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

Chapter 28

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If You Do Not Like Yuan Bao, I’ll Change it into Yuan Xiao Next Time

Having been away from home for a month, Changbai came back with sallow face and flaccid legs. After seeing his grandmother and parents, he straightly went into his room and fell into a deep sleep. And this time Sheng Hong didn’t put on airs or tried to give him a lecture, because he had also taken this examination in the past and knew from the very bottom of his heart that provincial examination was totally different from county-level examinations for selecting Xiucai. This examination was a real torture.

The provincial examination took place at the provincial capital, Ji Nan and results would be published a few days afterwards. Therefore, before Changbai arrived at home, the good news had already been sent back to Deng Prefecture. Brother Changbai cracked the top 20, a rather good result. But Sheng Hong, in order to show he was rather experienced, didn’t held a large, excess banquet; instead, he just invited some colleagues, friends and Teacher Zhuang to his home for a simple celebrating feast.

During the feast, listening others speaking highly of his son, Sheng Hong felt very proud. On his left was Zhifu whose son was a black sheep indulging in cock-fights and dog-racing and on his right was Tongpan whose son knew nothing except chasing after women. Thinking about this, Sheng Hong felt even more complacent.

[T/N note: Zhifu, “知府/zhī fǔ/” the highest government official of a prefecture. While Tongpan (“通判/tōng pàn/”) refers to an official under Zhifu who administers grain delivery, lawsuit, water conservancy, etc. and has the duty of supervising Zhifu.]

And Wang shi, who was entertaining the madams and misses on the feast set specially for the harems, also felt proud because all the madams kept flattering her in various ways and those with daughters of the right age even hinted that they wanted to become in-laws with her. As for such hints, Madam Wang just played dumb, but when she told Sheng Hong about this, her sense of pride was all between the lines, like a farmwife who was appreciated for the cabbage she had been taking care of for years – it was all because of the merits of the soil.

But Sheng Hong refused and persuaded, “Don’t rush it, my dear. Changbai is our first son and his marriage can never be taken too seriously. Just put it off and if he gets good scores at the triennial court examination the next Spring, we then can find him a wife with good reputation and powerful family.”

Madam Wang hesitated, “What if he failed the exam? Do you mean that he could get married only after he becomes Zhuanyuan? I’m afraid at that time he may pass the right age for marriage.”

[T/N note: Zhuangyuan: “状元” No. One Scholar, title conferred on the one who came first in the imperial court examination]

Sheng Hong replied, “Just wait until the next year. If he fails the exam, I won’t ask him to wait for another three years. You should think more for Changbai. I have no chance to enter the cabinet and at most I could be a third-ranked official. When Changbai becomes an official, respectable mentor or his peers would land him a hand in court, but still nothing helps him better than marrying a Miss from a powerful and noble family. And such literary families will only accept sons-in-law from Jinshi (someone who passes the imperial court exam) and above.”

These were what Old Madam Sheng told him twenty years ago. At that time, he just passed the provincial examination and matchmakers went to their home to propose marriage, but Old Madam Sheng declined them all.

She told him that his father passed away too early and Sheng Family grew and thrived by business, so except very few nostalgic uncles of the same year with his father, no one could guide him on the court. Not until Sheng Hong ranked near the top among all Jinshi did he marry the second legitimate daughter of Wang Family. All these years, he did work very diligently, but the help that his wife’s family offered him played a vital role in his achievements.

Now thinking about it, Sheng Hong’s official life went so well that he was never oppressed by his superiors and most of his colleagues were willing to give face to him. Who could say that this wasn’t due to his connection with his respectable mentor, Cabinet Yang and the powerful Wang Family? Therefore, the Old Madam Sheng was really insightful.

Qi Heng made it to the top 100, but for sons from those influential and noble families like Qi Family, Qi Heng was really an outstanding freak. It was said that since the day of first emperor, there were less than forty men from families with titles of nobility that passed the imperial examinations in the whole Zhou Dynasty. Although many of them became officials, most of them gained their positions by succeeding to the titles of their family conferred upon by the emperor or by donating money. Hence, they always felt inferior to their colleagues who gained their positions by passing the imperial examinations. But this time, Qi Heng passed the examination. Lord Qi and Junzhu Pingning were so overjoyed that they hurriedly sent message to the mansion of Duke Qi and Marquis Xiangyang. Qi Heng became an outstanding representative of the time among all descendants of the nobility.

