Li Zhi followed the eunuch into the Imperial Palace. He had submitted a petition calling for an invasion of Southern Chu a few days earlier, but had received no response. Today, now that his Imperial Father finally had called him into the Palace, he could not help but feel overjoyed at the turn of events.1 The official discussion was held in the Imperial Study. After Yong Emperor Li Yuan sat behind the imperial desk, his eyes subtly narrowed. His expression was not at ease. Behind him to the side sat a beautiful young woman wearing court dress. In front of the desk in the first seat on the left sat Crown Prince Li An, followed by Prime Minister Wei Guan, and Cheng Shu, the Duke of Wei. On the right hand side, aside from the first empty seat, sat the General Who Pacifies Distant Lands, Qin Yi, and the Prince of Qi, Li Xian. Although Li Xian’s face was wan and looked sickly, he seemed quite vigorous.
Crown Prince Li An was thirty-six years old, older than the Prince of Yong by two years. But he had never trained any martial arts and did not have Li Zhi’s glowing and outstanding appearance. Although he seemed to properly maintain himself and did not look old, one could discern a shred of exhaustion in countenance. He watched Li Zhi enter the room, a look of jealousy flashing in his eyes. Without consulting with anyone, Li Zhi strode before the imperial desk and kneeled, reporting, “This child2 salutes Imperial Father.”
Li Yuan inquired, “Zhi’er, why are you so late in arriving?”
Smiling, Li Zhi answered, “Before this child arrived, I had just received an intelligence report from Jiangnan. Therefore, I organized the report before bringing it here so that Imperial Father could take a look.”
Li Yuan gave Li An a baffled look, asking, “An’er, didn’t you already present the intelligence report on Jiangnan?”
Li An smiled and replied, “Presumably second brother does not yet know that I have already received the intelligence report on Jiangnan.”
Across Li Zhi’s face flashed an icy smile. “The intelligence report received by Your Imperial Highness, the Crown Prince, is from Liang Wan. The source of this child’s intelligence report is different and therefore, presumably, has details that Imperial Father does not yet know.”
Li An’s expression trembled. He had acquired control over the Jiangnan intelligence network with great difficulty having used every possible means.3 He could not believe that Li Zhi still had his own intelligence sources. How could he not be resentful? He coldly replied, “So that’s the case … Just a few days earlier, sixth brother was attacking Xiangyang. If second brother had shared these intelligence reports, then surely sixth brother would not have been so badly defeated.” He was only concerned with striking a blow at Li Zhi and forgot that Li Xian’s mood. Sure enough, a look of cold fury flashed across Li Xian’s eyes.
In a composed fashion,4 Li Zhi asserted, “This younger brother5 only realized, after sixth brother’s first campaign against Xiangyang met with defeat, that our intelligence network in Jiangnan was incomplete. The map that we received regarding Xiangyang’s defensive positions was extremely rough and undetailed, undoubtedly the result of Xiangyang’s garrison commander making changes to the map before submitting it to the Ministry of War. From this, we can conclude that the intelligence network controlled by Lady Liang has already caught the attention of Southern Chu’s knowledgeable and experienced individuals. It is only because they are safeguarded by the sovereign and vassals of Southern Chu that they have not been eliminated. Thus when we formally go to war with Southern Chu, our intelligence network will inevitably be destroyed. Facing this obstacle, this younger brother could only establish a new network. Finally, at least, there has been some achievement. That Your Imperial Highness, the Crown Prince, does not know the details is because the new network has only just gotten results. Thus, could not help sixth brother in time.” Speaking to this point, Li Zhi looked at Li Xian and bowed slightly to signal his apology. Li Xian lowered his head lightly, signaling that he did not mind.
From the moment Li Zhi entered the chambers, he had been crossing verbal swords with the crown prince. Seeing that they had temporarily stopped, everyone—outside of the Young Emperor, the lady sitting behind him, and the crown prince—all stood to properly greet Li Zhi. The Prince of Qi, Li Xian,7 had originally wanted to stand as well, but seeing the anger in Li An’s eyes, remained seated. Li Zhi sat down at his own seat at the first position on the right, greeting all one by one. From the moment Li Zhi had criticized Liang Wan, the beautiful woman’s expression became as cold as ice. When Li Zhi had sat down, she opened her mouth and questioned, “From the meaning of Your Imperial Highness’s words, my junior apprentice niece Liang has toiled under bitter hardships in Southern Chu, and yet has missed out on much?” Seeing her speak, Li An lowered his head slightly, the corner of his mouth twitching to form a smile.
