In the fourth month of the first year of Southern Chu’s Tongtian era, the new King of Southern Chu dispatched an envoy to Great Yong, paying tribute and paying homage, taking a circuitous route to sue for peace. They further offered a heavy sum as ransom.…
—Southern Chu Dynastic Records, Biography of King Yang of Chu
In the middle of the night, as I was in deep sleep, I was suddenly shaken awake by someone. Just as I resentfully opened my eyes, I caught sight of Xiaoshunzi delightedly and enthusiastically presented a steaming basket of Osmanthus Cake. Astonished, I asked him where he had gotten the snack. After all, this was the specialty from the most famous pastry shop in Southern Chu, Guixiang Square. Picking a piece up, I took a bite. It was fragrant, sweet, and soft, dissolving in my mouth. Content, I asked, “Where did you buy it from? We should frequent that shop from now on.”
Xiaoshunzi’s complexion changed, his look becoming dark and gloomy. Baffled, I asked, “What’s going on?”
Xiaoshunzi hesitated for quite some time before he revealed the truth. At the start, he had pondered for a long time before finally deciding to randomly select a delicacy from Great Yong to serve as the replacement. No one could have imagined that as soon as he walked out of the entrance to the residence, he would learn of a diplomatic mission from Southern Chu that had already arrived in Chang’an. He immediately went to the posthouse to make inquiries, originally intending to see if there was anything detrimental to me. Surprisingly, the diplomatic mission had brought two pastry chefs from Guixiang Square who just so happened to prepare two steaming baskets of their most famous Osmanthus Cake with the intent of delivering it to King Zhao Jia, under house arrest, and Princess Changle. Perhaps they wished to curry favor with Princess Changle in order to ensure the success of the negotiations. However, Xiaoshunzi was able to take advantage. Using skullduggery,1 he stole one of the baskets of freshly made Osmanthus Cake.
I nearly fainted, not knowing if the Southern Chu diplomatic mission would report the theft to the local authorities. After thinking it over, it would be better if the evidence was wiped out. Splitting the pastries with Xiaoshunzi, I devoured the cakes ravenously.2 While this happened, the sky gradually brightened and Xiaoshunzi slipped away. Just as I was about to go back to sleep, Xiaoshunzi returned and reported, “Young master, the primary envoy from Southern Chu, Lu Can, requests a meeting.”
My heart was confused. Why was this former student of mine here to see me? Shouldn’t he view me with contempt? After all, I was a traitor to Southern Chu. With misgivings, I looked at Xiaoshunzi, seeking his advice. Not knowing whether to laugh or cry, Xiaoshunzi stated, “Young master, at present, you are a trusted aide to His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong. His Highness can probably influence forty percent of these negotiations. Isn’t young master the best candidate if they wish to influence His Imperial Highness? Although they are negotiating from a defeated position, they still hope to gain as much as they can from the talks.”
Sitting up, I took the robes proffered by Xiaoshunzi. I thought about how to settle this situation as I got dressed. Originally, I thought it best that we not meet if we were only going to argue, and had no intention of receiving Lu Can. However, if he were here to lobby everywhere for the negotiations, then it would be somewhat excessive if he were not granted the opportunity. Anyways, I was formerly a subject of Southern Chu but now a subordinate of the Prince of Yong. If I were to decline this meeting, then in the eyes of outsiders, His Highness, the Prince of Yong, had no intention of negotiating. Although this matter could either be important or insignificant, I could not handle it as I wished. After moving a bit, I felt that my condition was fairly good and there shouldn’t be any problems if I received a visitor.
I thus said, “Invite General Lu to meet me in the reception pavilion. It’s still early, so have someone serve breakfast. Be sure to prepare extra. Just say that I’m inviting General Lu to breakfast. His Imperial Highness should already know about this. Send someone to query His Imperial Highness’s intentions and ask him whether the Southern Chu envoy should be granted a meeting. I am not familiar with the negotiations. Conversely, Gou Lian should be knowledgeable about this. If it is inconvenient for His Imperial Highness to come, then invite Brother Gou to help entertain the guest so that we can ascertain Southern Chu’s bottom line. Xiaoshunzi, is Lu Can alone?”
Xiaoshunzi answered, “Young master, General Lu is accompanied by a young man. That man has an unusual appearance and should have intelligence and wisdom surpassing others.”
