After organizing my thoughts, I instructed the page named Li Xin to notify the Prince of Yong after he had woken that I wished to see him. Who could have imagined that it wasn’t long before I saw the Prince of Yong and Shi Yu hurriedly enter the confidential study? Moreover, their clothes were orderly, while their expressions carried tired looks. They clearly had not slept. At first, I stared blankly at them before I suddenly realized that the Prince of Yong had stayed awake and waited throughout the night because of his anxiety.
After inviting the Prince of Yong to sit down, we first chatted randomly for a few moments. Only after I saw that the Prince of Yong’s expression had stabilized, did I inquire, “Excuse me, may I ask Your Imperial Highness, why are you determined to ascend to the Imperial Throne?”
The Prince of Yong froze, not knowing how to reply. In his heart, Li Zhi considered ascending to the Imperial Throne as something that he was required to do. Besides believing that the throne was his just recompense, Li Zhi believed that aside from himself there was no one capable of unifying the world for Great Yong. For the sake of the empire, it was necessary for him to destroy his own reputation. But for Jiang Zhe to ask such a question, Li Zhi suddenly found that it was extremely difficult to answer. Usually, he and his subordinates all considered this matter as inevitable and proper.1 But now, he did not know how to explain this to Jiang Zhe.
I smiled faintly. This was something that I noticed long ago. When the Prince of Yong was urging me to pledge my allegiance, he completely failed to explain his own philosophies and thoughts. This could only mean that the Prince of Yong’s own will and resolution were unclear, his position not firm and resolute. A skyscraper, thousands of meters high, rises from the ground up. Without a philosophy or idea serving as the foundation, then the Prince of Yong’s great undertaking would ultimately be nothing more than a pipe dream.
I continued, “Considering the current circumstances, Great Yong’s foundations are already quite stable. His Imperial Highness, the Crown Prince, is not only the eldest son and the son of the first wife, he has also not committed any clear violations of virtue. As such, there is no need for the civil and military officials to violate the intentions of the Emperor for Your Imperial Highness. Your Imperial Highness has control of the military. If you call, people will respond en masse. If you forcibly take the throne, people will raise objections, claiming that Your Imperial Highness is plotting treason to seize the throne. Your Imperial Highness is admittedly brilliant and has amazing martial might, but would leave a mistaken example for your descendants and offspring, believing that as long as they have power and meritorious contributions, they will be able to ascend to the throne. In that way, rebellion becomes perfectly legitimate.2 As a result, the power of the sovereign would suffer. A stable system is more important and useful than an enlightened and wise monarch. Therefore, although Your Imperial Highness’s contributions are unrivaled, it cannot be the reason for Your Imperial Highness to seize the throne.”
Li Zhi pensively asked, “Is this the reason why the court elders refuse to actively support my succession of the throne even though they regard my contributions as important?”
I nodded my head and replied, “If I were those senior figures, having witnessed Great Yong start from scratch, I would inevitably not wish to see internal strife reduce Great Yong’s strength. Therefore, it is impossible for them to support Your Imperial Highness in succeeding the throne. Even if Your Imperial Highness is a particularly excellent choice for heir apparent in their minds, it is unlikely for them to be so resolute. At this time, the only ones willing to support Your Imperial Highness are those seeking glory, splendor, and riches. Only a small number of people understand that only with Your Imperial Highness’s ascension to the throne can Great Yong’s empire be preserved. Since those ordinary individuals don’t understand the importance of Your Imperial Highness’s ascension, then Your Imperial Highness should tell me.”
Hearing my words, Li Zhi remarked, “To tell the truth, this Prince only feels that the throne cannot be passed onto elder imperial brother. His ties with the Fengyi Sect are too close. But I can’t explain it clearly.”