Li Zhi bowed slightly as he replied, “Lady Noble Consort, this child dares not evaluate Lady Liang’s contributions. That year when Princess Changle was wed to Southern Chu, both Imperial Father and I pitied Changle. She has a gentle and soft temperament. As a result, Lady Noble Consort dispatched Lady Liang to accompany Changle to Southern Chu. Li Zhi cannot be thankful enough. Over these years, our successes in Southern Chu have been in large part due to Liang Wan’s meritorious service. It is only that the current situation has changed. Lady Liang has basically already placed herself out in the open. Thus, this child had no choice but to ensure that we do not lose access to information from Jiangnan in the event that Lady Liang is forced to withdraw.”
The woman’s tender and dimpled face revealed a faint smile, as if she accepted Li Zhi’s explanation. All the men in the study could not help but be mesmerized by her smile which was like the plum blossoms after snowfall. But since she was a noble consort, everyone quickly averted their eyes.
Seeing the atmosphere shift, Li Zhi continued, “Since Imperial Father has already received the intelligence report brought by His Highness, the Crown Prince, then He must be aware of the Remonstration on Taking the Imperial Throne?”
From on his desk, Li Yuan picked up a copied manuscript and replied, “Indeed, this Jiang Zhe is sure enough an extraordinary individual. The Crown Prince and the Prince of Qi have both recommended him to me. I have read his poems, especially his Dance of the Cavalry. A single poem forced the King of Shu to commit suicide. Definitely an exceptional talent. Today, after seeing this memorial, I not only believe that he is a gifted scholar, but also an able minister. If Southern Chu were to put him into an important position, then it would be a disaster for Great Yong. Now that this person has been dismissed from office, presumably he can be recruited over.”
“Imperial Father is correct,” replied Li Zhi with a hint of a smile. “The man does indeed possess an extraordinary ability. This child in Sichuan and sixth brother in Southern Chu have both met him. Unfortunately, that man cares not for fame or fortune, and furthermore is a loyal subject of Southern Chu. I’m afraid that he would not be willing to surrender and pledge allegiance.”
Li Yuan nodded and replied, “That’s true. We are also worried about this. Seeing this man’s memorial, he must be a loyal subject of Southern Chu. But as the proverb says, ‘a virtuous subject chooses a master to serve.’ I have seen the freedom and easiness within this man’s poetry. He should not be a stubborn man, right?”
Listening to his father’s words, Li Zhi understood that Li Xian had not told Li An about meeting Jiang Zhe in Xiangyang. Therefore, Li Yuan would not conclude that Jiang Zhe would potentially not serve Great Yong. Li Zhi glanced at Li Xian and saw his brother’s uneasy countenance. Li Zhi smiled softly and continued, “That is true. This time, I thoroughly investigated Jiang Zhe after seeing his submitted memorial. I found that this man maintained close ties with the Prince of De. In Sichuan, he served as a close aide to the Prince of De. Reportedly, while he was recuperating at home over the last two years, he maintained constant communication with the Prince of De in Xiangyang. When Liang Wan dispatched assassins to kill the Prince of De, it was this man’s servants who saved the Prince. In addition, he personally traveled to Xiangyang to see Zhao Jue for the last time. This child has also found that the newly appointed Chief Commander of Southern Chu, Lu Xin, also knows Jiang Zhe. Before passing the imperial examinations, Jiang Zhe was the teacher of Lu Xin’s son, Lu Can. Therefore, this child fears that this man will not easily surrender and pledge allegiance.”
Li Yuan listened with keen interest, while Li An and Noble Consort Ji secretly exchanged looks. It seemed that they did not attach much importance to Jiang Zhe. Li Yuan looked to Wei Guan and asked, “Minister Wei, what is your view?”
Wei Guan answered, “There is no need for Your Imperial Majesty to be worried. Southern Chu is exhausted. The south will be pacified within a few years. When the time comes, there will be peace6 and men of merit will naturally flock to serve Great Yong. We can tell, from his poetry, that this person, Jiang Zhe, is not a stubborn individual. Why would he be unwilling to serve the Emperor?”
