From a distance, I caught sight of Jianye. I was overwhelmed by emotions. I had finally returned. Thirty li away from the city, the king and all of the civil and military officials came forward to welcome us subjects whom had performed meritorious service and were returning in triumph. We all dismounted and kneeled to pay our respects to the king. The king rejoiced, holding the Prince of De’s hand, proclaiming, “Royal Uncle has performed a great deed for our country. We have prepared a banquet to celebrate Royal Uncle’s meritorious deeds.” After I followed the army into the city, I could sense that someone was looking at me intently from the upper floor of a nearby restaurant. However, I could not ascertain any malicious intent.
After the celebration banquet, I hurriedly brought along Chen Zhen and returned to my home. I had received plenty of rewards for my services during this campaign against Shu. As a result, I had long ago decided to buy an estate on the outskirts of the city, especially as the Prince of De had agreed to help me get around the regulations and allow me to stay at home to convalesce. I was no longer restricted to living within the city walls. Before I had returned, Xiaoshunzi had already arrived with Wang Hai. He had already picked out and purchased an estate for me, acquiring the deed from the seller. Last night, he had come to the posthouse to meet me and gave me the details. Following the information provided, Chen Zhen and I quickly found the place. The estate was a secluded and elegant small grange, and within included the pavilions and kiosks of a typical Chinese garden. Xiaoshunzi had already hired a number of servants and had them clean the estate from top to bottom.
After I had taken a bath, I entered my study. Inside, Xiaoshunzi had already arranged my books. I had just picked up a history book to read when Chen Zhen entered. “Daren, there is someone outside asking to meet you.”
I froze momentarily. I had just moved here and had yet to register this address with the Ministry of Personnel.1 How could there be someone paying me a visit?
Seeing my puzzlement, Chen Zhen explained, “When daren returned, you rented a carriage. When the coachman went back, someone asked him where daren was living.”
I thought of a proverb: “they who worked in those service positions should be killed regardless of guilt to seal their mouths.”2 Sure enough, this was the case. At the same time I was thinking this, I asked, “Where is the calling card?”
Chen Zhen presented me with the calling card with both hands. To speak frankly, originally, although he was obedient, I could sense that he looked down upon me. But after I had written a poem and forced the King of Shu to commit suicide, his temperament changed, becoming reverent and respectful. I accepted the calling card and opened it. Upon it was written the three characters of Liu, Piao, and Xiang. I hurriedly said, “Is that person still here?”
Chen Zhen replied, “This lowly one has allowed them to wait at the gatehouse.”
I promptly uttered, “Quickly allow them to come in … wait … I will personally welcome them.” As I said this, I immediately rushed out. Arriving at the gatehouse, I saw a green-robed scholar with a heavy black cloak draped over her shoulders and covering her whole body. She wore a bamboo hat with a black veil, hiding her features. But I recognized her from her figure and bearing. Without caring about the two serving girls dressed as male attendants, I rushed over and grasped her two hands, crying out, “You’ve come! Was it you watching me from upstairs earlier today?”
One of the attendants frigidly spoke. “Ever since my lord zhuangyuan departed for war, my family’s young miss has been extremely worried and troubled.3 She even stopped going to the pleasure boat. If my lord zhuangyuan did not return today, the young miss would probably still refuse to leave her home.”
With great difficulty, I resisted the joy in my heart, continuing to hold Liu Piaoxiang’s delicate hands. I maintained, “I knew it, I knew it, you also love me.” I watched as Liu Piaoxiang removed her bamboo hat, revealing her pale and sallow features. I was left speechless for some time before I stepped forward and hugged her tightly to me, saying, “You treat me such, even if Suiyun were to sacrifice this life,4 it would be insufficient to repay your beauty’s heavy grace.”
Liu Piaoxiang softly replied, “After you left for war, I was uneasy day and night, worried about your safety. Seeing you return in triumph today, I was finally reassured. I originally did not want to come see you, but I wanted to personally come and ask you how you were.”
I gratefully responded, “In reality I wanted to come see you, but I thought that you may not necessarily want to see me.”
“Okay! You two, stop being so romantic,” said the attendant with a smile. “This lowly servant is going to be worn to death.”
Liu Piaoxiang and I looked at one another and smiled. Taking her by the hand, I led her inside. The two attendants were naturally left for others to take care of.
