During the sixteenth year of Xiande, the fourth year of the sixty-year cycle, Prince De, Zhao Jue, was given a secret edict to travel to Hengjiang and prepare to raid Moling. Before he could complete his mission, the secret was discovered by Great Yong. A Yong envoy suddenly arrived in Southern Chu with the offer of the Princess Changle for a marriage alliance. Confused, King Ling of Chu accepted and ordered a cessation of hostilities.
On his deathbed, Zhao Sheng called the Crown Prince to his bedside and gave an order: “Our eternal regret is failing to protect Our ancestor’s foundation and becoming a vassal of Yong. If you have even a little bit of filial piety, you will do your utmost to restore our empire.” The Crown Prince swore to the heavens. King Ling passed away.
In the fifth month of the nineteenth year of Xiande, the seventh year of the sixty-year cycle, the Prince of Qi arrived in Southern Chu to pay his respects and mourn the passing of King Ling. Secretly meeting with the King, the Prince of Qi offered heavy inducements and expressed an interest in attacking the Kingdom of Shu, misleading the King. The Yong envoy later colluded with the Southern Chu court officials and proceeded to raise the matter of invading Shu. Southern Chu was later destroyed due to this mistake, although none understood the coming disaster; none understood the stakes involved. Later, eunuchs heard the King sobbing to the Queen, “If We are to restore our empire, We would name thee Empress and would be willing to acknowledge Great Yong as Our parent. Today, the Prince of Qi has promised me the title of Emperor. I hope that you would inform your father that Southern Chu will never turn Our back upon Yong.” This matter was leaked.
The Prince of Qi was the sixth son of Emperor Gaozu of Yong and elder half-brother of Princess Changle. When little, he was naughty and mischievous. Later, seeing that the Prince of Yong’s achievements were unrivaled, he became aware and said, “I will surpass him.” He later became famous throughout the world for his martial merits.
—Southern Chu Dynastic Records, Biography of King Yang of Chu
In the fifth month of the nineteenth year of Xiande, Great Yong dispatched an envoy to pay its respects at the passing of Southern Chu’s King. I heard that the primary envoy was the sixth son of the Yong Emperor, the Prince of Qi, Li Xian. He was spoiled from youth, becoming extremely naughty and mischievous. He spent his days on falconry and hunting, and detested learning. In the seventy years since the collapse of Eastern Jin, the Central Plains had been torn asunder. Li Yuan’s father, Li Shang took the opportunity to rise and declared himself the King of Yong. After dozens of years of war, he declared the foundation of the state of Yong. When Li Shang passed away, Li Yuan succeeded the throne. He was fond of the sensual pleasures, uneager to make any progress. That he changed was because of his second son, Li Zhi.
From a young age, the Prince of Yong, Li Zhi, was known for his virtues. Twenty years ago, during the royal feast celebrating the beginning of spring, the nine-year old Li Zhi wore mourning robes, remonstrating forthrightly that Li Yuan was too conservative. Using vehement language, Li Zhi charged Li Yuan with failing to fulfill Li Shang’s final wishes, shaming Li Yuan. Not long afterward, Li Yuan declared himself Emperor and the era name was changed to Wuwei.1 The state focused all its efforts on training the army and encouraging agriculture. In the third year of Wuwei, Li Yuan began to fulfill his new ambitions. Right before the army departed, Li Yuan used dripping blood as a sacrifice to heaven and earth, vowing to never cease warring until the Central Plains were conquered.