While Sheng Family just gave a family feast, Qi Family threw an open-air banquet covering half of the city. Only firecrackers set off in front of their gate cost about several hundred ounces of fine silver. Besides, they also handed out several baskets of steamed buns made of white flour to the poor. On the second day, Lord Qi and Junzhu Pingning brought their new provincial graduate to Sheng Mansion.

Early in the morning, Minglan just got up and was sitting in front of her dressing mirror yawning. After hearing that Misses also had to meet Lord Qi and Junzhu Pingning, she immediately asked Dan Ju to change her newly coiled single bun into two separate buns with some hair falling down. Then she inserted an agate tassel hairpin enwound with pink gold strings into her hair, put on a light rosy pink silk coat embroidered with bright yellow magnolia flowers on its front and back and a bluish white silk long dress with fine pleats, and at last wore that shinning golden necklace and jade lock on her neck.

After fully dressed, Minglan went up to Old Madam Sheng for a full check, who, however, thought her attire too simple and asked the maid to fetch a pair of bracelets made of spun gold and inlaid with pink lotus jade. But Minglan’s wrists were too small for it. The old madam sighed with pity and changed those into two pairs of delicate bracelets enwound with pink gold and inlaid with two Southern Pearls (Chinese sea pearls, more commonly called Akoya pearl).

Minglan raised her arms and only saw two tinkling bracelets hanging on her white chubby wrists, giving her a sense of heaviness.

Lord Qi was less handsome and elegant as Sheng Hong, but he was noble in spirit and seemed more easy-going and amicable than Junzhu Pingning who not only met and talked with daughters and sons of Sheng Family but also asked Junzhu to give every one of them a beautiful heavy pouch. Old Madam Sheng went back to rest after the greetings, leaving the two couples and the kids there to talk and play. Qi Family and Wang Family were remote kinsfolk, so the kids were cousins and there was no need to take the trouble to separate the boys and the girls.

“……It all thanks to the instruction of Teacher Zhuang that my son can do so well in the examination. We planned to extend our sincere thanks to him but unluckily he took a leave to visit his friends and families, so we have no choice but to postpone it to our next visit.” Lord Qi said with a light heart while stroking the short moustache on his jaw.

Sheng Hong smiled, “During their preparation for the exam, Teacher Zhuang taught the two untiringly and never rested for a single day. He was so tired that right after these sons embarked on their journey to Ji Nan, Teacher Zhuang was sick and had to rest on bed. After regaining his health, he said he wanted to go around before the two came back. Otherwise, once the class reopens, he will have little free time again. When Teacher Zhuang comes back, we should hold a banquet and have a few drinks together.”

Lord Qi clapped and agreed happily. Then he said, “How sincere and solemn Teacher Zhuang is as a teacher, just like those respectable sages in the past.”

Junzhu smiled, “My son really takes advantage of your act of inviting Teacher Zhuang to teach at Deng Prefecture. These days, he kept coming to study here and Madam Sheng devoted so much time and energy to look after him. I’ve been feeling apologetic about letting him bothering you so much and afraid he would disturb the study plans of your boys.”

And Wang shi replied with a smile, “Boys when studying together works better than when they study alone. What’s more, Heng Ge’er is such a thoughtful and polite kid, so there is no such thing as bothering us and your highness should really rest assured.”

Junzhu adjusted the hairpin inlaid with pearls on her bun, took a look at Changbai and said satisfactorily, “Yeah, indeed. Your first son also benefits from studying together with Heng’er.” She tried to be polite but her expression revealed her arrogance as if Qi Heng’s studying at Sheng Mansion was a great privilege for the Sheng Family.

Wang shi shifted her gaze down to conceal her emotion and said nothing.

At this time, one could see how sophisticated Sheng Hong was. It was the first time that Minglan saw how his father acted in front of his superior, neither humble nor pushy, coping the condition at ease with well-spoken and respectful words. He said in a clear and loud voice, “Study only relies on oneself to work diligently. Those scholars from poor families never had such good conditions. Prime Minister Liu and Li from the days of our first emperor and the three Yang brothers at the days of the late emperor were so intelligent and all had aces up in their sleeves. And they were all from poor families. They really deserve our heartfelt respect.”

