Sheng Ming Lan is the sixth child, hence her nickname Little Six, of Sheng Hong, a lower level government official who is part of the noble class. The story begins when Ming Lan is eight years of age who is living in a small room with her mother who is a concubine of Sheng Hong. You will learn throughout this story that in ancient China, men having multiple wives is a very common practice, especially for the wealthy men. Ming Lan is a pretty outspoken child at this age, pretty rare for a female of any age during that time. She is bold enough to complain to her father of the lack of coal for her mother during the cold. She also challenges a twelve year old Gu Ting Ye to a game of throwing arrows into little holes for a certain amount of points. Her mother is the opposite, jaded by her impoverished upbringing, Ming Lan’s mother considers herself lucky if her husband visits to share tea.
Ming Lan’s father has his favorite concubine, Lin QinShuang, the mother to Ming Lan’s second brother and fourth sister. With the favoring of his concubine, Sheng Hong’s main wife, Ming Lan’s big mother, is disregarded by most of the house servants and slaves. Lin QinShuang, knowing that Ming Lan’s pregnant mother could have a son who could rival that of her own son, so she indirectly causes the death of Ming Lan’s mother. Ming Lan never forgets this, and as she gets older, her understanding of the unfortunate situation becomes her a burning fire beneath her feet.
Fast forward to 16 years of age, Ming Lan is a modest young girl who gets caught between the petty arguments of her ambitious fourth sister (daughter of the concubine) and her petulant fifth sister (daughter of the main mother). Having been taken in by her grandmother after her mother’s death, Ming Lan is protected against the power struggle between the two wives of her father. She attends a school along with her sisters and two brothers. Unbeknownst to her, Ming Lan catches the eye of another one of her male school mates, Qi Heng, the illustrious only son of a duke and princess. Far above her rank, their pairing would be against acceptable social norms, however, this young man makes continuous efforts to woo Ming Lan. Ming Lan is already closed off by nature by hiding her innate intelligence and opinionated judgements, but as first loves tend to do, she lowers her wall with the perseverance of this handsome boy.
Agreeing to marry Qi Heng after he fights for his parents approval, Ming Lan is blindsided by the news that Qi Heng is getting married to another high born lady. Ming Lan is crushed and so are her views on the reliance of a marriage based on love. She chooses practicality over passion along with the insistence of her grandmother whom wants only peace for her granddaughter whose had a harder life than most. While her grandmother searches for a suitable husband for Ming Lan, Ming Lan is in contact with her biological aunt who has suspicions about the way Ming Lan’s mother died. Once all the facts of what happened eight years earlier come to light, Ming Lan devises a plan of revenge against Lin QinShuang.
Gu Ting Ye has been present in Ming Lan’s life but never a constant presence until he becomes a fixture after saving her twice from a raided boat and bandits. Ting Ye himself has survived a scheming step mother and a philandering reputation that has tainted his relationship with his father and his chances at passing the government exam. After a failed affair that resulted in a son and daughter, Ting Ye is left only with his daughter and the fear of a missing son. Ming Lan encourages him to improve his living conditions for his daughter. With his natural athletic ability and quick wit, Gu Ting Ye rises to a high rank in the military to an insignificant prince who later becomes emperor after saving the palace from a rebellion. As the new emperor’s most trusted man, Gu Ting Ye is now one of the richest men in the capital, still unmarried, and the head of his household. With his sights set on Ming Lan, Ting Ye ingeniously conceptualizes a plot to obtain Ming Lan’s hand in marriage against her very own wishes.
Woo, now we are officially halfway through the show here. However, the best has yet to come. At the beginning of this marriage, Ming Lan must counter the evil acts of her selfish mother-in-law who attempts to invade their manor at any convenience to learn secrets she could use to take down Gu Ting Ye. On the other hand, the obnoxious sister of Ming Lan’s main mother is trying to use Ming Lan’s newfound status to find a noble occupation for her son. Ming Lan is attacked on all sides by the narrow-minded society women who blame her for being concubine born and her own family members who separate themselves from any type of scandal associated with her. Her grandmother is her only unwavering support.
The stakes continue to heighten. Ming Lan’s stepmother’s intentions become murderous, her evil aunt begins to scheme against Ming Lan’s innocent grandmother, and Gu Ting Ye’s duplicitous mistress comes back without his son in her hands. In the palace the Empress Dowager believes Ting Ye is the mastermind behind the stability of the new emperor which she wants to take down. Through all of this, Ming Lan and Ting Ye continue to squabble but stay united through the worst. These problems only make them grow closer. Ming Lan even becomes pregnant. Their happiness over the soon to be newborn is dashed when Ting Ye is accused of treachery against the emperor. He is sent out to war in which Ming Lan hears he dies on the battlefield. When the palace is hit with another rebellion, Ting Ye arrives to save the day once more and for the birth of his son. All is well in the Northern Song Dynasty once again, or for as long as Ming Lan and Ting Ye are around.
