I accompanied the Prince of Qi as we walked along the street. In high spirits, he gazed about at the scenery. Although I wasn’t particularly familiar with the area, I could still serve as a tour guide. In order to get to the Qinhuai River, we must pass through the bustling splendor of the Qinhuai Avenue. The avenue was brightly lit on both sides with the doors of each brothel and wine shop open. Each had procurers flanking their entrances with beauties standing in the doorway using all kinds of seductive language to entice customers. Everyone in our party had handsome appearances, especially the Prince of Qi, who had an extraordinary bearing. We could be especially favored customers. As a result, a number of procurers and prostitutes came forward and tried to entice us within. I noticed then that there were a dozen or so men dressed in ordinary clothes, intentionally or unintentionally, surrounding and following us. They kept away all of those attempting to get close and seemed to be protecting the three of us. The dozen or so men seemed to be ordinary, but were all tall and sturdy. Through their thin clothes, one could see their toned muscles. The way that they walked seemed to leave no traces on the ground. I figured that these individuals must be the Prince of Qi’s personal guards. Go figure … how could a dignified royal prince out traveling not have any guards protecting him? Since he had guards with him, I did not have to worry about my safety. I relaxed. The scenery that had previously left me embarrassed no longer made me nervous.
We didn’t walk far before we arrived at the banks of the Qinhuai River. At the intersection with the particularly wide river, there were a dozen or so boats moored. Amongst them was a boat that was especially large. Although this boat was lit with bright lights, no music or sounds of drinking and games could be heard unlike the other pleasure boats. At the banks of the river were a number of launches. To a seductive woman manning one of them, I yelled, “Boatwoman, take us to the Floating Fragrance Pleasure Boat.”
Smiling, the boatwoman raised her head and replied, “The gentlemen have arrived late, as the pleasure boat may already be full tonight. Can the gentleman not see that the pleasure boat is hanging up its lanterns? It’s preparing to weigh anchor.”
Sullenly, the Prince of Qi glared at me, while I calmly stated, “We have already made a reservation. Thank you, boatwoman, for your advice.” Hearing my words, the Prince of Qi eased up. The three of us boarded the launch. The dozen or so guards also boarded their vessels. After zigzagging through the maze of boats, we soon arrived at the pleasure boat.
After we had boarded the boat, a beautiful woman, gorgeously and provocatively dressed, welcomed us enthusiastically. She first smiled without saying anything before greeting us, “Aiyah!1 If it isn’t the lord zhuangyuan! When this servant first heard that the lord zhuangyuan had reserved a cabin, I assumed it was an imposter. Who doesn’t know that Jiang daren does not like this kind of place filled with temptations?”
Prying my eyes away from her ample bosom, I laughed. “Madam must surely be joking. I am but a mere lowly Hanlin scholar. I normally would not have the financial resources to visit the Floating Fragrance Pleasure Boat. Today, I am accompanying a distinguished guest here to bear witness to Lady Piaoxiang. Madam must take good care of him.”
The madam had long since caught sight of Li Xian. Having seen many customers come and go, she immediately knew that Li Xian was a seldom-seen wealthy customer. Promptly beaming with joy,2 the madam began to act submissively to ingratiate herself.3 She walked before the Prince of Qi and bowed. “This honored guest has come from afar, while this madam is late with my welcomes. I hope that this honored guest will forgive me, this …” She glanced at me.
Understanding, I immediately introduced the pair, “This is young master Li and this is young master Qin.”
In a tender voice, she purred, “Please come in, honored guests. Lady Piaoxiang’s mood today is excellent. If you are lucky, you may have the fortune of gaining the lady’s favor.”
