Volume 1, Chapter 2: Attaining Top Marks in the Imperial Examination.

In the sixth month of the sixteenth year of Xiande, Suiyun arrived in Jianye. In the eighth month, he attained the top marks in the imperial examination, becoming the zhuangyuan.1 At the celebratory feast, a Yong envoy arrived to propose a marriage alliance.

In the twelfth month, Princess Changle2 of Great Yong arrived in Southern Chu. In the first month of the new year,3 Princess Changle was wed to Southern Chu’s Crown Prince, Zhao Jia. Princess Changle was appointed as Crown Princess.

Princess Changle, fifteen years old, was the daughter of Noble Consort Zhangsun, favored concubine of Emperor Gaozu4 of Yong. As Princess Changle’s birth coincided with Gaozu’s ascension to the throne, she was much favored by the Emperor and was granted the title of Princess Changle.

—Southern Chu Dynastic Records, Biography of Jiang Suiyun

After leaving the examination5 grounds, I stretched my tired body. These last several days had worn me out. The individual examination room was narrow and small. As I did not have money for bribes, by the third day, the entire room had been engulfed by the smell of the chamber pot. If my father and I had not previously wandered far from home, and lived through some difficult times, I probably would not have been able to eat anything while in that room.

Even though I was frugal with my money, I had not a single coin left in my possession. There was still half a month before the results were announced. What should I do until then? Perhaps I should sell calligraphy and paintings, or help others write letters.

Returning to the inn, I calculated that my deposit would run out the next day. Gathering the four treasures of the study,6 I decided to set up shop before the Confucian Temple. After talking with the owner of a teahouse and promising to help him write two letters, I was allowed to set up a stall in front of his store. Unfortunately, business wasn’t too great. Those who came asking for help writing letters were all mostly illiterate and did not care about the calligrapher’s skill. After waiting for a long while without any customers and growing increasingly anxious, a young housewife in an azure7 dress walked over. Judging by her attire, I could tell that she was a widow. But she seemed to be only eighteen or nineteen years old. What a pity.

Timidly, she said, “Sir,8 I 9 wish to file a complaint for a lawsuit.” 10

Picking up the brush, I questioned, “What kind of lawsuit? Who are you suing?”

Blushing, she replied, “My9 husband was unfortunate and passed away. I9 wish to remarry, but my father-in-law will not permit it.”11

After asking for some details, I wrote a few lines:

Wed at seventeen, widowed at eighteen, in-laws are able-bodied, in a position that invites suspicion,12 should I wed or not?

Baffled at the words that I had written, she asked, “Sir, just these words … aren’t they too few?”

Proudly, I replied, “Rest assured, as long as you file the complaint, I promise you that the authorities will agree to your wish to remarry.”

She gave me ten copper coins as payment. I looked at the coins gratefully and thought to myself, Here is today’s dinner. I have to work harder. Afterwards, once again, there was no more business.

Before two hours13 had passed, the widow returned delighted, thanking me as soon as she saw me. “Sir, thank you for writing the complaint. Once the daren14 saw my lawsuit, he approved my wish.”

Of course he did, I thought. The current Imperial Capital Magistrate15 of Jianye placed a high value on ethics and morality. A widow remarrying would only cause her to lose her chastity. However, if she had an affair, then it would become a big problem. After the young widow left, my business became much better. By nightfall, I had earned enough money to pay for three more days of living expenses. Of course, I did not dare to write too many complaints for lawsuits. If someone wished to file a lawsuit, I would try to think of ways to dissuade them from doing so. Simply put, writing too many petitions for lawsuits would harm my reputation.

After several days, I had earned enough money to able to stay in Jianye until the results were released. Closing the stall, I spent my days in the teahouse listening to other people converse. A pot of tea was enough to last me the whole day. Although I had closed the stall, if people were to look for me, I would continue to write letters for them. I had to pass the time anyway.

After a few days, I had the urge to use what I had learned from the Book of Changes16 to help predict other people’s fates. Quite honestly, my predictions weren’t all that accurate. But with the help of my observations aided by my keen senses, I swiftly became an oracle. Of course, I only wanted to earn enough money to use, so I limited my fortunes to three per day with one additional fortune told for free. Strangely, this swiftly piqued the interests of others and the money swiftly came rushing in. To protect my reputation, I changed my attire and even changed my appearance by adding some medicine to make my face look more yellow.

