Eighth Year of Xiande.1 Midsummer.
The round-collared robe2 of the Secretary of the Ministry of Revenue, Wang Xian, was drenched in sweat. He sat uncomfortably on the chair as if he was sitting on pins and needles. It was not the first time he raised his wusha hat3 to wipe his sweat.
“Your Excellency Xiao.” Wang Xian hemmed and hawed. “It’s, it’s not that the Ministry of Revenue doesn’t want to allocate the funds to you. It’s just that the expenditure of the treasury has yet to be tallied, and Pan-gonggong up there has not given his endorsement. There’s really no way we can allocate you the sum!”
“It takes time to work out the accounts.” Xiao Chiye held up the teacup to take a few sips. “Am I not waiting here now? Take your time.”
Wang Xian’s throat throbbed. He looked at Xiao Chiye, who was as cool as a cucumber, and at the Imperial Army standing still on the veranda outside.
“Your Excellency.” Wang Xian said almost pleadingly. “The weather is hot, and I feel really bad to let the soldiers stand outside. Let me invite the various gentlemen for some cold drinks. The ice in reserves—”
“We have not made any contribution to deserve it.” Xiao Chiye smiled superficially. “Our Imperial Army are sturdy and burly men who deal with manual labor. So what’s the harm in standing for a few hours? Pay it no mind, Your Excellency. Focus on your accounting.”
Wang Xian grasped the account book. For a long time, he could not bring himself to lower the brush.
That had been the beginning of spring, and the Emperor was seriously ill. For this reason, the Empress Dowager instructed men to carry out large-scale construction in the palace to build a temple so that she could chant the scriptures to accumulate blessings for him. The Ministry of Works, having received this assignment, had to receive large quantities of lumber from Duanzhou. To save money, they ordered the Imperial Army to transport them. The Imperial Army transported the lumber into Qudu, but the Empress Dowager withdrew her plan to build the temple upon receiving Secretariat Elder Hai’s memorial against it. The Ministry of Works was thus short of this sum of money on hand. For two months, they had dragged this matter on, delaying settlement of payment to the Imperial Army.
Money was in short supply. If this had been a time where the state treasury was full, then this matter would not have been an issue at all. Who would be willing to offend Second Young Master Xiao for such a small sum? But right now, the Ministry of Revenue was suffering themselves. Last year, they had spent almost a million for the Empress Dowager’s birthday just by hosting the banquet and giving out monetary rewards alone.
Wang Xian set aside his brush. He might as well stick his neck out. He said, “Your Excellency, there’s no way the money can be settled now. To tell you frankly, the expenditure at the end of the year doesn’t match up to our budget going by the current accounting. Even our salaries might not necessarily get paid out. We really have no money. Even if you give me, Wang Shoucheng,4 a stab today, there’s still nothing I can do!”
“The salaries and provisions of the Eight Great Training Divisions are paid out as usual without delay. But when it comes to our Imperial Army, you are always desperately broke. We are all officials serving the Emperor. It serves me, Xiao Ce’an,5 right to be so lowly that all I can do is to hold on to this debt and wait for you guys to have enough money to pay us.” Xiao Chiye threw the teacup onto the table with a “clatter”. “The Ministry of Revenue cries about being poor every year. But what has it got to do with me? Pay up, and we’ll work. It’s all down in black and white. Once we are done with our tasks, you have to settle the payment. Don’t talk to me about anything else; those aren’t my responsibility. If all the problems of the Ministry of Revenue have to bank on the understanding of others, then what else is there for you people to do? Vacate the position earlier and let someone else take over.”
His words turned Wang Xian’s expression livid. Wang Xian stood up and said, “Since we are all serving the Emperor, then why does Your Excellency have to push us into such a tight corner? Who would be unwilling to settle the payment if we have the money? If the Imperial Army is so capable, then why do manual labor? Go serve as the Eight Great Training Divisions too! We’ll see who would still not dare to pay up!”
Just as the atmosphere was hostile between both parties, a man outside the room lifted his robe and strode in.
“There’s no need for Your Excellency Wang to get angry. The Second Young Master is just being a forthright man speaking his mind.” He took off his zheyang hat,6 wiped his hands with a handkerchief, and said, “This humble one is the Chief Supervising Secretary from the Office of Scrutiny for Revenue,7 Xue Xiuzhuo. I’m here regarding this account.”
The Chief Supervising Secretary of the Office of Scrutiny for Revenue was merely a seventh-grade8 position. By all reasonings, it would not even be considered an official in Qudu. But it was special. Not only could he supervise the work progresses of the various ministries and yamen, he could also participate in the reviews and appraisals of the officials’ virtuous achievements that took place every six years at Qudu’s Chief Surveillance Bureau.9 Furthermore, he could sidestep the Six Ministries to submit a memorial directly to the Emperor himself.