Late at night, I watched Liu Piaoxiang’s sleeping posture. I rose and picked up paper and brush. My brush moved like flowing water as I began to write. At this moment, Liu Piaoxiang awoke. Walking over, she hugged me from behind. With a smile, she asked, “My lord zhuangyuan is writing another poem.”
With deep love, I looked at her briefly before embracing her at the waist and pulling her onto my lap, allowing her to take a look at my new work. Tying up her hair, she picked up the draft. It was poem entitled Immortals at Magpie Bridge:
As slender clouds form clever shapes,
Shooting stars convey the lovers’ complaints.
They secretly ferry across the wide Celestial River.
In this moment, gold wind and jade dew meet,
With more ecstasy than any human would encounter.
Their tender feelings are like soft water,
But the reunion is short as a dream.
Unbearable to go back across the bridge built by magpies.
If love lasts long between a couple,
They don’t need to be together morning and night.5
“Ah!” she exclaimed in a quiet voice before looking at me with eyes filled with passion. How could I resist such enticement? I picked her up and carried her back to bed, spending the whole night satiating our passion. When I awoke the next day, the beautiful woman was gone. My heart ached painfully. Don’t tell me that she still is unwilling to marry me? But she has already stopped receiving customers. Did this not mean she wished to marry me? I saw a newly written short verse on my desk.
On a spring day,
Blown apricot blossoms fall upon my head.
On the pathway, there is a young master,
Amply distinguished and accomplished.
Long to be his wife,
Though pitilessly I’m disclaimed,
I would not feel shame.6
Extremely grateful, I kneeled on the floor and prayed, “Heavens bless me, Piaoxiang really wishes to marry me!”
What purity? What reputation and integrity? For an exceptional woman like Piaoxiang to marry me was my great fortune. She wasn’t someone tempted by fame, money, or power. Nor was she interested in a stable home life. After I had figured out a way to leave Southern Chu, I would bring her to wander the world and her see all of the sights. Accompanied by a beauty while touring the world … such a life was comparable to that of the immortals! When we were both tired from our wanderings, we would settle down in somewhere with enchanting scenery and live out the rest of our days. What a delightful future!
I hurriedly rushed to the Ministry of Personnel. There, I learned that the king had promoted me. I was now a Hanlin Expositor-in-Waiting. In addition, the king had already agreed to allow me to rest at home to convalesce. After completing all of the paperwork, I happily went to a jewelry store. After browsing through its wares for half a day, I did not find anything worthwhile. Piaoxiang was used to seeing all kinds of jewelry and definitely would not be interested in such vulgar objects. I made my own design and had the jewelers make a golden hairpin and a golden bracelet. Seeing my design, the jewelers requested permission to purchase my design for their own use. I rejected their offer. I intended to give these pieces to Piaoxiang. How could I allow them to copy the design? However, I did agree to give them two other designs. In any case, it was to simply earn money. There wouldn’t be any problems as long as they did not spread the news that I was the designer. Although my design required the exquisite craftsmanship of a master artisan, the time required would not miss my deadline.
I couldn’t blame them for their seriousness. The hairpin that I had designed was not an ordinary hairpin, but a real phoenix hairpin—a phoenix pecking the hanging tassels—and required three sparkling and translucent, genuine pearls from the southern seas that radiated brilliant light. The eye-catching ability of the combination of a golden hairpin with pearls and emerald green tassels could be imagined. Even more astonishing was that I asked that a phoenix be carved on each of the pearls that were as small as grains, but lifelike,7 and located beside the opening of each pearl. If one weren’t to look carefully, one wouldn’t even notice that they were there. As for the body of the hairpin, the phoenix’s mouth was open and held a jeweled ring that could move. This kind of exquisite golden hairpin was difficult to obtain no matter how high a cost you were willing to pay. If Zhao Jue had not privately rewarded me for my contributions, I would not have the financial ability to obtain it.
As for the bracelet, my design called for the main body of the bracelet to be formed by ten strips of golden threads spiraling together. On each golden thread would hang a little bell. The point where the threads joined together would be covered by a lotus. On each little bell would be carved a small lotus. This was my vow to Piaoxiang, telling her that in my heart she was as pure as a lotus.
After busying myself for most of the day, as night approached, I returned home with Chen Zhen. Just as I arrived at the entrance to my home, I suddenly saw one of Piaoxiang’s serving girls rush before me crying bitterly. I froze, not knowing what had happened. I did not know why but an ice cold chill spread from my heart. It was only after some time that I heard myself speak in a stiff and rigid voice, “What has happened?”