On one particular day, noon was swiftly approaching. I had already told three fortunes and decided to close up shop once I had told the free fortune. A young man rushed over in a hurry and asked, “Sir, I am a merchant. A few days ago, a fellow townsman brought word that my wife was about to give birth. But she was unwell. I rushed back, but have not yet returned home. I don’t why, but my heart is very uneasy. Would you17 please divine whether labor will go well and the gender of the baby?”

Fiddling around with the divination tools, I calculated for some time before responding, “No problem, minor risks but overall safe. It may be risky for your sick wife, but as you both have performed good deeds, the labor should go well. You will have children of both genders. Brother18 is really fortunate.”

How did I know this? I actually did not. This was not something that one could predict, but surely I couldn’t say something unpleasant to hear and agitate him half to death. However, his face looked honest and considerate and his body looked healthy. From the tone of his voice, he had a good relationship with his wife. There shouldn’t be any problem having additional children. As for the health of his wife, I put it down to his absence. Without the husband present, of course a wife about to give birth would become unhappy. Once the husband returned, his wife would undoubtedly be happy and would give birth without any problems. I did not clarify whether the child would be a boy or a girl, allowing me to prevaricate when the time came. Just as the young man was about to happily pay, I informed him that this fortune was free. As he was thanking me, a middle-aged man ran over and happily said, “Third brother,19 you’ve returned! Sister-in-law20 has given birth to twins of mixed genders!21 Come quickly, come quickly!”

The young man froze for a moment when he heard the news before suddenly running off. I took a deep breath. As I reveled in my good luck, I noticed the looks of admiration on the faces of others, and quickly became embarrassed.

A man dressed in gray seated by the entrance stood and walked before me. Calmly, he asked, “Sir, please predict my fortune.”

I raised my head and regarded him. He seemed to be about twenty-seven years old. He possessed a tall and vigorous body, and had a calm look on his handsome features. Behind him followed a middle-aged man dressed in azure7 and an attendant dressed in black. Hesitating, I responded, “I22 have already completed my divinations for today. This …”

The gray-clothed man replied, “I know it would be difficult for Sir, but I am leaving the capital tomorrow, thus would like for Sir to help, however reluctant you may be.”

I looked at the three individuals. I could see from the commanding expression on the gray-clothed man’s face that he was probably someone used to giving commands and being obeyed. Although the green-clothed man seemed somewhat disdainful, there was also a look of hope on his features. As for the attendant, there was a menacing look on his face. It seemed that I could not afford to offend them. After calculating the days and realizing that the results of the imperial examination would be released the day after tomorrow, I replied, “Fine,23 it’s almost time for me22 to close up shop for good. This divination will be my last before I retire.”

The gray-clothed man seemed surprised, thinking that I was retiring because of his actions. Puzzled, he could only ask, “I am about to embark upon a journey and would like to know whether it will be ominous or auspicious.”

After using the divination tools for some time, I answered, “The abysmal, water, six at the top. Bound with cords and ropes, shut in between thorn-hedged prison walls, for three years one does not find the way, misfortune.24 I am afraid that sire’s25 journey will be difficult with every step.” After concluding, I stole a look at his facial expressions and thought, People like you are usually confident; for you to waver with indecision, then the situation you face must be troublesome.

His expression dull, he asked, “May I ask: what is the difficulty?”

How could I know? Thinking, I concluded that the man must be a soldier from his demeanor. Of the two others, they must be an advisor and a personal guard, respectively. The gray-clothed man must be someone of influence. Was there something big happening in Southern Chu? Regardless, I only needed to be a bit ambiguous to respond. Thinking of this ambiguity, I replied, “In-fighting within, strong enemies without, things will be difficult. As long as sire is careful and prudent, there may be a way.”

Although I was ambiguous, my words directly catered to the gray-clothed man’s mental and psychological state. Heaving a sigh, he turned and left. The green-clothed middle-aged man took out a banknote and left it on the table. When I took a look at the banknote when they had gone far away, I discovered that it was worth a thousand taels of silver. I almost yelled with surprise. Swiftly shoving the banknote into my clothes, I quickly closed up shop and left.

