Published at 18th of January 2019 06:58:20 AM

Chapter 27

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Qi Heng was born with a silver spoon in his mouth to a high-ranking noble family. His handsome face, easy-going and gentle temperament resembled that of Brother Bao(1) yet he was more prudent and aspirant than Brother Bao, passionate to learn voluntarily without the need of his father’s pressing. After three lunches in the Hall of Peaceful Ages, his soothing smiles, noble manners, and graceful speeches even made Fang Mama(2), who had been a widow for twenty-eight years, soften her decades-long ice-cold face a bit.

About twenty years ago, Qi Family had its day. Both of Duke Qi’s sons married well-known noble daughters. The elder son married the eldest daughter of the Great General(3) and the prince’s maternal uncle and the younger son married the only daughter of Marquis Xiangyang, making the then lowest-ranking Duke Qi among aristocrats become exceedingly influential. However, the good luck had a price. The two daughters-in-law, with high-rankings, had their tempers, coaxing their mother-in-law into dazed joy and unsparingly disciplined their husbands in all regards.

The elder daughter-in-law, using her father’s iron-fisted strategy in military, cleaned up all her husband’s mistresses and paramours, leaving just a son. Sadly, the son had such poor health that he had to live on medicine as if he had been a medicine jar. Though now her original family was far less powerful than before, elder Master Qi—her husband was too old to work out another son. A few years later, the younger daughter-in-low married into Qi Mansion, and she imitated her sister-in-law in disciplining Qi Heng’s father—younger Master Qi. After giving birth to Qi Heng, this Pingning Junzhu(4) weren’t able to conceive babies, yet she never allowed Master Qi to open a second battlefield, so he had to enjoy his bitter life guarding the Junzhu and an old concubine who had no child.

Except for a paternal cousin who had been lying in bed within his room for years, Qi Heng had no other sisters or brothers. He might hang out with some maternal cousins but rarely if ever with maternal sisters because Pingning Junzhu, his mother, would closely monitor any girl who had the chance to become her future laughter-in-law. Since going to Sheng Mansion for learning and under Pingning Junzhu’s ceaseless brainwashing about the concept of separation between male and female, Qi Heng deliberately kept a steady distance from the two flower-like pretty girls Molan and Rulan. Only Minglan was an exception.

Therefore, for Qi Heng, Minglan was the only younger sister he had encountered so far. Her pretty and lovely face like that of a little chubby squirrel gained Qi Heng’s affection at the first glance. Yet, this cute little girl liked to straighten her adorable face, pretending to be serious. After having several meals with her, Qi Heng became less and less able to hold back his impulse to tease her. In fact, Qi Heng was a good person. The next day he had enjoyed the fish soup and dried fish Minglan sent over, he brought her a pile of well-cherished recipes of all kinds of soups, medicated diets, and flour-made food. Seeing Minglan was doing needlework, he brought her several books of embroidery samples, along with a bag containing pearl threads in a dozen of colors that were most trendy in the capital city.

Minglan couldn’t resist the temptation to accept the gifts, the favor of which made her especially lovely and hospitable. She moved chairs, made tea for Qi Heng, and gabbled “Brother Yuanruo (5) must be tired from learning; Brother Yuanruo take a rest” once he was back from school. Acting like a busy squirrel running here and there, her tone when talking with Qi Heng turned lovable and humorous.

“Sixth younger sister, you’re bullying the weak.” Qi Heng deliberately teased Minglan, noticing she was poking goldfish with a straw of aquatic grass.

Minglan refuted innocently, “I’m not. Before starting the fight, I didn’t know it was weaker than me.”

“Then why don’t you continue?” Qi Heng asked her, seeing she threw away the grass.

Minglan answered sincerely, “Brother Yuanruo, I heard your words. I shouldn’t bully the weak.” But secretly she muttered to herself, “What a henchman I am!”

Qi Heng was very delighted and gently rubbed her head with a loud lingering laugh. His fine delicate features relaxed and exhibited breathtaking brilliance like a figure from Gu Kaizhi’s (a celebrated painter of ancient China) pictures depicting the elegance and beauty of the Jin and Wei Dynasties, which captivated all the maids in the Hall of Peaceful Ages.