Crying, the attendant wailed, “The young miss was extremely happy when she returned home this morning, preparing to release all of her servants. The madam of the pleasure boat sent someone over saying that an honored guest had come to see the young miss. Young miss did not agree to go, saying that she no longer wished to take any customers. But the madam said that this guest had a background that could not be offended. The madam begged the young miss to go and save her life. Remembering how the madam took care of her, the young miss went, believing that all she needed to do was to meet the guest and half-heartedly attend to them. After the young miss shed her lowly status, she would be able to properly walk away from her previous life. Who knew … who knew that the young miss would go but not return. At dusk, someone suddenly delivered the young miss’s corpse, saying that the young miss had suddenly fallen ill and died.”
Listening to this point, I suddenly gave a miserable scream and collapsed to the ground, fainting. I awoke to find Xiaoshunzi’s anxious face before me. Grabbing him, I asked, “How could this happen? How could Piaoxiang die?”
Xiaoshunzi sadly answered, “I brought Lady Liu Piaoxiang’s body back. After carefully examining her body, Lady Liu Piaoxiang was raped and then killed using an insidious yin internal energy to jolt and snap the arteries and veins of her heart. Although efforts were taken to clean and cover it up, the wounds on her lower body and the traces of internal energy could not be concealed from me.”
With great pain and suffering, I closed my eyes. If Piaoxiang wasn’t trying to remain faithful, how could this have happened? With my eyes closed, I continued to ask, “Who was it? Who killed her?”
Xiaoshunzi replied, “I’ve already investigated. The madam said Liang Wan sent people saying that there was an honored guest who wanted to meet with Lady Liu. The madam thought that Liang Wan would not harm Lady Liu, and could not afford to offend a guest who was from Great Yong, and thus reluctantly had Lady Liu go. I’ve already investigated Bright Moon Pavilion, but did not see any honored guest. But I did capture one of the servants and after interrogation learned that Lady Liu was indeed killed at the Bright Moon Pavilion. If I’m not mistaken, it’s likely that Liang Wan was the murderer. I ambushed her to test her martial arts. Her internal energy was the same as the energy traces left on Lady Liu’s body.”
”Liang Wan! Good, good,” I replied distressed. “Xiaoshunzi, help me up so that I can go see Piaoxiang.”
Xiaoshunzi helped me to a side room. Inside was a coffin containing Piaoxiang’s body. I looked at her seemingly still living appearance, then cried loudly, full of wrath and regret. She was really dead. My beloved. The woman that I was going to marry was murdered. In a pained voice, I screamed the name, “Liang Wan!”
Over the following days, I was as numb as a walking corpse. After properly burying Piaoxiang, I fell ill. This illness lasted half a year. I had not fully recovered from the illness that I had suffered in Sichuan and it returned with a vengeance. Afterwards, I only began to recover after re-cultivating qigong to maintain my health. Although my appearance also recovered, sorrow could still be clearly seen on my face.
After I fell ill, I had heard that Zhao Jue had been rewarded by the king, receiving permission to carry his sword into the palace and exempting him from kneeling.8 It was no wonder, as the Prince of De was the Royal Uncle and the Chief Commander. At this point, there really were no further titles or positions that could be bestowed. I persisted and wrote Zhao Jue a letter that Chen Zhen delivered. Not long afterwards, Zhao Jue submitted a missive declining these honors, arguing that as he was already the Royal Uncle, he already had honor and glory. There was no need for these rewards. If the king felt that meritorious service must be rewarded in order to protect the state’s dignity, then land and treasure would be sufficient. Extremely happy, the king heavily rewarded the Prince of De. After a while, the Prince of De requested permission to defend the Jingxiang region. The king gladly approved.
Before he departed for the Jingxiang region, the Prince of De came to see me. Seeing me gravely ill, he specifically ordered the royal physicians to heal me. After he arrived in the Jingxiang region, he would often send medicine and supplements. From Xiaoshunzi, I learned that the Prince of De had also dispatched people to keep an eye on me. I couldn’t care less, especially since I was in bed recovering. It was unlikely those spies would be keeping track of those individuals by my side. As for Xiaoshunzi, there were very few people who could keep track of his whereabouts.