After a few more days passed, the results of the imperial examination were released on the fifteenth day of the eighth month. I was a bit hesitant. If it was a few days earlier, I hoped for nothing more than to have a great result. But now, with a pocketful of money, I was a bit regretful of my earlier decision to take part in the examinations. As a result, I did not go to see the results. Instead, I stayed in my room, looking over the drafts of my poems. Soon afterwards, I heard firecrackers go off outside. A shop assistant and the owner of the inn excitedly pushed the door open and entered. In a loud voice, they proclaimed, “Congratulations lord!26 Lord has come first amongst the three candidates of the imperial examinations, becoming the zhuangyuan! It is this small shop’s great fortune to be able to cater to you!27 Would the lord zhuangyuan please write a few characters for this humble shop?”

Somewhat confused, I looked out the window, not knowing my future prospects. Then I thought I might not necessarily chance upon the fall of Southern Chu. Furthermore, I had heard that Hanlin Academy’s Library possessed over a million books and was the world’s largest library, and I once again became happy. I had also heard that last year, the King of Southern Chu had issued an edict to collect books and calligraphy from all over the world in order to build the Palace of Sublime Culture.28 I probably would have the chance to participate.

That night, around 5 PM, I brought my number plate to the examination grounds. The area outside of the entrance was filled with the new jinshi,29 all of whom were dressed with new clothes and were in high spirits. When I arrived at the entrance, I realized that everyone was looking at me. A few even seemed to be jealous. Just as I was finding it strange, a scholar with a square face and big ears approached, inquiring, “Is this brother30 here to participate in the Qionglin Feast31 for new jinshi?”

Nodding my head, I replied, “Yes, exactly. Pardon me, may I ask if there are any problems?”

After hearing my words, the scholar revealed a look of respect before responding, “Turns out that the new zhuangyuan has arrived. Please excuse my lack of manners. I22 am Liu Kui, this examination’s second ranked bangyan.”

Originally, seventy-nine new jinshi had gathered at the entrance before I had arrived, waiting only for me, the zhuangyuan. I finally realized why everyone seemed to have strange looks in their eyes. All the other new jinshi approached me to extend their greetings. Just as I was finding it difficult to handle everyone coming forward, the bell tolled three times. A ranking official leading a number of examiners exited the grounds, checking our number plates one by one. We were organized by rank with the zhuangyuan at the head, and led towards the palace. Behind me to the left and right were the bangyan and tanhua, respectively, with the rest of the seventy-plus new jinshi behind them. As we walked through the streets towards the royal capital, the route was lined with the common people who cheered our progress. We entered the royal capital via the Chaoyang Gate.32 As the major gate to enter the inner city, typically only the Emperor was permitted to use this gate. The only other individuals who were permitted to use this gate were the new jinshi on their way to the Qionglin Feast. After entering the palace grounds, I noticed that other than the rock gardens and flora, I could hear the sounds of women giggling. Presumably, the court ladies were peeking at us.

Reaching the Qionglin Garden, we were led to our assigned seats by the eunuchs of the Palace Directorate of Ceremonies.33 As we were seated, a eunuch announced in a high-pitched voice, “His Majesty arrives!” I saw an old man dressed in dragon robes followed by a group of court ladies enter the garden. With everyone else, I prostrated myself on the ground, earnestly shouting, “Long live the King!”34

The king weakly and without strength replied, “All35 arise.”

After we all stood, the feast was considered to have begun. After we had all carefully adhered to every step of etiquette and ceremony, we could relax and taste the imperial meal. It was so delicious. If I could, I would definitely bring the cooks in the imperial kitchen home. As we all had the chance to eat and drink,36 everyone had become somewhat relaxed.

King Zhao Sheng placed down his chopsticks and spoke to the chief examiner. “Aiqing Shi, please introduce this examination’s top three to Us.”37

The chief examiner stood and saluted the king. “This vassal38 obeys Your Majesty’s command.”39 Then pointing at me, he said, “Reporting to Your Majesty, he is this examination’s first-tier, first-ranked zhuangyuan, Jiang Zhe of Jiaxing.”

I hurriedly left my seat and prostrated myself, saying, “This vassal, Jiang Zhe, greets Your Majesty.”

