Volume 1, Chapter 1: A Destitute Scholar

In the sixteenth year of Xiande, Suiyun left Jiangxia for Jianye1 to take the imperial examinations.

—Southern Chu Dynastic Records, Biography of Jiang Suiyun

In the sixteenth year of Southern Chu’s Xiande era, the world remained under turmoil, though the situation had become clear. The majority of the territory south of the Yangtze River was occupied by Southern Chu, while the land north of the river was controlled by the Great Yong Dynasty.2 The city of Jiangxia was the strategic lynchpin of Southern Chu’s defenses against Great Yong. The residence of the garrison commander, the Marquis Who Suppresses Distant Lands, Lu Xin, was the center of these defenses and was heavily guarded at all times.

Although my position as the marquis’s family tutor was not low, I still had to obey military directives, and remained inside the study to avoid getting caught in any trouble. While flipping through the pages of a book, I calculated the time remaining until lunch.

As a ranking military commander, Marquis Lu had no choice but to leave his family in the capital of Jianye to serve as hostages. Only the marquis’s fifteen-year-old son, Lu Can, was allowed by the imperial court to accompany his father as a personal guard. Although Lu Can was my student, as the son of a military family, he was also naturally educated in warfare. Today, the marquis had called a military conference and had brought Lu Can along to listen and learn. I had no recourse but to remain in the study waiting for him to return, having agreed to eat together once the conference ended. Even though it was noon, none of those attending the conference had eaten yet. If I, a lowly family tutor, ate beforehand, Lu Can would likely kick up a storm and use the opportunity to plot against me. It was better to wait for him.

Thinking of this point, I touched my stomach and sighed helplessly. How could a father and son differ so much? Whereas Lu Xin was generous and magnanimous, Lu Can fussed over minor matters. The last time Lu Can was punished by the marquis, he caught me snickering. The next day, Lu Can tricked me into a brothel under the pretext of relaxation and completion of the traditional three year mourning period for my father. If I had not fled at the first opportunity, I would have lost my virginity.

Bored, I flipped through the book, while allowing my imagination to run wild. Although the marquis’s study was not bad, I had pored over all of the books over the last three years. Unfortunately, since the family was a military one, the study only contained easily obtainable books. I guessed that they probably had the bookstore bring them a copy of everything. Why else could they possess almanacs and yet have no books of value?

I was counting the time by the size of the shadows when Lu Can’s attendant, Lu Zhong, arrived to inform me of the conclusion of the conference. Lu Xin had invited his subordinates to a feast. As Lu Can was allowed to join in, I did not have to wait for him. I gladly agreed. Not caring that the food had gotten cold, I swiftly began devouring my lunch.

Just as I was enjoying my meal, a commotion broke out in the nearby hall. I did not pay much attention in the beginning, but the noise got louder and louder. Suddenly, I heard a voice shout out, “Capture the assassin, capture the assassin!” My heart skipped a beat. Oh crap, the assassin was undoubtedly targeting the marquis. The marquis was currently my patron; he mustn’t be killed. Knowing that I did not have the ability to protect the marquis, I decided it was best to remain hidden. However, my heart remained apprehensive, and I grabbed an elaborately crafted crossbow from the bookshelf. This crossbow was engineered by Southern Chu’s Ministry of Works3 and not only possessed a range of a hundred paces, but also could shoot up to five bolts in succession. Originally a gift to Lu Can from the marquis, Lu Can did not like to use the crossbow, deeming the weapon not straightforward enough and gifting it to me instead. As I did not know any martial arts, I could not use a bow and arrow. This crossbow was definitely my favorite.

Loading the bolts, I opened the window slightly. The study was not far from the nearby hall. Outside, swords and spears filled the courtyard. A large group of soldiers in red surrounded two men in servant attire. Before long, Marquis Lu arrived with his subordinates, a bloodstained piece of cloth wrapped around his right arm, his face pale white. The marquis’s personal guard, Lu Ping, was nowhere to be seen. Lu Can supported the marquis from the left, looking enraged. From the situation, I deduced that two assassins disguised as servants attending to the feast had attempted to accomplish their mission. It was likely that Lu Ping had performed his duty and had sacrificed himself.