Hearing his response, Li Yuan beamed and declared, “Minister Wei speaks the truth. Although this man is deserving of being put in an important position, there is no need to overly trouble ourselves with him. When Southern Chu is conquered, We only need to issue an order decreeing he become an official in the court.”
Li Zhi glanced at everyone, noticing that Li An and Noble Consort Ji had apathetic expressions, while Li Xian’s eyes were filled with derision. Li Zhi knew that he had achieved his goal. He had purposely esteemed Jiang Zhe in front of everyone in order to conceal the importance he attached to this man. Escaping the attention of Li An and company by enticing Jiang Zhe in secret would be difficult. It was better to be upfront about it, expressing how he valued the man. As a result, everyone’s eyes would focus upon Jiang Zhe’s talent and not realize his importance. In addition, they would not oppose him over an “ordinary” scholar. The only one able to see through his scheme was Li Xian. Li Xian also understood Jiang Zhe’s talent, but he probably also wished to recruit Jiang Zhe for himself, so held his silence. After this, Li Zhi only needed to compete with Li Xian over Jiang Zhe.
Achieving his objective, Li Zhi asked without restraint, “Imperial Father has called this child to discuss the matter of attacking Southern Chu. Does Imperial Father have any plans?”
“This time, Great Yong has suffered heavy losses at Xiangyang,” replied Li Yuan. “I am worried that from now on Southern Chu will be difficult to control and I intend to dispatch you to command an army to attack Southern Chu. Southern Chu taking the imperial title has given us the best excuse. Last time, We used the excuse that the Prince of De had designs upon Great Yong. That reason was too far-fetched. This time, our invasion will be proper and expected. What does Zhi’er think?”
“Imperial Father is correct,” answered Li Zhi. “The Southern Chu army is now quite chaotic. According to this child’s original plan, our army should redouble the siege, cutting off Xiangyang’s connection with Jiangnan and spending a few years to slowly whittle away at Southern Chu’s military strength. But if we were to give them room to regain their breath, their army would have the opportunity to restabilize. Without a decade or more, we would not be able to conquer Southern Chu. If Imperial Father permits it, this child wishes to take a gamble and strike a heavy blow at Southern Chu, causing them to lose the will to oppose our Great Yong. After that, we would pacify every resisting force one by one. Although this plan may end up being protracted, within three years, this child can promise that Southern Chu will be absorbed by Great Yong. And then we will use another twenty years to acquire popular sentiment. What does Imperial Father think?”
Li Yuan understood the meaning behind Li Zhi’s words. According to his view, the best and most perfect plan would be to sweep away all opposition in one go. But the current Southern Chu was still capable of resistance. To be able to conquer Southern Chu in three years at the cost of twenty years of chaos, which would unlikely spread to the Central Plains, would be worthwhile, especially as Li Yuan’s desire to establish glorious achievements outweighed everything. He ultimately agreed with Li Zhi’s suggestion.
Cold fury flashed across Noble Consort Ji’s eyes. She knew that because of this, Jiangnan would be in chaos for several years, creating great hardship for the common people. But she made no attempt to stop this, because she knew that Li Yuan had already made his decision. She once again confirmed that the sect mistress’s decision was correct. Although the Prince of Yong possessed great skill and strategy, in comparison, the mediocre Li An was more suitable to become the sovereign of Great Yong.
Seeing that Li Yuan had agreed, Li Zhi raised the fine details. According to current intelligence, Southern Chu’s forces were spread out across a wide area. Because of the fighting, Southern Chu had reinforced the defenses in Sichuan, trying to prevent Great Yong from breaking through Sichuan and descending down the Yangtze River. In addition, Xiangyang had been attacked twice, suffering heavy casualties. In order to reinforce these two fronts, Southern Chu’s Ministry of War had pulled soldiers from other locales and were barely able to make ends meet, especially as they still needed to garrison the defenses along the entirety of the Yangtze River. Li Zhi suggested that Great Yong launch attacks and sieges on two fronts in Sichuan and Xiangyang, focusing Southern Chu’s attention there. Afterwards, he would personally lead an elite cavalry unit to directly pierce through the Yangtze River defenses and close in on Jianye. Under normal circumstances, Jianye could not be captured without a siege lasting several months, more than enough time for reinforcements to arrive to save the city and cut off the cavalry unit’s lines of supply and retreat. However, Jianye currently had few soldiers guarding the city. Combined with the agents inside the city, Li Zhi was confident that he would be able to capture Jianye in only a few days, and later kidnap the Southern Chu King and the court officials back to Great Yong. When the time came, Southern Chu would be leaderless. The combination of its capital being captured and its King kidnapped would be a severe blow to the morale of Southern Chu. Even if Southern Chu chose a new monarch, it would be incredibly difficult for them to continue to oppose Great Yong. Afterwards, Great Yong can use Zhao Jia to pacify Jiangnan. Although this plan would nominally require more time to complete and would cause significant problems, Li Yuan hoped that Southern Chu would submit sooner rather than later. As a result, he approved the plan.
