Published at 16th of February 2019 07:28:44 AM

Chapter 38

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Changbai’s Good News

Spring Examination usually took place in mid-February. This year, the Emperor’s poor health condition prolonged the exam to early March, so Changbai and Qi Heng started off in mid-February. Every day since their leaving, Wang shieither burned incenses to worship Buddha or held rituals in Taoist temples, making the rooms smoky, a scene as if Sheng Mansion was on fire and almost brought in servants carrying water. Every time Minglan visited to greet Wang shi, she came out with a pair of bloodshot eyes due to the smoke. At first, Sheng Hong reprimanded Wang shi, quoting one maxim, “Confucius never touches upon the supernatural”, but reliable source indicated that in fact, he himself also worshipped in secrecy.

This kind of examination took three days in a row, and every test was like a torture peeling off the skin of the candidates. The moment they stepped out of the exam room, Qi Heng was carried on the servants’ shoulders back to Qi Mansion while Changbai insisted on walking to the carriage on his own, then was received by Changwu, a mentor officer in the Capital’s Guarding Team, to have a good rest. Therefore, the good news arrived home earlier than Changbai who passed the exam as the fifth. 

Wang shiwas overjoyed and wanted to immediately set off great deal of firecrackers and give off money and rice to the poor, but she was quickly stopped by Sheng Hong—because Qi Heng failed the exam. 

Lord Qi felt alright, knowing that passing the exam on first attempt like Changbai was something as rare as phoenix feather or dragon horn. Most of the students passed after two or three times after attending the exam. There were even those who kept taking the exam for a dozen of years. However, Junzhu Pingning’s face was in pitch darkness like the bottom of a pan. 

Qi family was endowed with connections, so even if to die, they must die with a reason. Old Master Qi consulted the chief examiner in charge of this exam. According to that official, who said while grooming his beard, other students had simplified every ritual to focus on preparing for the Spring Examination and retreated all social life to learn since last Autumn Examination. Qi Heng, on the contrary, had gone back to the capital to enjoy the Spring Festival as if Deng Prefecture wasn’t boisterous enough. The recent two months had all been wasted on drinking, partying, and appreciating landscape on horseback. Much fun he had enjoyed though, how could it be possible for him to pass the exam by half a month’s cramming?  

Junzhu Pingning couldn’t be more regretted and Lord Qi came to realize one fact, patting on his thigh and exclaiming: No wonder Sheng Mansion had been so quiet during the Spring Festival! He should have detained his son in Deng Prefecture during the festival. At the same time, he refreshed his opinion on Sheng Hong who, after all, started as a scholar with rich experience.

After another few days, the Imperial Academy held another examination and Changbai was selected as an optional Reviser to work in the Academy until taking office after the Spring Festival. The good news was followed by his engagement with the beloved second young lady of the Hai family in Jiangning. She was born into a scholarly family of aristocrats with brothers and father holding official posts in the royal court. To the two events, Sheng Hong and Wang shihad completely contradict reactions.

“How tough that Changbai passed the exam! Why not send him to govern a place out of the capital but suffer in the poor Imperial Academy?” Wang shicried and complained to Sheng Hong, “Didn’t you say that his uncles will take him to visit important officials and build connections? Why is he now just an optional Reviser of low rank?”

“You shortsighted woman! What do you know? Do you know how noble is the Imperial Academy? Changbai is still young. Sending him out of the capital is actually something of low grade!” Sheng Hong lost his temper hearing his plan devaluated by Wang shias worthless.

Wang shidid not know how noble the Imperial Academy was other than the poor and impoverished scholars there. However, she admitted Sheng Hong had more knowledge than her in this respect, so she stopped grumbling. Yet, another thing was more wrenching for her.

“Fine, we women know little about this, but after all Changbai is my own son, I should have a say in his marriage. My master, you never told me before asking Uncle Geng to make the match. I, as his mother, am only notified who my daughter-in-law is until today! In what position did you place me?” Feeling belittled, Wang shibowed head to sweep tears.