At the time, Li Zhi was only twelve years old, but accompanied his father on the campaign. Although he was a member of the imperial family, Li Zhi endured the same conditions as the common soldier and learned from the ranking military officers how to lead an army into battle. Although he was young, he was brave and heroic, constantly leading from the front and charging in to destroy formations. It is said that on one occasion when the encampment was raided by the enemy, Li Zhi was leading his personal guards out of the encirclement and protecting the Yong Emperor. After they had escaped, some soldiers were heard to yell, “Don’t leave us behind, Your Majesty!”2 Dripping with sweat, Li Zhi spun his horse around and charged back into to the encampment alone. Moved to tears, the soldiers began to fight to the death, forcing the enemy to withdraw. When the Yong Emperor returned to camp, although Li Zhi had been badly wounded, he still personally came out to welcome his father. Shedding tears, the Yong Emperor praised, “This is my family’s thousand li colt.”3
Li Zhi was not only courageous on the battlefield, but also extremely resourceful. After only a few years, he had become a general. In the ninth year of Wuwei, he defeated the greatest power in the Central Plains, the King of Xia, Yang Laosheng. Li Zhi played a major role in helping Great Yong consolidate its position. As a result, he was enfeoffed as the Prince of Yong. When Li Zhi returned home to the Yong capital of Chang’an4 at the head of his army, commoners lined the streets and all of officialdom came to welcome him. At the time, Li Zhi had yet to reach adulthood. To receive such glory and honor was something seldom seen in the annals of history. Later, in the tenth year of Wuwei, the ninth year of Southern Chu’s Xiande, Southern Chu vassalized itself. Great Yong became the hegemon of the Central Plains.
When Li Xian saw Li Zhi’s glory, he felt a sense of loss, declaring to his attendants, “I will surpass him.” At the time, Li Xian was sixteen years old. Thereafter, he changed his bad habits, studying hard and diligently training his martial arts. Two years later, after his personal request, he joined the army garrisoning the northern frontier. In the subsequent ten years, Li Xian participated in numerous bloody battles on the northern frontier with Northern Han. Although he could not compare to Li Zhi’s brilliance and martial prowess, Li Xian was still a dauntless and fierce general. In the last several years, Great Yong had tightly guarded its northern frontier, resulting in no conflicts in the north. Thus, Li Xian was able to return to Chang’an. He was close to the Crown Prince, Li An. While in Chang’an, he was the head of the aristocratic youths, constantly getting into trouble. If he wasn’t leading friends to visit brothels,5 he would be spending his days on falconry or hunting. His actions caused a great pandemonium6 in Chang’an. As he was a beloved son of the Yong Emperor and had numerous military accomplishments, no one dared to cause trouble for him.
I read over this information seriously. After I had successfully “lobbied” the queen, I began to accompany the king on a daily basis as a Reader-in-Waiting. Although I was said to accompany the king, in reality, my job was to offer advice for the king to consider. With the Prince of Qi coming to Southern Chu as an envoy, the royal court was a complete mess. Seeing the intelligence report on the Prince of Qi, I realized that the number of Southern Chu’s spies in Great Yong was also quite numerous. Although the Prince of Qi was here to mourn the passing of the former king, we all knew that things weren’t so simple, as Great Yong had no need to send such an important personage. In my view, it was probably because the Prince of Qi had caused too big a ruckus in Chang’an and had been sent out by the Yong Emperor to lie low until the fuss had died down. I read in the intelligence report that just a month earlier, the Prince of Qi had forcibly taken a woman from an ordinary family as a concubine and had been impeached by the imperial censors. Although the Yong Emperor favored this son, he was still obligated to punish these kinds of actions. That the Prince of Qi was only fined a year’s salary clearly showed that he was being shielded from punishment. To be sent out under these circumstances could mean that he was being told to lay low until the controversy had died down. But all the other daren did not agree with this assessment, believing that for the Prince of Qi to be sent out as an envoy meant that there was something major needed to be discussed.
Currently, however, the circumstances seemed to support their views. After observing the proper mourning rites, the Prince of Qi requested a private audience with the king. The two were currently holed up in the Imperial Study. As I was on duty accompanying the king in the Imperial Study, I waited just outside. It wasn’t that I was deliberately eavesdropping, but rather, my hearing was too good and I was able to hear the majority of their conversation.