Although Li An was unfamiliar with military matters, he knew what troubles this plan would cause. But he also knew that if Li Zhi was really successful in conquering Southern Chu, then his own hopes of becoming heir apparent would be greatly reduced. Having failed in his campaigns against Southern Chu, Li Xian believed that this plan would enable him to regain some face. As a result, neither prince made any objections. Although Cheng Shu, the Duke of Wei, and Qin Yi, the General Who Pacifies Distant Lands, both had some misgivings about the plan, they understood its profoundness. They also knew that there wouldn’t be any use objecting. Just this way, this invasion plan that would be castigated by later generations as not adhering to the art of war was approved. Outside of Li Zhi and Shi Yu, no one else knew that Li Zhi’s actual target was Jiang Zhe.
After the discussion had concluded, Li Yuan sighed and said, “Zhi’er, you must ensure Changle’s safety in this attack on Jianye. You must bring her back. She has already sacrificed too much for Great Yong. We have let her down.”
Li Zhi sighed quietly as well. Princess Changle was the beloved daughter of his Imperial Father. Her mother was Noble Consort Zhangsun who was widely known for her virtues. Changle herself was dignified and tender, and as a result much favored and loved by Imperial Father. Noble Consort Zhangsun’s eldest son, the Fourth Prince Li Xian, had died protecting Li Yuan from assassins. Her other son, the Fifth Prince, Li Jin, had died at a young age. Therefore, Imperial Father had tried to comfort Noble Consort Zhangsun by promising that after Changle had reached marriageable age, she would be able to choose her husband. At the time, Changle already had someone she admired, but due to the need to form a marriage alliance with Southern Chu, their Imperial Father could only order Changle be married to then Crown Prince of Southern Chu, Zhao Jia. When she learned this news, Noble Consort Zhangsun had begged the Emperor while weeping, saying that Southern Chu and Great Yong would become enemies sooner rather than later. If Changle were to be married over, then how would she be able to survive? But Imperial Father’s decision had been made. The look of despair in Changle’s eyes when she departed for Southern Chu had left an unforgettable mark upon Li Zhi. Li Zhi had ingeniously arranged for the court ladies from Yong to purposely steal Zhao Jia’s favor and prevent Zhao Jia and Changle from having too much emotional entanglement. But upon learning about Changle’s life in Southern Chu, Li Zhi lamented greatly. This was especially the case when Changle became pregnant. The decision had long been made to abort the child, especially as this child would have a cruel fate before it. Li Zhi could imagine clearly Changle’s grief and despair.
Thinking of this, Li Zhi resolutely stated, “Imperial Father be at ease. This child will definitely bring back the Imperial Sister. Imperial Sister has sacrificed much for Great Yong. This child will definitely ensure her safety and bring her home.”
“After she has been brought back and some time has passed,” replied Li Yuan with a sigh, “We will find her a new husband so that her youth is not completely wasted by being a widow.”
Everyone seemed to hesitate. Finally, Wei Guan spoke, “Your Imperial Majesty’s intent is good, but if Zhao Jia is brought back as a hostage, we will be required upon his name to control Southern Chu. The Princess is still the Queen of Southern Chu. If Your Imperial Majesty finds a new husband for the Princess, Southern Chu’s officials and subjects will definitely hate Great Yong.”
Furious, Li Yuan rebutted, “Don’t tell me that Our daughter must suffer hardship forever?”