With a smile, Zhao Sheng replied, “Good, good. Definitely a young man with excellent abilities. Your responses to the prompts were not bad, especially your poem, Recollections Under the Moon. We have ordered it to be restructured into a song. We will soon let everyone hear it.”

The chief examiner then pointed at the bangyan and tanhua, introducing them. “Reporting to Your Majesty, these are the second-ranked bangyan, Liu Kui of Jiangning,40 and third-ranked tanhua Fu Yulun of Huaiyang.”41

Zhao Sheng praised each one by one before allowing us to return to our seats. Once we were seated, Zhao Sheng raised his hand and a group of women floated out from behind. Some played the flute, others the zither,42 and lastly some began to dance. After a while, one of women slowly began to sing:

“When will the moon be clear and bright?

With a cup of wine in my hand, I ask the clear sky.

In the heavens on this night,

I wonder what season it would be.

I’d like to ride the wind to fly home.

Yet I fear the crystal and jade mansions

Are much too high and cold for me.

Dancing with my moonlit shadow,

It does not seem like the human world.

The moon rounds the red mansion,

Stoops to silk-pad doors,

Shines upon the sleepless,

Bearing no grudge,

Why does the moon tend to be full when people are apart?

People experience sorrow, joy, separation and reunion,

The moon may be dim or bright, round or crescent shaped,

This imperfection has been going on since the beginning of time.

May we all be blessed with longevity,
Though thousands of miles apart, we are still able to share the beauty of the moon together.”43

This was the poem that I had composed during the examination. Everyone in the gardens immersed themselves in the beautiful feelings engendered.

Just then, a eunuch entered and reported, “Reporting to Your Majesty, the Prime Minister requests an audience.”

Zhao Sheng slowly replied, “What is it? We are enjoying the Qionglin Feast. If there are any other matters of state, let him handle it.”

“The Prime Minister said it was urgent,” replied the eunuch.

Zhao Sheng helplessly nodded and said, “Fine, let him enter.”

Soon, an elderly man dressed in the robes of an yipin44 official hurriedly entered. When he saw Zhao Sheng, he prostrated himself. “Congratulations to Your Majesty. Great Yong has dispatched an envoy to express the Yong Emperor’s decree, expressing a wish to foster a marriage alliance.”

Although he had a look of happiness on his features, Zhao Sheng asked disbelievingly, “Is this true?”

The elderly official answered, “It is true—the Yong Emperor has a beloved daughter who has reached marriageable age45 and is willing to marry her to the Crown Prince to serve as Crown Princess. From this point onwards, the two states will be allied and will forever be at peace.”

Zhao Sheng happily said, “Today has witnessed two blessings for my Southern Chu. First, Southern Chu has acquired talented individuals capable of serving as pillars of the state. Second is this alliance with Great Yong. Come, quickly summon the Yong envoy for an audience.”

After he finished speaking, Zhao Sheng quickly left. My life’s only Qionglin Feast thus finished with a whimper.46 However, the faces of everyone who had heard the good news were filled with joy. I had some doubt. Why did Great Yong suddenly want to form a marriage alliance with Southern Chu? Was this similar to the plans that I had previously envisioned? It couldn’t be possible, I thought as I shook my head.

The court was busy preparing for the marriage alliance in the subsequent several months. Following the regulations, I entered Hanlin Academy, happily casting myself into the library. I heard faint whispers about the great beauty of the Yong Emperor’s daughter, the Princess Changle, and her favor before the Emperor. But I thought to myself, how beautiful could a young girl of fifteen be?

After a few months of preparations and concluding the six traditional pre-wedding rites,47 the wedding between Princess Changle and the Crown Prince of Southern Chu was held on the New Year. As the new zhuangyuan, I had the fortune of the attending the wedding. As the ceremony concluded and the crown prince and princess accepted the customary deferential greetings from the gathered court officials, I finally had the opportunity to see Princess Changle’s features. She was graceful, elegant, and stunning. Although a bit young and immature, she was truly beautiful. In comparison, the crown prince standing beside her, although already over twenty, was eclipsed. Of course, everyone lied that the pair were an “ideal couple matched by heaven.”48 Hoping that the Yong Emperor could not have been so heartless as to use his daughter as a pawn in a fake marriage alliance, I sincerely prayed that Southern Chu and Great Yong would not go to war and that relations remain harmonious, allowing me to live a few decades in peace.

