In the seventh month of the twenty-second year of Xiande, Great Yong dispatched an envoy to negotiate peace. Southern Chu’s sovereign and officials, all fearing the war continuing, agreed. Afterwards, there were some within the court praised the King as an enlightened sage1 under whose leadership Shu was conquered and Great Yong was repelled, and should take the imperial throne. The King, addled by these words and believing in the Prince of Qi’s previous agreement, approved. The decision was made to take the imperial throne on the first day of the eighth month. A memorial was dispatched to Great Yong, expressing a willingness for the two countries to be brothers.
At the time, many sensible court officials penned memorials to remonstrate, enraging the King. Many were censured and sternly rebuked. Jiang Zhe was among them. Jiang Zhe had penned Remonstration on Taking the Imperial Throne. This essay was deep and to the point, its language impassioned, as it severely criticized the king for his wrongdoings. In anger, the King ordered Jiang Zhe executed. The eunuchs advised, “Jiang Zhe is the best of Southern Chu’s gifted scholars and cannot be punished without careful consideration.” His anger quelled, the King instead issue an edict: “Force him to retire, never permit him to be granted government office again.” Jiang Zhe accepted the edict. When advised to temporarily bear this punishment and wait for the opportunity for the king to have his mind changed, Jiang Zhe only replied, “Be it thunder or rain, all are the King’s grace.” He withdrew calmly and unhurriedly, attaining everyone’s respect.
—Southern Chu Dynastic Records, Biography of Jiang Suiyun
Seeing my frozen expression, Chen Zhen seemed like he had something to say but couldn’t. I listlessly wondered, “What do you want to say?”
After hesitating, Chen Zhen asked, “Daren, you have good relations with Great Yong. Why are you so hurt by the death of the Prince of De?”
I was silent for some time before answering, “Great Yong is a golden country with the number of talented individuals it possesses, its powerful military, and it has an enlightened monarch and virtuous ministers. It can be said this opportunity to unify the world lies in Great Yong’s development. Although my Southern Chu possesses many capable sons,1 it emphasizes civil and neglects military. In addition, the people of Southern Chu are feeble scholars. These drawbacks are not easily eliminated. From the beginning, I knew that Southern Chu would be destroyed by Great Yong. The only question was when. Therefore, when I participated in the royal examinations, I already had no intention of spilling my blood, sweat, and tears2 for Southern Chu. I was only a poor scholar. There is no chance for me to be able to grasp complete authority in Southern Chu. Even if I were to reach a position where I was only below the King, Southern Chu does not have the conditions for me to achieve my grand plans. Furthermore, I know myself well. I can neither bring peace and stability to a region through good governance, nor can I determine the fate of a nation through feats of martial valor. I am adept at putting forward strategies and ideas3 to plan victory from far away.4 Without an enlightened monarch and virtuous ministers, I would be unable to play a role. But I ultimately am from Southern Chu. And yet, I am not resigned to watching Southern Chu decline and fall. When I first met the Prince of De, I wished that he was the enlightened monarch of my heart. Unfortunately, he was not. He was only a loyal subject, not an ambitious and ruthless character. He treats the virtuous well, but does not know how to use them. He recognizes the wicked, but does not know how to remove them. As a result, he used up everything and died within the military camps.
“Of the people of Great Yong, I have met the Prince of Yong and the Prince of Qi. The Prince of Yong has the demeanor of a sovereign and will inevitably be a generational, virtuous monarch. Although the Prince of Qi is hot-headed and impulsive, he also has the talent to be a hegemon. I have not met the Crown Prince, Li An, but for him to be able to compete with the Prince of Yong for so long, he must surely also be an extraordinary individual. I am only an ordinary person. As such, I have been unwilling to offend either the Prince of Yong or the Prince of Qi for the sake of preserving my life.”
“For what purpose has daren offered advice to both the Prince of De and the Prince of Yong?” asked Chen Zhen.
“I originally did not have to explain my reasons,” I indifferently replied. “But seeing as you are willing to serve me, then there is no harm in me explaining it to you. The advice that I offered the Prince of De has already achieved its objectives. The strategies to take the cities need not be explained. The discord stratagem has also successfully attained its goal. Why do you think this invasion of Southern Chu was commanded by the Prince of Qi?”