I smiled faintly and replied, “That’s fine.… After all, Lu Can is still young. If he had come alone, I would have suspected that he came to see me for personal reasons. Since he is accompanied by someone else, then he is here on official business. All right, invite them in.”
Lu Can serenely stood at the entrance to the Prince of Yong’s residence. At twenty-two years old, he was at a young and vigorous age. However, because he spent years in the military, he appeared to be more mature than others of the same age. His appearance was coarse and heroic, somewhat different from persons from Jiangnan. From the soft lively light in his eyes and the refinement present in his heroic and brave temperament, one could tell that this young man was a genius of brush and sword. Standing behind him was another young man about twenty-six or twenty-seven years of age. He wore a cloth Confucian cap on his head, looking delicate and refined. He had a one-of-a-kind bearing and appearance, causing others to be willing to approach him.
This youth looked at the tranquil and calm Lu Can, his heart pounding like the roaring seas. He was called Yang Xiu, originally from the Kingdom of Shu. When Shu fell, he was still studying abroad. When Southern Chu occupied Sichuan, he returned to his homeland. Under Marquis Lu’s governance, Sichuan was extremely peaceful. Although the Embroidered Union was wreaking havoc, they did not cause any great waves. Yang Xiu lived comfortably at his home. Two and a half years ago, Yang Xiu was also implicated and imprisoned after one of his cousins was charged with the crime of participating in an assassination attempt on Marquis Lu. The one responsible for adjudicating his case was the sole son of Marquis Lu, Lu Can. This young general handled matters cleverly and decisively, conforming to reason. Yang Xiu was very quickly judged innocent and released. Seeing that Yang Xiu’s bearing and talent were outstanding, Lu Can personally paid a visit, inviting Yang Xiu to serve as his adjutant. Yang Xiu was not a pedantic man. As he had never attained scholarly honors in the Kingdom of Shu, it would not be considered disloyal by serving Southern Chu.
After following Lu Can, Yang Xiu discovered that this young general had aspects that far surpassed others. Although Lu Can was young, his formations and operational planning, stratagems and tactics, were all first class. When the Prince of Yong launched a surprise attack against Southern Chu, the Prince of Qing in Hanzhong took advantage of the situation to pressure the Sichuan borders while Marquis Lu was leading troops to salvage the chaos in Jianye. Lu Can led an army to meet the Prince of Qing. The two armies engaged one another on several occasions. Lu Can’s diligently trained elite troops unexpectedly defeated Great Yong’s imposing army, forcing the Prince of Qing to retreat and ensuring that Southern Chu would not face enemies on two fronts. Although Lu Can’s meritorious service was not made public because of the fall of Jianye, the Southern Chu army had already begun to consider Lu Can as Prince Zhao Jue of De’s successor. What caused Yang Xiu to gasp further in admiration was that although Lu Can hailed from a military family and did not know how to compose poetry and write essays, Lu Can had an original understanding of the classics and histories. Oftentimes, when discussions turned to history, Lu Can would show off his familiarity with how commanders and generals attained victory, causing Yang Xiu himself to have no choice but to admire Lu Can’s extensive knowledge.
A few days ago, Yang Xiu could not help but ask Lu Can who was capable of educating a descendant of a military family into a master of the classics and histories. Lu Can was actually taciturn and did not say a word. Surprisingly, when they just arrived in Great Yong and delivered their diplomatic credentials, Lu Can brought him along to pay an official visit to the famous Jiang Zhe. Although Yang Xiu knew of this man, Jiang Zhe, he did not consider him to be that important. He was only a gifted scholar of Southern Chu who had surrendered to Great Yong. If it were not for Chang’an still buzzing about the attempt on Jiang Zhe’s life, causing Yang Xiu to pay attention, then Yang Xiu would not have paid much attention to Jiang Zhe’s existence. It was only yesterday that he learned that Jiang Zhe was Lu Can’s greatly respected teacher. He still could recall vividly last night’s events. Under the silvery lamp, with his face partially concealed in shadow, Lu Can softly said, “From youth, I was naughty and mischievous. If I was not climbing walls and trees, I was brandishing spears and sticks. Otherwise, I would scuffle with hooligans on the streets. Father was unwilling to see me remain ignorant and incompetent, and sought a teacher to teach me. Relying on my tough fists, I ran off several teachers. Sir Jiang was my fourth teacher. I originally wanted to deal him a blow at our first encounter. However, when he arrived, he told me that he had only taken this job to make ends meet. If I were to run him off, my father would find and invite a new teacher. If I were willing to compromise with him, then he would ensure that both of us would have an easy time.”