The three of us were led by the madam into a spacious and elegant cabin. The guards were led to nearby cabins, leaving us to be accompanied by the female attendants. The cabin was refined and elegant, brightly lit by lanterns. Beside the window was a large round table. The majority of the space was empty, leaving room for song and dance to please the guests. On the right side of the cabin was a small doorway covered by a bead curtain. One could just discern that it was a bedroom. It looked like this was a top class cabin. Eight beautiful attendants lined the doorway. When we entered the cabin, they helped us remove our cloaks and outer garments. The three of us sat down before the table with our backs to the window. Like butterflies swarming around flowers, the attendants soon began to flow in and out, setting a wide array of tea, snacks, and alcohol. The three most beautiful attendants sat down by our sides. Originally, the madam had planned that we be attended to by two beauties each, so that we could hold one in each arm. The beautiful young master Qin refused the attentions of the beauties and sat down beside the Prince of Qi. The madam was experienced and knowledgeable, so did not exhibit any unusual attitudes. My heart trembled. This couldn’t be real, right? That young master Qin must be a catamite.4 I had only suspected this fact earlier, but seeing what had happened, I immediately felt my entire body tremble loathingly. Young master Qin noticed my abnormal behavior and glanced at me coldly, his eyes filled with murderous intent. Only when he turned his head away did I heave a sigh of relief, making a firm resolution to acquire a few powerful martial artists to accompany me by my side. As a palace eunuch, Xiaoshunzi wasn’t free to do as he pleased. But where was I going to find loyal guards? If they were really so strong, it was unlikely that they would listen to orders from a mere lowly Hanlin Academic.
Accompanied by the female attendants, we slowly sipped the wine, waiting for the arrival of Lady Piaoxiang. The attendants were uneasy. Who could blame them? As a frequent customer of brothels, the Prince of Qi would constantly leer and fondle the female attendant by his side. Young master Qin on the other hand was frigid, completely ignoring the attendant by his side and would frequently look ferociously at the attendant beside the Prince of Qi. I was warm and observed polite etiquette, but maintained a respectful distance, leaving the beauty at a loss.5 During this awkward moment, the cabin door opened and a beautiful woman leisurely entered. The woman had no makeup on, but her beautiful face was like the most gorgeous of sceneries. Her crystal-like skin was delicate, but had a faint reddish blush, as if she had just taken a warm bath. Her black hair, flowing like a waterfall, seemed to reflect the light. Her eyes could easily distinguish between right and wrong, seemingly as bright as the brightest star in the night sky. She wore a comfortable gown. Among the women of Southern Chu, she was slim and graceful. If one were to consider her appearance and temperament, although she was beautiful, her type of beauty was commonly seen. What was rare was that she possessed a natural charm.
This woman supplely entered the cabin, sitting before the three of us. Her beautiful eyes regarding us, she articulated, “This is the first time that the three honored guests have come to see Piaoxiang, but I have come late and have made the three guests wait.” Her voice penetrated deep into the spirit and bone, eliciting a feeling of overwhelming joy. The face of young master Qin and I both reddened. Even the Prince of Qi’s face showed a strange expression. The young woman’s eyes paused briefly upon the Prince of Qi as she continued. “Piaoxiang has heard that the Prince of Qi is a hero that is rarely seen, and is a towering figure, appreciative of beauty.6 Why are you so shy today?” Although I wasn’t surprised that Piaoxiang was able to ascertain Li Xian’s identity, I did want to see how he would react.
Surprised at first, Li Xian smiled without restraint and responded, “Oh! You are definitely an intelligent young woman. Have you met this Prince before?”
When Piaoxiang saw that Li Xian made no attempt to hide his identity, there was a look of approval in her eyes, answering, “Although Your Imperial Highness is dressed in the garb of Southern Chu, you don’t seem to like wearing silk. On your feet, you are wearing a pair of brocade boots favored by the elites of Great Yong. In addition, Your Imperial Highness possesses a particular grace and imposing demeanor. Recently, this servant has heard that Your Imperial Highness, the Prince of Qi, has come to Jianye. I would be surprised if Your Imperial Highness were not to come visit. As for this Academic Jiang, he is rarefied company. If he were not here accompanying Your Imperial Highness, then Piaoxiang would probably never have the opportunity to meet him.”
Hearing her words, I blushed. I had once received an invitation from Piaoxiang, inviting me to visit the Floating Fragrance Pleasure Boat. But as I had no money, I had declined the invitation. Originally young master Qin seemed to gaze upon the Prince of Qi with resentment, but now he looked at me with a faint smile, glad that I had previously rejected Piaoxiang’s invitation. I hurriedly claimed, “Lady Liu is joking. This lowly official does not have financial resources. How could I have the qualifications to visit here?”
Piaoxiang stood and leisurely approached me. Sitting down on at my side, she grasped my arm and said, “Really now … Don’t tell me that the lord zhuangyuan believes that we women of the pleasure quarters have not even a shred of true feelings? Can Piaoxiang not love the zhuangyuan’s talent and give one’s heart?”