Wang Xian could not afford to offend him, so he swallowed his anger and rolled along with it. He said, “How would I dare to get angry? The Imperial Army has done so much. I myself wouldn’t want His Excellency Xiao to have worked for nothing. But Yanqing, take a look at this account. The Ministry of Revenue can’t afford the funds at all.”
Xue Xiuzhuo’s courtesy name10 was Yanqing, and he looked particularly scholarly and refined. Without looking at the accounts, he said to both men, “I’m aware of the Ministry of Revenue’s difficulties. Second Young Master, how about this? Quancheng supplied us with a batch of silk a few days back. We’ll have it converted into cash and settle your account with the same number of silk. Does that work for you?”
As soon as Xiao Chiye left, Wang Xian’s expression turned cold. He said to Xue Xiuzhuo, “Is he even asking money for the Imperial Army? More like he’s taking it for himself to squander away. Ever since this Second Young Master took up the post of Imperial Army Viceroy, he has been leading a life of debauchery all day long. Every time, he coerces us into a corner. He’s not in the least bit sympathetic!”
Xue Xiuzhuo smiled and said nothing to continue the conversation.
◈ ◈ ◈
Xiao Chiye left the Ministry of Revenue office and mounted his horse to head for Donglong Street. He was obviously taller than he was five years ago, and the drive and vigor that could be seen in him in the past has diminished some.
The Prince of Chu, Li Jianheng, had been waiting for him an entire morning. On seeing him, he hurriedly said, “Where the heck have you been? The anxiety is killing me!”
“Fooling around.” Xiao Chiye sat down and gulped down the cold drink. On seeing the basin of ice in the inner part of the room, he stretched out his limbs and lay down on the Arhat bed.11 He said, “This is so comfortable. It’s so hot outside it makes my head spin. I’m going to sleep for a while.”
“That won’t do!” Li Jianheng waved his moso-bamboo fan vigorously. With his clothes spread open, he sighed. “Wait for me to finish saying my piece before you sleep!”
Xiao Chiye had been up to something at night, and so he was unbearably tired and sleepy at the moment. He let out an absent-minded “hmm”.
Li Jianheng took a sip of the iced wine with his pampered, delicate hands and said, “Do you still remember that woman I told you about the last time? It’s the one I kept five years ago in my manor and was prepared to take her as mine. But that son of a bitch, Xiaofuzi, took her to give12 to Pan Rugui, that castrated bastard!”
Xiao Chiye uttered an “oh”.
Li Jianheng said with even more gusto, “A few days ago, I went away to avoid the summer heat and saw her again around the manor! That little lady has kept herself so smooth and tender. She looks even more lovely than she was five years ago. My heart goes into overdrive just by looking at her. How I hate those eunuchs! Thieving son of a bitch wrestled away my love by force and broke up a potentially good marriage. He thinks that’s the end of it? No!”
Xiao Chiye yawned.
Li Jianheng fumed, “Are you my buddy or not? You have to help me think of a way to fix him! We can’t touch Pan Rugui, but Xiaofuzi needs a thrashing!”
Xiao Chiye was truly tired. He said, “How? Drag him out of the palace?”
Li Jianheng pushed aside the delicate concubine waiting on him and shut his fan. He said, “The Dragon Boat Festival13 is around the corner. His Majesty wants to go to Xiyuan14 to watch the dragon boat race. When the time comes, Pan Rugui will no doubt go along. If he follows, so will Xiaofuzi. When the Directorate of the Imperial Stables are racing horses, we can lure him out and beat him to death!”
Xiao Chiye seemed to be asleep. Seeing his silence, Li Jianheng said, “Ce’an, are you listening?”
“It won’t do to beat him to death.” Xiao Chiye said with his eyes shut. “If Pan Rugui comes to hate you because of this, all you’ll be having in the future is trouble.”
Resentful, Li Jianheng said, “Then we can at least give him a beating, right? If I don’t vent this anger, I won’t even be able to eat. That said, what’s up with you lately? You always look exhausted. What have you been doing at night? Why did you send away the virgin I picked for you the last time?”
Xiao Chiye said nothing more as he waved his hand to indicate his awareness of Li Jianheng’s words. There was no bone thumb ring on his thumb, but the teeth marks on his purlicue15 had left scars. Li Jianheng went on to speak about something else, but Xiao Chiye turned a deaf ear to it all.
