a Thing, Minglan and Gu Tingye’s paths crossed a number of times and they’ve majorly influenced each other’s lives from those few meetings, but the drama has always framed those interactions as something on the peripheral of the ongoing main story. Their relationship progression is so subtle that it baffled me right up until the last moment as to how they could possibly be the main couple. Surely Minglan and Young Lord Qi, Minglan’s initial love interest, will find a way back to each other?!
Then that first Pride and Prejudice-esque confession scene happened in Sheng Hualan’s courtyard, and things just clicked; these two people are made for one another. Their friction, their opposing principles, and their wits and clashes are so much fun to watch.
Most importantly, it quickly became clear that Minglan was never going to be herself with any of her other suitors. Had her puppy love with Young Lord Qi succeeded, she would’ve likely married into a household where she’s forever living under the thumb of her in-laws. Had her amicable engagement with He Hongwen, her grandmother’s pick for her husband, come to fruition, the most she could’ve hoped for would’ve been a civil but lukewarm marriage. Out of her three love interests, only Gu Tingye understands her and actively embraces her true self.
Plus, the fact that Feng Shaofeng and Zhao Liying are married in real life just takes the cake.
The Story & Favorite Moments
The Story of Minglan is a drama with the pace of slice-of-life, albeit a relatively fast moving one. The momentum of the plot never slowed down, but it also never got too fast or intense to the point where you’d need to take a breather. The story arcs flow masterfully from one to the other. There are no filler episodes, very little unnecessary scenes, and practically no wasted dialogue or drawn out storylines.
Having rewatched the drama several times in whole and in chunks, there are definitely some favorite moments I found myself keep revisiting:
- The arc about Molan’s marriage and Lin Qinshuang’s demise is by far the most satisfying
- Episodes 38 and 39, or as I like to refer to them, the heart of the Pride and Prejudice arc. The two confession scenes, the confrontation scene between Gu Tingye and Qi Heng, and the passive aggressive scene with Big Madam Wang and the Princess of Pingning are *chef’s kiss*
- The scene where Sheng Shulan chews out her scummy ex-husband
- When Changbai stands up to his maternal grandmother after she and his aunt try to throw Big Madam Wang under the proverbial bus
- That episode where Minglan wields a sword and threatens (and does) cut a bitch
There are a lot more, but those are my top ones.
The Stunning Backdrop of the Song Dynasty
I know next to nothing about the Song Dynasty beyond what I read on Wikipedia. I have no idea how accurate anything is in The Story of Minglan or how much liberty they took (*coughs*Minglan’s bangs*coughs*), but for the most part, the production team was faithful to history.
The costumes won’t blow anyone’s mind, but they feel true to the setting. The hairpieces are believably intricate—none of that 30-metric ton hairdo for female characters, sorry @ The Empress of China. Every little detail, from the houses, to the mannerisms of the characters, to the decor in the background, seems meticulously planned. These are entirely uninformed impressions, but I think it’s a testament to how good of a job the Costume and Design department of a drama did when you’re not distracted by the small things.
The crew also released some fascinating behind-the-scenes looks on YouTube. Here’s one of many videos, for those of you out there who understand Chinese:
(I read somewhere that the The Story of Minglan novel took place in the Ming Dynasty, but they changed it to the Song Dynasty for the drama. Can anyone confirm? And did the director or writers ever explain why?)
No Voice Overs!
This is only the second Chinese costume drama I’ve seen that doesn’t utilize voice dubs and does it well. I found the actors’ various regional accents pleasant and a help to the overall drama and their individual characters, rather than an annoyance and a distraction.
I hope this becomes a new trend in the Chinese film industry, and we get more quality dramas like The Story of Minglan that turn what used to be a drawback into an advantage.
Flaws and Wishes Unfulfilled
If The Story of Minglan has one flaw, it’s the ending. It’s not a bad ending, per se, it’s just kind of confusing.
First of all, it took me several rewatches of the last two episodes to figure out who this woman is.
She’s a courtesan surnamed Wei and Gu Tingye’s confidante. She appeared with him in the early episodes where Minglan played a game of polo against Yanran’s younger half-sister, and again in a later episode when Gu Tingye visited a brothel with General Shen and General Duan. The only reason I picked up on this was because her actress, Li Ruoning, also played Consort Qing in Story of Yanxi Palace.
I have no idea who the guy she leaves her brothel with is, or why this scene is pivotal enough that they left it in the penultimate episode. Anyone care to enlighten me?
Secondly, the way the drama ended with Gu Tingye coming “back from the dead” last minute to rescue Bianjing City felt too deus ex machina, even though it turns out to be all part of the Emperor’s plan.
My problem isn’t that its not believable, but that prior to this, the drama had never “excluded” the audience before. For the first 71 episodes, I was with Minglan and Gu Tingye every step of the way. We were in on every plan, every trick, every secret, and every twist and turn of their story, if not from her perspective, then from his. The fact that this wasn’t the case in this final sequence of events took me out of the plot as the viewer. Even Minglan taking the time to explain things in the last half of the final episode didn’t make up for it.
My last complaint isn’t a flaw as much as it is a wish. I really wanted to see more of Minglan and Rong’jie. Episode 72 is the first time Minglan’s step-daughter called her “mother”, and instead of showing us a conclusion to this new dynamic in the end, the drama opted for a harmonious family reunion scene. I’d much rather watch Minglan and Rong’jie talk things out as mother and daughter, to be honest…
Final Rating and Recommendations
The Story of Minglan is a story that lives somewhere between slice-of-life and all-out melodrama, with refreshing nuances baked into time-old cliches and tropes. It’s bingeable, pleasing to the eyes, and a comforting watch for anyone who finds revisiting a good show calming to the nerves.
The Story of Minglan is not without flaws. Certainly, if you’ve seen it as many times as I have, you can begin spotting some repetitions in the dialogues. A couple of things went also unexplained, and the ending was quite a leap to make. But in my opinion, it’s as objectively perfect a drama as Chinese period dramas gets. I highly, highly recommend that everyone put it on their must-watch list!
My rating: 9.5/10