I almost laughed. If Piaoxiang did not love money, then it was unlikely that she was the number one courtesan in Jianye. I knew that many of Jianye’s dignitaries were Piaoxiang’s guests of honor. But I had also heard that Piaoxiang was an unusual woman. If you were not wealthy, you could not hope to attain her. At the same time, however, even if you were wealthy or powerful, you still may not be able to attain her. The king’s uncle, the Prince of Han,7 Zhao Delong, was once a guest of the Floating Fragrant Pleasure Boat. He had attempted to stay the night. None knew that Piaoxiang disliked him. Regardless of how Zhao Delong attempted to ingratiate himself, she refused to allow him to stay. Finally, Zhao Delong attempted to use his power and influence, but lo and behold, Piaoxiang would rather die than submit. As he could not use force, Zhao Delong could only leave. He later tried to make things difficult for Liu Piaoxiang, but was unable to do so because of her many distinguished guests. Later, people asked her why she refused to attend to the Prince of Han. Even though he was over fifty, he was still handsome and had energy beyond that of an ordinary person. Liu Piaoxiang coldly laughed and uttered, “Although this servant is no more than a lowly courtesan, I understand the meaning of loyalty, piety, benevolence, and righteousness. That Zhao Delong once led an army into battle, but due to his cowardice, lost the battle. His subordinates fought bitterly in order to protect his life. But he repaid such kindness with malice,8 impeaching his subordinates for disobeying orders and adversely affecting the operation. Those subordinates were executed by beheading. Who in Southern Chu does not know about this incident? It is only because of his status and power that no one dares denounce him. This servant, though only a lowly courtesan, still despises that kind of cowardly villain.” After these words were spread far and wide, everyone despised the Prince of Han and looked upon Piaoxiang favorably. Soon afterwards, the Prince of Han became depressed and died. As a result of this incident, Liu Piaoxiang’s name became renowned throughout the world. From this, she became Jianye’s number one courtesan. In reality, it wasn’t that no other courtesan was superior to her, it was that no one could compare to her straightforward and chivalrous temperament.
When I had heard of this tale, I admired her deeply. But because of financial barriers, I did not dare go see her. If I knew that she would not have taken my money, I would have gone long ago. Seeing my intoxicated manner, young master Qin gave me a despising look. That icy gaze immediately snapped me out of my reverie, forcing me to remember that I was here accompanying the Prince of Qi. I extricated my arm and respectfully stated, “Thank you, Piaoxiang, for your appreciation.”
Liu Piaoxiang looked at me angrily before standing in a huff and moving to sit beside the Prince of Qi. That kind of angry and yet still beautiful expression left the three of us dumbfounded. Afterwards, Liu Piaoxiang did not give me a second look, proceeding to converse freely with the Prince of Qi, and occasionally with young master Qin as well. Her methods were brilliant, seemingly cordial and familiar, and yet not excessively wanton. Even the normally aloof young master Qin had a slight smile on his face.
Liu Piaoxiang was definitely a peerlessly beautiful woman. After drinking a few cups of wine, she stood and called out. From outside, a woman in green entered carrying all kinds of musical instruments and started playing. Amidst the music, Piaoxiang began to dance. That kind of passionate dance, as if she was igniting her life force, left me completely intoxicated. When I carefully regarded her face, I could tell that she had completely invested everything into the dance. I really was moved. When she stopped, I saw her look at me. As our eyes met, I could see a hint of elation in her gaze. She walked over and sat down lazily next to the Prince of Qi. That kind of languid beauty made me want to immediately take her to bed.
At this point, the madam entered the cabin. With a smile on her face, she murmured, “It is getting late. Would Jiang daren and Qin daren please come to the neighboring cabins to rest? If you see any female attendants you like, don’t hesitate to invite them.”
I soured a bit. I hurriedly stood and bade my farewell, requesting that the Prince of Qi rest well. Freezing momentarily, young master Qin suddenly stood and left. I hurriedly followed him out.
After sending away the attendants, I laid down on a bed with my clothes on in a comfortable and yet not large cabin. My imagination ran wild, filled with the beautiful image of Liu Piaoxiang. Listening to the babbling sounds of water outside my window, I slowly began to fall asleep. Just as I was half-asleep, I suddenly felt someone’s hands removing my clothes. I felt fearful, thinking that I was being ambushed by the Prince of Qi. I hurriedly opened my eyes. Just as I was about to yell, I noticed an exquisite9 face before me. It was Liu Piaoxiang. My entire body softened and I could no longer shout. Seeing that I was awake, Liu Piaoxiang smiled sweetly. With delicate movements, she removed her clothes, revealing her elegant and delicate jade body. Slowly, I extended my hands, holding her in my arms. Still somewhat hesitant, I stammered, “The Prince of Qi.”