◈ ◈ ◈
It was the Dragon Boat Festival a few days later. Emperor Xiande, who had not held court sessions for a long time, braced his sickly body and moved to Xiyuan in an imperial carriage. The imperial concubines accompanying him all donned muslin clothes, while Ji Lei and the Commander-in-chief of the Eight Great Training Divisions, Xi Gu’an, escorted the Emperor. The Imperial Army had free time, so they summoned Xiao Chiye over as well.
By the time Xiao Chiye arrived, it was already full of people. Emperor Xiande finished sticking in the willow16 and was waiting for the Directorate of the Imperial Stables to start the horse race. The Court of Imperial Entertainments, which was also part of the retinue, served sticky rice dumplings17 and pastries near the seat. Li Jianheng stayed on the Prince’s seat and waved his hand at Xiao Chiye.
Xiao Chiye threw his horsewhip to Chen Yang behind him and entered his seat while undoing his arm guards.18
Still weighing the bamboo fan in his hands today, Li Jianheng said, “Why are you here only now? The anxiety is killing me!”
Xiao Chiye said, “You’re anxious every day. Are you really alright?”
Li Jianheng fanned himself and said, “I’m just used to saying it! Look, see that? Xiaofuzi is serving over there. “
Xiao Chiye looked and saw Xiaofuzi beaming as he spoke beside Pan Rugui’s ear. He said, “Don’t charge up later. Just get someone to beat him up.”
An hour later, Xiaofuzi stepped at the edge of the latrine pit. He was preparing to relieve himself when everything went black before his eyes as someone threw a sack over him.
“Eh!” Xiaofuzi shrieked, wanting to shout, but someone dealt him a punch so hard that he saw stars.
On seeing the sack, Li Jianheng lifted his robe without demur and kicked him. Xiaofuzi, covered with the sack and gagged, groaned in pain as he writhed on the ground.
The race ahead was at its most crucial juncture right this moment, so no one heard the sounds.
They beat up Xiaofuzi for a little less than an hour, but before Li Jianheng could vent all his pent-up anger, Chen Yang stopped him. Chen Yang shot a glance at the guards from the Prince’s Residence behind him, and they quickly lifted the sack and darted off.
“Your Highness.” Chen Yang said, “He will die if you continue beating him. Perhaps next time.”
Li Jianheng pulled on his robe to adjust it. He took two looks at Chen Yang and asked, “Where are you going to throw him?”
“The Viceroy has ordered us to throw him in the woods beside the lake. Once the banquet starts later, all the serving eunuchs will pass by, and he will then be freed of his bindings.”
Li Jianheng spat at the spot where Xiaofuzi had rolled about earlier and returned to his seat.
◈ ◈ ◈
By the time the banquet started, Li Jianheng had already forgotten all about him. Xiao Chiye kept his eyes open as he looked over at Pan Rugui, but he did not see any signs of Xiaofuzi.
Li Jianheng picked up the dishes with his chopsticks and said, “Most probably, he found it humiliating and ran back to change his clothes. Eunuchs like them who serve the Emperor fear getting dirty and disdained by their master the most. Do you want to go to my manor a few days later for some fun? I can let you see the little lady too. “
Xiao Chiye drank the cold tea and said, “I’m busy.”
Li Jianheng let out a “heh” and said, “You still want to put on an act before me? You, busy? The Imperial Army is almost on the verge of getting disbanded. What’s there to be busy with in such an idle position?”
“Busy drinking.” Xiao Chiye laughed too. Those eyes of his stared at the tea in his hand. His side profile looked a tad flippant. “Once autumn arrives, it’ll be the inspection. It’s only by treating others to some wine that I can secure this idle position.”
“Being human,” Li Jianheng pointed at him with his chopsticks and said, “is to treat yourself as if you are living a life of luxury and to live life as if you are whiling the time away. What did they say about the Pan Rugui and those relatives of the Empress Dowager? Aren’t they tired of fighting one another to the death? What’s the joy in that?”
“Yeah.” Xiao Chiye’s smile grew wicked, “Isn’t that just making yourself more stressed and vexed? Having fun is still the most gratifying.”
Li Jianheng looked at that gaze of his and smiled too. He said, “So what’s with the Censorate? Who dares to deny my buddy his post? You were personally appointed by His Majesty. We are loafing around on imperial orders. How about this? Before autumn, I’ll host a flower appreciation feast at my residence. You go ahead and invite them all.”
“No hurry.” Xiao Chiye surveyed Xiyuan and saw the Hall of Zhao Zui Temple at the corner of the rising and falling tiers of eaves. He frowned and said, “This place is pretty near to Zhao Zui Temple.”
“You’re still thinking about it, huh.” Li Jianheng said, “That thumb ring has been lost for so long.”
Xiao Chiye stroked his thumb out of habit.