Uprightly, I expounded, “Therefore the first strategy that this subject presents Your Imperial Highness is to demonstrate your sincere convictions. Although Great Yong is currently flourishing, there are heavy internal concerns. This concern is the Fengyi Sect. Great Yong’s worry isn’t powerful enemies outside its borders, but rather within the borders. The Fengyi Sect pretends to be benevolent and righteous, but in actuality schemes for power, controlling the harem and officialdom. If this is allowed to last, the Fengyi Sect will sooner rather than later be the puppet master ruling in the place of the Emperor. Though His Imperial Highness, the Crown Prince, is the heir apparent, he does not know to promote virtue and does not know to practice respect, virtue, and piety to restrain the hearts and minds of the officials. In addition, he is too inseparably close to the Fengyi Sect. If Your Imperial Highness were to allow the Crown Prince to ascend the throne, not only could your life not be guaranteed and thus destroying a pillar of the state, but would also allow the empire to be controlled by women. If the Crown Prince eliminates the flattering officials by his side and cuts his dealings with the Fengyi Sect, then even if he didn’t have a single soldier, Your Imperial Highness would not dare to compete for the heir apparent. In the current situation, the Crown Prince has first lost virtue, and Your Imperial Highness is not deliberately scheming to commit treason.
“Furthermore, to speak from the heart, the world does not belong to one family or one surname. If the Fengyi Sect were really a good choice, then this subject would not necessarily seek its eradication. But in this subject’s view, the disciples of the Fengyi Sect are arrogant and willful, and do not understand the pain and sufferings present in the world. They are only committed to wholeheartedly struggling for power. Although this subject is from Southern Chu, I have witnessed Liang Wan’s behavior in Southern Chu. If these kinds of shortsighted, arrogant, and willful women without any priorities were allowed to take control, I’m afraid that the people of the world would be dragged into trouble. It may be true that the Fengyi Sect master was really working for the state and for the common people in the beginning, but now the Fengyi Sect has already begun to seize the tools of power. If Your Imperial Highness is unable to eradicate the power and influence of the Fengyi Sect, I’m afraid that Great Yong not only will not be able to unite the world, it will also perish in the hands of the women. Your Imperial Highness is a prince of Great Yong … How can you watch the empire perish? The common people suffer hardship? Since the Crown Prince has been enticed by power and authority, and cannot fulfill the responsibilities of a benevolent heir apparent, then Your Imperial Highness naturally must remove and replace him by right.”
Hearing this, Li Zhi was radiant with delight as he replied, “Sir has truly explained this Prince’s thoughts. This Prince also thinks this way, but it was never enunciated so clearly and plainly. That’s right, if the Fengyi Sect did not exist, it would be perfectly fine for me to be a peaceful and carefree prince.”
I smiled faintly, not bothering to argue with the falsehoods in Li Zhi’s words. In any case, that was unimportant.
I serenely went on, “The strategy to demonstrate your sincere convictions allows Your Imperial Highness to show your staunch resolution. Please allow this subject to first elaborate the current situation for Your Imperial Highness. Your Imperial Highness presently feels surrounded and isolated, without help, because of the close relationship between the Emperor, the Crown Prince, the Prince of Qi, and the Fengyi Sect not giving Your Imperial Highness any place to start. However, in this subject’s view, first, they really aren’t blended together well. It isn’t as Your Imperial Highness imagines. The Emperor, the Crown Prince, and the Prince of Qi do not completely lack safeguards against the Fengyi Sect. It is only because of their respective selfish motives that they allow the Fengyi Sect to exist. If the Emperor did not have any fear in his heart, then Noble Consort Ji would have children. These past few years, the Emperor’s harem is still heavily favored, as concubines have given birth to a dozen or more princes and princesses. This clearly illustrates that the Emperor’s body is healthy. And yet, Noble Consort Ji is childless. I believe that the Emperor does not want Noble Consort Ji to have any sons to compete over the position of heir apparent. Although the Crown Prince heavily favors his concubine, he extremely loves and protects his heir. As they say, ‘the mother’s status is based on her son; the son’s status is based on her mother.’ Since ancient times, there have been a countless number of wives who have been killed because of a doting concubine. Were it not for the fear by His Imperial Highness, the Crown Prince, towards the Fengyi Sect, I’m afraid that the heir would have lost favor long ago. There is also the Prince of Qi. Although His Imperial Highness has married, he keeps his distance. I have met the Prince of Qi before. From his physiognomy, although the Prince of Qi is innately dissolute, his cold shoulder towards his first wife is peculiar. Therefore, the Emperor and the Princes do not completely trust the Fengyi Sect. But without the Fengyi Sect, they do not have the means of competing against Your Imperial Highness.