Each main character in Ming Lan is as complicated as a three hundred page biography. Some backstories are presented as explanation while others are assumed. Personalities can be contracting, constantly evolving, or too stubborn to ever change at all. Some characters, for me, were hard to understand and I credit myself on trying to find sympathy for even to most twisted of villains. As the acting was concerned, I haven’t seen a cast more professional than this one in a long time, or maybe ever.
Zhao Yi Ling as Sheng Ming Lan
Strengths: Resilient, Intelligent, Wise, Compassionate, Loyal, Trustworthy, and Good at Polo
Weaknesses: Unforgiving, Hurt by First Love, Illegitimately-Born, and Impulsive
Zhao YiLing is credited as one of the best actresses in China for a reason, she is as adaptable as a chameleon. Even though she portrays the same character from age 16 to years after, she seems to grow older as the show goes on. From her shy smiles at the beginning to her acting out the birth of a child while hanging on a white fabric dripping in sweat is as believable as the rain outside my window right now. Very few people can match the depth of the character of Ming Lan to the actual portrayal, and Zhao YiLing does just that. Ming Lan’s inner thoughts are never revealed unless voiced to her grandmother or personal maid, but the audience is touched by every clever spark in her eye or innocent smirk towards her ignorant sisters. We see the environment around Ming Lan greatly affect her survival instincts yet she continues to fight for justice for herself. She picks herself up after an insulting ending to a first love, the death of her mother at eight years of age, the oppressing gender roles of society, and multiple endangering situations.
However, she’s no one woman show. What I love most about this character is watching her find the sincere connections in life that make existence the most meaningful. Ming Lan doesn’t shy away from true friendship and after going through life and death together, her and Gu Ting Ye are more than just two strangers bound by a red string. The only bothersome aspect of her personality is her cluelessness towards the romantic emotions Gu Ting Ye tries to express over and over. Multiple times I smacked my head at such a logical perspective taken on marriage in which you see it as a team of two working together to make peace. Practicality is hard to accept for me as such a romantic, but as Ming Lan has only seen men like her father and first love betray the trust of women or get betrayed in return, she protects herself from the painful side of emotions. This even made me look back at my own failed relationships and think, yeah…. I kind of did the same thing just not to such an extreme since my livlihood doesn’t depend on marriage. THANK YOU 21st CENTURY!
Feng ShaoFeng as Gu Ting Ye
Strengths: Good at Martial Arts, Intelligence, Quick-Witted, Loyal, Romantic, Strong-Willed, and Totally Swoon-Worthy
Weaknesses: Stubborn, Emotional, Self-Absorbed, and Playboy Reputation
I almost thought this show should have been called The Story of Ming Lan and Gu Ting Ye. His life is given almost as much screen time as Ming Lan’s. Since a young child, Gu Ting Ye has harbored the pain of losing a mother who isn’t even honored by her own family. His father physically abuses him and believes he is the cause of most of the problems of the household. His stepmother is revealed as the main antagonist behind all his troubles, especially when he becomes successful instead of his younger brother. Gu Ting Ye is independent as a result of self-reliance from a young age. He finds comfort in his friends around him, one being the older brother of Ming Lan. Holding onto the same friends for a lifetime is a rare feat, yet Gu Ting Ye remains loyal to all those he considers companions. You couldn’t find a more reliable man anywhere else, nor more talented. It goes the other way around though; have him as an enemy, and well, you better keep a knife under your bed at night.
Feng ShaoFeng, now the real-life hubby of Zhao YiLing, is now only Gu Ting Ye to me. Its so hard because I don’t know if I will ever watch another drama of his because he did such a good job at this character I don’t want to ruin my image of Gu Ting Ye (I cry silently in my heart). His little side-eye glances at Ming Lan; his laugh that sounds adorably evil; his tears when he is bowed over the grave; his manipulation of his best friend for the hand of his younger sister. Feng ShaoFeng never once overacted nor stood like a statue, even in the background of scenes. And no matter how hard I tried, (I might be a biased heterosexual female), but I can’t find one complaint about this character besides the fact that he did almost leave his pregnant wife at death’s door twice, but that one I”ll address when talking about the plot.