On the fourth day, he finally did not show up for lunch. Minglan took out the aquatic grass again, heading for the goldfish leisurely.

“…Young lady.” Xiaotao came in with, on her hands, a delicate basket containing grass, quite confused, “Young Master Qi had this sent to you, saying there will be more fun teasing fish with this grass.”

Minglan paused, shocked and speechless. Alright, maybe she was thinking too much…

Ever since Molan moved into Luxuriant Pavilion, Wang shi was stuck in troubles. Although all the young ladies had the same monthly allowance on the surface, she surely gave her own daughter more privately. When others received three suits of clothes every season, her daughter would receive two more. Since Old Madam Sheng never criticized about this, Wang shi was naturally happy to play the fool. How had never expected that the seemingly fragile Molan had a pair of sharp eyes and would cry for half a day even when Rulan got one more new hairpin. She would cry until her eyes turned red and swollen and her face sorely pale when she walked in and out in an attempt to let all servants see her situation. Wang shi resented it so much that she felt herself at the edge of slapping Molan.

Liu Kun’s wife advised, “Don’t be upset, Madam. What’s the worst that may happen even if she cried in front of the Master? All three young ladies have their own patrons, which the Master understands. Our lady has you; Fourth Young Lady Concubine Lin; Sixth Young Lady Old Madam. They’re all minding their own businesses. If Molan could, just let Concubine Lin take back the business and transfer Sixth Young Lady from the Hall of Peaceful Ages to Luxuriant Pavilion. Only when you, Madam, are truly in charge of educating these young ladies can the Master blame you for being partial.”

Wang shi was quite annoyed, “How can I never know this? I’m not afraid to face the Master, but that damn girl going in and out with a bullied face, I don’t know how ill people are thinking of me.”

Liu Kun’s wife smiled, “The child wasn’t too clever. She thought she could somehow manipulate on you in this way. Madam, you might as well report the situation to the Master first, tell him that you have neither beat nor cursed her but provide her with the best food and shelter. However, she somehow keeps crying all day long. You’re afraid that you aren’t able to take good care of her that it’d be better just send her back. After all, you, my Madam, never touched her, let’s see what she could fabricate? If she dares to exclaim that you favored others over her, you’ll have reasons to accuse of her.”

Wang shi hesitated, “…What if she remained silent and kept crying?”

Liu Kun’s wife shook, “Madam, if that is the case, you may claim that you’ve never be thanked but instead faced with the girl crying day and night as if you were a cruel stepmother. You won’t take the notorious blame for no reason and ask the Master do you justice.”

Wang shi found this method a little bit tough but wasn’t at odds with etiquette, so she did as what Liu Kun’s wife had told her. Hearing the words, Sheng Hong was irritated as expected and summoned Molan. The moment Molan walked in the door, she was scolded to kneel down. The servants outside only heard Monlan’s nonstop crying mixed with Sheng Hong’s raging reproving. “…Where did you learn the indecent trick of crying to coerce others? Why haven’t you learnt how to behave like a lady from noble families? …take back the business…” Then he waved his sleeve and left.  

Since she was born, Molan had never been scolded by her father, so she cried for an entire night. The next morning, she went to greet Wang shi in a well-behaved manner—serving tea and refreshments like her real daughter. She listened whatever Wang shi told her and nodded even if reprimanded. Seeing her nice manner and such pitiful look, Wang shi had no other reasons to go too far and also behaved like a mother.

In ancient times, it was a patriarchal society with a clear division of labor for men and women. Men should be in charge of making money while women domestic affairs. Their children were also taken care of separately based on genders. Sheng Hong was responsible for the sons’ education, serving the country as an official and supporting the family while Wang shi shaping the daughters’ personalities, distributing monthly allowance, tackling with domestic affairs and arranging the servants. In addition, she also had to had clothes and jewelries done on a regular basis. For example, if there was a social gathering with the daughters and wives of officials in Deng Prefecture, she would present the three daughters to meet with the guests. The strange thing was, two out of three meetings, Old Madam Sheng prevented Minglan from attending the meetings.

Being the legitimate mother for a few days, Wang shi suddenly understood and sighed, “What a good calculation the Master has made! What a loving father he is!”