“That last member of the Shen Clan has been locked up for five years, and there has been no news of him. His Majesty has never even asked if he has died or gone insane.” Li Jianheng said, “If the one imprisoned inside was me, I’d have gone crazy in just half a month, let alone five years.”
Xiao Chiye’s purlicue ached. He had no wish to bring up that man.
Just then, the sound of drums rose by the side of the lake. Li Jianheng threw aside his chopsticks and rose to his feet to urge him on. “Let’s go! The dragon boat race. They are certain to bet money on it!”
Xiao Chiye was about to get up, but then he saw Ji Lei hurried his way through the crowd and leaned over to Pan Rugui to say something to him. Pan Rugui suddenly turned his head over for a fleeting instant. And then he slapped down heavily on the table.
Xiao Chiye immediately looked at Chen Yang behind him.
Stunned, Chen Yang said, “Vice…”
“Your Majesty!” Ji Lei was already kneeling before the Emperor. He spoke in a clear voice. “I’m afraid it’s not possible to go ahead with the dragon boat race. This humble subject led the Imperial Guards on patrol earlier, and we unexpectedly fished out Xiaofuzi, who was on duty in the imperial palace, from the water!”
Emperor Xiande coughed violently and Pan Rugui stepped forward to stroke his back. It was only when Emperor Xiande’s coughing eased a little that he asked, “What is he doing in the water?”
Ji Lei raised his head. One could not tell if he was looking at Emperor Xiande or the Empress Dowager. He said in a heavy voice, “He drowned.”
A commotion rose from the entire seat of imperial concubines as they used their silk handkerchiefs to cover their mouths.
All at once, Li Jianheng knocked over the teacup on the table. He picked it up in a panic and looked at Xiao Chiye. “I was merely just saying…”
Timeline from the Third Year of Xiande to the Eighth Year of Xiande at the start of this chapter is exactly five years.
- This is the name of an era during which a specific Emperor (Emperor Xiande, in this case) reigned.
团领衫 or 圆领袍 round-collared robe/attire typically worn by officials in the Ming Dynasty.
- 乌纱帽. Wusha hat, or black gauze hat, is the headwear of Ming dynasty officials, consisting of a black hat with two wing-like flaps of thin, oval-shaped boards on each side. (See image in the previous footnote)
- 王宪 Wang Xian (name) vs. 王守成 Wang Shoucheng (courtesy name)
- 萧策安 Xiao Ce’an, is Xiao Chiye’s courtesy name.
遮阳帽 zheyang hat; a ‘sunshade’ hat typically worn by the literati, or scholar-official.
- 户科 Office of Scrutiny for Revenue, one of the Six Offices of Scrutiny (六科) that was set up to inspect and supervise the Six Ministries (in the Ming Dynasty, these were respectively the Ministry of Personnel, Revenue, Rites, War, Justice, and Works).
- 七品 Officials were classified in nine hierarchic grades, with grade one being the highest rank. Their salaries ranged according to their rank.
- 都察院 Chief Surveillance Bureau, also known as the Censorate. (I’ll use both terms interchangeably). The Chief Surveillance Bureau was directly responsible to the Emperor, and their tasks involved impeaching officials for misconduct, checking judicial records, and making regular and unannounced inspections. While disciplining and impeaching corrupt officials, it also cooperated with the Ministry of Personnel to assess whether officials were able and deserving of promotion.
- 表字 A literary name or courtesy name, also known as a style name, is a name bestowed upon one at adulthood in addition to one’s given name.
罗汉床 Arhat bed is a kind of a long and narrow wooden couch that also functions as a bed (榻). The arhat bed is distinguished by railings around the back and sides of the platform.
- 孝敬 showering gifts on one’s superior, mostly to curry favor or bribe them.
端午 Dragon Boat Festival, also known as Duanwu Festival, is a folk festival with traditional customs such as dragon boat racing, eating sticky rice dumplings (zongzi) and so on.
- 西苑 literally west gardens. 苑 is a garden or imperial enclosed ground for growing trees, keeping animals, etc.
虎口 i.e the purlicue. the area between the thumb and forefinger.
- 插柳 There’s actually a saying “清明插柳，端午插艾”, Stick in the Willows during Qingming (Tomb Sweeping Day) and Mugwort during Duanwu (Dragon Boat Festival). But in some parts of China (e.g. the northwest), it’s a common practice to hang up willows during the Dragon Boat Festival (Duanwu) to ward off evil and sickness. In the eyes of the ancients, mugwort and willow branches both have the same function of warding off evil.
角黍 jiaoshu, also known as 粽子 zongzi, a pyramid-shaped dumpling made of glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves (eaten during the dragon boat festival)
- 臂缚 Iron armor that ancient soldiers tied to their arms to protect against blades.