As I was sincerely praying, the musicians began to sing and play my work as a newly minted Hanlin academician, Sapphire Jade Plate:

“Flowers bursting into bloom in the sky,

Then scatter down as star-like rain.

The scent of precious horses and ornate carriages fill the road,

Notes from a phoenix flute hover in the air,

The moon, like a jade wine cup, hangs in the sky,

Fish and dragon lanterns dance in the breeze all night.

Beautiful women wear ornaments of all kinds on their heads,

They converse cheerfully and laugh heartily, leaving their secret fragrance behind.

In the crowd for a thousand times, I failed to find my love,

When suddenly turning back by chance,
I find her standing alone in far end of the street in the waning light.”49

As the court ladies began to dance, I raised my head and watched as Princess Changle turned her face slightly away. A lone tear slid down her cheek. My heart froze. This young woman must now spend the rest of her life far away from home, never to see her family again. That was if all things went well. If this marriage were fake—even though I hoped it was real, I was not certain—, then this young woman would meet a cruel end.

At this moment, I noticed the crown prince lower his head and whisper into the princess’s ear. Although they were far away and the hall was filled with noise, I could faintly make out the crown prince informing the princess that this Sapphire Jade Plate: Night of the Lantern Festival was the work of the imperial examination’s zhuangyuan, Jiang Zhe. Following the crown prince’s gaze, she turned her head and looked upon me, smiling faintly. Her smile was like the flowers blossoming in the spring and my heart could not help but tremble. Quickly lowering my head, there was an odd feeling in my heart, but I didn’t know why.

Note:

In China, there are multiple ways of saluting. In jianghu and common usage, a typical salute involves making a fist with the right hand, while either using the left hand to wrap around the right fist or the right fist is held against the open left palm. Females switch this around. It’s also switched around to denote the start of an argument or fight. In polite society, salutes were made holding the two palms forward together, the fingers overlapping somewhat.

Footnotes:

状元, zhuangyuan – the title of the individual who comes first in the imperial examinations; those who came in the top three of the were known as the yijia (一甲) or first tier and were titled as the zhuangyuan (状元), bangyan (榜眼), and tanhua (探花), respectively
长乐, changle – everlasting happiness
戊辰元月, wuchen yuanyue – first month of the fifth year of the sixty year cycle
高祖, gaozu –lit. Supreme Forefather; typically a title used to honor the founding emperor of a dynasty
会试, huishi – the national level (and sometimes the final stage) of the imperial examinations; the huishi lasted three days with the examinees locked in solitary rooms
文房四宝, wenfang sibao – lit. four treasures of the study; refers to the brush, ink, paper, and ink stone used in Chinese calligraphy
青, qing – black, blue, or green colored
先生, xiansheng – sir, mister, teacher
奴家, nujia – I, my; lit. your servant, a form of humble self-reference for a female
In dynastic China, literacy was not very high. As a result, scholars would frequently help others write documents, including helping them write out a complaint for a lawsuit. Without such a document, it was very difficult for a lawsuit to be filed with the authorities
In traditional Chinese culture and the legal system dating back to the beginning of Chinese civilization, once a woman was married to someone, she became a part of that family. If the husband died, the wife would have to remain a widow throughout her life. If she wished to remarry, she would have to have the agreement of her in-laws before she can do so. Without permission, such a marriage would not only be deemed illegal, but the widow would be punished severely.
瓜田李下, gu tian xiao li– idiom, originates from a longer idiom 瓜田不納履,李下不正冠/瓜田不纳履,李下不正冠, lit. being caught with one’s hand in the cookie jar; a position that invites suspicion, in suspicious circumstances or surroundings
时辰, shichen – equivalent to two hours
大人, daren – a title used to refer to one’s superiors
京兆尹, jingzhaoyin – the prefectural magistrate assigned to the capital region; China was divided into prefectures (zhoufu, 州府), including the imperial capital, each with a prefectural magistrate (zhifu, 知府) assigned; the capital region (for Southern Chu, Jianye) was known as the 京兆 (jingzhao)
易经, yijing – the Book or Classic of Changes; also Romanized in the West as the I Ching; the oldest Chinese classic and an ancient divination text that uses cleromancy (using random numbers) to determine divine intent
您, nin – polite form of you
老兄, laoxiong – an informal way of addressing male counterparts
老三, laosan – informal way of referring someone who is ranked number three; third brother
弟妹, dimei – younger brother’s wife
龙凤胎, longfengtai – lit. dragon and phoenix twins; the dragon was considered to be male, while the phoenix female
在下, zaixia – a humble way of saying I, me
也罢, yeba – never mind, fine (indicating acceptance or resignation)
坎卦上六,系用徽纆,置于丛棘,三岁不得,凶 – this divination comes from the Book of Changes and is very bad and means, “A man who in the extremity of danger has lost the right of way and irremediably entangled in his sins has no prospects of escape. He is like a criminal who sits shackled behind thorn-entangled walls.”
阁下, gexia – your distinguished self, sire
老爷, laoye – lord, master; a humble way of addressing someone
蓬荜生辉, pengbishenghui – idiom, lit. your presence brings light (honor) to my humble dwelling
崇文殿, chongwen dian – Palace of Sublime Culture/Literature
进士, jinshi – title for those who successfully passed the highest level of the imperial examinations
兄台, xiongtai – polite way of addressing someone (male)
琼林宴, qionglin yan – lit. Jade Forest Feast; first begun by the Song Dynasty, this feast was given by the Emperor to honor the new jinshi; the feast was placed at the Qionglin Garden (qionglin yuan, 琼林苑)
朝阳门, chaoyang men – lit. Facing the Sun Gate
司礼监, silijian – lit. Directorate of Ceremonies; one of the and the foremost ranking directorates of the imperial court assigned to handle ceremonial matters including ascension to the throne, the death of the emperor, and the feast of the new jinshi
国主万岁万岁万万岁, guozhu wansui wansui wanwansui – lit. Long live the King; may His Majesty live ten thousand years
众卿, zhongqing – 众 means all, while 卿 are often a high ranking official that is worthy of being addressed with this honorific used by emperor; sometimes the emperor may refer to them as 爱卿 (aiqing)
酒过三巡,菜过五味, jiuguosanxun, caiguowuwei – lit. having drank and eaten our fill
孤, gu – the royal we; term used by kings and princes
臣, chen – subject or vassal
臣遵旨, chen zunzhi – lit. this vassal obeys your majesty’s command
江宁, Jiangning – a historical prefecture that is today a district of Nanjing
淮阳, Huaiyang – a prefecture centered around the area that is modern-day Yangzhou and Huai’an
琴, qin – the zither
This is the majority of a poem by Su Shi, aka Su Dongpo, a Tang Dynasty poet famed alongside Du Fu. The poem’s original name is 水调歌头, 丙辰中秋 (shuidiao getou, bingchen zhongqiu).
一品, yipin – lit. first-ranked; in China, civil and military official hierarchy were divided into nine ranks (first to nine, with first being highest)
年方及笈, nianfengjiji – has reached marriageable age, has become an adult; in ancient China, girls reached adulthood at the age of fifteen
虎头蛇尾, hutou shewei – idiom, tiger’s head, snake’s tail; start strong, finish weak
The six traditional pre-wedding rites include 纳采 (nacai, the formal proposal), 文明 (wenming, giving the 生成八字, shengchengbazi (the eight-character birth data used for astrological purposes) of the groom), 纳吉 (naji, placement of the eight-character astrological data upon the ancestral altar to confirm compatibility, 纳征 (nazheng, sending of the betrothal gifts to the bride and the return gifts to the groom), 请期 (qingqi, selection of an auspicious wedding date), and lastly 亲迎 (qinying, the wedding ceremony)
郎才女貌,天作之合, langcainümao, tianzuozhihe – lit. talented man and beautiful woman, a match made in heaven
This is a poem by Song Dynasty poet, Xin Qiji. The name has not been changed. Baidu, China’s premier search engine, takes its name from a line in the poem: “In the crowd for a thousand times, I failed to find my love, / When suddenly turning back by chance / I find her standing alone in far end of the street in the waning light.” (众里寻他千百度,蓦然回首,那人却在灯火阑珊处。)

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