Zhu YiLong as Qi Heng
Strengths: Intelligent, Gentle, Humanitarian, and Sincere
Weaknesses: Gullible, Weak-Willed, and Heartbroken
I have never seen Zhu YiLong in a drama before, but with his flower boy face and slender build, he fit the image of a well-intentioned boy fed with a golden spoon who is stuck between society and a hard place. Qi Heng, Ming Lan’s first love, is almost admirable in his determination to make the woman he loves his wife no matter if she is the daughter of a lower official and a concubine. I even cheer him on when he makes his admiration public at a polo match, but knowing that Gu Ting Ye was coming into the picture, I slaved through 30 episodes until Ting Ye got his chance. Qi Heng is a character I neither hold much love for but no ill will towards either. He was a factor as a turning point in Ming Lan’s life, but what bugs me is that he cannot seem to accept the failure of their union. His unrequited love becomes almost an obsession that really brings out the lack of resilience of this character. I am all for crying it out and taking as much time as needed to find another path in life, but Qi Heng treated this failed love as a death in the family. His grief blinded him from what happiness he could of had with another woman at his side.
Qi Heng is not stubborn in the sense of a narrow-minded judgmental person, though which allows a cordial relationship with Gu Ting Ye most of the time. He really is a sweet person who thinks the best of everyone, which is why he is easily manipulated by stronger opponents. He is an example that not all pampered people are the villains in these rags to riches stories, though most tend to be. He just takes a little longer to come to terms with the reality of the choices he makes.
Cao CuiFen as Granny Sheng
Strengths: Wise, Upstanding, Reliant, Loving, and Loves Sweets
Weaknesses: Old Age and Over Protection of Ming Lan
Cao CuiFen, please be my grandmother in another life. I don’t know much of this actress, but her portrayal of the matriarch of the Sheng Household with Marquis blood in her is that of only one who possesses the grace and sophistication of an older generation can do. Granny Sheng makes the first step in saving the life of a young Ming Lan who is neglected by her father and seen as a threat by her step-mothers. She teaches Ming Lan all she knows, and Granny Sheng is pretty knowledgable as any male during that period. She nurtures Ming Lan’s intelligence and strengths, yet encourages her to hide these traits so that she won’t stick out and be a target for those who are ambitious.
The only part of Granny Sheng’s character that I found disconcerting was her steering of Ming Lan down a path of stability and peace. However, this is the modern female in me that doesn’t take into consideration the expectations of females during this time period along with the disadvantages of being born to a concubine. Granny truly thought she was doing what was best for Ming Lan, and when her choice for a husband proves himself to be manipulated by the women in his family, Granny Sheng is quick to shut down that option. Granny Sheng is the rock that Ming Lan leans on in times of sadness and anger, asks for in need of advice, and jokes with in times of teasing and jokes. Granny Sheng embodies the real meaning of family.
Liu Jun as Sheng Hong
Strengths: Academic, Well-Intentioned, and Respectful
Weaknesses: Cares too much about Reputation, Negligent, Gullible, Narrow-Minded, and Cowardly
With that stache and man bun, Liu Jun looked like the nerdy noble he is supposed to. No complaints about the acting here, now as the character himself, Sheng Hong is the epitome of a male designed from birth by the rules and expectation of society. Sheng Hong is an intelligent man in terms of being a scholar, but blinded when it comes to the duties a man has to his family. He leaves the running of the household to his favorable concubine which enrages his petulant main wife who feels excluded. Yet, when these dramatics surface in front of him, he would rather go read of book than deal with it face to face. His face is quite funny when he realizes that Ming Lan is not the quiet, modest mouse he always boasted she was.
I really cannot blame this man for how he acts. He doesn’t have the emotional capacity to understand the women around him nor the strength to do what’s right over thousands of years of Chinese tradition of putting family before anything else. He tries his best, and that is all a daughter can ask for which Ming Lan acknowledges. She loves her father for all his flaws and misconceptions but she is not willing to turn a blind eye without confronting him about what she feels needs to be said. Sheng Hong makes my father who doesn’t listen to any music after the 21st century look like the most modern thinking man.
Liu Lin as Wang Ruo Fu
Strengths: Loves Her Children and Supports Ming Lan
Weaknesses: Naive, Emotional, Childish, Selfish, and Blunt
Wang Ruo Fu, acted by Liu Lin who has the same last name as Liu Jun (are they married?), is a character whom you love, then you hate, then you love, then you feel pity for, then you love and hate at the same time. She is as harmless as a mosquito which is not carrying malaria, but she is nonetheless a part of the big problem in the Sheng Household. Her constant battle with Lin QinShuang, the concubine, is a vainless effort since she is outsmarted most of the time. Her main goal in life is to have her children married to greater families than the children of her husband’s concubines. Her obsession with this whole legitimate children thing is quite annoying as it’s the only ammunition she has as being the main wife of Sheng Hong. She’s like a spoiled child who can’t handle the greater responsibilities of running a household or controlling her husband.