“Second, although the Emperor is partial to the Crown Prince, if the Crown Prince were to jeopardize the empire, then the Emperor would not tolerate it no matter how partial he is. Therefore, over these past few years, although Your Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong, has repeatedly faced danger, your position is as steady as Mt. Tai, because Your Imperial Highness is the heaven-raising pillar of the state of Great Yong. The Emperor will absolutely not allow the Crown Prince to harm Your Imperial Highness. As long as Your Imperial Highness does not cross the Emperor’s bottom line, then Your Imperial Highness’s safety will be guaranteed. As long as Your Imperial Highness eliminates the Crown Prince, then even if the Emperor becomes indignant and angry, he can only transfer the Imperial Throne to Your Imperial Highness. Therefore, Your Imperial Highness must control all authority and power while the Emperor is still on the throne. In that way, Your Imperial Highness will be able to succeed the throne perfectly legitimately.
“Lastly, the Crown Prince relies heavily upon the Prince of Qi. Your Imperial Highness perhaps believes that the alliance between the Prince of Qi and the Crown Prince is unbreakable. But in this subject’s view, animosity exists. From what I can see from intelligence gathered by Your Imperial Highness, the Crown Prince isn’t a tolerant person. The Prince of Qi has a bossy and domineering personality. Even before the Crown Prince, he would constantly present this personality. The Crown Prince only tries to win the Prince of Qi over to deal with Your Imperial Highness. This subject has learned from the intelligence reports that the Crown Prince previously snubbed the Prince of Qi because of the defeats he suffered. It was only to deal with Your Imperial Highness that he once again began to express goodwill towards the Prince of Qi these last several days. The Prince of Qi understands this clearly. How can he not understand the Crown Prince’s fickleness? It is only because the Prince of Qi has no alternatives, as Your Imperial Highness yourself is someone who can command troops into battle. Therefore, in the eyes of the Prince of Qi, if Your Imperial Highness ascends to the throne, then he wouldn’t have any opportunity to display his abilities. Actually regarding this matter, this subject must admonish Your Imperial Highness. As someone precious and honored, Your Imperial Highness must not put yourself into danger. Your Imperial Highness has already accrued celebrated military merits and should promote other generals. There is no need for Your Imperial Highness to compete with your subordinates over meritorious contributions. Leave alone the fact that Your Imperial Highness is someone who will govern the world and cannot only focus military matters. If there is no one who can take the place of Your Imperial Highness to fight, don’t tell me that Your Imperial Highness would personally campaign?”
Speaking to this point, I saw Li Zhi blush with shame as he looked towards Shi Yu. Shi Yu’s face was filled with approval. It seems as if this was something that Shi Yu had chided before.
I paused, looking at the expression of consent that Li Zhi had already revealed before I added, “This subject has already explained the current situation to Your Imperial Highness. Now, would Your Imperial Highness allow this subject to explain the second strategy—cutting out the heart. Presently, although Your Imperial Highness is in a desperate situation, the enemy remains hostile and suspicious of each other. In this subject’s view, the biggest weakness in the alliance formed by Your Imperial Highness’s enemies is the Crown Prince himself. The Crown Prince cannot make any mistakes, otherwise the Emperor will inevitably doubt the decisions he has made, the Prince of Qi will worry about his future prospects, while the Fengyi Sect will lose the basis of its opposition to Your Imperial Highness. Therefore, as long as the Crown Prince errs, then Your Imperial Highness can break the alliance into pieces. But the Crown Prince isn’t an imbecile. He will have advisers beside him admonish him. To desire the Crown Prince to err is not easy. Therefore, we must act on two fronts. First, we must place one of our people beside the Crown Prince. This individual must be able to obtain the Crown Prince’s trust and have the Crown Prince listen and follow his advice. Second, Your Imperial Highness must allow the Crown Prince to secure, on the surface, dominance. In this way, the Crown Prince will be so pleased as to forget himself, and will harm himself.”
Li Zhi’s brow furrowed as he replied, “For us to feign weakness is doable, but how are we going to place one of our people beside the Crown Prince? The Crown Prince is quite careful when it comes to these matters. Although we have some people who work for the Crown Prince, they are not able to participate in confidential matters.”