Sheng Hong sat at the tea table, raising up a cup painted with pastel mung at the bottom, and sneered, “Don’t hide it from me. I know you like your elder sister’s daughter. But for I made the decision before hand, I’m afraid your niece would move in this month!” 

Choking on his mere sentence, Wang shitossed down her handkerchief on the brick bed and said with tilted eyebrows, “What is bad about Yun’er? She has good learning and courtesy as well as a gentle nature. In addition, she and Changbai are cousins, knowing well about the backgrounds of each other. I can’t think of a better girl than her!”

“Yes! That’s exactly the problem!” Sheng Hong thumped down the cup on the tea table and continued, “Putting aside other things, our elder brother in law, of such great family background, should obtain a position lower than me. A few years ago, during his observation of filial mourning for his passed away father, he should observe out so many children. The Censor reported to the emperor that he took concubines during mourning period, so he has been dismissed from office and remained unemployed, but he never tried to build connections to get back to the court. Instead, he stayed at home, having fun and satirizing the court with prostitutes! You really want this kind of in-laws?”

[T/N: Filial Mourning, 丁忧dīng yōu, the traditional moral and etiquette system of Chinese feudal society.In ancient times, when the parents of officials died, officials had to be suspended from their posts. The mourning should last for three years, during which the son should live separately from his wife and abstain from all entertainment like drinking or partying otherwise would be considered impious.]

Wang shifelt so shameful that she talked back, “Even if you dislike the degrading Kang family, you shouldn’t have contacted Hai family. Their family rules stipulate in black and white that the descendants can only take concubines when they hit 40 years old without any children. It’s good to be a daughter-in-law to that family, but who wants to marry a daughter from that family? I heard that after getting married, their first young lady quarreled with her mother-in-law every now and then and didn’t allow her husband to take concubines. However, Hai family enjoys a high ranking; if such a living ancestor is invited to our family, how can I be a good mother-in-law?” 

Sheng Hong, “Nonsense! But for this marriage, do you think we have any chance to build connections with Hai family? As long as you don’t invent troubles to cram women to Changbai’s house, you are free to be a good mother-in-law!”

The couple had a big fight and parted in discord.

Wang shiwas very reluctant, so she burst out crying in front of Old Madam Sheng, looking for support. 

Old Madam Sheng was half lying on the soft couch, her eyes slightly closed. After hearing Wang shi’s sobbing complaints, Old Madam Sheng gently patted on her back, signing, “Master’s words don’t base on nothing. What’s the real situation of Kang family? Though Kang family has been in-laws with our family, Changbai’s future is more important. You must be prudent.”

Wang shiknew that on the surface Old Madam Sheng looked as if she had no intention to strive for anything but was shrewd and clear about everything in her mind. Dazzled and dizzy from crying, Wang shidecided to confess, “…My elder brother-in-law is such a disappointment that my sister has before her a batch of illegal sons and daughters whose birth mothers came from god knows where. They gave birth to children one after another, crowding the house with people! Every child needs my sister to take care of. The sons ask for betrothal presents and the daughters long for dowry, but my elder brother-in-law, as an officer, knows nothing about doing business. Numerous of my sister’s dowry has been expropriated. If she refused, those elders in her family doing nothing but depending on her wealth would accuse her of not being a virtuous wife! I’m afraid now Kang family only has a noble title. Fortunately, my sister’s son is progressive and took office as the Minister of the Ministry of Rites a few years ago. I have to help my sister. After all, Kang family is no lesser than ours.”

Looking at the incense smoke, from a floral-patterned gold burner on the tea table, rising up and running about, Old Madam Sheng sighed, “You’re being good-hearted, but I have to say something you might not like. No matter how close you’re to your sister, your son is the closest person you have. Alas, I’m also a mother-in-law and know your concerns. You fear in the future you couldn’t suppress your daughter-in-law with an overriding background like Hai family. Right?”