However, Wang Ruo Fu is an ever changing character. That’s what I love about 80 episodes. It gives even supporting characters the chance to learn life lessons, make mistakes, or totally ruin their chances at happiness. Wang Ruo Fu is as human as her husband, a slave to the teachings and suppressions of the world around them. I truly feel for this character, especially when her backstory is revealed later in the show. She is not without pains in her life that have affected her decisions for her own children.
Gao Lu as Lin Qin Shuang
Strengths: Clever, Calculating, Good Actress, and Resilient
Weaknesses: Selfish, Ambitious, Insincere, and Underestimates Ming Lan
Gao Lu is a beautiful woman. I don’t know how old she is, but she looks ten years younger than I would guess her character is. I loved watching her dramatic antics and various faces of manipulation. Gao Lu does an amazing acting as the character who uses her acting as a survival reflex as a concubine to a lower government official. From the start, the audience is introduced to Lin QinShuang as the concubine who schemes against those she feels are threats. The most obvious being Ming Lan’s mother. She is very easy to hate, the actress doing a good job of helping us along with that. The stereotypical jealous female I thought at the beginning, but then as the show progresses, Lin QinShuang is more than just a petty woman. An intelligent brain designed from an impoverished life to manipulate for her own desires is the mastermind behind most of the household’s problems. You’ve got to have some sort of respect for a woman like that.
I’m not saying her harsh childhood as a slave sold is an excuse for her behavior, but I’m a big believer in our environments affecting who we are which is highlighted over and over again in this drama. This woman believes wealth and nobility equals happiness and so passes this belief onto her children who suffer from her teachings. In a society where the noble classes are rewarded with luxury and comfort, of course the poor would believe that they are all happy. It’s an illusion as old as time. Sadly, some as smart as Lin QinShuang fall for the reflection of the sparkling diamond as a mirror into greatness.
Shi Shi as Sheng Mo Lan
Strengths: Patient, Calculating, and Beautiful
Weaknesses: Ambitious, Arrogant, Selfish, and Concubine Born
Like mother like daughter. Sheng Mo Lan, the biological daughter of Lin QinShuang and Sheng Hong, is the fourth miss of the Sheng Household. This character is an example that karma exists, well at least in fictional Northern Song Dynasty. What goes around comes around. She isn’t as intelligent as her mother nor as strong as Ming Lan. Sheng Mo Lan is the most unfortunate of the children to me. She is unlikeable but pitiable. We see her under the influence of her mother her entire life which never lets her think for herself. She learns from a young age that she is at a disadvantage for being born to a concubine. Society only enforces this teaching. It’s a shame really, because she doesn’t back down until she truly loses everything.
Shi Shi, what a pretty name :). She is a wonderful actress who doesn’t stand out but plays her role as well as I could have imagined for this character. She looks closer in age to her mother than she should in my opinion but I am no casting expert at all.
Zhang Jianing as Sheng Ru Lan
Strengths: Honesty, Loyal, Innocent, and Caring
Weaknesses: Gullible, Blunt, Selfish, and Childish
Zhang Jianing, I don’t know who you are, but you played one of my favorite characters in this entire series. Your baby face framed by two pieces of hair looked perfect for a petulant teenager who has a habit of throwing fits but is as tender-hearted as she is foolish. Sheng Ru Lan is the result of her mother’s, Wang Rou Fu, influence and her father’s ignorance.At first and second and third and so on impression, Ru Lan is a foolish child who has no consideration for others. However, when you take another look, Ru Lan isn’t a mean person. She has no ill will towards others like the fourth child of the Sheng family. Also, Ru Lan’s tendency towards self-entitlement comes from the teachings of her mother that she is a legitimate child who deserves more than one of a concubine.
Her evolution into a more mature person but yet retains the adorable innocence about herself is wonderful to watch. She becomes a true sister to Ming Lan which is what Ming Lan needed in that family. Sometimes it only takes one life change to humble someone and Ru Lan certainly learns fast, sometimes, well only that time, but she is still freaking cute.