I was focusing on the scene when the two assassins exchanged facial expressions. Suddenly, they took out two black beads and threw them on the ground, engulfing the space with white smoke. Just then, I noticed the murderous expression on the face of a deputy general standing close to Marquis Lu. A dagger slid out from his sleeve into his hand. Recognizing the situation, I yelled out, “Your Lordship, be careful!” At the same time that I shouted the warning, I fired the crossbow. A scream followed. After the smoke had dissipated, everyone saw that the two assassins remained surrounded. The deputy general was collapsed on the floor half a step behind the marquis. A bolt had pierced his heart. Clutched tightly in his hand was a dagger with a blue colored edge (poison). Even a blind man could tell what the deputy general had been planning.

The two assassins could not hope to escape the encirclement. Under the gaze of the marquis, they fought to the death. After ordering his subordinates to deal with the corpses, he brought me to White Tiger Hall.

Giving me a complicated look, he spoke, “Thank you, Suiyun, for saving my4 life.”

I replied modestly. “You are blessed for your virtues, and thus escaped harm. I5 merely caught it by chance.”

“How did Suiyun know that that man would attempt to assassinate me4?” Marquis Lu suspiciously asked. This was something he could not understand.

How? Of course, because I saw it. But I could not say this. This was my secret defense mechanism. My six senses were sharper than normal people. To put it simply, I could hear the leaves falling within a hundred paces; I could see vivid details several li6 away; I could identify any taste with just a small sample; I could track a person eight to ten li with my sense of smell. Sometimes, I wondered if I was even human. I also knew that these acute senses could produce jealousy and hatred in others. You wouldn’t want anyone listening to your private conversations. In order to protect myself, I had never let anyone know about my acute senses aside from my deceased father.

Therefore, I lied. “It was a coincidence. I grabbed the crossbow in order to protect myself. When I saw the two assassins release the smoke, I realized that something was off. Regardless of their ability, there was no way that the assassins could escape. Releasing the smoke was undoubtedly to give someone else the opportunity to perform the assassination. I judged that there was another assassin near Your Lordship and cried out in panic. I realized that there was no one behind my lord at the time, giving the assassin an opportunity to complete his mission, so I fired the crossbow. Luckily Your Lordship was blessed with virtue, and I was able to kill the assassin.”

Though skeptical, the marquis nodded his head and allowed me to leave. Later, I learned that the assassins were dispatched by Great Yong. Bribing the deputy general, they wanted to assassinate the marquis. With the marquis dead, Jiangxia would have been leaderless. They would have seized the opportunity to attack. Who could guess that this perfectly planned assassination would fail? The Yong army could only retreat.

Witnessing my cleverness, Lu Xin sought for me to remain and serve as one of his advisors. After thinking it over, I declined. Jiangxia was only a river away from Yong controlled territory. Battles were frequent. If they unluckily lost a battle, what was I going to do? Furthermore, if Great Yong learned that I was the one to save the marquis, I would be killed by assassins. What could I do then? Of course, I could not give these reasons. Instead, I spoke of my father’s regret in failing to attain scholarly honors7 and of my decision to sit for the imperial examinations. Using such a high-sounding and dignified8 reason, no one could hinder my decision. Therefore, Lu Xin not only dispatched people to my home prefecture of Jiaxing to obtain qualification to take the exam, but also gave me travel expenses to head to Jianye two months in advance. For my safety, he even allowed me to travel with the supply personnel. With no alternative, I could only follow them eastward. On the way, I pretended to catch a cold. Stating that I wanted to rest and recuperate for two days, and with ample time still remaining, I took the opportunity to regain my freedom.

I was not stupid. In the ninth year of Xiande, Southern Chu submitted to Great Yong, removing the title of “emperor” and using the title of “king,” instead. There were currently rumors that the king wished to restore his imperial prerogatives. This decision would certainly antagonize Great Yong and spark war. Although I did not wish to go to war, I did understand much of the art of war. Great Yong’s army was strong, while Southern Chu from the king to his officials drowned themselves in alcohol and fantasies.9 The generals and officers feared death. Even the famed general, Marquis Lu, had numerous subordinates who were cowards. Several times, the furious Marquis Lu wanted to execute these individuals, but could not do so due to the influence of their families and clans, and could only continue to allow them to serve. Taking the imperial examination at this time? Pfft, I did not want to serve as a minister of a subjugated state.

