Volume 1, Chapter 3: Hanlin Academic

In the ninth month of the sixteenth year of Xiande, Jiang Zhe enters Hanlin Academy.1 Due to ranking first in the imperial examinations, he becomes a Hanlin Academy Junior Compiler,2 rated seventh-ranked.3

In the first month of the seventeenth year of Xiande, due to his erudition and reputation, Jiang Zhe was appointed to help establish the Palace of Sublime Culture. Over a period of three years, Jiang Zhe was appreciated for his skill, his research and analytical ability, for often enduring sleepless nights and forgetting to eat, diligence and hard work.4 Not much later, he is promoted to the rank of Hanlin Academy Senior Compiler,5 rated lower sixth-ranked.6

—Southern Chu Dynastic Records, Biography of Jiang Suiyun

What a blessing! Stretching, I raised the sole extant copy of a poetry anthology. These days, I spent my time in the library of Hanlin Academy. This was definitely the world’s greatest library with many books that I had not yet read. I had read many books before and with my photographic memory, I only needed to read a book once to memorize its contents. I could even write out from rote memory complete essays. But no matter my abilities, there was no way for me to read the million-plus books. I found and used the library register to identify books that I had not read, to read one by one. I was going to be staying at Hanlin Academy for at least three to five years, and should be able to read most of the books that I had not had the chance to read before. Of course, I paid the most attention to those books indicated as the sole extant copies, as most of these works were masterpieces.

On this day, I was searching in the stacks for something to read when I noticed a book with a yellow silk cover. From the exquisite cover, I presumed that it must be some masterpiece. When I opened the cover, I nearly fainted from shock. On the first page were eight words dripping with blood: “to train this godly art, first castrate oneself.”7 I quickly closed the book and looked at the cover, seeing that it was called the Sunflower Manual.8 As I still wanted to marry and have children, I quickly threw the book aside.

On the side, I noticed a copy of Zhuangzi’s Essentials for Nourishing Life9 dating back to the Han Dynasty. Picking it up, I flipped through the pages. Although the contents were the characters on the pages were the same as I remembered, there were many notes and comments written wherever there were empty spaces. I liked to read other people’s annotations, as they embodied the hard work of scholars. Seeing that no one was around, I readily pulled over a nearby footstool and sat down. Leaving the stacks to find a proper seat would be a waste of time. I became engrossed. The annotations were likely written by a Daoist priest who was also a doctor, and contained the secrets to nourishing one’s life: what one could eat and drink, when to rise and to sleep, how to meditate before bed, how to exercise one’s qi, and sexual techniques. This was definitely my favorite. Don’t laugh at me! My greatest wish was to live comfortably without ailments and disasters, to wed a gentle and virtuous wife, and to have several cute children. Sexual techniques were definitely important. Don’t all those licentious individuals frequently live short lives? They did not know how to control themselves and did not know how to give their bodies proper nourishment. Just as I was becoming happy, I suddenly realized that I did not know if these annotations were correct. What was I to do? Thinking back and forth, I ultimately decided to find out myself. In the following month, I searched the entire library for texts on how to maintain one’s good health; some directly conflicted, while others matched. But who am I? A genius! I finally organized a set of methods that I began to use to properly maintain my health.

First, when I woke up and opened my eyes, I would sit calmly, meditating and exercising my qi. Then, I exercised my body. Though I did not know any kung fu, I did know the basic exercises known as the “Five Animals Play.“10 Afterwards, I would eat a light breakfast without grease or strong flavors before heading off. If there was nothing at noon, I would return home to eat a nutritious lunch as late as possible. I would then take an afternoon nap. After waking up, I would do as I pleased. If there were any feasts or events at night, I would try to eat and drink as little as possible, and when home would drink some medicinal alcohol to cleanse my digestive system. After meditating for an hour, I would then go to bed. I had to sit, sleep, and walk in a particular fashion that wasn’t too particularly noticeable. Even though my current rank was low, I was busy enough that I could not constantly maintain this lifestyle, I tried my best to adhere. As for martial arts, I had no intention of training. Doesn’t the saying go, “Good swimmers are more liable to drown”? If I knew martial arts, I would likely be dragged into some unimaginable scenario and possibly even die at a young age. It’s not like I wanted to live forever, just living to the age of seventy was enough for me.