Liu Kun’s wife was sitting on bricks bed and checked accounts with Wang shi. Hearing the words, she asked at once why Wang shi had said it. Wang shi smiled bitterly, “The Master has been trying to put the two girls under my name. Minglan is fine since Old Madam has taken charge of her. I suppose when she grows up, I don't need to worry about her marriage. Judging by her behavior since Young Lord Qi came here, the girl is a simple one, not shamelessly chasing after him. She knows her identity well and won’t complete with my daughter. It’s okay for me to be her legitimate mother, but as for Fourth Young Lady… Hem, the Master knows I don't get along with Concubine Lin for many years and our children have little contact with one another. He knows he can’t force me to accept Fourth Young Lady, so he thought of this idea of letting her move in first. Since I’ve educated, nourished her in meeting with guests, by the time she should be married, I’ll not be able to excuse myself from admitting she as my legitimate daughter.”

Hearing this, Liu Kun’s wife thought to herself that the Madam was cleverer than before and replied with a smile, “That makes sense. I feel the same way, but don't worry, Madam. Accepting a girl of concubine as a legitimate daughter is quite common in noble families. Though it’ll be recorded in the family pedigree, only far ahead ancestors and far behind descendants will believe in it. Can the living generations not know clearly about everyone’s real background? Will those proposing to Molan believe she is your physical daughter? It’s just for her to look more decent and have a higher chance of marrying to a better family. No matter what, can she be more decent than your daughter, our young lady?”

Wang shi sighed, “How can I not know what you mean? I just feel upset about it.” At the thought of what Concubine Lin had done when she was most favored by the Master, Wang shi almost choked on her anger, pondering that she must figure out a plan to doom the marriage of that bitch’s daughter. On the other hand, she must be cautious not to set up her own daughter, which would be a losing game.

Telling from Wang’s look, Liu Kun’s wife knew she had been thinking to the dead end, so she propitiated, “Don't think too much, Madam. The girl has to count on the original background to marry a decent family. As long as my Young Lord holds a promising future, Concubine Lin still has to follow your lead. I suppose, Madam, it’s not necessary to fret over the girl and Concubine Lin. The important thing is to ensure our young lord receive a good education. The Autumn Examination is approaching. I wish our young lord could come out top in the exam so that your decency will last forever!”

Reminded of her eldest son, Wang shi was suddenly in high spirits. Patting the embroider stool, she said, “Exactly! That bitch just can’t stop boasting about her son Changfeng’s learning. He only got eligible for county-level exam after two rounds of tests, but the Master loves him so much for it. What fun he failed the provincial exam! How can she bad-mouth in the future! Your words are a good reminder. Luckily, mother sent you here.”

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After a year’s learning, the regional-level examination was approaching. Mr. Zhuang hurried his way in teaching Confucian classics and writing. He even permitted a half-day leave for Changdong, who was still trying to memorize the Analects of Confucius, so that the three youths were able to take intensive and in-depth lectures. Though Changfeng was not eligible to attend the exam, he could be counted as a half-examinee and was appointed to study in the pre-exam group. Wang shi had servants cook fish soups, chicken soups and pig-brain soups for her son in a belief the soup could nourish his brain. Sheng Hong was itchy to ask her why she did so but pretended to be calm with Tao Te Ching (a Chinese classic text traditionally credited to the 6th-century BC sage Laozi) in his hands.

Minglan was a politically-insensitive secretary in her previous life. So now as everyone was anxious preparing for the examination, she just sat together with her grandmother on the bricks bed near the window, eating glutinous rice cakes stuffed with red beans and yam pastes that were just cooked by steaming. This was a southern snack Minglan invented. With the sweet taste lingering in their mouth, Minglan mumbled, “…it’s so delicious; there is still a drawer of cakes left, grandma may save it for midnight snack. It will warm the stomach.”

Old Madam Sheng wiped her hands with a wet cloth towel and said, “Send some to Baige’er (nickname of Changbai). He works really hard these days. If he passes the exam, the glory will be brought to our family and every one of you.” She continued after thinking for a while, “The bookbag you made for Changdong is quite good. Stop the embroidery work you’re doing to make for your brother a bookbag or other things he may need for attending the exam. He’ll be thankful to you.”