Speaking to this point, Lu Can’s face revealed a faint smile. Following, he continued, “Sir Jiang stated that as long as I spent every morning in the study, he would allow me to spend my afternoons as I willed. He would not assign excessive amounts of homework and would also help me deceive Father. I agreed at once. However, I regretted it after only a few days had passed. I would sit in the study bored every morning, only able to watch as Sir Jiang read with great interest and not acknowledge my presence. However, if I were to renege on our deal, I would unavoidably lose a great deal of face. Afterwards, I could only ask Sir Jiang to think of a way to help me kill time. Sir Jiang then stated that since this was the case, there was no harm for him to lecture me on these books he was reading. Although I felt this was boring, it was still superior to being bored with nothing to do. However, unexpectedly, Sir Jiang was really a unique talent. He did not have me memorize and recite the Four Books and Five Classics,3 nor did he have me compose poetry and write essays. He said that it was useless learning these as I was a descendant of an influential family and there was no need for me to take part in the imperial examinations. He first lectured on the Analects, transforming what was otherwise a tedious and dreary discourse into something endlessly interesting. After that, he lectured me on the histories. He did not lecture directly from the text, instead only telling me historical stories, mixing in his own views and understanding, as well as some of the unofficial histories and popular legends. From that point on, I would spend every morning listening to his stories. When he saw that I was fond of the art of war, he lectured me on military strategies and tactics and battles. I do not know how he knew so much, especially as it was obvious that he was only a few years older than me. Unfortunately, at the time, I only wanted to have fun, not understanding how precious Sir’s lectures were. It was only afterwards, when I led troops to battle, did I understand the importance of Sir’s teachings. Sadly, at that point, I no longer had the opportunity to ask for Sir’s guidance.
“Yang Xiu, do you understand what kind of person esteemed teacher is? Now, he has already surrendered and pledged allegiance to Great Yong. In the future, we will inevitably meet on the battlefield. You are a storehouse of stratagems. In the future, he will be your opponent. I, alone, am not enough. You need to grasp the opportunity to properly understand him. If you cannot understand your enemy, then there will be zero chance of victory.”
The more he thought, the more Yang Xiu felt his spirits buoyed. He really wished to see the personality of the esteemed teacher of this young general that he himself greatly respected. Therefore, the more time that passed, the more that he worried that Jiang Zhe would refuse to meet them.
Fortunately, after a while, a youthful imperial bodyguard came over and saluted, “General Lu, the major will receive General at the Cold Courtyard. Daren only recently recovered from his injuries so it is inconvenient for him to come out to greet you, thus dispatching Huyan Shou to come forward in greeting.”
Lu Can glanced at the youthful imperial bodyguard, seeing that although his appearance was plain, his eyes radiated light and his hands were broad and large, having prominent knuckles and a muscular figure. He was definitely someone who practiced an external martial arts style. However, his movements did not disturb the dust as he passed. His martial arts had clearly already been brought to the peak of perfection. From his tall and straight body, one could detect a faint bloodlust. He was definitely a warrior who had spent an extended period of time in the military. One could see the Prince of Yong’s high regard for the teacher from the assignment of this man as an imperial bodyguard. Lu Can smiled and replied, “We’ll have to bother Imperial Bodyguard Huyan to lead the way.”
Lu Can and Yang Xiu followed Huyan Shou for some time before they finally arrived at a secluded and remote courtyard. Seeing the inscription above the entrance, Lu Can knew that he could finally see Jiang Zhe. Huyan Shou greeted four of his colleagues guarding the entrance to the courtyard before leading the two guests into the courtyard. Immediately when they entered the courtyard, Lu Can was greatly shaken. Although he couldn’t see them, he could faintly discern that there were concealed guards stationed at all the crucial points in the courtyard. And though he couldn’t see these individuals, from the concentrated killing aura he could sense, the imperial bodyguards here were at the very least of the same standard as Huyan Shou. It seemed like the Prince of Yong truly highly valued this esteemed teacher of his.