Thinking it over, Chen Zhen answered, “It must be because Crown Prince Li An is worried that if the Prince of Yong’s achievements are too great, he will be difficult to control.”
Closing my eyes, I added, “Correct. When I forced the King of Shu to commit suicide, the purpose was not to make it more difficult for Great Yong to control the Hanzhong region, but rather the Shu King’s concubine, Lady Golden Lotus. Sure enough, once Lady Golden Lotus arrived in Great Yong, Yong Emperor Li Yuan was bewitched by her beauty and had her brought into the harem. If the Shu King were still alive, the Yong Emperor would be constrained from doing so. The Prince of Yong would face the Emperor’s anger for his direct criticisms. Why do you think the Prince of Yong was so stuck and unable to handle the Crown Prince’s attacks?”
In a doubting tone, Chen Zhen voiced, “But no one has heard anything about the Prince of Yong admonishing the Emperor.”
I smiled and replied, “For this kind of matter, how can the Prince of Yong directly admonish the Emperor? Alas, even if it was a secret admonishment, he would not be able to avoid being reprimanded by his father. Beyond this basic information, the Prince of De did not do anything else. When the Prince of Yong dispatched an envoy requesting my help, I had him pretend to be poisoned and take the opportunity to have a command on the northern frontier. Although this has ensured the Prince of Yong’s status and safety, it has also advanced the discord between him and his father and brother. This is the entirety of my discord stratagem.”
Chen Zhen looked at me with surprise, as he marveled, “This subordinate did not know the reason why daren would formulate a plan for the Prince of Yong even while ill.”
“You shouldn’t too highly admire me,” I replied, shaking my head. “In reality the conflict between the Prince of Yong, the Yong Emperor, and Crown Prince was already acute. I only added fuel to the fire. In addition, the Prince of Yong’s predicament isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Once the Prince of Yong comes to the decision to seize the imperial throne, then Great Yong will no longer have any obstacles towards unification. My actions have only won some time for Southern Chu. If Southern Chu were strong, then the Prince of Yong would have no alternative but to slow down his plans. For Southern Chu to survive for another twenty to thirty years isn’t impossible. But the King has personally destroyed his own defenses.5 With the death of the Prince of De, Southern Chu does not have any general capable of resisting Great Yong. Rong Yuan does not have a sufficiently broad mind or tolerance. Lu Xin is stupidly loyal and lacks strategy. The court officials are all shortsighted. Those who are somewhat talented are either wallowing in alcohol and sex or have hidden themselves. Chen Zhen, even if Great Yong suffers internal strife, I believe that Southern Chu will fall within a few years. But with Great Yong suffering internal strife, I believe that Southern Chu will be able to maintain a residual piece of its strength and maintain its separate regime in Jiangnan and Sichuan. Without at least ten years, it will be impossible for Great Yong to acquire Jiangnan without too badly damaging the region.”
Memorizing my words, Chen Zhen asked, “Then daren, what is our next step?”
“Southern Chu can no longer do anything,” I indifferently responded. “When I return, I intend to resign. After that, we will wait in Jianye. I believe that it won’t take long before I will have the opportunity to take revenge.”
“What about after vengeance has been wrought?” Chen Zhen continued to ask. “Both the Prince of Yong and the Prince of Qi both highly regard daren. If Southern Chu were to be destroyed, I’m afraid that the two Imperial Highnesses would both come to recruit daren. How will daren handle this situation?”
I was silent for a while before replying, “I once thought that I would be willing to serve Great Yong. But I have come to realize that I cannot do so. After Southern Chu falls, I naturally wish to peacefully live out the rest of my days. If the Prince of Yong and the Prince of Qi are unwilling to let me go, then I can only leave the Central Plains. If I were unfortunate enough to be captured by them, I have no intention of dying for Southern Chu. When I have wrought my vengeance, I will have my forces be turned over temporarily to your control. To Great Yong, my force is insignificant. But if they were by my side, they would be noticed and likely annihilated. If they were to be hidden, they may be able to save my life one day.”
Hesitating, Chen Zhen asked, “Daren, why not turn the force over to Master Li?”
I shook my head and said, “Xiaoshunzi is of greater use by my side. His martial arts are exceptional and he has a detailed mind. He is my confidant-cum-friend. If he were outside, he would not be sufficiently calm and could not hide the strength I have on the outside.”