The clear and sharp eyes of Old Madam Sheng swept at Wang shiwho was nervous because in fact, she and her elder sister wasn’t as intimate as she claimed. They had also quarreled and fought with each other before getting married. Later, however, as the power-scale turned around—Sheng family grew stronger while Kang family went weaker—the sister often came to visit Wang shi, complaining about her miserable condition. A few year ago, the sister began to display her intention to make a match with Sheng family with flattering words that really pleased Wang shi. 

Noticing Wang shi’s hesitative face, Old Madam Sheng gently patted on her shoulder, “Many years ago, there were relatives from Xv family visiting to make a match with Master, but I rejected them. The Wang family and Sheng family also had no contact at that time, but I still tried to get you as my daughter-in-law. Master’s smooth path of official career benefited a lot from your father. You gave birth to sons and daughters and took care of domestic affairs. I dare to say, I never regretted to have you as my daughter-in-law! All mothers in the world are great. How would you choose between Changbai’s future and your own good feeling?” 

Wang shiblushed with embarrassment, being reminded that she herself as a daughter-in-law was not very competent or filial. Ashamed, she wiped her eyes with the handkerchief. 

Old Madam Sheng continued, “Don’t worry. Sun Momo told me that the virtue of the second young lady of Hai family is great. She will sure get along with you. On the other hand, the Kang young lady is your niece. Do you think you can act like a tough mother-in-law and discipline her in a strict way? By the time when Changbai achieves success, you’ll be entitled along with him. Isn’t it better?”

Wang shiwas persuaded by the words and agreed after a little contemplation. Recalling Sheng Hong’s terse way of communication, she felt wronged, “I’m not an insensible person. If Master had explained in this way, I wouldn’t be embarrassing myself in front of you now…However, what about Yun’er? She’s 17 years old now but my brother-in-law doesn’t hold an official post—a family neither too superior nor inferior. Hope this won’t affect the child’s marriage.” 

Old Madam Sheng smiled slightly and lovingly took Wang’s hand, “What do you think of Changwu?”

Wang shiwas a bit shocked, “You mean…?” 

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Old Madam Sheng sounded calm, “Though Kang family is aristocracy, only your nephew is an officer. As for family wealth, I suppose you know better than me. On the other hand, your Wei uncle is wealthy if not superrich. He has only two sons and more than enough fortune even if Changwu wants to live independently in the future. Besides, you as his aunt are clear about his character. In these years, he has been living alone in the capital, an aspirant without any scheming thoughts. We’re relatives, so the match will be an icing on the cake.” 

Wang shihesitated, “But…it’s still a merchant family…” 

Wang shi’s look made Old Madam Sheng tilte her mouth corner and wanted to satirize her, but she held it back and replied straight, “Since Changwu is guaranteed to the Director of Zhongwei Guardian Team and will soon take the office. With both official post and good character as well as family wealth, my old sister-in-law will never ask me for help but for his bad luck in marriage. If you really don’t want him, it’s okay. I’ll just ask other families.” 

Hearing this, Wangshigot anxious and hurried to answer, “My madam, take it easy. I’m writing to my sister. It’s indeed a great match; my sister surely understands it.” 

While speaking, she bade farewell and left in haste. Old Madam Sheng sighed leisurely on the hurriedly leaving figure. Suddenly, she heard noise behind the curtain and said without looking back, “Little thing. Didn’t you eavesdrop enough? Come out here.” 

Minglan, rubbing her eyes on her rosy fair cute face with faint pillow marks after sleep, bounced out from the inner room in a pink coat embroidered with entwined magnolia flowers. She jumped into Old Madam’s arms and climbed onto the brick bed like a squirrel. Old Madam Sheng hurried to hold the little granddaughter, but her face remained serious, “I told you to take a nap in your own house. How would you be wakened up if not stay here?”