Liu Piaoxiang giggled and replied, “You didn’t know? That young master Qin is a woman. Before I could even undress, she couldn’t wait and rushed inside. I quickly left the room to the two of them. My great zhuangyuan, what are you waiting for?”
Although I had learned sexual techniques, I had never touched a woman in my life and did not know what to do. Understanding, Liu Piaoxiang in turn held me, helping me undress. I felt my body intertwine with the soft and warm body of a woman. I lost myself, reveling completely in passionate lovemaking.
As I fell asleep tired, Liu Piaoxiang rested for a moment before sitting up. Wrapping her clothes around her, she summoned two female attendants to the cabin. With delicate touches, the two attendants helped me wash and change. I did wake up for a brief moment, but I was too sleepy to move even half a finger. When I finally woke up, I was lying upon the cleaned bed and wearing black pajamas. I gazed upon the deeply sleeping figure of Liu Piaoxiang beside me. My face suddenly reddened and I couldn’t say a single word. Opening her eyes, Liu Piaoxiang laughed lightly and wondered, “Is my lord zhuangyuan unhappy to lose your virginity to this courtesan?”
My face and ears red, I proposed, “Will you marry me?”
At first, Liu Piaoxiang seemed to laugh at me in ridicule before suddenly realizing that I was being serious. She sighed. “No we can’t.”
“What? Does it require money? How much? I will figure out a way,” I anxiously pleaded.
Liu Piaoxiang’s pursed her lips and smiled. “It’s not that. I long ago earned enough money to buy my freedom.”
Dejected, I asked, “Then, you refuse to marry me because I’m unworthy?”
Surprised, Liu Piaoxiang answered, “You are a Hanlin Academic. Even if I become your concubine, it will harm your career. You really want me to marry you?”
Indifferently, I explained, “That’s not important. If need be, I can resign from my position. I’m not particularly interested in being an official. I have accrued some savings over the last several years and can purchase a few hundred mu10 of farmland. It’s just, I’m afraid that you wouldn’t be used to that kind of poor, but upright lifestyle.”
Revealing a smile that I could not even describe with words, she responded, “I know you are being sincere and don’t have even a hint of hesitation. I have seen countless numbers of people. I originally hoped to return to a normal life, but when I had earned enough money to regain my freedom, I suddenly realized that there was no one I could marry. I loathe to even glance at the face of those dissolute lechers. If it was someone honest, I would dislike him for being dull and boring. Though there are several who I admire wholeheartedly, if I were to marry them, once I become old, they would abandon me. I can’t help but be frightened. Oh, meeting you today and seeing how you sincerely appreciated my dance, I knew that you understood that I have dedicated myself to my craft. That is why I personally came to accompany you. I am fortunate that you are a gentleman who treats me sincerely. However, it won’t do. I, Piaoxiang, am frivolous and cannot play the traditional roles of a wife.11 I am like the swallow of Jiangnan, in love with the bustle of the city, in love with my freedom, and do not wish another cage to trap myself. Lover Jiang,12 it may be possible that I will experience countless more men, but you must remember that you are the one most beloved in my heart. You must not avoid Piaoxiang out of dislike, and come see me from time to time.”
My heart throbbed with pain. I could hear from her words that she was speaking sincerely without any intention to fool me. There was no man capable of keeping this kind of unusual woman forever. Holding her delicate hands, I replied, “Piaoxiang is famous in the capital. Though Jiang Zhe is but a lowly official, if I were to come frequently, it would cause an uproar. When we part today, though it may not be an eternal parting, it will be difficult for us to meet again. Piaoxiang, Piaoxiang, the way we have forgotten ourselves in these rivers and lakes far surpasses anything else. If we are to meet again in the future, I only hope that you won’t treat me like a stranger.”
Liu Piaoxiang’s delicate body shook. She understood the meaning behind this young man’s words. He would not secretly meet with her. If they were not to be husband and wife, then he would not come back to find her. But she was satisfied. In this world of hypocritical shows of affection, she had found genuine love.
When I walked out of the cabin and saw the satisfied Prince of Qi and the blushing young master Qin, I respectfully said, “Your Imperial Highness, we should return to the posthouse to rest.”