Chen Zhen cheerfully nodded his head, stating, “If that is the case, then this subordinate will do as you bid.”
I returned to Jianye in silence. I learned that the king, as expected, regretted what had happened and accepted the Prince of De’s proposal. Rong Yuan was appointed to the position of the Vice Minister of War6 to defend Xiangyang. Lu Xin was appointed to be Chief Commander. When he returned to the court to accept the staff and battle axe denoting his position, I found that his bearing had deteriorated one bit from years past. His son, the little Marquis Lu Can, my student, had become a twenty-one-year-old youngster filled with power and grandeur. I had heard that over these last few years, Lu Can had become his father’s subordinate serving in the front lines. He was courageous in battle and resourceful. The opinion of him within the Southern Chu army was highly positive. Not long after I had returned home, Lu Can called; I was his teacher after all. He excitedly told me that he had benefited greatly from my idle teachings of the art of war. Lu Can had come in hopes of learning more from me. Seeing his expression brimming with enthusiasm, I neutrally told him, “In those days, I was only an armchair strategist;7 the little marquis should ask for guidance from the lord marquis.” After I had seen Lu Can off, I felt pain in my heart. My old student was now a Southern Chu general. Thinking of what he would have to face in the coming days, how could I not feel grief? After pondering it over, I had Chiji deliver to Lu Can the battle formations that I had organized, having him pass on the message to not share that I was the source of this information. These formations may allow him to win a few victories. Although the end result would be more deaths, that was his fate and also Southern Chu’s fate. This may be my final contribution to Southern Chu.
Not long afterwards, someone petitioned the king, praising him for his brilliance and martial prowess. Within the last few years, Southern Chu under the king’s leadership had conquered Shu and had now also repelled the Yong invasion. After considering his virtue and ability, the king should ascend to the imperial throne and declare himself emperor, and directly compete with Great Yong. Zhao Jia was too easily flattered. After hearing these words, he surprisingly also believed that this was Heaven’s Will, forgetting the blood- and tear-stained memorial from the Prince of De who he had persecuted to death. The king quickly issued an edict asking for the opinion of the entire court. The result was that the court officials, dazed by victory, agreed and in succession, petitioned the king urging him on.
After hearing of this, I, who had originally intended to resign, contemplated a good while before I penned the Remonstration on Taking the Imperial Throne. After this document was submitted, the king was indignant as expected. Within this memorial, I clearly explained in an outspoken fashion, that although we had won a victory in our invasion of Shu, Great Yong had attained more benefits than we had. In addition, the disparity in the strength of the militaries between the two countries was extremely clear. I further explained that the recent victory against Great Yong was a result of the Prince of Qi taking a straightforward and unyielding approach, as well as Xiangyang’s strong defenses. With the Prince of De dying while in the army, Southern Chu no longer had any comparable ranking military officers. On top of this, Great Yong had not suffered any real damage. If the king became emperor, then Great Yong could consider Southern Chu as a rebel vassal and use this casus belli to continue to attack. When that time comes, Southern Chu would be in the wrong. By then, Southern Chu would not have the strength to repel Great Yong’s attacks. Within this essay was written my rarely revealed genuine views, as this was to be my last memorial before I left Southern Chu. If the king was willing to accept my opinion, then I would rather present my ability and wisdom to Southern Chu. I would not regret it even if were to die on the battlefield because of my loyalty to Southern Chu.
Unfortunately, what I thought would happen came true. The king became indignant and almost gave the order to have me executed. Fortunately, I had prepared for all exigencies. Beforehand, I had Xiaoshunzi bribe all of the eunuchs. They were able to mollify the king’s anger, and as a result, I was only stripped of my rank. I was already thinking about formally tendering my resignation … but I had wanted to take this final gambit. Sure enough, I was removed from office. In this way, Southern Chu and I no longer had any entanglements, with the gratitude and grievances all cleared up.