I continued for two months and discovered a noticeable improvement in my body’s health. Previously, I had some small ailments and maladies, but they all disappeared. My mind became clearer, and I felt that I had more energy while reading and writing.

This day, I had just left the stacks to eat lunch. Unfortunately, I wasn’t wealthy enough to hire a cook and had to make my own food. As I was considering my lunch options, I ran into a class colleague,11 Liu Kui. As he walked over smiling happily, he said, “Brother12 Jiang, how about it? Let’s go to the Bright Moon Pavilion together.”

“Go to the Bright Moon Pavilion to do what?” I asked with curiosity.

Surprised, Liu Kui replied, “What? You don’t know? We’re going to attend Princess Changle’s zither gathering.”

“Zither gathering, Princess Changle?” I responded, even more confused.

“Yes,” he stated, “No one in Jianye does not know that ever since Princess Changle came to our state to be wed, she has missed her homeland. In order to divert herself from her loneliness, she has organized this zither gathering. I have heard that she wishes to witness for herself the demeanor of Southern Chu’s scholars. I have also heard that Great Yong’s famed zither fairy, Liang Wan, was part of her dowry. Liang Wan was purportedly a student of the musical sage, Wu Youzi, and is extremely refined. If she wasn’t a good friend of Princess Changle, she would not have come to Southern Chu. In addition, I’ve heard that Liang Wan has come to Southern Chu to search for a husband. Almost all the eligible scholarly bachelors want to take this opportunity.”

Dumbfounded, I ventured, “But isn’t Liang Wan part of her dowry?”

“That’s nothing more than an excuse,” said someone off to the side. “I’ve heard that the Princess has already spoken to the Crown Prince. Liang Wan is her good sister and must be wed to a gifted scholar of similar demeanor as the first wife.”

Turning my head, I realized that it was the tanhua, Fu Yulun. Seeing that he had already changed into luxurious informal wear with a jade flute at his waist, I could tell that he was definitely interested in Liang Wan. Remembering that he hailed from an influential family in Huaiyang, he definitely looked the part. I laughed in my heart. If Liang Wan was really so beautiful and talented, the crown prince would surely be interested. Of course, he must give face to Princess Changle. But once he ascended the throne and was permitted a harem, he could easily pick Liang Wan as a concubine. Right now though, he had to be circumspect, because of Princess Changle’s unusual status.

I originally was disinterested. I was aware of my own shortcomings. Although my features weren’t too bad, they were nothing to brag about. Although I was talented, talent without a sponsor meant that I had no way of ascending the ranks quickly. These years, with the world in turmoil, those generals able to command armies and battle were much more prestigious than us scholars. As Southern Chu emphasized scholars, its national strength wasn’t particularly strong and could not even compare to Sichuan’s Kingdom of Shu. If our navy wasn’t so strong, Great Yong would likely have already crossed the Yangtze. In summary, I, Jiang Zhe, was unworthy of attention and had no strong backing to protect me. Don’t even say that Liang Wan will take a fancy towards me, as even if she did, I would not dare marry her. But I couldn’t not go, as it meant not giving face to the crown prince and Princess Changle. I decided to go just this once. And although I was skilled with the four arts,13 I was not necessarily the best. I could listen to the zither. I could play some weiqi (go), but would most likely lose. My calligraphy was decent, but could not compare to those master calligraphers. As for painting, though I knew how to paint, I was better at appreciating. I had a maternal uncle who was a famed court painter. Countless treasures, works of calligraphy, and paintings passed through his hands. In the past, I spent some time under his tutelage and having read many books, I would likely have entered the court in a similar capacity if my father had not taken me away.

While indulging in these flights of fancy, I replied aimlessly to their words. We soon arrived at the Bright Moon Pavilion. The pavilion was originally the secondary manor of a high-ranking official and adjacent to the official residence of the crown prince, built a few years ago. Afterwards, the crown prince decided he might as well purchase the manor. As the manor was small, but exquisite, it was connected to the official residence. It was said that upon arrival, Princess Changle fell in love with the manor and was allowed to use it as her place of relaxation. For Liang Wan to hold her zither gathering here was quite appropriate.