The two had followed Huyan Shou for quite some time. After being invited into the reception pavilion, they immediately caught sight of the seated Jiang Zhe and Xiaoshunzi standing behind him.
Yang Xiu boldly looked over, seeing that there was a pale and lean youth seated behind the table. This youth wore a set of pale azure robes, his hair held in place by a hairpin and a snow-white headscarf. He sat there leisurely, his expression placid. If one couldn’t discern his wan and sallow appearance, there were no other signs that he had just been brought back from the brink of death. Yang Xiu sighed with admiration in his mind. He had originally believed that Jiang Zhe would inevitably treat Lu Can extremely coldly as he had nearly been assassinated by a Southern Chu assassin. Yang Xiu did not know that someone else was responsible for the near success of the assassination. The truth had already been covered up. To outsiders, even the Prince of Yong stated that the assassin was from Southern Chu. After all, there was no one willing to allow Great Yong’s internal strife to disseminate to the outside world. Because of the reality of what had happened, although Jiang Zhe was extremely disappointed at Southern Chu’s actions, he did not completely detest Southern Chu.
I glanced at Lu Can. He appeared to be steadier compared to our last meeting. Presumably, he had matured greatly after taking responsibility for a section of Southern Chu’s defenses. I rose to my feet. With a smile, I said, “Young Marquis, you seem to have become more majestic since our previous meeting some time ago.”
Lu Can stared blankly at me when he caught sight of me, only returning to his senses when he heard me speak. He promptly stepped forward. Kneeling to the ground, he declared, “Disciple formally pays my respects to respected teacher.” His tone surprisingly was choked with emotion. I knew that he grieved for my current appearance. Even I felt that my appearance had greatly changed when I looked at myself in the bronze mirror. This was something that I was helpless to change. I was already greatly fortunate to preserve my life; how could I dare to have extravagant demands? In any case, I should be able to restore my health in a year or so.
I raised my hand and stated, “Please quickly rise, Young Marquis. No, that’s not correct. You already are a major commander of Southern Chu. I should call you General Lu, instead. Jiang Zhe was only General’s teacher for only a few days, how dare I accept such heavy reverence?”
Lu Can’s frame of mind had already calmed down, and he quietly replied, “Back then, this disciple was naughty and mischievous, and did not know the significance of respected teacher’s instructions. It is now too late for regrets. I only ask that respected teacher do not decline. This disciple will not use our relationship to force respected teacher to do anything out of ordinary.”
With a slight, wry smile, I observed, “You are still so frank. Fine, I don’t want to argue with you. Come, rise. I haven’t eaten breakfast yet, how about accompanying me?” Turning to regard Yang Xiu, I asked, “This is?”
Lu Can rose to his feet, answering, “This is an adjutant under this disciple, Yang Xiu.”
Yang Xiu stepped forward and gave his salutations. “Jiang daren’s reputation has precedes him. This lowly official pays my respects.”
When I was about to step forward to raise him from his bow, I felt my heart ache in pain. I could only furrow my brows and speak, “Please forgive this lowly official for being unable to return your courtesy. Adjutant Yang, please take a seat.”
Catching sight of beads of sweat appearing on Jiang Zhe’s forehead, Yang Xiu promptly replied, “Daren’s health is still bothersome. There is no need to be overly courteous.”
The three of us all sat down. Xiaoshunzi personally brought three bowls of congee. With a smile, I stated, “This congee is specially and meticulously prepared medicinal cuisine. Inside is added nourishing medicine. How about having a taste?”
Lu Can stood to take the proffered bowl. He was aware of what had happened. A few days ago, this Li Shun had killed Vicious Killer at a ferry crossing along the Yangtze River. Before he had pledged allegiance to the Prince of De and lived in secret, Vicious Killer was one of the top experts of Southern Chu. This time, after nearly successfully assassinating Jiang Zhe in the Prince of Yong’s residence and fighting his way for over a thousand li to try and escape from Great Yong, his reputation had skyrocketed. Surprisingly, he had been killed by this youth on a moonlit night along the shore of the Yangtze River. In one night, Li Shun’s name spread throughout the world. As a result, Lu Can did not dare to slight him.
