Published at 20th of March 2019 09:38:22 AM

Chapter 54

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A Memoir of Divorce in Ancient China (1)

The mother and daughter talked for nearly an hour and Minglan eavesdropped all their conversation, be it something she should know or not. When the old madam finally got tired and was helped to the bed for a rest by Sheng Yun, Minglan struggled her way out of the dog hole with her heavy and numb legs, which tingled so much that Minglan stooped cautiously out like an old grandma. Fearing to be caught by others, she couldn’t help admiring herself for not forgetting pushing the water tank to its original place and concealing the dog hole with some weeds.

With her messy clothes stained with mud all over, Minglan dared not go back to her own room. So she sneaked her way into Pinlan’s room, only to see her dear comrade sitting anxiously waiting, who immediately fawned on her with a big smile and new clothes for Minglan to wash up.

Minglan greeted her dear sister with a good round of rubbing on face and only when she vented her anger out did she started to tidy herself up. As Minglan took off her clothes, the two girls were quite taken aback by the swelling on Minglan’s elbows and knees, which looked quite daunting with the dense marks of the bricks stamped on the fair skin. Pinlan massaged for Minglan with an unguent for quite a while and prepared Minglan a bowl of ginger tea to stave off chill. Even so, the bruises still turned purple and blue just like the separating bricks in the toilet. Minglan was quite annoyed and pulled Pinlan’s face really hard, making Pinlan cry with pain. However, Pinlan took it all and apologized sincerely like a dog wagging its tail.

By the time the bruises on Minglan’s kneels faded, First Old Madam Sheng convened the elders of both Sun Family and Sheng Family, some conversant elders of the county, and last Madam Sun and his son, trying to solve the problem once and for all. For a matter important as this, Pinlan would never stand by so she pleaded her mother for half a day to be present. Li shi was not a bit persuaded for she had no intention to let her daughter witness the elders quarrel and argue. It was First Old Madam who made the call, “She’s not a kid. It’s time to expose her to the difficulties of life or she might be too fragile to stand any storm.”

First Old Madam Sheng held a different outlook on life, believing that weeds were tougher than orchid for ornamental purposes. Li shicouldn’t defy her mother-in-daughter so she let it go after shooting Pinlan an approving glance. Pinlan immediately went to Minglan and urged, “Let’s go together.”

Minglan was itching to go too but she still first asked for her grandmother’s permission. Old Madam Sheng, to her surprise, didn’t even try to stop her. So the two girls sneaked excitedly to the side room of the main hall.

“Teach him a good lesion!” Pinlan was thrilled.

When they arrived at the side room, they found Shulan already sitting there, looking utterly pale like a grass widow.

“Old Madam told our lady to come here,” explained gently the servant girl standing next to Shulan. Pinlan and Minglan exchanged a glance, realizing that First Old Madam planned to prescribe a harsh elixir to end Shulan’s impractical illusion on her husband.

The Sun mother and son thought that Sheng Family yielded when they saw their servants come to fetch them respectfully. Upon arriving, they were surprised to see that there sat nearly half room of the highly respected in the local as well as the elders of both families. Looking around, they even found the Tongpan present with two clerks. Sun Zhigao was a bit nervous while his mother noticed nothing, taking the seat in the front with an air of arrogance.

When all greeted each other, Uncle Hu and Changsong led Tongpan and the two clerks out for tea. Pinlan peeked carefully through the crack of the door and turned her head, whispering, “Thank god that third uncle’s family are not present, or they’ll laugh at us.”

After a cup of tea, Sheng Wei looked around the room and cupped his hands, “We’re here today to discuss about the matter between my daughter and my son-in-law, Sun Zhigao. Do forgive us for bothering you with family affairs.”

Seeing Sheng Wei’s manner, Sun Zhigao thought that Sheng Family was planning to force him into deal. So he decided to take the initiative and hummed, “My dear father-in-law, for all the three serious impious deeds, barrenness is the most unpardonable. I’m so ashamed to be the descendant of Sun Family, being so unfilial without a kid at 25. Now the concubine is pregnant, it is a true blessing to the family. And it is the wife’s duty to look after the concubine. However, I didn’t expect Shulan to be so jealous and ungenerous. Father, I know you’re always righteous and a man of principles, please admonish your daughter for this.”

As generous and honest as Sheng Wei usually was, he was infuriated with Su Zhigao’s shameless speech that completely distort the matter.

Seeing her husband’s livid face out of wrath, Li shi stood up, “This is a matter of the inner house, my husband is not suitable to intervene. Then as a mother, I do have some words.” She turned to Sun Zhigao and asked, “Son-in-law, may I know how many concubines my daughter has prepared for you for the past three years of marriage?”

Sun Zhigao was choked and gave out a cold hum without a word.

Li shi continued, “Not half a year after my daughter married you, she offered three maid girls to you and bought another two a year later. The next year, she betrothed you a concubine of common birth and three new maid girls. The third year, four or five more. By now, you have over a dozen concubines in your house!”

Hearing Li shi reveal all his concubines with great familiarity, Sun Zhigao’s face reddened with embarrassment. All elders in the room showed contempt on their face while an uncle in the family who didn’t get along well with Sun Zhigao sneered, “No wonder nephew you never pass the exam! How very busy you are!”

Seeing that her son was overwhelmed by embarrassment, Sun the mother retorted, “It is only natural for a man to have concubines. My son is only trying to have a son, what do you mean by that?”

Sheng Yun sneered, “God knows he did it for a son or for his lasciviousness!”

Sun Zhigao nearly jumped out of fury.

The old patriarch of Sun family immediately stepped out to ease the situation, “My dear in-laws, please cool off. Couple always quarrel but make it up the next second. In a family, we should talk in peace, what’s all the quarreling about?”