After passing through a dark side entrance, I carefully considered the small garden before me. Before me was a clear green pond, a dozen plum trees, and a small but refined two-story building. It was definitely the realm of immortals. No wonder it was beloved by Princess Changle. Thinking to myself as I walked, I considered the size of the building and wondered how many people it could hold. After I skirted the pond, I noticed that there was an open area before the building. The area was probably previously used for flora, but now had been cleared and a canopy erected. A thick layer of straw covered the canopy, and inside, braziers were placed on all sides. One could smell the fragrant scent of wine. There were several rows of fur-coated seats. Although Southern Chu’s winters weren’t particularly cold, a light dusting of snow had fallen earlier in the day and the air outside was cool. It was comfortably warm within the greenhouse. There were a few dozen young, refined gentlemen dressed in various colors. While drinking fragrant wines, they appreciated the beauty of the fallen snow and the plum trees. Truly this was part of the wonderful life of being in the south. Walking closer, I could hear the discussion. Princess Changle’s zither gathering wasn’t just open to anyone. Besides the young newly enfeoffed individuals, the only others were the younger generation of influential families. All of them had some talent or they otherwise would not have come out of fear of embarrassing themselves. As a result, the number of attendees was lower than we expected. Although I regretted my attendance, I was dissatisfied by the reception. Picking a seat in the corner, I sat down and poured myself a cup of warmed wine, prepared to steal quite a bit of respite.

It wasn’t long before the door of the small building opened and twelve beautiful and refined ladies dressed in court attire exited and lowered the beaded curtains. The ding dong sound of jewelry could be heard and an alluring scent wafted out. One of the court ladies bent and gestured towards the interior before turning and speaking, “Her Highness, the Princess, commands: Lady Liang will remain in the building and play the zither. Regardless of poems or essays, or the four arts, as long as someone can gain Lady Liang’s favor, she will come out to greet one and all.”

Everyone sat steadily in their seats, waiting with baited breath. Not long afterwards, the sound of the zither could be heard. It began softly, weakly, forcing everyone to listen closely. Slowly, the sound of the zither seemed to slowly hover in the air, almost like a butterfly meandering as it flapped its wings. The music slowly repeated seeming like an endless rhyme, reminding one and all of scenes of high mountains and flowing streams. The sounds were fresh and smooth, giving birth to a soul-stirring feeling. Up to this point, I almost yawned with boredom. I had expected that a zither master from Great Yong must be amazing, but in the end, was only so-so. This kind of ability with the zither was not uncommon in Southern Chu. Just then, the music slowly lowered in volume, giving one the feeling of sleepiness. Suddenly, almost like the shattering of a silver vase, as if the cavalry charged forth, the sounds transformed and became like the sounds of an army of tens of thousands running unhindered across the lands. After this explosion, the music became resoundingly deep, as the killing intent was buried, and replaced by sorrow. A truly wonderful imagery of a battlefield filled with soldiers. I listened attentively. This was definitely worthy of being considered a great master of the zither. The sound of the zither slowly diminished, as calm was restored, signaling the end of the battle and the beginning of song and dance, allowing one to become intoxicated by the carefree and relaxed sounds.14

When the piece finished, applause thundered. Afterwards, everyone produced their proud works to gain Liang Wan’s favor. However, her standards were very high and refused to come out. Afterwards, some of those with some brains turned their attention to me. A young master of an influential family half begged, half commanded, “I have long heard of the literary brilliance15 of the new zhuangyuan, Jiang Zhe, who shook the world with the poem, Recollections Under the Moon. Would Brother Jiang compose a poem and prevent Southern Chu’s scholars from losing face?”

I was speechless. These folks insinuated that if I failed to produce a worthy poem, then I would have harmed our country’s reputation. Fine.… This young man was the only son of the prime minister. I could not afford to offend him. Having listened to the music, I was already itching to compose a piece. Not bothering with brush or paper, I recited:

“Affectionately whispering, a young boy and girl speak, in fondness or ire they call each other ‘dear.’

Abruptly it changes to the heroic, brave warriors charging across the battlefield.

Floating clouds of willow fluff without stamens, across the broad sky and vast earth accordingly fly and flutter.

The raucous cries of hundreds of birds in a flock, suddenly seeing a solitary phoenix.

