Spoiler warning: This contains some spoilers from 'The Story of Ming Lan'.
Sheng Ming Lan, the title character of the 2018 drama The Story of Ming Lan, is formally addressed as the Sixth Miss of the Sheng family, but friends and family know her as Mi'er. She strives to live simply and quietly for practical and personal reasons: in the wake of her birth mother's scandalous death, she learns her best offense is a good defense. Furthermore, she is neglected by her father who heavily favours his second wife, Concubine Lin, and ignored by her mother* who focuses on her own children or ways to oust Concubine Lin. Hence, she blends into obscurity, observes all the rules, and quietly observes her family scheme. These are not the schemes of an Imperial Harem but the day-to-day schemes of a family seeking to further their own interests. By observing others, Mi'er learns how to spot fires, how to avoid traps, and how to use the rigid rules of etiquette that all women must abide by to her advantage.
After she marries into the Gu family, she must avoid riskier plots and take bigger risks to protect the people that she loves. Gu Ting Ye loves Mi'er unconditionally and supports her in all things. Theirs is a marriage not representative of the period--most men had numerous wives--but grounded in reality as the two must work as a team if they are to navigate and survive the dangerous road ahead. Times are dangerous, and the two work together to avoid becoming embroiled in the conflict between the new emperor and the empress dowager in addition to the daily threat presented by Gu Ting Ye's stepmother, Lady Qin.
This drama is character driven, with meticulous attention given to character growth and development for all characters. Every character is complex and empathetic, even the ones who fall into the category of the antagonist. As the viewer we observe firsthand how choices and actions build on each other, culminating in enormous successes or epic downfalls of people who were given opportunities or advice, or pressed with circumstances that should have led to their behaviour changing were they not so consumed by their resolve.
Due to the complexity of the show, very tongue in cheek dialogue is sometimes ended with a Chinese proverb or excerpt from the Art of War for summary (I will expand on these during character summaries). In addition to the attention given to the script, every scene, down to where a person stands to camera angle, is designed with an eye towards maximum impact. The costumes are stunning, the sets are authentic, even the food consumed is meticulously chosen.
This is a long list. I selected characters based off of the amount of screen time they receive.
Sheng Ming Lan understands the practical application of the Art of War and has a firm grasp of her reality. She also understands the limitations that come from her status as a concubine born. She is an expert in avoiding conflict, but she is also human and whether she likes it or not, some things are unavoidable. Emotions get in the way but in a way that is not inconsistent with being a normal woman. It is important to note that she does not hold grudges because she does not blame others for her situation. I can count on my hand the instances when she was driven into a rage, and she had good cause too. This humanizes her and prevents her from being perfect, a victim, and self-righteous.
Gu Ting Ye, also known as Second Uncle, is the second son of the Marquis of Gu and heir (his elder brother is extremely sickly and the clan has known he will not live long into adulthood). He is a scholar and genius, and a god of death on the battlefield. He presents as a jovial and smoothly sarcastic individual. When this is coupled with his indifference to gossip and dreadful reputation as a terrible person (lies spread by the Gu family) he is perceived as the worst kind of son-in-law to have. It is easy to forget how cunning he is given his personality and interactions with others, but he is capable of outwitting the female lead, which says a lot. He values loyalty and honesty the most and has always put Ming Lan first to the point of willing to go through hell and high water to support her relationship with another.
Qi Heng, also known as Young Lord or Yuan Ruo, is the only son and child of the Duke of Qi and Princess Pingning. He is considered the most eligible bachelor and is a gem among men not just because he is good looking, but among noble families, where most male heirs are wastrels, Yuan Ruo is a model of male behaviour. He is intelligent, amicable, ethical, and upholds the moral laws. He does not womanize. He falls in love with Ming Lan and works to convince his mother to accept Ming Lan but it is not meant to be; the marriage of nobles is simply not in their hands and he is expected to marry a princess. His weakness is his indecisiveness and inability to gamble i.e. play a big hand to reap a big reward.
Sheng Molan, affectionately known as Mo'er, and formerly as Fourth Miss, is the daughter of Concubine Lin and is a lot like her. She is the most beautiful sister, eloquent, and skilled in the arts and poetry. She pushes herself to always be the best because she has been taught since birth that as a concubine's daughter she must fight for greatness. These qualities are her greatest strength and weakness because her ambition means she must be shameless and resort to underhanded means to achieve what legitimate daughters are handed. She often mirrors the helpless/crying act of her mother but is provoked to no end by her sister Rulan.