Prime Minister Liu who helped build the empire was the maternal grandfather of Lord Qi and he had always been looking up to him. Therefore, hearing this, Lord Qi agreed joyfully, “Precisely! Although our conditions are much better, you boys shouldn’t slack off or you may hurt our ancestors’ reputation.”

These were said to the boys, so the three boys of Sheng Family and Qi Heng all stood up and said yes with head slightly lowered. Lord Qi, seeing that the three sons of Sheng Hong were all with fine features, exclaimed involuntarily, “Brother Sheng, you’re really a lucky man to have three handsome sons like them.” Then he took a glance at the girls and praised, “Having so many extraordinary sons and daughters, your family are truly blessed.”

Upon the words, Junzhu seemed rather uneasy and sulky, just for a sec. However, Wang shi didn’t miss it and also, she knew the reasons behind her changed expressions. Therefore, she said with a smile, “Surely, the more sons, the more blessed, but we’re not peasant families that urgently need our sons to work hard to make a fortune. As the saying goes that if your son is good, then one is enough; otherwise, the more sons, the more headaches.”

Junzhu beamed with joy, “Sister, you’re totally right.”

While saying this, she took hold of the hands of Rulan sitting beside her, looked over her carefully and kept praising how elegant Rulan was, how much she liked Rulan and so on. She even took one jade bracelet off and put it on Rulan’s wrist. Rulan reddened due to all the praise and her slightly arrogant face revealed how proud she felt. She even purposely took an aggressive glance at Molan and Minglan. Molan’s face was so pale with her white and slim fingers griping her handkerchief tightly because ever since she got into the room, her only chance to speak was to express thanks when she accepted the gift. As for Minglan, she was squeezing the pouch in her hand to judge what was inside it and didn’t even notice the meaningful glance Rulan gave.

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While Junzhu and Wang shi were talking with Rulan, Sheng Hong and Lord Qi were examining the study of the four boys. Lord Qi was once a diligent young man but unluckily, he inherited his father’s title before he got the chance to attend the imperial examinations. Therefore, although he was a high-ranking official, he still felt lacking of confidence when facing colleagues who gained their positions after passing the imperial examinations. Hence, he spoke highly of learned young men. After a few questions, he found that Changfeng was quite eloquent and had an outstanding eloquence, while Changbai was reticent and modest. He couldn’t help talking to Sheng Hong, “Your sons really have the merits of that respectable Old Master of Wang Family!”

The respectable master he mentioned was the late father of Wang shi and the maternal grandfather of Changbai.

The grandfather of Changbai was one of the few capable officials who could die a natural death. He stayed in power under three emperors and kept low-key and calm even when granted grand honor or subjected to harsh humiliation. And no matter who the emperor was, even if they held a grudge at first, he eventually managed to make them appreciate him and put him in important positions. He was really an outstanding model of his time. Unfortunately, Changbai’s uncles were not extraordinary in study. However, relying on their heritage and mercy of the emperor, they still gained their positions smoothly, of which Sheng Hong was very envious.

In fact, as for appearance, Changbai was like a replica of Sheng Hong; but as for character, he totally took after his grandfather who gave a quarter of his bloodline. Although Sheng Hong didn’t really like Wang shi, he was very satisfied with the great genes she brought. But when facing his son, Changfeng, who took after his appearance and character, Sheng Hong’s mood inevitably changed subtly. Sheng Hong replied, “If only he was really like my father-in-law! Hope he isn’t just a copycat.” No matter how satisfied the father was, you could never expect him to speak highly of his own son.

Sheng Hong and Lord Qi kept talking to Changbai to recall how respectable Old Master Wang was, while Wang shi and the Junzhu Pingning were still talking about Rulan. Wang shi always talked shop and couldn’t help praising how good her daughter was. When she spoke highly of how good Rulan was at needlework, Junzhu, with light flashing through her eyes, glanced at the young and ignorant Minglan sitting aside and an idea came to her. Hence, she said suddenly, “Speaking of needlework, I really have to give my thanks to your sixth girl.”