When the edict was read to me, I had difficulty maintaining a calm and tranquil expression on my face. I almost laughed. Thus, Great Yong no longer had any reason to assign me any fault and could not use pardoning me as a reason to force me to capitulate. The official tasked with issuing the edict was a class colleague, the bangyan, Liu Kui. He was now serving at the side of the king. He had penned this edict for the king. Filled with regret, Liu Kui said, “Elder brother Jiang, you should not be depressed. Although the king has stated that you will never be employed, this incident will no longer be an issue. We will put in a few words on your behalf. Elder brother Jiang has sincerely devoted yourself for the sake of Southern Chu. When the time comes, the King will reinstate you.”
I did not take notice of his efforts to comfort me. I only distantly replied, “Be it thunder or rain, all are the King’s grace. This lowly official does not dare to have a single complaint. A few years ago, I followed the army into Sichuan and as a result, contracted an illness. I have spent these years recuperating at home. I originally should not be holding a sinecure position.” After I escorted the visitor out, I indifferently said, “Let’s go, let’s go home.”
I led Chen Zhen and company out. We had not yet left the Ministry of Personnel when I saw Liang Wan gesturing at me from her carriage. Seeing my gloomy face, Chen Zhen muttered, “Daren, no, young master, don’t forget …”
I stopped him from continuing. Stepping forward, I asked, “So it is Lady Liang. What instructions do you have?”
Liang Wan smiled and said, “This is not the place to have this conversation. Will the zhuangyuan please board the carriage to converse?”
I smiled slightly and boarded the carriage, telling Liang Wan, “Fine, will her ladyship please escort me … to the northern gate will be sufficient.”
After seeing me board, Liang Wan ordered the carriage to go. Smiling, she conveyed, “This time, the lord zhuangyuan spoke forthrightly in order to remonstrate the King, and this was the result. Truly pitiful. In the past, Bi Gan cut open his heart8 and Zixu was thrown into the river,9 and yet were laughed at by the entire world. They were treated inhumanely. If the lord zhuangyuan does not refuse, I have acquaintances in Great Yong and am willing to recommend daren to become an official in Great Yong.”
I smiled faintly and replied, “My ladyship is now a confidante of the Queen of Southern Chu and was the adopted daughter of the former King, and yet does not worry about Southern Chu and serves Great Yong. I can’t help but find this to be saying one thing but meaning something else.”10
With a despising look, Liang Wan countered, “Who cares about Southern Chu’s status and position? The lord zhuangyuan is an intelligent person. The Prince of Qi has praised you several times. If you choose to dance to a different tune,11 then you would surely gain rapid promotions12 without limit.”
I smiled lightly without saying anything. My left hand spun the ring on the middle finger of my right hand. This was the item left to me by my deceased beloved. It was some time before I responded, “My ladyship has been in Southern Chu for years. Although you have made outstanding contributions, all of it relied upon the strength of Great Yong. Now relations between Southern Chu and Great Yong are broken off. When the time comes, my ladyship, please take care of yourself.” After I finished, I ordered the carriage to stop. After exiting the carriage, I casually mentioned, “This is loyal advice upon parting—hope that my ladyship will not blame me.”
Baffled, Liang Wan watched me leave. She did not understand why I refused to surrender, and yet, still try to convince her to be careful. After thinking it over, she thought that maybe I was waiting for a good offer. Fine, after Great Yong had crossed the river, then there was no fear that I wouldn’t surrender. Having thought it through, she ordered the carriage to continue onwards.
After I exited the carriage, I recalled the beautiful13 woman who had been so close to me, and felt disgust and loathing. This kind of woman truly deserved to have her body dismembered and shattered. If Great Yong really relied upon her to command the spies in Jiangnan, then I would highly doubt the intelligence of Great Yong’s leaders. After thinking over the rumors, I recalled that there were stories that Liang Wan had not married because she had sexual relations with the king. According to my knowledge, Liang Wan had played a major behind-the-scenes role in the king’s decision this time. She had played an indispensable role. She was definitely an outstanding spy, bribing court officials and spreading rumors. I had made no attempt to stop her actions. The king now took her words as decrees. From this, then, Great Yong would consider its opponent when using people. As a result, the leader of the spies in Southern Chu ended up being a beautiful female spy.
After me, there were others who petitioned the king with essays attempting to stop his ascension to the imperial throne, including the Hanlin Academy Chancellor Xie Xian and Minister Who Remonstrates and Advises Luo Wenshu. Their petitions were all ignored by the king. Some were demoted, others dismissed. Luo daren attempted to use his death to serve to admonish the king. But even after his blood dyed the royal dais red, the king did not wake up to reality. I did not participate in these disturbances, as I was now only a commoner.