When he entered the study, Li Xian immediately got to the point and proclaimed, “Great Yong wishes to ally with Southern Chu to conquer the Kingdom of Shu together. What are the King’s views?”
Zhao Jia froze for some time before responding, “The Kingdom of Shu and Southern Chu have long shared amicable relations, why would We attack them without reason?”
Smiling, Li Xian replied, “Relations between states are dependent upon benefits. Although Sichuan has long been friendly with Southern Chu and sees frequent trade between the two states, Southern Chu is reliant upon Sichuan for its weapons and horses. I have heard that the Kingdom of Shu has charged your esteemed state7 a hefty price. A few years ago, when your esteemed state purchased some horses from Northern Han, you tried to transport them through Sichuan, but were blocked. If the former King had not dispatched persons to bribe Shu officials, more likely than not, those horses would not have been acquired. In addition, your esteemed state has been forced to agree to cease directly importing horses from Northern Han, and is instead required to use Shu as an intermediary. Have these things not occurred?”
There was no sound within, but I could imagine that the king’s face was purple. I had heard of this incident and was curious why the Kingdom of Shu was so shortsighted as to incur the hatred of Southern Chu.
I heard Li Xian continue, “My Great Yong and Southern Chu are not only lord and vassal, but also in-laws. My sister, Princess Changle, is the beloved daughter of my Imperial Father, and is also now the Queen of Southern Chu. Our two states share the same interests.8 The Kingdom of Shu is only reliant upon its advantageous geography that is easily defended and difficult to attack, refusing to be a vassal of Great Yong and treating the friendly Southern Chu so arrogantly. Looking at the trade between our nations, over the last few years, the tariffs levied on trade between Great Yong and Southern Chu has far surpassed that of trade with Shu. In the eyes of this Prince,9 the Kingdom of Shu is in decline10 and is struggling at death’s door.11 If our two states were to join together and attack Shu, my Imperial Father would be willing to equally split Shu territories and divide the world along the Yangtze, forever ceasing conflict.”
Zhao Jia’s breathing became increasingly agitated and it took some time before he was able to respond. “To send troops into war, one must not be incautious, especially since the Kingdom of Shu is easily defended and difficult to attack. If we were to attack for a long time without success, it would be a waste of manpower and resources.”
Li Xian seemed to hesitate for a moment before divulging, “Before this Prince departed, my Imperial Father secretly told me that conquering the Kingdom of Shu would stabilize Great Yong’s frontiers and allow me to rest. If Your Majesty is willing to assist Great Yong, after everything is settled, my Imperial Father is willing to tacitly accept Your Majesty’s restoration of the title of Emperor.”
Listening to this point, my heart howled with anguish. In the last several years, the court had long talked about restoring the title of emperor. I had even heard from Xiaoshunzi that the previous king, on his deathbed, had exhorted the current king to restore the empire. This kind of incentive was too enticing.
Sure enough, the king hesitatingly stated, “This matter is difficult for Us12 to decide at this time. How about this: We will solicit the opinion of Our subjects.”
Satisfied, Li Xian affirmed, “Then many thanks to Your Majesty for this audience. This Prince will now bid my farewell.”
Zhao Jia hurriedly suggested, “The Queen and the Prince of Qi are siblings who have not met in years. She urgently desires a meeting. When will the Prince of Qi be free?”
Smiling brightly, Li Xian replied, “This Prince has long wished to meet our younger sister, but had been constrained by my responsibilities, and had to first deal with my duties before handling private matters. We will immediately go meet the Queen.”
Happily, Zhao Jia voiced, “Why say request a meeting? We invite the Prince of Qi to go see the Queen together.” As he was speaking, I could hear the sounds of footsteps approaching. These two in-laws walked towards the entrance. I had long become discouraged. It looked like the king was going to attack the Kingdom of Shu.