There was something that left me worried. The king had originally wanted to restore the empire and declare himself emperor. He faced strenuous opposition from the ranking officials who argued that with Shu newly conquered and having suffered heavy losses, Southern Chu should wait. The king was extremely unhappy. Afterwards, he received a letter from the Prince of Qi. Only then did he sadly abandon these plans. From then on, the King drowned himself in alcohol and women, especially indulging himself with the court musicians from Shu. Accompanied by literati, he would drink and make merry, composing poems. He also had all of the calligraphy, paintings, and books recorded and delivered to the Palace of Sublime Culture. Although I admired this last action of his, the rest of his behavior was that of an incapable ruler, including handing over all government affairs to Prime Minister Shang Weijun. The king argued that with his Royal Uncle handling external affairs and Prime Minister Shang handling internal matters, he could drink and feast from dawn till dusk. Under the leadership of the king, many officials began to increasingly do as they pleased. I sent people to collect the poems and verses that they had composed and found that they were all gaudy in nature, all of them too horrible to even read.
Fortunately, while Southern Chu was in a drunken stupor, Great Yong was also finding it difficult. Rumors of the Prince of Yong’s intentions to declare independence reached the ear of the Crown Prince, Li An. Li An personally went before Yong Emperor Li Yuan to complain tearfully. Li Yuan recalled the Prince of Yong, keeping him idle. For the last half year, Li Zhi had stayed in Chang’an, unable to find peace. He faced several assassination attempts. After I had heard this news, a mysterious person came to call upon me. The man was travel-worn and claimed that he was a guard for the Prince of Yong. I accepted the prince’s letter. In the letter, the prince lamented that he had been slandered, most likely the result of one of my strategies. Recalling my early promise to help advise him when needed and since this matter had nothing to do with Southern Chu, the prince asked for my help to protect himself. I flashed a faint, but sardonic smile. The Prince of Yong really was using everything to acquire me. After thinking it over, I wrote a letter in response. For my safety, I used my left hand to write the characters, purposely leaving out the header and the closing signature:
Take the advantage and strike first—with strong external enemies, there will be no internal misery.
The Prince of Yong was indeed highly intelligent. I later learned that during a banquet hosted by the Yong Emperor, the Prince of Yong, Li Zhi, drank poisoned wine. Afterwards, Li Zhi unceasingly vomited blood. If it weren’t for the coincidental presence of the Medical Sage, Sang Chen, in Chang’an, Li Zhi would likely have died. Because of this, the Yong Emperor erupted with indignation, implicating numerous individuals. Li An could only restrain himself. Soon afterwards, Northern Han began to plunder the frontier. Li Zhi immediately petitioned his father, requesting permission to defend against Northern Han. The request was swiftly approved. The Yong Emperor wished to temporarily separate his two sons, allowing both of them time to calm down. After hearing the news, I smiled faintly. To me, this was killing two birds with one stone. The battle between the Prince of Yong and Northern Han would likely last for several years. With Crown Prince Li An in control of the supplies, he would likely make things difficult for Li Zhi. In this way, Great Yong would be constrained, preventing them from launching a campaign south. When the time came for me to take revenge, with the backing of the Prince of Yong, as long as my methods were brilliant, no one would make things difficult for me.
While I was ill, Xiaoshunzi personally investigated the murder of Piaoxiang. Ultimately he told me that if I wanted to kill Liang Wan, he could take advantage of some of the holes in the defenses and murder her. I refused. Although Liang Wan could not be forgiven for her crimes, there was another culprit who took part in Piaoxiang’s murder. While Liang Wan was guilty, her main role was to serve as his procurer (of women) and to clean up after him. This person’s identity was definitely not ordinary. Under normal circumstances, Liang Wan would never reveal it. I knew that although this woman was a radiant beauty,9 she was as venomous as a snake or a scorpion. Even if I were to capture her, I could not have her obediently divulge the other killer’s name. I must place her in a situation where she would die with regrets.10 Only then would I be able to force her to speak the truth. Because of this, I currently could not kill her.