Wang shi was taken by surprise. Junzhu Pingning called Qi Heng over with a smile and Qi Heng was amused after seeing Minglan sitting aside at a loss. Then he explained why and how in details. The story was that one day after the Old Madam Sheng told Minglan to do some needlework for Changbai, Minglan started immediately. She heard that all clothes with layers were not allowed in the exam room and knew that it was already the cold late autumn, so she found a big thick furry leather from the storage room, tailored it carefully and made it into a pair of long kneecaps (like stockings) covering from the tip of feet all the way to the thigh. And Qi Heng saw them when bumming meals off Changbai and felt them really interesting. So, he asked Minglan to make a pair for him and Minglan reluctantly agreed after receiving the out-of-print book – Double-sided Miss-knit Patterns.

“When we first arrived at Ju Nan, it was kind of warm and cozy. But it suddenly became gloomy and chilly just one day before the examination. While sitting in our closed stalls built with stones, we could feel the chilly air creeping up from underneath our feet. Thanks to the kneecaps made by Liu Meimei (the sixth younger sister), the chill didn’t hurt us at all,” said Changbai gently, who came by and stood next to Wang shi at this time.

Then Junzhu urged, “Heng’er, come here and say thanks to the sixth young lady. It’s really rare for a girl to be so quick-witted in such a young age.”

Qi Heng twitched his eyebrows and said, “Of course I have to thank her, but I also have to settle some scores.”

“What scores?” asked Rulan, looking at Minglan, surprised and bewildered.

Qi Heng walked up to Minglan and hummed, “Still remember what you embroidered on my kneecap?”

Minglan shrugged and said innocently, “Nothing abnormal. The examination room doesn’t allow anything with words, therefore I embroidered a mark on each of them in case you lose them.”

Qi Heng smiled so big that his white teeth were exposed, “You really know how to cut corners!” He turned around, said something to his maid, then turned back and continued, “She embroidered a tiny pine tree on each of Brother Cheng’s kneecap, so vigorous and upright, but on my kneecaps……hum……”

At this time, that maid came back and Qi Heng took a furry thing from her hand and showed it to others, which was a well-cut furry cloth embroidered with a shining little thing. When they came near to take a close look, they found that it was a shoe-shaped gold ingot called Yuan Bao in Chinese. It was neat, tiny and round, which seemed charmingly naïve and very amusing.

Wang shi laughed, “Does it have any special meanings?”

Junzhu got it immediately and replied, “Well, the courtesy name of Hend’er is Yuanruo and Yuan is the same with that in Yuan Bao. So, that’s why you embroidered a Yuan Bao on it?”

Minglan nodded with a flush on face and moved one small step at a time, trying to hide herself behind Changbai, who stuck to his principle of staying loyal to friends, stood upright in front of her.

All people, looking at handsome Qi Heng and then at the tiny chubby gold ingot in the shape of Yuan Bao, couldn’t help but laugh. Rulan and Molan also chuckled with handkerchiefs covering their mouths and even Changdong, a kiddy, giggled while covering his mouth with hands.

Qi Heng put on an act and squeezed Minglan’s ear slightly, “Even if I’m no match for your brother, I’m at least way better looking than a Yuan Bao. You’re too partial! Just wait and see if I’m willing to bring you more of those fun stuff.”

With ear being pulled in front of others, Minglan was so embarrassed that her chubby fair face reddened. She forcefully pushed Qi Heng’s hand away and spared no efforts to defend herself, “The Yuan in your courtesy name is the same with that in Yuan Bao! Besides, Yuan Bao is so big and fat that cost me lots of gold threads! If you do not like Yuan Bao, then I’ll change it into Yuan Xiao (sweet dumplings) for you, round and cute!”

Everybody laughed this time, even Lord Qi and Sheng Hong. What’ s more, Sheng Hong pointed at Minglan and said with a laugh, “Look at yourself. You’re almost as chubby as a Yuan Xiao.”

While Minglan was covering her ears with her hands to play dumb, she peeked at Wang shi. Finding that Wang shi didn’t seem unhappy about this, Minglan relaxed to some extent. Then she turned to Rulan and Molan and only found their faces were slightly sullen and stiff. Minglan’s heart sank and she knew clearly that there was little time left for her to continue acting like an innocent little girl.

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