Yang Xiu also rose to take the proffered bowl of congee. He could not help but glance at Jiang Zhe. What was so special about this thin and weak youth that he actually had this kind of expert willing to serve as his attendant?
Seeing them so awkward, I could not help but smile, inquiring, “This time I have heard that you, Lu Can, are Southern Chu’s primary envoy. Presumably, you already have an overall plan? How I can help?”
Lu Can blushed slightly, before his face quickly regained its usual color. Respectfully, he responded, “Although Southern Chu has lost, with the ascension of a new monarch to the throne, everyone is of one mind and our military forces are ready. Therefore, although we are willing to vassalize to sue for peace, we hope that Great Yong won’t be excessive in their demands for gold and silk. Moreover, we hope to ransom our King Emeritus and all of our civil and military officials. It is only that this matter requires the approval of the Great Yong’s military. His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong is the most important player in this regard. Therefore, this disciple must learn His Imperial Highness’s intentions.”
I tranquilly replied, “The negotiations will be handled by ministers of court. Who would dare to guess the intentions of His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong? Further, His Imperial Highness has no intention of making things difficult for Southern Chu. You are being overly anxious. I do not pay much attention to these matters. You have come to the wrong place.”
Lu Can knew that Jiang Zhe was only making excuses. Just as he was about to continue to speak, a clear and bright voice came from the outside. “How can you say they came to the wrong place? Were it not for General Lu coming here to see you, this Prince would definitely not let Southern Chu off lightly.”
So speaking, Li Zhi led Gou Lian into the courtyard. Lu Can and Yang Xiu both rose to their feet to extend their greetings. Li Zhi smiled and said, “General Lu, this Prince had the fortune of meeting your father, Duke Lu, once. I have long heard that Duke Lu had a tiger for a son. Meeting you today, that reputation is fully justified. My third brother wrote me a letter stating that General Lu deploys troops like a god. He respects you highly.”
Lu Can calmly replied, “This lowly general is only relying upon Father’s prestige. Your Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong, is the true master of warfare. How can the light of a firefly compare with the splendor of the luminous moon?”
Li Zhi sat down and smoothly remarked, “This Prince understands that it is imperative for the relationship between our two countries to be repaired. However, your distinguished country arrogated the title of emperor without regard for the relationship between liege and vassal, causing my Great Yong to send a righteous punitive expedition. Although your distinguished country suffered heavy losses, you should by rights pay reparations and cede territory. As for ransoming captives, this Prince does not have any opinion. How big of a ransom is your distinguished country willing to pay?”
Properly, Lu Can responded, “Although there are matters in which Southern Chu was in the wrong, your distinguished country’s Prince of Qi also sent troops to violate our borders. Your Imperial Highness captured Jianye, taking captive my King and his ministers, as well as snatching away countless quantities of gold and silk. Now that my entire country is of one mind, if your distinguished country continues to bully and humiliate us, although we are a small and weak country, we will still fight to the bitter end. The relationship between Southern Chu and Great Yong is not only one of subject and lord, but also familial. Your distinguished country has long intended to invade and occupy our lands. Although we have been forced to bend our knees and sue for peace, we will not permit your distinguished country to make endless demands. My country’s new sovereign has already ascended to the throne. The former King is already a commoner. If your distinguished country wishes to keep him, you can do as you please. The former King and your distinguished country’s Princess Changle are still husband and wife. For a son-in-law to rely upon his father-in-law is proper and right.”
Li Zhi brightened. With a smile, he declared, “You speak correctly. Truly a young hero! Southern Chu has so many geniuses. You have this Prince’s respects.” Afterwards, he meaningfully said, “This matter can be discussed. Although this Prince cannot make decisions, I will not make things difficult for General Lu.”
偷天换日, toutianhuanri – idiom, lit. to engage in fraudulent activities; skullduggery
狼吞虎咽, langtunhuyan – idiom, lit. to wolf down one’s food; to devour ravenously, to gorge oneself
四书五经, sishu wujing – the Four Books, refers to Great Learning (大学), Doctrine of the Mean (中庸), the Analects (论语), and Mencius (孟子); the Five Classics refer to the Classic of Poetry (诗经), the Classic of History (书经), the Classic of Rites (礼记), the Book of Changes (易经), and the Spring and Autumn Annals (春秋); these books form the basis of traditional Confucian canon and the core value and belief system of Confucianism