Liang Wan was truly malicious. After Piaoxiang’s death, to pull wool over others’ eyes, I hid myself, only allowing the madam to secretly bury Piaoxiang. I had indicated to Chen Zhen to have Piaoxiang’s savings be split, giving the madam one portion, while splitting the rest between Piaoxiang’s serving girls, helping them leave Jianye and start new lives. This was the result of the secret discussions between Chen Zhen and the madam. Although the madam knew that Piaoxiang was to be married, she had no idea who was going to be the husband, let alone remembering my existence. Seeing that the husband was so generous, the madam was happy. After she arranged everything, Liang Wan’s assassins arrived. Liang Wan had earlier dispatched agents to keep an eye on the madam. Seeing that the madam took care of everything clearly and orderly, Liang Wan did not strike immediately, waiting until everything was settled before sending assassins to kill the madam. Seeing that Liang Wan did not send anyone to target Chen Zhen, I was able to confirm that Piaoxiang did not divulge who I was. Xiaoshunzi secretly followed the assassins back and personally watched and listened to them report back to Liang Wan. In Liang Wan’s eyes, the trail of evidence had been completely severed. For her, the departure of Piaoxiang’s serving girls was the best way to settle this matter. Finding and then killing them all would likely arouse suspicion.
After listening to Xiaoshunzi, I took a deep breath. Liang Wan, you truly deserve death. Regardless of your background, I will definitely ensure that you meet a tragic end.11
After some time, my health gradually improved. One night, I set an incense burner table in the rear courtyard to properly pay my respects to Piaoxiang. Thinking back to our affection, I felt as if my spirit was broken and my mood grew morose. I silently prayed, Beloved, you and I fell in love at first sight, bound by deep understanding and emotions. Who knew that fortune was as unpredictable as the weather, and my love would suffer calamity and perish; the jade shatters and the pearl submerges, leaving nothing of your beautiful image, making it difficult to find a trace of your lingering fragrance. If beloved’s spirit is there, help me find the true culprit and along with his accomplice, Liang Wan, kill them both to comfort beloved’s departed spirit in the underworld.
After finishing my prayer, I picked up a small brocade box on the table. Inside were the golden hairpin and bracelet that I had intended to gift to Piaoxiang. Seeing these pieces of jewelry made me miss their owner even more. I became more melancholic. Inside the box was a jade finger ring. Piaoxiang had specifically found this ring with the intention of gifting it to me. I made the decision to gift her jewelry to her serving girls, leaving only this ring behind. This finger ring had been purchased by Piaoxiang. Originally, she loved its dark green color and luster, and its pure texture. It was slightly too big for her and she could not wear it, leaving it in her jewelry container. I placed the finger ring on my middle finger. This was an item left to me by my beloved. Also inside the box were two poems that had been written the last time I had seen her. Taking them out, I began to read them. When I read her poem, reaching the sentence, “I long to be his wife, / Though pitilessly I’m disclaimed, / I would not feel shame,” I could not but shed tears in silence.
吏部, libu – the Ministry of Personnel was in charge of appointments, merit ratings, promotions, and demotions of officials, as well as granting of honorific titles
车船店脚牙，无罪也该杀, chechuandianjiaoya, wuzuiyegaisha – those who work as coachmen, boatmen, waiters, menial laborers, trade intermediaries, should be killed even if they are innocent. This means that these individuals are untrustworthy and can easily be bought. They should be silenced to prevent any secret information from leaking out.
寝食难安, qinshinan’an – idiom, lit. cannot rest or eat in peace; fig. extremely worried and troubled
分身碎骨, fenshensuigu – idiom, lit. torn body and crushed bones; fig. to die horribly; to sacrifice one’s life
This is a poem by the Song Dynasty poet, Qin Guan and is about the mythical love story of “the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl.” Their love was forbidden and they were banished to the opposite sides of the Celestial River (symbolizing the Milky Way). Once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month, they are reunited by a bridge of magpies for one day. The tale is celebrated throughout Asia as the Qixi Festival in China, the Tanabata Festival in Japan, and the Chilseok Festival in Korea.
This is a poem entitled “Thinking of Imperial Land” by the late Tang Dynasty and early Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms poet, Wei Zhuang.
栩栩如生, xuxurusheng – idiom, vivid and lifelike; true to life, realistic.
Both of these are great honors, as it meant eliminating two of the most important aspects of propriety when a subject is before a King or Emperor – being unarmed and kneeling to properly pay one’s respects.
艳如桃李, yanrutaoli – idiom, lit. beautiful as peach and prune; fig. radiant beauty
死不瞑目, sibumingmu – idiom, lit. to die with being able to one’s eyes; means dying with regret
死无葬身之地, siwuzangshenzhidi – lit. to die without a burial site; to die a pauper; to meet a tragic end