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The Sword and the Brocade: Embroidery vs The Patriarchy

Samseng Zhabor
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I haven’t sent out an issue for what feels like forever, because work has been a little busier than usual. But I couldn’t fully wean myself off drama, and I have all these half-written issues waiting to go out! So I allowed myself a day to write something for this newsletter…

In her book, Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, Stephanie Coontz takes on the conservative idea of the “traditional marriage” as one man and one woman in love. She points out that the idea of marrying for love is really quite recent, and would have historically been seen as ludicrous. Marriage, she argues, was historically not about love, but about getting in-laws.
I thought about this while watching The Sword and the Brocade 《锦心似玉》. Set in the Ming Dynasty, marriage is shown to be a tool; a way for wealthy families to pull together, form alliances, and fulfill needs, as well as a way for women — who were severely restrained by strict conservatism, and had very few options in life — to secure their comfort and security through maintaining their position in the household. Status was everything: legal wives could run households and be respected in society as the matron, whereas concubines were little better than servants, meant to serve the man and bow to the main wife’s wishes.
Our heroine, Luo Shiyiniang (Tan Songyun), is the daughter of a concubine. She spent her childhood bullied and looked down upon, and she and her mother were eventually sent away to be out of sight, out of mind. Our story opens when they’re suddenly called back to the capital: a situation has arisen in which a daughter of marriageable age has become useful.
It turns out that Shiyiniang’s oldest sister Yuanniang — the main wife of Xu Lingyi, Marquis Yongping — is sick and dying. Worried about preserving the alliance between the Xu and Luo families, as well as the position of Yuanniang’s son in the Xu household, Yuanniang and her mother (the Luo family’s matriarch) have cooked up a plan to get Xu Lingyi to marry one of her younger sisters after her death. This is where Shiyiniang comes in. Today, we might find the idea of a young woman being married off to her older brother-in-law pretty creeper, but no one bats an eyelid here.
Shiyiniang isn’t a pushover. She’s smart and articulate and has mad embroidery skills. She also has her own mystery that she wants to investigate within the Xu household. Her new husband, Xu Lingyi (Wallace Chung), is a respected court official and pillar of his family. Heavily compacted under the weight of the patriotic manly-man responsibilities he’d been forced to assume after the death of his father and older brother, he’s serious and aloof. He’s a strict and severe father to his two young sons, and never seems to talk to his Chinese opera-loving younger brother except to berate him. He’s a very filial son, though, and his mother is the household’s fearsome matriarch, committed to the family’s strict rules.
At the time of Shiyiniang’s entry, Xu Lingyi has three concubines, whom he’d accepted for a variety of reasons, from needing to strike a deal with a wealthy family, to being forced to protect a woman’s reputation after one of Yuanniang’s schemes. Although he’s slept with at least two of them, and gets nagged by his mother to pay them more attention (to fulfill more baby-producing expectations), he doesn’t love any of them and is generally uncomfortable in their company, especially because he can see how they preen and jostle for his attention. He can’t away from them fast enough.
Xu Lingyi only married Shiyiniang because of a promise he’d made to Yuanniang on her deathbed. It’s initially super awkward, as I suppose it would be if you’ve just married a stranger who was also your sister-in-law, but Xu Lingyi is intrigued by this young woman. Unlike the others, she doesn’t seem the least bit interested in currying favour, getting him to stay the night in her quarters, or fighting for power within the household. She’s someone he can actually talk to, and she mellows him out, improving his relationships with his children and brother. The marriage turns out to be a blessing in disguise as true affection blossoms. As a couple, they negotiate the various challenges thrown up by scheming concubines and a corrupt rival family.
This is lovely for them, but not always great for those in their orbit. Within this world, women snark, plot, and manipulate endlessly. Some of them, like the jealous spoilt-brat concubine Qiao Lianfang, are outrageously two-faced and evil. It’s marvellously irritating (I wanted to slap her soooo many times), but it’s also what she’s been taught since a young age: that her high-born status — if not for Yuanniang, she would never have ended up a mere concubine — entitles her to everything she wants, and that her position, power, and desires can be secured at the expense of others, usually other women. It happens over and over again: women turning against women, eating one another in their quest for social standing and, by extension, a sense of self-worth and esteem.
What else can they do? Women are bound to the households they’ve married into, caught between their husband’s family and their own, all of whom have demands. Concubine Wen, for instance, was only accepted by the Xu family because her rich merchant family sponsored a ton of military provisions. In return, her family makes use of their connection to a noble family for their own business interests, and Concubine Wen is expected to keep relations smooth, such as ensuring that the Xu family continues to purchase her family’s silks. Shiyiniang is repeatedly reminded by her family that she’d been married over to take care of Yuanniang’s son; in the Luo matriarch’s eyes, she’s little more than a substitute wife and mother.
The women scheme in this drama to satisfy selfish desires and grudges, but it’s also often seen as a necessity for survival. There’s no sense of security, and as a result, very little good faith between wives and concubines. It’s a zero-sum game; anything one woman gains is perceived as a threat to the others.
It’s a real pity, because so much time and energy is expended on trying to destroy one another when what everyone is struggling under is this patriarchal system of wives and concubines and the limited of agency for women. And it isn’t just the women of the Xu family who suffer; despite them ostensibly being there to serve him, Xu Lingyi is trapped by these expectations too. He’s weary of the conflict and envy circulating around the household, but, as head of the family, he’s expected to sire more heirs to carry on the family line, as his mother expects. While I suppose a more pervy scumbag might enjoy this multiple-women scenario, it’s hard to see from the Xu family’s story who exactly is benefitting here. When the reckoning comes, there is only pain and blame and guilt.
It makes me want to scream, “YOUR ENEMY IS THE PATRIARCHY, SMASH THE PATRIARCHY!
Thankfully, we get relief from the OTP, as Xu Lingyi and Shiyiniang slow-burn their way into love. And I mean slow. burn. There’s trust to be built and apprehensions to be got over. When all the walls finally come crashing down, it’s as much a catharsis for the viewer as for the characters.
Their pairing also allows Shiyiniang to push back against the rules and challenge the oppressive, sexist system. With her talent and passion for embroidery, she invests in her master’s embroidery workshop, co-running the business and teaching poor women so that they’ll have a craft with which to support themselves. It’s highly irregular for the matron of a household to display her skills to the public and enter into business — she’s just expected to stay at home and keep house and have babies — and her activities draw the disapproval of her mother-in-law, but Xu Lingyi sticks by his wife and supports her work. Over time, she proves that women can achieve outside the home, and that there is honour, not shame, in doing so.
It’s not a complete dismantling of the patriarchy. It’s really only a tiny shift in the grand scheme of things. But it’s a big development in Shiyiniang’s own story and in that of the conservative Xu family. And it’s period drama, so I’ll take what I can get.
All in all, this was really quite satisfying. Even though I’ll now have to pay the price with work.
Also, THIS SONG. I’ve had it on repeat for days. All hail Zhou Shen, the God of Chinese period drama OSTs:
OST | 主题曲:周深《要一起》【锦心似玉 The Sword and The Brocade】
OST | 主题曲:周深《要一起》【锦心似玉 The Sword and The Brocade】
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Kirsten, the Samseng Zhabor
Kirsten, the Samseng Zhabor @kixes

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