Just like this, on the first day of the eighth month, the king formally declared himself Emperor, changing the era name to Zhihua.14 I thought back to the decision made by the king to continue the Xiande era name when he succeeded the throne. At the time, I thought it was strange. It seems likely that the king had wanted to change the era name after he had declared himself emperor. From this, it was apparent that the king had a great and lofty goal. It was a pity that his ambition did not match with his abilities, and did not have any patience. This Zhihua era name was likely the era name for the subjugation of the nation.
Meanwhile, in Great Yong, in the estate of the Prince of Yong, Li Zhi was looking at the intelligence report in his hands. He said, “Liang Wan is too unbridled. She does not understand the need for cautious speech and careful action. If it weren’t for her sect, I would not indulge her so much.”
The refined middle-aged man with a black beard sitting beside him replied, “Your Imperial Highness, the Fengyi Sect15 is the leader amongst Great Yong’s righteous sects and made outstanding contributions to the founding of Great Yong. Now their female hands have stretched too far. Even though Liang Wan is under the command of Your Highness, she repeatedly acts on her own initiative. She even has close relations with the Crown Prince and the Prince of Qi. In addition, the Prince of Qi’s primary consort, Qin Zheng, is the junior apprentice sister of Liang Wan. I fear that they are preparing for the Crown Prince to succeed the throne.”
The Prince of Yong coldly declared, “There is no need to suspect. I have already received intelligence that the Fengyi Sect through their disciple, Imperial Father’s favored concubine, Noble Consort Ji, has directly warned Imperial Father that I have maintained an army to defy the court. If I were to ascend to the throne, then I would murder my brothers. In addition, she has said that the crown prince, although somewhat less competent, will be able to govern well as long as he is assisted by virtuous officials. Humph! This is only because I refused to take one of their disciples as a consort. A bunch of women, deluded to think they can control the world. I, Li Zhi, am not a puppet or clay figurine.”
Deeply worried, the middle-aged man responded, “But the Fengyi Sect possesses formidable strength. What should we do if they attempt to obstruct Your Imperial Highness’s ascension to the throne at all costs? Alas, this subordinate is not adept at scheming and strategizing, and cannot help Your Imperial Highness.”
A look flashed across Li Zhi’s eyes, as he stated, “If that man is willing to serve me then we will be able to deal with the Fengyi Sect. In truth, I do not fear the Fengyi Sect’s martial prowess. Although they all possess formidable martial arts, we have already gained the support of the Shaolin Temple and other famous and upright sects. At the least, we can prevent the Fengyi Sect from being able to use its martial prowess. I am worried about their ability of adept use of money and power, and their ability to sow dissension. If we are incapable of using stratagems, allowing them to continue to develop, then I fear that Great Yong’s empire will fall into the hands of these women.”
“I have frequently heard Your Imperial Highness speak of Jiang Zhe,” mentioned the middle-aged man. “This subordinate extremely longs to meet him. Is Your Imperial Highness certain that he will serve you?”
Li Zhi smiled wryly, replying, “How do I put it … To gain him as a subordinate is very easy. However, to gain his loyalty so that he serves willingly is very difficult. That person’s thoughts are difficult to read. In addition, he is disinterested in high position or great wealth, the empire or the people. With this kind of apathetic individual, how can I acquire his wholehearted support? I have received a report that he submitted a remonstration essay and has been dismissed from office. Reading the contents of his memorial, I could not but be apprehensive. He understands the situation between Southern Chu and Great Yong as if it were the back of his hand.16 If I cannot gain this kind of person, it will be the greatest regret of my life.”
The middle-aged man accepted the memorial that Li Zhi had passed over. Take a long time to read it over, he finally raised his head and said, “Your Imperial Highness, you must immediately dispatch someone to Southern Chu. If we cannot acquire this person, then our hopes and ambitions will never be fulfilled. In addition, the Fengyi Sect is not blind. If they bear witness to this person’s talents, they will inevitably recruit him. If he becomes a retainer of the Crown Prince, we will be in grave danger.”