Smiling, the Prince of Qi looked upon me and asked, “How about it? Were you successful last night?”
I felt apprehensive. Did he know that I was with Piaoxiang? I smiled indifferently, deliberately acting mysteriously. The Prince of Qi looked at me suspiciously. It looked like I had enjoyed myself last night. The same probably was true for his personal guards. After we stepped on dry land, I could not help but look back. The Floating Fragrance Pleasure Boat was extremely peaceful. Buried there was my first love.
After escorting the Prince of Qi back, I quickly returned home. On the table, I saw a note. On it was written, “You let loose last night, but were unaware that others were watching you like a tiger stalks its prey. One cannot fully comprehend the intentions of the Prince of Qi. I took care of the one he had sent to observe you.” My hand trembled. Xiaoshunzi was truly loyal. But I did not know how I had acquired sufficient virtue for him to treat me so well.
At the same time, within the posthouse, the Prince of Qi had a heavy look on his face. Below the dais stood an embarrassed guard. The Prince of Qi coldly interrogated, “You said you were not watching Jiang Zhe? Why is this?”
His entire face panic-stricken, the guard replied, “Your Highness, I beg your forgiveness. This vassal was originally following orders and was keeping an eye on Jiang Zhe from the cabin across the hall. I don’t know why, but I suddenly fell asleep.”
The Prince of Qi’s expression became even grimmer, but he did not blame the guard, allowing him to depart.
Sitting beside him, young master Qin faintly said, “I’ve already investigated. He was hit in his pressure points. To be able to hit his pressure points in such a small enclosed space without being detected … that person’s martial arts are greater than mine.”
Unconvinced, the Prince of Qi said, “But I can see that Jiang Zhe does not know any martial arts. Has he attained the realm of ‘Returning to the Natural State’?”13
Her brow furrowing, young master Qin thought for some time before responding, “In the world today, there are only three people who have attained such a realm of cultivation—my master, the True Compassion Elder of the Shaolin Temple, and the Devil Sect’s sovereign, Jing Wuji. That Jiang Zhe is so young. I do not believe that he has reached such a stage.”
Looking pensive, the Prince of Qi stated, “Second elder brother and Liang Wan both told me to keep an eye on this Jiang Zhe. I originally disapproved.14 But from what we’ve witnessed, I feel that this person is unfathomable.15 What happened last night made it even more difficult to come to any conclusions. The elites of Southern Chu definitely cannot be underestimated. It is fortunate that he is biding his time16 and seemingly will not become one of our obstacles.”
Lowering her head, young master Qin uttered, “If you feel that he is trouble, I can help you.”
Shaking his head, Li Xian replied, “How can we lightly kill this kind of person? In addition, we may not necessarily succeed.” As he spoke, in his eyes there flashed a dazzling light.
哎呀, aiya – interjection of wonder, shock or admiration
眉开眼笑, meikaiyanxiao – idiom, lit. brows raised in delight eyes laughing; beaming with joy, all smiles
曲意逢迎, quyifengying – acting submissively in order to ingratiate oneself
娈童, luantong – catamite (boy used as a homosexual partner)
手足无措, shouzuwucuo – idiom, lit. at a loss to know what to do; bewildered
怜香惜玉, lianxiangxiyu – idiom, to have tender, protective feelings for the fairer sex; to be appreciative of beauty
韩, Han – note, different character from Northern Han (北汉)
恩将仇报, enjiangchoubao – idiom, lit. to bite the hand that feeds one; to repay kindness with malice
如花似玉, ruhuasiyu – idiom, lit. delicate as flower, refined as precious jade; exquisite
亩, mu – Chinese land measurement equal to one fifteenth of a hectare
相夫教子, xiangfujiaozi – idiom, lit. to assist one’s husband and educate the children; basically the traditional roles of the wife
郎, lang – gentleman, young man, husband; Liu Piaoxiang is basically addressing Jiang Zhe as her lover
反璞归真, fanpuguizhen – to return to one’s true self; to regain the natural state
不以为然, buyiweiran – idiom, lit. not to accept as correct; to object, disapprove, take exception to
深不可测, shenbukece – idiom, lit. deep and immeasurable; unfathomable depths, incomprehensible, enigmatic and impossible to predict
韬光养晦, taoguangyanghui – idiom, lit. to conceal one’s strengths and bide one’s time; to hide one’s light under a bushel