I decided to carefully observe this bossy and domineering Prince of Qi, to see what kind of person had forced Southern Chu to join Great Yong. Li Xian followed the king out. The twenty-six-year-old Li Xian possessed a handsome and heroic appearance. As he had spent extended periods in the military, his posture was erect like a mountain or a tree. He emitted the murderous aura of someone who had experienced the highs and lows of life.13 As this was a formal audience, he was wearing the formal wear of a prince of Great Yong—golden-colored silk robes embroidered with a coiled dragon. In these clothes, he seemed especially impressive and commanding. I shivered. This Prince of Qi must surely be vicious and merciless.
As the Prince of Qi walked past me, he suddenly turned to look at me. I saw an icy cold light in his eyes. I quickly lowered my head and avoided his gaze. Although I had seen this kind of murderous look before, there was no reason to let him believe that I was unafraid. He seemed to pay attention to what I was doing. Had he received a report from Liang Wan? Great Yong was definitely powerful. A single Prince of Qi was so impressive. I wondered what kind of bearing the Emperor possessed.
That Li Xian noticed this young man was for one particular reason. He possessed a bestial instinct. While he was secretly conversing with Zhao Jia in the Imperial Study, he did not know why, but he felt apprehensive, as if someone was eavesdropping. But he also knew that there was no one within twenty zhang.14 For someone to be able to eavesdrop from beyond twenty zhang, then he must possess excellent martial arts. He knew that this kind of person did not exist in Southern Chu. Walking out the door, he paid particular attention to the officials and eunuchs waiting outside. He noticed that although there were a number of skilled martial artists, who were definitely Southern Chu’s top fighters, their positions would have prevented them from being able to hear anything. And though the several officials accompanying the king were far closer, clearly none of them knew martial arts. When Li Xian regarded Jiang Zhe and believed he wasn’t the eavesdropper, he was still startled. Although this young official was not too old, he possessed a poised bearing and had a calm expression. Li Xian knew the power of his own martial bearing. Once in Great Yong, an official had caused offense. Just as Li Xian’s temper erupted, that official fainted from fright. All the other officials, civil or military, were all uneasy when greeting him. Even the crown prince was careful in his presence. Other than that person, Li Xian thought, since reaching adulthood, this is the first time I’ve seen someone so calm in my presence. Thinking of this, his gaze couldn’t help but become more threatening. Although that young official seemed to admit defeat by lowering his head and avoiding his gaze, Li Xian did not know why, but felt that the young official did not fear him.
Coming to this conclusion, Li Xian stopped and questioned, “What is your name?”
I observed Li Xian using my peripheral vision. Hearing his words and seeing his shoes stop right in front of me, I could only raise my head. I shot a glance at the king, using my eyes to ask for instructions. Smiling, the king said, “This is our Southern Chu’s most gifted scholar, the zhuangyuan of the imperial examination of the sixteenth year of Xiande, Jiang Zhe. The Queen likes his poetry the most.”
Suddenly understanding, Li Xin said, “So you are Jiang Zhe. Your poems are wonderful.
‘The southeast is topographically favored,
With transport easy and unhampered,
Qiantang15 has flourished in the three Wu16 areas since antiquity.
Over the exquisitely adorned bridges the mist enshrouded willows flutter,
Flapping in the wind are numerous verdant portieres
Undulant are the tens of thousands of household residences.
Cloud-scraping treetops line the banks and shores.
Winds hurling up heaps of snowdrifts in the air,
The natural river gully extends endlessly.
Markets strewn with jewelry and ornaments,
Making a parade of their silk and brocade every household vie to show off their luxurious splendor.
The three folded West Lake with her numerous enchanting mountain ranges and sierras.
Teeming with fascinating scented autumn osmanthus flowers,
And whiffs of lotus spreading miles afar.
On fine days, flute music everywhere makes the day seem much brighter,
Songs from water caltrop pickers through the night make a delight of the vesper,
The fishermen with hoar hair and the teenage lotus seed girl pickers all chime in to paint this picture with virility and glamor.