Sitting on the deck of a boat with my arms around my legs, I comfortably enjoyed the cool evening river breeze. Aboard this type of mid-sized boat, the lower decks were filled with cargo, while the upper decks were partitioned into passenger cabins. It was certainly more comfortable than the specialized passenger boats, though more expensive. But with several hundred taels10 in my pocket, easily more than enough, I allowed myself to be extravagant for once. Gazing at the clear bright moon and the starry sky, I suddenly had a poetic inspiration and recited:

“The grass by the shore gently sways in the breeze,

The mast of the boat stands tall and alone at night.

Stars fall to the fields that spread far and wide,

The moon rises from the great river’s flow.

Have my literary works not made any mark?

A court official should retire when old and sick.

What is a man without purpose and responsibility?
A gull between heaven and earth.”11

As I finished reciting the poem, I heard clapping and applause from behind me. Turning my head to look, I saw a young man standing there. Despite the dim light of the moon, I could see clearly with my heightened sight that he was a handsome and majestic young man. Even though he was wearing casual attire, his aura was not ordinary. I could not help but feel that he was more majestic than Marquis Lu. Moreover, he had an astonishing charisma that made one feel as if he was being cleansed by a spring breeze. It made me feel ashamed about myself. He possessed a normal physique that could be blown over by wind, with delicate handsome features. No matter how I looked, he seemed to be no more than a fragile scholar. This was a time of warfare and disorder. What most attracted girls were handsome young masters12 who were adept with both brush and sword. Even a barely literate warrior was more attractive compared to me as long as he looked slightly refined. How did I know? Of course, because the maids in the marquis’s mansion never gave me a second look.

I stood up and apologized, “My apologies for interrupting your rest.”

The young man shook his head and said, “Don’t say that. I would have missed young master’s great poem. Is this young master’s work?

While delighted at heart, I responded humbly, “This clumsy work is unrefined.13 I have embarrassed myself before your distinguished self.”

The young man observed me for a long time before speaking, “Your literary talent is exceptional for one so young. You have my respect. My name is Li Tianxiang, a merchant from the Kingdom of Shu.14 I have come to Jianye on business. May I inquire as to young master’s name and reason for coming to Jianye?”

Even though the man spoke with a Shu accent, it sounded a bit off. Though what did other people’s business matter to me? Therefore, I replied politely, “My5 name is Jiang Zhe, styled Suiyun. I am traveling to Jianye for the imperial examination.”

With a smile, Li Tianxiang said, “With young master’s peerless talent, the imperial examination will surely be easy for you.”

I awkwardly smiled. If not for a lie, I did not even want to sit for the imperial examination. But I had ways to avoid passing the examination without complaints from anyone.

Seeing my discomfort, Li Tianxiang changed the subject. With a sigh, he spoke, “This time coming from Shu, I saw the tense situation in the Central Plains15 and almost got caught in a battle at Jiangxia. These days, doing business is becoming harder and harder. A while back, the King of Southern Chu issued an edict increasing tariffs. Fortunately, the King of Shu dispatched an envoy to Southern Chu to negotiate. Otherwise, our cargo boats would lose money.”

Casually, I replied, “The King of Shu does not have to worry. The fate of Southern Chu and Shu are closely linked.16 As long as this relationship is made clear, His Highness will definitely lower the tariffs, and maybe even offer trade incentives.”

“Why is that?” asked Li Tianxiang with a smile, “I do not understand.”

Rarely encountering anyone who would ask my opinion, I replied proudly, “We have to start with the current situation of the world. Currently Southern Chu and Great Yong are in a north-south stalemate. However, that’s only on the surface. Be it military strength or popular sentiment, Southern Chu cannot compare to Great Yong. Therefore, Southern Chu can only defend and has no means of attack. Hard tactics cannot last long as soldiers and the country weakens. At the same time, soft tactics will often harm one’s bottom line. Everyone knows that the kingdom is going to fall if this continues. That is why His Highness sued for peace and reduced his title, seeking respite from the conflict. However, the situation has changed. Sichuan17 under Shu’s governance has well prepared forces.18 Even though Shu’s geographic constraints limits control to a small part of the world, but compared to Southern Chu, Shu is in a position of strength. An alliance between Shu and Great Yong alliance would see Great Yong attack across the Yangtze, while the Shu forces can descend down from the upper reaches of the Yangtze. Southern Chu will surely perish. If Shu strictly adheres to its borders, Southern Chu can ally with Northern Han19 north of Great Yong. Once the Yong army marches south, Southern Chu can rely upon the natural barrier of the Yangtze River, while the Northern Han army marches on Great Yong. Within three months, the Yong army will withdraw.”