I smiled lightly and stated, “Since this subject has so spoken, then naturally I have ways of doing so. As long as Your Imperial Highness supplies a suitable candidate, this subject will naturally be able to have the Crown Prince trust him, so much so that he is completely obedient. This person must be adept at currying favor with the Crown Prince and also must be capable of helping the Crown Prince make difficult decisions. In short, he must have sufficient talent to replace the Crown Prince’s think tank, Lu Jingzhong. In this subject’s plan, this person will become a favored minister and trusted aide that the Crown Prince cannot do without. Your Imperial Highness will then be able to control and manipulate the Crown Prince. If the Crown Prince were within our palm, Your Imperial Highness could do as you wished, shaking the law and discipline of the court. By then, you would have no worries about succeeding the throne.”
Li Zhi’s expression was filled with astonishment and bafflement. Thinking it over repeatedly, controlling the crown prince was easier said than done. Not to mention the fact that Lu Jingzhong was not someone to be taken lightly. Even the Fengyi Sect would not allow us to succeed.
I smiled and continued, “When this subject speaks of controlling the Crown Prince, I am not suggesting that we control the Crown Prince’s life or death. Rather, we will control the Crown Prince’s thought process. As long as we allow the Crown Prince to act according to our plans, what the Crown Prince originally thought and did will have nothing to do with Your Imperial Highness. Your Imperial Highness, be at ease. This subject already has a feasible plan. Although the process will naturally have its twists and turns, as long as we achieve our objective, we will be able to guarantee Your Imperial Highness’s safety.”
“We can discuss the particulars at a later date. Since Sir is certain, then Li Zhi is reassured,” stated Li Zhi before asking, “However, what will we do after we have controlled the Crown Prince?”
I smiled and answered, “We’re not going to do much, only have the Crown Prince become jealous and suspicious of the Prince of Qi. The Crown Prince is the type of person who is naturally filled with suspicions. Today, he is jealous of Your Imperial Highness’s achievements. Another day, it is hard to avoid him being jealous of the Prince of Qi. This subject is only planning on having this kind of situation happen ahead of schedule. As long as the Crown Prince is under the impression that he has suppressed Your Imperial Highness, he will naturally be unmasked and reveal the truth. I will then arrange a lure for the Crown Prince to arrogantly make some mistakes. Within two years, the Crown Prince will become a tyrannical and incapable ruler in the eyes of the world. With the Crown Prince out of the way, who else is capable of competing with Your Imperial Highness over the position of heir apparent? When the time comes, the Fengyi Sect will find itself in an extremely difficult position. At that time, this subject and Your Imperial Highness will again discuss the situation and ensure that the Fengyi Sect can no longer assert influence on the court.”
Hearing my words, Li Zhi smiled with delight. He thought to himself that Jiang Zhe was indeed someone with outstanding ability and sagacity. How could I not have thought that the enemy’s greatest strength was also their greatest weakness? The crown prince was the core of the alliance. If questions arise about the crown prince, then their alliance would naturally collapse. Although he did not know the full details of the plan, Li Zhi had already swept away all of the melancholy and worry in his mind. Getting to his feet, he bowed and recognized, “Listening to the words of a wise man can be superior to studying books for ten years. Zhi thanks Sir for your instruction.”
I stood and returned his courtesy. “Your Imperial Highness praises me too much. Would Your Imperial Highness please listen to this subject’s third strategy—recruiting the worthy and virtuous. Although Your Imperial Highness is known for your virtue and possession of talented generals and advisers, in this subject’s view, they are not sufficient. Since Your Imperial Highness’s ambitions are the world, then Your Imperial Highness must consider how to manage and control the government. In the current court, the ministers all have links with the Fengyi Sect. If Your Imperial Highness were to succeed the throne and continue to use these people, then you would have inevitably allowed the Fengyi Sect to recover its influence.”
Li Zhi’s brows furrowed and he voiced, “I also understand this point, but if I were to abruptly replace all of them, then I fear that the entire court would be in turmoil. The rich and powerful families would rebel. At that instant, my Great Yong would perish.”