Minglan, hands surrounding her grandmother’s neck, murmured, “Grandma, am I having a new sister-in-law?”

“Don’t pretend. I know you heard all this.” Old Madam patted heavily on her back. 

Minglan winked her foxy eyes, “Grandma, actually the Hai young lady is invited by you, right?” 

Old Madam Sheng rolled her eyes at Minglan and took a glance at the door and windows, a gesture Cuiping standing on the side understood immediately and turned around at once to look around. Old Madam stroked Minglan’s hair and said, “It’s your troublesome father that leaves me no choice but to replace the mother to tackle my grandson’s marriage. Fine, Changbai is the eldest legal grandson of our family in the end. I mustn’t neglect his marriage.”

Minglan raised her smiling, rosy and innocent, “No wonder father and mother enjoys marital harmony, treating each other as respected guest. They must be very satisfied about the match by grandma.” 

Old Madam Sheng wanted to maintain a solemn face to scold Minglan but couldn’t help bursting into laughter, only tenderly pinching her and nodding to say, “Your big brother is much better than your father at the same age. He has a father who just get promoted to Fifth-Level Official, a brother-in-law from Earl Zhongqin Mansion and a descent maternal uncle, so even a scholarly aristocracy family like Hai can’t underestimate him.” 

In fact, at the very beginning, Hai family did not like Changbai, despising about Sheng family, but Old Madam Sheng was really confident because many years ago Wang family had also hesitated about the match with Sheng Hong. However, when Old Madam took Sheng Hong to visit Wang family, Old Madam Wang approved the marriage at the first sight of Sheng Hong who was a handsome, graceful gentleman. This was so-called: Mother-in-law’s fondness of son-in-law would grow more and more. 

Old Madam Sheng was experienced in this. This time, she also asked his aunt of Geng family to take Changbai to drop a visit at Hai family. Madam Hai, seeing the upright and tall Changbai, was quite satisfied in heart. If the young lady of Hai family peeked at him behind the curtain, she would fall in love with him at first sight.

Of course, Minglan did not know these. Old Madam Sheng continued, “Kong Momo told me about the young lady a few years ago. She has good appearance, virtue, character and learning. Only one weakness about her is that the men of Hai family are not allowed to take concubines, so the daughters of Hai family can’t tolerate their husband to take concubines. This is why their daughters have difficulty to find husbands. Yet, your big brother doesn’t care about it and only has one Tongfang over these years. What’s her name…?”

“It’s Yanghao.” Minglan answered.

Old Madam Sheng lightly laughed, “The name is alright while the others are so strange that I don’t know how your big brother manage to call. Why name girls with pig, wolf, chicken, mouse...That Yanghao isn’t too pretty; just average. It’s okay to either keep her or send her away.”

Listening to Old Madam deciding the life of a girl in such an understating way, Minglan felt a bit sad with eyes turning dim. Girls like Yanghao taken by young master without a title had a doomed future. Their best result would be promoted as concubines. After young master’s wife having children, they might give birth to children if they were still loved by the master, but if the master and madam led a harmonious life, they became decorations, waiting for their youth to drain out by time. Even worse, if the madam wasn’t tolerant, they would be sent out, excelled, or married to others. 

However, they wouldn’t be married to decent people other than servants in the mansion, rogues, woodcutters and farmers. Any man with some fortune wouldn’t want a wife that wasn’t a virgin. 

However, it was unwise to tolerate concubines to an extreme extent. Minglan knew that what Old Madam had suffered long ago to a large extent could be attributive to Old Master Sheng’s concubines who set them up against each other. This kind of girl servants, serving young master since a young age, close to everyone and with a long-built emotion with young master, often endeavored to consolidate her position before the young madam moved in, and sometimes even made traps for the latter.

Minglan honestly asked herself, “When I am put onto that position, will I get away with my opponent without any hesitation?”

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