Li Tianxiang’s face became respectful. It was some time before he responded. “If this is the case, will the world never to be unified? This will only cause us, the common people, suffering.”

Comfortingly, I said, “What I said is merely the most ideal situation. Currently, Southern Chu’s ruler and ministers have become arrogant, relying on the natural barrier of the Yangtze River, while in reality, danger lurks.20 As long as Great Yong has a sensible and wise minister, they have the possibility of unifying the world.”

With curiosity, Li Tianxiang asked, “Did young master earlier not say that Great Yong will find it difficult to unify the world? Why now state that they have the possibility?”

After organizing my thoughts, I said, “Although Great Yong is surrounded by danger, they have numerous advantages. With a wise emperor and capable officials, alongside an army of a million men, as long as they choose the right strategies, Great Yong will unify the world in twenty years. Under the current conditions, Sichuan is of utmost importance. Sichuan is easily defended and difficult to attack. If Great Yong were to conquer the world, they must first come to an understanding with Northern Han, calming their rear, and then sow discord between Southern Chu and Shu.”

Unconvinced, Li Tianxiang asked, “Coming to an understanding with Northern Han isn’t difficult, but how is it possible to sow discord in the relationship between Southern Chu and Shu when their fates are so intertwined?”

“How difficult can it be? Recently, I have heard the Southern Chu court is seeking to revive the title of emperor. If Great Yong pretends to have its hands tied and unwilling to start a war, the ruler and officials of Southern Chu will be bewitched. Once Great Yong dispatches spies south, bribing Southern Chu officials to revive the empire, then the relationship between Southern Chu and Shu will become estranged. When the time comes, even Northern Han will be wary of Southern Chu. At that time, Great Yong only has to acknowledge Southern Chu’s emperor, dividing the world with the Yangtze River as the border and allying with Southern Chu to attack Shu. With the limited foresight of Southern Chu’s ruler and officials, they will be easily tricked. Even though Sichuan is difficult to attack, Shu is incapable of fending off the might of both Southern Chu and Great Yong. When the time comes, Shu will absolutely detest Southern Chu. As long as it uses the proper strategies, Great Yong will obtain the majority of Sichuan. At that point, Great Yong needs to simply attack from two fronts to conquer Southern Chu. Then, all Great Yong needs to do is prepare its armies21 for the final push to eliminate Northern Han. At this point, why should Great Yong worry about not unifying the world?”

Li Tianxiang excitedly responded, “It looks like once Sichuan and Southern Chu ally, Great Yong will be unable to do anything. It’s a good thing that Brother Jiang is not a citizen of Great Yong. If you were to be employed by Great Yong, then my Kingdom of Shu will be placed in a precarious situation.”

Lazily, I stated, “By no means will I go to Great Yong. I hear that they value military accomplishments more than anything. A fragile scholar like myself will find it difficult there. Once a few years have passed and I have saved up enough money, I will buy some land in the countryside and marry a virtuous wife. That’s the pleasure of life.”

Li Tianxiang laughed, “Then I pray that sire’s22 wish comes true. However, I am curious. According to your plan, Great Yong shouldn’t need twenty years.”

A bit sleepily, I replied, “Originally, it shouldn’t take so long. If Great Yong invades Southern Chu, the conquest should only take five to six years. However, I have heard that the Emperor of Great Yong is old. Although the Crown Prince, Li An, is the heir apparent to the throne, his military accomplishments and prestige pale in comparison to the second prince, the Prince of Yong, Li Zhi. At the time of its founding, the Yong Emperor, Li Yuan, acknowledged his second son’s accomplishments and enfeoffed him as the Prince of Yong, using the same character as the empire. However, when it came to choosing the heir apparent, Li Yuan followed the time-honored principle of anointing the eldest son of the first wife as heir apparent. This decision will inevitably lead to the turmoil of a succession crisis. Great Yong may even split in two. I only said twenty years on the presumption that the turmoil does not spread too much.”

Lowering his head slightly to think, Li Tianxiang took some time before exclaiming, “You’re right!”

I did not understand the meaning of his words and was too lazy to think deeper about it. Bidding farewell, I returned to my cabin. The next day, when I heard that Li Tianxiang had disembarked in advance, I found it extremely strange.

My original plans were not bad, but who knew that Heaven’s Will was unpredictable. The day I arrived at Jianye, I became a pauper.