Here comes the intoxicated magistrate,
Flaunting his official standard by a thousand escorting riders,
Joining everybody with the fantastic music and scenery to savor.
Hoping to bring back to the court how ravishing Hangzhou is when one day he has an audience with the Emperor.’
“This poem, Gazing Out Upon the Tide,17 that you have written makes one yearn for the beautiful scenery of Jiangnan.18 This Prince has come as an envoy and hopes to bear witness to the scenery of Southern Chu.”
I stole a glance at the king’s gratified expression before modestly remarking, “This humble work is fortunate to acquire the Prince’s appreciation.” Li Xian looked at me deeply before departing with the king. My back was soaked with cold sweat, because that look was filled with a baffling madness that seemed to contain fiery enthusiasm. I suddenly wondered whether aside from loving beautiful woman, if the Prince of Qi also liked men. I shivered and determined to stay as far away as possible.
Who could know that the heavens cared little about a person’s desires? The next day, I received a royal edict commanding me to accompany the Prince of Qi during the time that he was in Southern Chu. Oh my god, the heavens are heartless, I hissed, gazing upward toward the heavens. I decided to ask Xiaoshunzi if he had the time to protect me. Hatefully, Xiaoshunzi coldly communicated, “I’m very busy. In any case, the Prince of Qi is handsome; you should just accompany him. Maybe the Prince of Qi will bring you back to Great Yong to live comfortably.” I nearly fainted from anger and made a firm resolution to protect myself to prevent the Prince of Qi from making such a horrifying thought a reality.
When I arrived at the official posthouse,19 I saw the Prince of Qi wearing light-colored robes. In the somewhat cold spring wind, the Prince of Qi was sitting in the courtyard laughing uproariously. At his side sat a beautiful young man in a dress that was as white as snow, gazing upon him affectionately. I almost turned and ran away. Thinking it over, I realized that this young man was more beautiful than even some of the greatest beauties. With a relatively average appearance, I, a mere Hanlin Academic should not have any problems. Therefore, I respectfully walked forward in greeting, informing the Prince that I had been dispatched by the King to lead him around the city.
The Prince of Qi’s bright eyes considered me for some time, before he declared, “Excellent! I have long heard that Jianye possesses many beauties. Who is the most famous courtesan along the Qinhuai River?”20
My brow furrowed and I thought for some time before answering, “This vassal does not know. Your Imperial Highness, please allow this vassal to go and find out. I will definitely find out.”
His eyes filled with laughter, the Prince of Qi said, “Never mind. If you were to go to find out, pretty soon all of Jianye will know. Everyone will say that I only know to frequent brothels.21 If my Imperial Father were to find out, I would probably be reprimanded. Let us depart; accompany me tonight to take a look. We must definitely find the best courtesan.”
I was overjoyed, thinking, Everything would be alright as long as you go find women. Being engrossed in such base desires will only serve to bury you; I couldn’t care less if you decided to amuse yourself to an untimely death. I will definitely find the best brothel. Thinking this, I decided to ask the official supervising the posthouse. He would definitely know.
As dusk approached, I had already found the opportunity to learn everything there was to know about the Qinhuai River. If the Prince of Qi hadn’t wanted to travel incognito and prohibited attendants, I would have asked the official supervising the posthouse to bring us there. However, the prince did not introduce the white-robed young man, only saying that he was surnamed Qin and telling me to call him gongzi Qin. But no matter how I looked at the white-robed young man, he seemed to like a sheathed treasure sword, and could not be completely concealed.
This was completely different from Xiaoshunzi who seemed dispirited and downcast almost like a withered radish. I nearly believed that his martial arts were declining, but I did not think that this was possible. He seemed to become increasingly unpredictable. When I returned home the day before yesterday, I found him waiting in my home, saying that he was not on duty that morning and had gone to Wuxi, almost eighty li, to amuse himself. He had brought some local cuisine such as soup dumplings and duck blood soup to serve as a midnight meal. I froze when I found that both were still warm. Although there was a container keeping the food warm, they could only have been bought no more than two hours earlier. Thinking of this, I got angry again. The little bastard knew that the danger I was in and refused to protect me. The next time I cook, I definitely won’t leave a share for him.