I softly responded, “Your Imperial Highness views the civil and military officials as quite important, but has overlooked the hearts and minds of the army and the common people. These past few years, Your Imperial Highness has been victorious and undefeated,3 repeatedly opening the eyes of the common people. Who in the world does not know of Your Imperial Highness’s accomplishments? However, in the beginning, Great Yong relied upon not a few local despots and tyrants. At the time, this kind of method admittedly accelerated the process of unification, but today, these individuals have taken and occupied the land of the common people and do not pay any taxes. From what this one knows, after many commoners lost their land, they had no choice but to become the slaves of influential families and local despots. None of the people of the world do not bear a strong hatred toward these individuals. However, Your Imperial Highness using the need for strong soldiers as the reason has allowed the common people to open new land for agriculture. Although the land nominally belongs to the army, in reality, they belong to the common people. As a result, many robust young men all have been willing to enlist so their families can obtain land. This is also one of the reasons why those elites all support the crown prince. If Your Imperial Highness were to excessively tolerate this situation, there would be one day when Great Yong would be divided by warlords. It would be better to avail yourself to the present competition to become the heir apparent to involve these elites. Your Imperial Highness can use this as the reason to purge the world of elites, allowing the poor and the talented to rebuild Great Yong. As long as Your Imperial Highness uses the appropriate plans, these elites will never have the opportunity to rebel. Although in the short term, Great Yong will weaken, it will allow Great Yong to change wholly4 in several years’ time to really become the most powerful country. When that time comes, it would take no effort to pacify Southern Chu, wipe out Northern Han, and chase out the southern barbarians.”
Li Zhi listened closely, completely enthralled. He understood all of these problems, but he had been suppressed each time he had tried to raise the issue of reform. This was one of the reasons why he wished to acquire the throne. He had originally thought about slowly thinking of a way when he had succeeded the throne. Although Jiang Zhe’s plan was fierce and vicious, it would prevent harm to Great Yong’s strength. After all, the fight over the throne was one that would implicate hundreds of thousands of people. As long as he acted ingeniously, then he would be able to eliminate a significant part of the elites, replacing them with his own talented subordinates. Within ten years, Great Yong would no longer be affected by these elites.
Thinking it through, Li Zhi once again rose to his feet and bowed, saying, “Although the first two strategies allow this Prince to ascend to the throne, this Prince only bowed from admiration. This strategy would ensure the empire’s good health. This Prince bows in thanks to Sir on behalf of Great Yong’s imperial clan and the common people of the world.”
I rose to my feet and returned his courtesy, replying, “It should be this subject bowing to thank Your Imperial Highness on behalf of the common people of the world for Your Imperial Highness’s willing to listen to this subject’s delirious utterings. This subject was originally a commoner and understands the suffering of the people. Your Imperial Highness’s willingness to open your eyes wide for the common people is the great fortune of all the people.”
After sitting down, I continued, “Eliminating the rich and powerful families is only a part of this strategy. If there aren’t any capable and talented individuals to assist, the court will be empty. How then can Your Imperial Highness govern the world? Therefore, Your Imperial Highness must broadly recruit talented individuals to govern the world. If you are worried about the suspicions and jealousy of the Emperor and the Crown Prince, Your Imperial Highness can ask the Emperor for your own personal fief. When the time comes, Your Imperial Highness can utilize these talented individuals to administer your own fief, preparing and having them ready. After Your Imperial Highness ascends to the throne, they can be allowed to comprehensively take over the government.”
Li Zhi responded, “This Prince has always been away on campaigns. Imperial Father has given me Youzhou5 as my fief. The current person managing Youzhou is a trusted confidante of this Prince, Pei Ji. He has administered the fief well. However, he is not adept at developing talents. How does Sir think this ought to be handled?”
I smiled and replied, “If Your Imperial Highness is worried that recalling Pei Ji would harm the loyalty of the subordinates, then Your Imperial Highness need not be worried. Your Imperial Highness can petition the Emperor and allow the heir to go safeguard Youzhou. Afterwards, Sir Shi can be dispatched to assist the heir. Sir Shi is the chief clerk of the Marshal’s office. Your Highness can promote Pei Ji; the best would be to transfer him back to Your Imperial Highness’s side. Afterwards, Sir Shi can recruit talents on Your Imperial Highness’s behalf. Others may be suspicious if Your Imperial Highness sees these talents and then has them remain by your side. It would be better to have them temporarily sent to Youzhou, allowing them to familiarize themselves with government affairs. Of course, Sir Shi must properly guide them, allowing them to immediately take over administration of the empire when the time comes. At that time, Your Imperial Highness needs only give a single order and they will be able to enter the capital to become ministers.”