Wei Guan was at a loss for words. In his view, whether Princess Changle was happy was irrelevant. But he did not dare utter such words.
“Imperial Father, Minister Wei speaks with good reason,” said Li An trying to smooth things over. “How about this? We will first select a suitable husband for Imperial Sister, allowing them to be secretly betrothed. After a few years with Southern Chu pacified, when Zhao Jia is no longer of any use, we can formally wed Imperial Sister and her new husband.”
Li Yuan slightly nodded his head and responded, “Let it be so … This matter must not be revealed. Let’s first wait for Changle to return. Okay, We are tired. You are all dismissed.”
Li An, Li Zhi, Li Xian, Wei Guan, Cheng Shu, and Qin Yi all rose and bade their farewell. Noble Consort Ji supported Li Yuan and left the Imperial Study. As everyone had left individually, Li Xian did not leave with Li An. Instead, he deliberately stayed behind and spoke to Li Zhi, “Second older brother, do you believe that Jiang Zhe will definitely serve you?”
Li Zhi indifferently replied, “What? Does sixth brother also want him as a subordinate?”
Seeming eager to get involved, Li Xian said, “Second brother, when I met that Jiang Zhe, I felt like we were kindred spirits. You have so many civil officials and military commanders under your command; give this Jiang Zhe to me.”
Li Zhi smiled faintly and speculated, “You believe that if he doesn’t serve me, that he would be willing to serve you?”
“I believe that this fellow has a clear view of things sometimes,” replied Li Xian, “If he is willing to serve me, I will take him as my teacher and listen to his every word. He will definitely agree, so long as second brother does not fight over him with me.”
Li Zhi smiled wryly. He had not thought that Li Xian would be so shameless as to break with propriety and befriend Jiang Zhe. Li Zhi was not willing to compete with his brother, so he said, “Right now, we’re not even certain if he’s willing to surrender and pledge allegiance to Great Yong. We’re competing too early. Oh right, when are you and Lady Qin getting married?”
“I’m not in a rush, since the status is already confirmed,” answered Li Xian with a smile. “Qin Zheng’s master and father both want it to be soon and so the wedding is set for next month.”
“If that is the case, then I might not be able to get back in time.” Li Zhi also smiled. “You have delayed her for so many years. You’re lucky that Lady Qin waited for you.”
Li Xian scoffed and remarked, “If it weren’t for Noble Consort Ji urging Imperial Father to issue a decree, I originally wanted to wait a little longer. There are so many beautiful women out there, I don’t have enough time for all of them. Last time in Southern Chu, I met Liu Piaoxiang, definitely a naturally, extraordinarily beautiful woman. If it weren’t for Qin Zheng, I would have been able to get my hands on her. On your trip to Southern Chu, second brother, you should go see her. She is definitely a woman of peerless elegance. That Liang Wan is such a hypocritical woman and cannot even compare to her. Women—what use is there for them to worry about the state and common people?”
Li Zhi uttered with a smile, “Fine, fine. I will tell younger sister-in-law and let her know that you look down on her.” Li Xian hurriedly begged to be spared.
Although Li Zhi’s face carried a smile, his heart was cold. Li An had now gotten the backing of the Fengyi Sect and was also supported by Li Xian. If Li Xian matured, then Li An would be able to completely oppose him without needing the protection of Imperial Father. Thinking of the increasingly dangerous situation around him, Li Zhi once again made the determination that he must acquire Jiang Zhe. He required someone who would be able to completely overcome all of the heavy obstacles before him.
In the ninth month of the first year of Zhihua, the Prince of Yong presented a plan to pacify Southern Chu. He led four hundred thousand troops south. The news rocked the Jingxiang region.…
—Southern Chu Dynastic Records, the Biography of King Yang of Chu
喜出望外, xichuwangwai – idiom, to be pleased beyond one’s expectations; overjoyed at the turn of events
儿臣, erchen – lit. this child subject; translating as this child
千方百计, qianwanbaiji – idiom, lit. thousand ways, a hundred plans; by every possible means
不慌不忙, buhuangbumang – idiom, lit. calm and unhurried; composed, to take matters calmly
臣弟, chendi – lit. this younger brother subject
四海升平, sihaishengping – idiom, lit. all four oceans are peaceful; worldwide peace
贤 – lit. virtuous; different character from the given name of the Prince of Yong