I already had learned that Jianye’s best brothels were the Beautiful Scenery Pavilion, the Xiaoxiang Courtyard,22 the Red Harmony Pavilion, and the Floating Fragrance Pleasure Boat. The Beautiful Scenery Pavilion was known for its sexual prowess, Xiaoxiang Courtyard for its song and dance; the Red Harmony Pavilion was a combination casino-restaurant-brothel; and lastly the Floating Fragrance Pleasure Boat was led by Qinhuai River’s number one courtesan, Liu Piaoxiang.23 As the Prince of Qi often frequented brothels and, as an imperial family member would not visit someplace too vulgar, he would definitely want to meet Liu Piaoxiang. Full of joy and expectation, the Prince of Qi declared, “Excellent! This Prince most definitely wishes to bear witness to Jianye’s top courtesan’s elegance.” I was pissed off beyond belief. He was definitely messing with me. Otherwise, he would not have had me ask around.
Although the official charged with supervising the posthouse knew that it was the Prince of Qi who wished to go to the pleasure boat, he still looked at me with a dubious expression. Hell, I was still a virgin!
武威, wuwei – martial prestige
殿下, dianxia – Your Majesty; used to refer to princes
吾家千里驹, wujiaqianliju – horses were beloved for their ability to travel great distances without rest; the Yong Emperor is using this term to praise his son’s abilities
长安, Chang’an – lit. everlasting peace; was the capital of China for hundreds of years; modern-day Xi’an
走马章台, zoumazhangtai – idiom, lit. to go to the brothel on horseback; to visit prostitutes
鸡犬不宁, jiquanbuning – idiom, lit. not even the chickens and dogs are left undisturbed; causing a great commotion or causing pandemonium
贵国, guiguo – your esteemed state
休戚相关, xiuqixiangguan – idiom, lit. to share the same interests; to be closely related; to be in the same boat
本王, benwang – this prince, referring to oneself in the third person
日暮西山, rimuxishan – idiom, lit. the sun sets over western hills; fig. time of decline; the end of an era
苟延残喘, gouyancanchuan – idiom, lit. to struggle while at death’s door
孤, gu – royal we used by kings and princes
千锤百炼, qianchubailian – idiom, lit. after hard work and numerous revisions; having experienced the vicissitudes (ups and downs) of life
丈, zhang – measure of length, ten Chinese feet (3.3 meters)
钱塘, Qiantang – refers to Hangzhou
三吴, sanwu – lit. three Wu; was used by the Eastern Jin Dynasty to refer to its most important territory around the area that is the southern bank of the Yangtze River Delta
This is a poem by Song Dynasty poet, Liu Yong. Entitled Gazing Out Upon the Tide, Southeast Advantageous Position (望海潮·东南形胜, wanghaichao dongnanxingsheng)
江南, Jiangnan – lit. south of the river; refers to the geographic area south of the lower reaches of the Yangtze River (southeastern China)
驿馆, yiguan – in the capital, the posthouse served to house visiting dignitaries; outside the capital, the posthouse served as a relay station akin to the Pony Express and as an officially run inn used by those traveling on government business
秦淮河, Qinhuai River – a river that runs through Jianye (modern-day Nanjing) and is famous for its many brothels and its courtesans/prostitutes
寻花问柳, xunhuawenliu – idiom, lit. to enjoy the beautiful spring scenery; fig. to frequent brothels; to sow one’s wild oats
潇湘, xiaoxiang – another name for the Xiaojiang River in Hunan Province
飘香, piaoxiang – floating fragrance; Liu Piaoxiang shares her given name with her pleasure boat