With difficulty, Li Zhi controlled the excitement in his heart. Although he was extremely happy with Jiang Zhe pledging allegiance, the probing done by Jiang Zhe over the last several days inevitably created some hostility. Now with the three strategies of demonstrating one’s convictions, cutting out the heart, and recruiting the worthy and virtuous, Li Zhi felt as if he had received payback for all the suffering that he had experienced previously. If not for his sincere courtesy towards such a man of merit, how could he have been able to hear such strategies? With great effort, he serenely stated, “Since that is the case, I will entrust everything to Sir. Ziyou will go to Youzhou to build a foundation for this Prince. This matter is of utmost importance. Outside of Ziyou, no one else can take care of this matter.”
Shi Yu naturally understood that his responsibility was of great importance. However, he was somewhat worried. If this were to happen, the future sovereign’s ministers would all be his students and followers. If that were to happen, then his authority would be excessive. Somewhat anxious, he glanced at Jiang Zhe. When all was said and done, he couldn’t directly say this to the Prince of Yong.
I was already prepared and explained, “Your Imperial Highness, Sir Shi carries a heavy responsibility. The heir has no one to discipline and teach him. It would be better if Your Imperial Highness chooses another worthy individual responsible for assisting and instructing the heir. This way, Sir Shi’s heavy load can be reduced and prevent a delay in the heir’s education.”
Thinking it over, Li Zhi suggested, “How about this? The heir’s maternal uncle, Gao Rong, is intelligent and capable. The son of Senior Mentor Chu Ping, Chu Wenyuan has an upright and proper moral character, and is an exceptional talent. He can be allowed to assist the heir. Thus Ziyou can concentrate on recruiting the worthy and virtuous.”
With this, Shi Yu felt relieved and replied, “Ziyou will do his utmost. Your Highness please be at ease. When Your Highness’s decree arrives in Youzhou, Ziyou will travel throughout the night to return. The matters within the capital will all be entrusted to Suiyun. I have to ask Suiyun to trouble yourself.”
Solemnly, I stated, “Sir Shi be at ease. Since Suiyun has determined the strategies, I will definitely accomplish them. Otherwise, I will not only have let down His Imperial Highness, I will have even more so let down Sir’s hard work in Youzhou.”
Li Zhi smiled and declared, “Good. We have talked for so long. This Prince feels his stomach rumbling from hunger. How about we first eat? Afterwards, the two Sirs rest, otherwise you two will be too exhausted. At that point, who will advise this Prince? With Ziyou, this Prince does not have any worries about future consequences.6 With Suiyun, this Prince no longer needs to fear demons and monsters.”
“Your Imperial Highness speaks incorrectly,” I denied, shaking my head. Seeing the looks of astonishment on Li Zhi and Shi Yu’s faces, I explained, “Your Imperial Highness is a noble and benevolent character.7 When did you ever fear vile characters? It was merely because Your Imperial Highness did not have any strategy to sweep away the filthiness. This subject only has some crafty plots and machinations. Those that noble characters cannot deal with, this subject can take care of.”
Li Zhi looked at my face filled with sincerity, moved. He did not know what he should say. It could be assumed that he couldn’t guess that while some of the words were sincere and genuine, there were some that were fawning. If Li Zhi were a pure and unadulterated gentleman, then I fear that he would not have the qualifications to become emperor.
理所当然, lisuodangran – idiom, lit. as it should be by rights; proper and to be expected as a matter of course, inevitable and right
名正言顺, mingzhengyanshun – idiom, lit. in a way that justifies the use of the term; genuine, proper, in a way that conforms to logic, justifiable, appropriate, perfectly legitimate
攻无不克，战无不胜, gongwubeke, zhanwubusheng – idiom, lit. to triumph in every battle and win every fight; all-conquering, ever victorious
脱胎换骨, tuotaihuangu – idiom, lit. to shed one’s mortal body and exchange one’s bones; to turn over a new leaf, to change wholly
幽州, Youzhou – a former city, prefecture, and province that is located around modern-day Beijing
后顾之忧, houguzhiyou – idiom, lit. fears of trouble in the rear; worries about future consequences
光风霁月, guangfengjiyue – idiom, lit. light breeze and clear moon; period of peace and prosperity; noble and benevolent character