Finding My Family in The Apothecary Diaries

The Apothecary Diaries has been one of my favorite anime in recent years because it connects to me in more ways than just the plot, characters, and atmosphere. It takes place in dynasty China and is an impressively historically accurate portrayal of the complicated system of the country at that time. As Maomao traverses between the impoverished world of the red-light district and the wealthy world of the royal family, I see my own family embedded in these stories in ways I never expected to see in anime.

My family covers two ends of the spectrum in the same way that The Apothecary Diaries does. On my maternal grandmother’s side, we have a long family history of high nobility who lived in luxury and comfort but harbored complicated and tragic relationships. Meanwhile, on my maternal grandfather’s side, we have a long family history of farmers who resorted to drastic measures to survive but continued to pull through life via their own resourcefulness or strangers’ kindness. Although my relatives lived during the last dynasty of China before its modernization, there are still lots of similarities between their time and The Apothecary Diaries.

“Buying out” Prostitutes from the Red Light District

One of the prostitutes in The Apothecary Diaries
One of the prostitutes in The Apothecary Diaries

The Apothecary Diaries digs deep into how the prostitution houses work in the red-light district. In the second episode, Maomao explains the concept of “buying out a prostitute” when those in the palace expressed confusion about the concept. Many of the women in the red-light district did not come by choice — the majority are likely to have been sold by their own families. Some of them would have been trafficked, while others would offer themselves in desperation for a place to stay. The second the woman enters the prostitution house, she “owes” money to the people who took her in. The value will either be the amount the house paid their family or traffickers to buy her or the money spent to save her life from starvation and homelessness.

My great step-grandmother was that woman.

Sold at a young age by her own starving family who couldn’t afford to marry her out or even feed her, she entered the prostitution house as a young teen and started working as a prostitute pretty quickly. Just like Maomao described, her best hope for freedom was for a man to pay her debt and buy her out. However, just because a man was willing to buy a prostitute out didn’t guarantee joy or independence. Many men who bought prostitutes out were those who wished to legally own the women as their own — forcing them to be mistresses within a new home often resulted in a lot of abuse from the man’s family and formal wife. It was rare for men to buy out prostitutes out of genuine love, and many men who wanted to weren’t wealthy enough to do so. This meant that a prostitute could only hope for a man with considerable influence and money to spare to truly love her.

Luckily, my great step-grandmother caught the eye of my great-grandfather, the heir to a noble family, during one of his visits to the prostitution house. Before long, he fell in love and paid for the debt she owed and her freedom. Obviously, a noble falling in love with a prostitute was forbidden, so he eloped with her in another city where they privately married and lived the rest of their lives together.

However, as much of a fairytale ending this was, it didn’t come without pain and betrayal. After all, he was already married to another woman when he eloped: my great-grandmother.

Political Marriages Amongst Royalty and Nobility

A concubine who had no choice in marrying the emperor
A concubine who had no choice in marrying the emperor

The main plot of episode 3 of The Apothecary Diaries centers on one of the Emperor’s concubines who is being sent home. While initially portrayed as something bad, the more Maomao digs into the concubine’s history, the more she realizes that the concubine wants to be sent home. Her family offered her to the Emperor, and she spent her time dodging his affection and attention while she waited for the man she really loved back home to ascend the ranks and claim her. This leads Maomao to point out that while one world is filled with luxuries and the other is filled with struggles, in both worlds, women had little choice about the way their lives went. In some ways, the red-light district and the royal palace were no different from each other.

My great-grandmother was that woman.

Arranged to marry my great-grandfather, she went into the marriage fully prepared to be a dutiful wife. Like all the consorts at the royal palace, noble women would officially separate from their families and weren’t allowed to go home. Instead, they had to accept their in-laws as their new parents, siblings, and cousins.

However, when my great-grandfather saw who he was marrying, he was so upset by his parents’ decision that he walked away before the ceremony formally finished. His family had to drag him back to the altar to force him to marry her and locked them in a room together to finish the deed as a married couple. That was how my grandmother was conceived – out of obligatory sex.

The concubine in The Apothecary Diaries, who married against her will, would ultimately find true love by reuniting with her childhood friend, but my great-grandmother did not share the same happy fate. My great-grandfather was free to fall in love with someone of his own choice and to elope, thanks to his money and education. However, my great-grandmother only had a daughter and her training to be a good wife. She was never taught how to read, write, or do anything else beyond taking care of her husband and future in-laws. Abandoned by her husband, my great-grandmother could only shamefully return home with her child, where she would be forever shunned for not “keeping” her husband. 

Generous and Skilled Doctor Among the Poor

Luomen – the skilled apothecary

Meanwhile, on my grandfather’s side, his family aligns more with the positives of The Apothecary Diaries. Maomao was raised by an incredibly skilled apothecary who lived in the red-light district and freely gave services to people who didn’t have the money to buy medicine or see a doctor. While my impoverished grandfather never met an illustrious but exiled doctor from the royal palace, a generous wandering doctor saved his life.

Believe it or not, “wandering doctor” was an official title back then. They were doctors who roamed the poor countryside of China to give free services, often saving many lives in the process. These wandering doctors were personal doctors hired by the rich, but why they were allowed to temporarily leave their employer’s service to do such generous acts of charity remained a mystery to my family.

My grandfather was a poor farmer boy and physically the weakest in his family. When he was in his tweens, my grandfather mishandled farm equipment that wounded his leg. The wound quickly became infected — so infected that it rotted through his leg and created a hole large enough to see the ground through it. When the pain became so great that he couldn’t stand it any longer, my grandfather bided his time by dropping a leaf through the hole and watching it fall through the other side.

One day, a wandering doctor saw him playing with the hole in his leg and rushed forward to treat him. So poor was my grandfather’s family that his own mother ran out of the house to inform the wandering doctor that she had literally no money for her son’s treatment. Nonetheless, the wandering doctor treated my grandfather free of charge, providing life-saving antibiotics to wrap around his leg. My grandfather swore it burned worse than fire, but it was unquestionable that this generous doctor saved his life. After treating my grandfather, the doctor packed his things and left.

My grandfather never saw the doctor again, but it inspired him to pursue education. Later, after successfully leaving the countryside and moving into the city as a teacher, he would also teach himself medicine. He became good enough that neighbors would come to him for a free preliminary diagnosis before seeing an actual practicing doctor.

Making Drugs

Maomao and drugs

A running gag in the series is Maomao’s tendency to experiment with her own drugs and antidotes and test them on herself. While the gag has less to do with the royal palace versus the red-light district, it illustrates how impoverished people can be extraordinarily resourceful and innovative, such as in my great-grandfather’s case. 

During his time, China was still struggling to overcome its opium addiction caused by the unequivocal trading in the Opium Wars. Whether he morbidly observed the fall to addiction or learned through other people’s experiments to create lower-grade opioids, my great-grandfather figured out the exact ratio of opium needed to create an effective painkiller, sans the addictive side effects.

It was so specific that he later instructed my grandfather to only use a single drop from the poppy seed to create the medicine. In fact, there was even a method to cut the seed in such a way that it would extract a perfect, single drop. Despite knowing how to do it, my grandfather could never successfully recreate it, and my great-grandfather carried that specific skill to his grave.

The magic of The Apothecary Diaries is how it effectively portrays the hardships people faced during Dynasty China, regardless of whether they lived in poverty or wealth. Watching the series fills me with nostalgia because I know that my family lived through the situations portrayed onscreen. Yet, despite all the struggles it took for them to survive, they strived for joy and hope when given the opportunity. Living and surviving was complicated, and in turn, it created complicated people and relationships.

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