Minglan nodded. At the beginning, she saw little Changdong’s servant boy was incapable that Changdong had to carry many things by himself, so she made him a backpack with three compartments. The straps were embroidered with brocade in patterns of green grass and white clouds under the blue sky. Sandalwood prayer beads, idling in Old Madam Sheng’s room, were re-threaded as the elastic seal of the bag. It was both light and cute, so little Changdong liked it very much.

Her craftsmanship being affirmed, Minglan felt encouraged that she made a fan pouch embroidered with dark-blue pine, bamboo and plum for Changbai after he had given her a couple of goldfish. Changbai was so delighted that he then gave her a bamboo-woven pen holder which was specially made in City Tong.

Minglan felt that she had made a brilliant decision in choosing her major; at least she had a choice. There was only one goal for boys, that was—attending the imperial examinations.

There were many advantages for attending examinations. If you came out top, you would become a government official; if you just passed it, you could be an assistant of officials; even if you failed it, you might as well be a teacher in private schools in your village. The most important thing was once you gained any official ranks, you were exempt from taxes; even just a Xiucai(7) didn’t have to kneel down in front of a local head. Therefore, imperial examinations were not only vital enough to change the lives of commoners’ children, but also important for descendants of noble families like Sheng Changbai. In ancient times, official ranks could not be inherited. Therefore, although Old Master Sheng was an official, his sons still needed to depend on themselves, attending all levels of exams to acquire an official rank. Otherwise, the family’s prosperity would only endure one or two generations.

All these were said by Old Madam Sheng. When speaking of this, she sounded serious and solemn. Minglan stole several glances at her and noticed that her grandmother had something special in her. Though she had born to a high-ranking noble family, she scorned about those youngsters who depended on their background. Instead, she especially favored those achieving success by their learning. Supposedly, this was why she fell in love with Sheng Hong’s father, a handsome guy coming out third in the national-level exam and with good learning in writing and poetry.

Minglan, while reasoning about the stories of the elders, subconsciously reached out to grab another glutinous rice cake but touched nothing. She found that Old Madam Sheng had ordered Fang Mama to collect the cakes into a thermos hamper. Seeing Minglan’s chubby hand suspending in midair, Old Madam Sheng frowned a bit and persuaded patiently, “Girl, trust me. You’re growing up and shouldn’t eat that much as when you’re a little girl. Once turning fat, you’ll no longer look pretty wearing beautiful clothes.”

Minglan shyly drew back her hand, thinking to herself, “I’m just trying to hide my beauty and keep a low key.”

Translator Notes:

(1)   Bao Gege [宝哥哥bǎo gē ge]: Literally means elder brother Bao, whose full name is Jia Baoyu, the protagonist of Dream of the Red Mansions. Bao Gege is the nickname that his female cousins used to call him. In Dream of the Red Mansions, Jia Baoyu is an amiable handsome young boy of noble family who likes to play with his female cousins yet does not enjoy learning, unless severely pushed by his father.

(2)   Fang Mama [房妈妈fáng mā mā]: “妈妈” in Chinese has two meanings, one is mother usually in modern mandarin. But here, in this context, it refers to the elder maid.

(3)   Great General [兵马大元帅bìng mǎ dà yuán shuài]: The highest military post in ancient China in charge of military affairs.

(4)   Junzhu [郡主jùn zhǔ]: a rank lower than a princess, usually granted to daughters of a prince or rarely a duke.

(5)   Yuanruo [元若yuán ruò]: Courtesy name of Qi Heng. A courtesy name, also known as a style name, is a name bestowed upon one at adulthood in addition to one's given name.

(6)   Wang shi [王氏wáng shì]: Madam Sheng, the legitimate wife of Sheng Hong whose family name is Wang. In feudal China, a man can have one officially wedded wife and many concubines. Children born of legitimate wife are called “嫡子”, legitimate sons, or “嫡女”, legitimate daughters, who enjoy first right to whatever the family has, be it property or a title conferred upon by the emperor, unless otherwise allocated by the father or the legitimate wife bores no child or her kids died.

(7)   Xiucai [秀才 xiù cai] also known as Shengyuan [生员shēng yuán], someone who has passed the entirety of the Child Examinations.

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