Thinking back on those days, it was the first time that I had come to Jianye and I was dumbfounded by the splendor and magnificence of the capital city. After finding an inn, I left to tour the city. At the Confucian Temple23 on the banks of the Yonghuai River, I met my lucky star, although at the time, I believed that I had met the bane of my existence.

As I was walking along the streets, I witnessed a crowd gathered. Curious, I stepped forward and found a young boy selling himself into servitude in order to pay for his father’s funeral expenses. It reminded me of my own father’s passing when I had no money on hand. If I had not gotten the opportunity to work for the marquis, I would probably have ended up selling myself as well. Impulsively, I took out a hundred taels of silver and gave it to the young boy.

Looking grateful, he respectfully asked, “Young master, once I bury my father, I will go serve you at once. Where does young master currently reside?”

I smiled awkwardly, noticing the looks of jealousy from the crowd. Having already broken the rule of showing money in public, I was not going to tell anyone where I lived. Without replying, I left in hurry. In order to swiftly return to my inn, I kept my head low. Passing by an alley, I felt someone approach me from behind. As I was about to turn around, a hard object pressed against my waist. I obediently entered the alley. Afterwards, I was swiftly hit on the back of the head. By the time I woke up, I was lying on the ground without any money left.

Scowling miserably, I returned to the inn, grateful that I had earlier deposited ten taels of silver. This amount of money was enough to last me a month. What should I do? What should I do? Tossing and turning all night, I realized that the only solution was to take the imperial examination seriously to obtain the scholarly honors and become an official with salary and residence provided by the state. Southern Chu probably would not fall so fast. As soon as I had saved up enough money, I would resign. By that time, surely no one would bother someone with no official position.

Note:

A style name or a courtesy name is a name bestowed upon reaching adulthood (traditionally during the coming of age ceremony at the age of 20) in addition to one’s given name. A man’s peers would call him by his style rather than his given name, as a sign of respect. The only people who have the right to call him by his given name are his elders and superiors, though they may also use his style name in order to show affection, respect, or simply refinement and courtesy on their own part. One may not be addressed by his style by his father or grandfather. For more information, refer to this article.

Footnotes:

建业 – Modern-day Nanjing
大雍 – Great Yong, an empire (emperor)
工部 – the Ministry of Works, one of the six ministries in Chinese bureaucracy, is in charge of government construction projects, hiring of artisans and laborers for temporary service, manufacturing government equipment (including weaponry), maintenance of roads and canals, standardization of weights and measurements, and the gathering of resources from the countryside
本侯 – this marquis
晚生 – lit. this youngster, I (self-deprecatory, in front of elders)
里 – a li is about 500 meters
功名 – lit. scholarly honor; meant the titles awarded to individuals who passed stages of the imperial examination
冠冕堂皇, guanmiantanghuang – idiom, high-sounding, dignified, pompous
醉生梦死, zuishengmengsi – idiom, lit. as if drunk or entranced; in a drunken stupor
A tael of silver weighs about 40 grams.
This is a poem entitled “Nocturnal Reflections While Travelling” (旅夜书怀) by renowned Tang Dynasty poet, Du Fu. He is called the Poet-Historian or the Poet-Sage by Chinese critics and is compared to Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Shakespeare, Milton, Burns, Wordsworth, amongst others.
公子 – honorific for young gentleman
不登大雅之堂 – idiom, lit. that a work (art, poem, etc.) is not fit for an elegant hall; meaning that the work is coarse, unrefined, and not presentable
蜀国, shuguo – Kingdom of Shu (king)
中原, zhongyuan – the Central Plains, refers to the cradle of Chinese civilization along the lower reaches of the Yellow River
唇齿相依 – idiom, lit. as close as lips and teeth; closely related, interdependent
蜀中 – an ancient name for Sichuan
兵精粮足 – idiom, lit. elite soldiers, ample provisions; well prepared forces / prepared for war
北汉 – Northern Han
危机隐伏 – idiom, lit. danger lurks on every side
养精蓄锐 – idiom, lit. to preserve and nurture one’s spirit; honing one’s strength for the big push
阁下 – polite way of referring to someone else
夫子庙, fuzi miao – lit. Temple of the Master; refers to a temple dedicated to the worship of Confucius (or Kong Fuzi, lit. Master Kong) and other philosophers of Confucianism

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