“I believe that the Fengyi Sect does not have the ability to persuade him,” explained Li Zhi with a faint smile. “The ‘serve country and people’ performance that the Fengyi Sect are adept at using will not be able to move him. It is also impossible for Li An to have him surrender. Contrary to what you might expect, it is actually the Prince of Qi who is extremely likely to have him surrender and swear allegiance. This time, the Prince of Qi has sent a letter in secret, speaking of how he met Jiang Zhe while campaigning in Southern Chu. Jiang Zhe saved his life. Although the Prince of Qi is hot-headed and impulsive, he is sincere when treating people. If Jiang Zhe were to follow him, the Prince of Qi would follow his every word.17 That would be our greatest crisis. Right now, the Prince of Qi is recuperating. I have already petitioned Imperial Father to immediately attack Southern Chu. As long as I am the first destroy Southern Chu, then Jiang Zhe will fall into my hands. Ziyou, we really ought to dispatch people to Southern Chu; not to convince him to surrender, but to know Jiang Zhe’s movements. To convince him to swear allegiance, outside of this Prince, no one will be successful.”
Just then, a personal guard in a loud voice sought an audience from outside the door. After he entered, he kneeled and reported, “Your Imperial Highness, His Imperial Majesty has called for Your Imperial Highness to enter the Imperial Palace to discuss the matter of attacking Southern Chu.”
人杰地灵, renjiediling – idiom, lit. illustrious hero, spirit of the place; a place derives reflected glory from an illustrious son
呕心沥血, ouxinlixue – idiom, lit. to spit out one’s heart and spill blood; to work one’s heart out; to shed blood, sweat, and tears
出谋划策, chumouhuace – idiom, lit. to put forward plans and ideas, to give advice
决胜千里, jueshengqianli – idiom, to be able to plan victory from a thousand li away
自毁长城, zihuichangcheng – idiom, lit. to personally destroy the Great Wall; the Great Wall served as one of China’s defenses against ‘barbarian’ incursions from the north, to personally destroy the Great Wall meant that you were personally destroying the defenses
兵部侍郎, bingbu shilang – Vice Minister of War, the second ranking official in the Ministry of War
纸上谈兵, zhishangtanbing – idiom, lit. military tactics on paper; fig. theoretical discussion that is worse than useless in practice; armchair strategist
比干, Bi Gan was an uncle of the last King of the Shang Dynasty, Di Xin. Bi Gan was known for his kindness and virtue. Listening to the slander of the women in his harem, Di Xin ordered Bi Gan executed in order to see whether his heart had seven openings.
伍子胥, Wu Zixu was a colleague of 孙子, Sunzi. The pair served the state of Wu during the Spring and Autumn Period in the service of 阖闾, King Helü of Wu. After Helü’s death, his son 夫差, Fuchai inherited the throne. Fuchai was not trusted by Wu Zixu. Wu Zixu had seen the long-term danger of 勾践, Goujian, the King of Yue. After Wu conquered Yue, Wu Zixu advised Fuchai to execute Goujian. But Yue had bribed another official of the state of Wu named Bo Pi. Concerned with the safety of Wu, Wu Zixu asked Fuchai to take action. Fuchai ordered him to commit suicide. Before he committed suicide, Wu Zixu asked Fuchai to remove his eyes and have them hung on the battlements so that he could watch the Yue army capture Wu. Wu Zixu died and his body was thrown into the river
心口不一, xinkoubuyi – idiom, lit. heart and mouth at variance; keeping one’s real intentions to oneself, saying one thing but meaning something different
改弦易辙, gaixianyizhe – idiom, lit. change of string, move out of rut; dramatic change of direction, to dance to a different tune
青云直上, qingyunzhishang – idiom, lit. rising straight up in a clear sky; rapid promotion to a high post; meteoric career
花容月貌, huarongyuemao – idiom, lit. countenance of a flower, face like the moon; beautiful
至化, zhihua – lit. to arrive at change
凤仪门, fengyi men – Fengyi Sect, lit. Phoenix Ceremony Sect
了如指掌, liaoruzhizhang – idiom, lit. to know something like the back of one’s hand; to know something inside out
言听计从, yantingjicong – idiom, lit. to see, hear, and obey; to take advice, to take somebody at his word