Hearing that, Sun the mother immediately seized the opportunity, “That’s right. Stop beating around the bush. I don’t mind my daughter-in-law for being incompetent to bear a son, but she should at least agree to take the pregnant concubine. By the time the concubine gives birth to a baby, it is also a blessing for your daughter.”

Li shi’s voice was icy cold, “We’re here to talk about this. I’m here to ask you, my dear in-law, what’s your plan if my daughter refused to take the concubine?”

Sun Zhigao shot up and said with arrogance, “What’s the use of an ungenerous wife? I’ll repudiate her!”

Sheng Wei couldn’t control his anger anymore and fumed, “Very well! Excellent! What a learned son-in-law!”

Minglan felt sorry for Shulan. Turning around, she found Shulan with empty eyes and trembling body, who only managed to sit up with the support of the servant girl. Pinlan bit her teeth hard and whispered to Minglan, “If I were a boy, I would rush out and beat this asshole hard.”

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Looking at Pinlan’s fierce manner, Minglan thought to herself, “Even as a girl, your brother-in-law is not likely your match.”

Seeing that no one in the Sheng Family speak, Sun Zhigao continued overbearingly, “One night of love is worth a hundred of friendship. If she can learn to be more virtuous and look after the kids of Sun family, we won’t be mean to her. Do think it through, father- and mother-in-law!” Finishing his speech, he sat straight down as if assured that Sheng Family couldn’t bear to lose him as a son-in-law.

The last bit of hesitation Li shi had vanished completely upon seeing Sun Zhigao’s impudence, bearing such a strong hatred that she almost stormed to kill. She raised her voice, “No need for the contemplation. We Sheng Family are too humble to claim ties of kinship with you the great scholar. However, we do not agree with you divorcing my daughter. It must be a ‘negotiated divorce’ and we’ll take back all the dowry.”

The Sun mother and son were startled, never expecting Sheng Family to hold such a tough stance. All those present were stunned and then began to persuade something like, “Don’t act on impulse.” or “Ending a marriage is worse than destroying ten bridges.”

Sun Zhigao finally came to himself and shouted loudly, “Negotiated divorce? No way! It’s too generous of me to write her a certificate of divorce.”

His mother added, “The moment she was married to Sun Family, the dowry became ours. On what grounds do you take it all back?”

Seeing the two’s shameless and brazen craze for the money, not caring a bit about her honest daughter, Li shi finally came to realize the painstaking plan of First Old Madam. Therefore, she made up her mind and raised her voice, “Unfilial? Unvirtuous? How dare your heatless wretch even speak of that? Yes, you want a son, did my daughter ever try to stop you? Though of merchant family, we do know the doctrine of women and filial piety. It is only a sin not to bear a child after seven years of marriage. However, my poor girl has prepared you concubines after just half a year upon marriage. How can you say her being jealous? For these three years in your house, every month there were over twenty days that she slept in your mother’s room, serving the tea, preparing the meals, resting by midnight and getting up to serve your mother at the early dawn. For any curses or beats you threw at her, she never tried to talked back. And you still call her unfilial?”

Thinking of her daughter so anile and skinny at her prime years, Li shiwas overwhelmed with sorrows and couldn’t help sobbing. While all the others present sighed heavily and stared at the Sun mother and son with condemning eyes. Some even thought in secret, “How can you expect the girl to get pregnant by not even letting the couple sleep together? What a mean and unkind mother-in-law!”

Sun the mother was quite embarrassed under the reproaching gazes of all. Much barefaced as she was, she still blushed. While Sun Zhigao sat there in silence with his head lowered.

Li shi couldn’t refrain her anger and hatred anymore, “You mistreated my girl to this, yet still want to divorce her! And even covet my girl’s dowry! No way!”

Sun Zhigao retorted, “It is unalterable principle for a man to divorce his wife. How can you stop me?”

Li shi sneered back. Taking out from her sleeve a piece of paper, she said, “You disgraced the educated scholars for taking prostitute as a concubine. I have in hand the old indenture of the slut in Money Pavilion (The name of the brothel where Sun Zhigao’s mistress works). Though you bought her freedom, you forgot to destroy her old indenture of such a humble origin. How about I send a letter along with this indenture to your teacher and the provincial education commissioner in Jinling? Then all the scholars who you share poems together would know your shameless and concupiscent nature! I may not be able to remove you of your scholarly honor but ruining your name is…”

Sun Zhigao’s face changed sharply yet he still tried to keep composed, “Hum! Scholars are all romantic and dissolute in nature. The famous Four Gifted Scholars of Yuhang all have confidante in the prostitutes' quarter.”

“But none of them brought a courtesan home, let alone taking one as concubine to bear children!” snorted Sheng Yun.

Sun Zhigao was furious yet he dared not to vent it out as Tongpan was just in another room. The patriarch of Sun Family knew it from Li shi’s stance that Sheng Family was well prepared! It seemed impossible to gloss over the matter. Therefore, Sun the patriarch immediately turned to Sun Zhigao and persuaded, “In that case, do send the woman away after she delivers the baby. It’s never a good idea to give up your wife for a prostitute.”

Hearing that, Sun Zhigao immediately turned into a magnificent scoundrel and cried with tears welling up in eyes, “No, no! She’s such an amazing girl of the brothel who only makes a living as a performer not a prostitute.”

Pinlan, who was in the side room, cursed in a low voice, “Bullshit!”

Minglan couldn’t help sighing, “That is only natural. Amazing girls are always from brothels. Those of common birth are all virtuous young girls.” And these amazing girls would, more often than not, meet one or two great prodigals and put on the stage a touching story of true love.

However, Shulan, not as broad-minded as Minglan, burst into tears upon hearing Sun Zhigao’s claiming of true love and throbbed silently under her handkerchief.

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