Wang Reng Jun as Sheng Chang Bai
Strengths: Academic, Caring, Loyal, Reliant, Loving, Kind, and Adorably Gullible
Wang Reng Jun in a man bun looks so much like Feng Shao Feng that when I first saw this drama, I had a hard time telling the difference between Chang Bai and Ting Ye. Side by side I thought I was drunk and seeing double. The acting here is as stellar as the rest of the family. Nothing stands out as unique but I think this is his character. Chang Bai the character is the older brother I wish I had. He is always considerate of all his sisters, especially Ming Lan and Ru Lan. He is filial to his mother and father, respectful to his grandmother, a great husband to his wife, and a wonderful father.
It was hard to find a weakness in this character since he just seems so normally normal, but stubborn seemed to fit the mold when Chang Bai refuses to back down in a situation in which there is a bigger picture that he fails to perceive. I find him an equal companion to Ting Ye as the brake to Ting Ye’s 200 miles per hour sports car. He gives balance to this show as a reliable man of the Sheng Household, a talented scholar to the government, and eternal friend to Gu Ting Ye.
Wang Zi Wei as Xiao Tao
Strengths: Reliable, Loyal, Trusting, Compassionate, Sweet, and Adorable
Weaknesses: Oblivious and Loves Sweets
Everyone needs a sidekick or a personal maid they grew up with who becomes their best friend or best female companion. Xiao Tao is as such to Ming Lan. She literally is with Ming Lan through every trauma and happiness. She never questions what her master wants her to do but will do what she thinks is best for Ming Lan if her safety is ever questioned. This character is played by Wan Zi Wei who is a new and upcoming actress with great talent. Her sweetness and naive disposition is portrayed with expert mastery I can’t even imagine attempting to try. This character might seem simple but Wang Zi Wei is the one that makes it seem that way. I’ll definitely be watching her other dramas.
Shen Chi as Shi Tou
Strengths: Loyal, Trustworthy, Super Strong, and Sweet
Shi Tou is the male version of Xiao Tao. With Gu Ting Ye through life and death both at home and on the battlefield, Shi Tou is the often under-appreciated supporting character that is not given enough credit for their role in staying true to the main character through thick and thin. Shi Tou is seen in most scenes with Gu Ting Ye but doesn’t have many lines but Shen Chi does such a wonderful job that I love this character almost as much as Gu Ting Ye and that is saying a lot. I would love to know more of a backstory around this character, however, I’m satisfied with knowing his future with Xiao Tao. Cutest couple award!
Wang Yi Nan as Lady Qin
Strengths: Calculating, Scheming, Clever, Resilient, Patience, and Manipulative
Weaknesses: Selfishness, Insecurities, and Hates Loss of Control
Lady Qin is a villain that begins to show her true colors later in the show when Gu Ting Ye becomes a threat to her younger son whom she wants to become the Marquis of NingYuan. She is the most intelligent enemy Ming Lan faces. She has kept a facade of a modest buddhist wife of a noble man to society, but behind the curtains, she hates almost everyone with a passion. Her patience is only rivaled by that of Ming Lan and Gu Ting Ye. I truly, with a burning passion, hate this character who never stops to accomplish her own desires. But only at the end, does the show give a glimpse into the pathetic life of this noble woman who turned to her own ambitions in replace of an empty love. She uses the excuse as a mother for doing the best for her child, yet her child doesn’t want to take down Gu Ting Ye for only a noble title. She really has no other purpose in life than being a mother and this is what she takes to an extreme since she is much too talented to be an obedient housewife.
Wang Yi Nan truly wowed me with her performance. Again, a round of applause for the casting director. Wang Yi Nan even has a sweet face that helps characterize Lady Qin as an innocent step mother to the philandering Gu Ting Ye to society who doesn’t wish to see anything else.
Li Yi Xiao as Zhu Manniang
Strengths: Scheming, Good Actress, and Flirtatious
Weaknesses: Ambitious, Impulsive, Greedy, and Selfish
Li Yi Xiao should play a possessed ghost or person in a horror movie. She is great at being a bit maniacal then turning totally normal the next moment. She adds an edginess and desperation to this character that is needed to delve into a type of woman who would put her own desires over her the lives of her children. Zhu Manniang is a character that is very similar to Lin QinShuang, same skillset in controlling men with their seducing abilities, but she is not as fortunate to marry Gu Ting Ye. She shows that desperation can drive people to do things they wouldn’t normally do, but even sacrificing one’s own blood is something I could never forgive or even try to understand.
Zhu Manniang is the villian in this story whom I felt was overused a bit too much. The only human part about her it seems is her evident love towards her son that becomes twisted with her malicious intent towards others.