It scrambles upwards inching until it no longer can go up, losing control it abruptly falls a thousand fathoms or more.

Oh, ever since I’ve had two ears, I’ve never known how to listen to strings or zithers.

But since I’ve heard Mistress Liang play, I’ve had to rise from my seat in respect to one side.

I wave my arm in order to stop him, soaking my robes tears gush down.
Wan, ah! You are really capable, but don’t cause the emotional turmoil of the music to go straight to my belly.”16

After a moment’s silence, all cheered. A few even rushed to ask for brush and paper to put to write down my words. Amidst this chaotic scene, the beaded curtains flew apart and from the building exited a woman clad in yellow with a green cloak draped around her shoulders. This woman was about twenty years of age. She was taller than the women of Southern Chu, and possessed an hourglass figure. Although she was wearing many layers due to the weather, her hidden beauty elicited everyone’s desires. I gazed at her face. Although she did not wear any makeup, her skin was as pale as that of snow. Coupled with a pair of carefully trimmed and painted eyebrows, and bright eyes that seemed as clear as an icy spring, she was definitely a gorgeous beauty.

Liang Wan’s gaze fell upon me. Smiling slightly, she paid her respects, “This must be the brilliant scholar of Southern Chu, this examination’s zhuangyuan. This servant17 likes your poetic verses greatly.”

Although I was a bit dazzled, I understood what was going on and hastily returned, “That this humble work can receive my lady’s18 praise is Suiyun’s blessing. In reality, the gifted scholars of Southern Chu number like the clouds. It is only that my19 creativity is a bit more responsive compared to others. If my lady is interested in the gifted scholars of Southern Chu, then there is no harm in conversing with everyone.”

Liang Wan’s beautiful eyes moved around, considering everyone. And so, everyone felt like they had been given a reprieve, hurriedly rushing forward and surrounding her. I didn’t say much afterwards. Soon, after seeing that Liang Wan had already begun to converse with everyone in a congenial manner, I slowly and subtly left. Just as I was about to leave through the side door, I felt something and turned. I saw that a window was open. From within I espied a pair of crystal clear eyes were watching me. I pushed the door open and left. Who was that? I didn’t know why, but I could be feel that those eyes belonged to Princess Changle.

I later heard that Princess Changle had gifted the Bright Moon Pavilion to Liang Wan to serve as her residence. Liang Wan possessed a cheerful temperament. As long as a visitor could produce a worthy verse or song, or any of the four arts, she would greet them personally. As a result, many young men who admired her sought to see her. Although there were many who lusted after her, the presence of Princess Changle prevented anyone from using force. And with the rise in Liang Wan’s reputation and name, not many dared to offend her. Afterwards, even King Zhao Sheng adopted Liang Wan as his daughter. Although she did not enter into the royal family register, everyone called her Princess Mingyue,20 and her fame spread far and wide.

As a lowly Hanlin Academic, I wasn’t going to look for trouble. Though I received several invitations from Liang Wan, I rejected them all using all kinds of excuses. If anyone were to ask, I would respond that the books possessed their own beauties. Even though everyone laughed at my pedantry, they were happy to have one less competitor. In order to prevent anything excessive, I enthusiastically engrossed myself in the books at Hanlin Academy. I was therefore able to not only keep myself entertained, but also avoid the others’ attentions. This led to an event that filled me with joy.21 In the first month of the seventeenth year of Xiande, I was allowed to, by royal decree, help establish the Palace of Sublime Culture. I quickly became a major force due to my photographic memory, ability to serve as an appreciator of antiques, and my wide knowledge. Not only was I very effective at organizing the book collection, works of calligraphy, and paintings, I also was young and strong. If they did not use me, who were they to use? This was the happiest period of my life. The Palace of Sublime Culture took three years from the issuance of the decree to the completion of the construction. I took part in its entirety, enjoying every moment.22

Of course, while I indulged in the sea of books, something happened that I faintly believed would. Conflict arose between Southern Chu and the Kingdom of Shu, and became increasingly intense. I had no way of being involved and really was disinterested in the entire matter.