Sheng Rulan, affectionately known as Ru'er, formerly known as Fifth Miss, is very much like her mother. She is prideful, direct, and lacks tact. She is simple and direct, unabashedly and honestly calling others out when they transgress. She is not ambitious and wants a simple and easy life having seen the difficulty her eldest sister has faced. Her greatest weakness lays in her mouth: she brazenly speaks her mind, often leading to her being repeatedly punished by her father for impertinence and leaving others at a loss for words. She regularly provokes Molan in order to vent her frustration and anger, for Molan seems to never be held accountable for her actions.
Sheng Hong is the patriarch of the family. He is concubine born and worked hard to raise himself up from nothing, and he has a deep and abiding affection for Old Madame who protected him even though she is not his biological mother. He cares the most about reputation because his hard work and honesty have led to his promotions. However, he is also human and has a soft heart for Concubine Lin whose status reminds him of his mother. His spoiling of Concubine Lin creates disharmony in his home and is the source of many conflicts in the series. He loves all of his children but favours the children of Concubine Lin the most.
Wang Ruofo, regularly referred to as Big Madame, is the legitimate first wife of Master Sheng. She is actually a kind person and takes her role as the first wife seriously. Her weakness is her short-sightedness and her strong emotions: she reacts to events at the moment and her judgment is clouded by emotions, hence she does not see the long term plan until she calms down. This makes her easy prey for Concubine Lin's schemes which has her looking like a jealous wife and incapable of running her own house. She loves her children deeply and is constantly bickering with her husband although she loves him.
Lin Quinshiang, otherwise known as Concubine Lin, used her beauty and wit to carefully ensnare Master Sheng after studying him and realizing she could manipulate him. Having no family to rely on means her biggest fear is losing the affection of the Master because she only has him. Hence, she pours her heart and soul into the image she has created: a helpless woman forced to endure the humiliation of being a powerless concubine, but she is anything but powerless. Concubine Lin is treated so favourably that at times it is said she is treated better than the Main Wife. She has lofty ambitions for her children in order to protect their future, and she will achieve those ends at any cost.
Old Madame is the legitimate (but not birth) mother of Sheng Hong. She raises Ming Lan and adores and cherishes her. Old Madame very rarely interferes in the governing of the home because she does not want to disrespect her daughter in law but sometimes she must in order to protect the family or Ming Lan. She initially wanted Ming Lan to marry a simple man so she would not have to walk on eggshells like she has had to do in her family home. She provides Ming Lan with a great deal of wisdom and is someone whom Ming Lan would die for.
Lady Qin, the stepmother of Gu Ting Ye, often referred to as 'Evil MIL'. She is an incredibly well-crafted antagonist. Lady Qin has the outward appearance of a buddhavista but she is a snake. Her entire life she has been carefully planning for her own son to be the Marquis. Her skill is so fantastic because she has perfected the art of manipulating others to do her dirty work, without them realizing they are being used, and thus she always comes out with her hands clean.
Who Should Watch? Who Should Not Watch?
Most reviewers have compared this drama to Nirvana in Fire in terms of how well done it is. The romance is a strong thematic element but it is just one branch of a big tree, the big tree being Ming Lan. This show may feel like a slow burner to some or boring to others because so much of it is dialogue. This is not an epic show like Ashes of Love or Eternal Love with equal parts melodrama and fighting and professions of love. It is much more grounded in reality.
I think if you enjoy history you will have a deep appreciation for this show. The actors seemed hand-picked for their roles. I think it is fantastic and very re-watchable. I watched it on Viki, and can divide it into the following 'arcs': Childhood: 1-4; Late Teens: 5-21; The Countryside/Recovery: 22-27; Marriages of Everyone But Ming Lan: 28-33; A New Emperor, 34-36; Ming Lan Marriage Partners: 37-39; Ming Lan Gets Married: 40; 40-End, you just have to see. Give it a chance, but keep in mind, it's ok to quit if it isn't your 'type'.
Happy watching, and feel free to comment!!
(Photos courtesy of http://jolecole.blogspot.com/2018/03/release-of-story-of-ming-lan-character.html)