Other than this, Princess Changle became pregnant, but unfortunately suffered a miscarriage. It was said that she was too young and wasn’t accustomed to living in Southern Chu. Afterwards, she moved out of the crown prince’s official residence to a royal residence located at Lake Mochou at the western outskirts of Jianye. The crown prince did not join her and, in fact, wasn’t even lonely. The ladies-in-waiting, who came as part of Princess Changle’s dowry, were all beauties from Great Yong and skilled in the bedroom. They swiftly became the crown prince’s favored concubines. The face of the person who told me of these details was filled with envy at the crown prince’s luck with women. I could only bitterly laugh. In my view, Princess Changle only moved to the royal residence on the outskirts of the city because she did not like the crown prince. As a princess of Great Yong, she was a peerless beauty of blue-blooded nobility.23 Having been used as a tool in a marriage alliance with Southern Chu, she was in no mood to fawn over such a mediocre crown prince. Taking a negative view, did Great Yong deliberately provide so many great beauties as part of the dowry to seduce the crown prince and prevent the princess from suffering?

Footnotes:

Hanlin Academy (翰林院) was an academic and administrative institution founded originally in the Tang Dynasty. Membership in the academy was confined to an elite group of scholars, often individuals who placed high within the imperial examinations. These scholars performed secretarial and literary tasks for the court, including drafting documents and the interpretation of Chinese classics. Membership in this exclusive institution often led to higher positions in government.
翰林院编修, hanlinyuan bianxiu – Hanlin Academy Junior Compiler, a lower-ranked academic
七品, qipin – seventh-ranked
手不释卷, shubushijuan – idiom, lit. always with a book in hand
翰林院修撰, hanlinyuan xiuzhuan – Hanlin Academy Senior Compiler
从六品, cong liupin – lower sixth-ranked
欲练神功,挥刀自宫, yulian shengong, huidao zigong – lit. in order to train this godly martial art, you must castrate oneself
葵花宝典, kuihua baodian – lit. Sunflower Treasured Book; the Sunflower Manual is a reference to Smiling, Proud Wanderer (笑傲江湖, xiao ao jianghu), a wuxia novel by Jinyong. The manual was created by a eunuch and is used by one of the deuteragonists, Dongfang Bubai
养生主, yangshengzhu – lit. Essentials for Nourishing Life, is the third chapter within the philosophical text known as Zhuangzi by Zhuang Zhou (aka Zhuangzi); the text utilizes stories, such as whimsical allegories, to illustrate how to live a full life.
五禽戏, wuqinxi – lit. five animal play; a set of qigong exercises developed during the Han Dynasty that mimics the movements of five different animals – tiger, deer, bear, monkey, and crane.
同年, tongnian – someone who passed the imperial examination in the same year; in Chinese officialdom, the most important relationships that one possessed were with one’s teacher and with colleagues who passed the imperial examination in the same year
年兄, nianxiong – lit. older brother; in this case, Liu Kui is politely referring to a 同年
琴棋书画, qinqishuhua – lit. zither, weiqi (go), calligraphy, and painting; these four arts were the main academic and artistic accomplishments required of an ancient Chinese scholar-gentleman
心旷神怡, xinkuangshenyi – idiom, lit. heart untroubled, spirit pleased
才华横溢, caihuahengyi – idiom, lit. brimming with talent (especially literary); brilliant
This is a poem, originally entitled Listening to Reverend Ying Play the Qin (听颖师弹琴, 琴 means lute) is by the Tang Dynasty poet, Han Yu (韩愈) who has been described as having comparable stature to Dante, Shakespeare, or Goethe. The author of this web novel changed the subject of Reverend Ying to Mistress Liang.
妾身, qieshen – lit. your servant (deprecatory self-reference for women)
小姐, xiaojie – lit. young lady (typically used in a respectful manner)
The text here says 江某, jiangmou; Jiang Zhe uses this as a self-deprecatory way of referring to himself
明月公主, mingyue gongzhu – Princess Bright Moon; taking her name from the Bright Moon Pavilion
欣喜若狂, xinxiruokuang – idiom, lit. to be wild with joy
乐此不疲, lecibuqi – idiom, lit. to enjoy and never tire of it
金枝玉叶, jinzhiyuye – idiom, lit. golden branch, jade leaves; fig. blue-blooded nobility, particularly those who are imperial kinsmen or peerless beauties

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