The instant he stopped in the middle of the stage and turned his face, the famous Jiang Niangzi1 was born.
Gasps of admiration from everyone present rang out as they riveted their eyes on him.
Jiang Liang remained composed under the gazes of the audience. He moved the corners of his mouth slightly and curved it into a light smile. It was as if a lantern had illuminated the entire hall.
He gently curtsied to the audience. With a swing of his long flowing sleeves,2 he tossed them into beautiful arcs and made a neat turn. The hem of his dress swirled around him into a shape very much like that of a blooming flower. Then, he began to dance gracefully to the accompaniment of the musical instruments.
The light in Feng Zhuojun’s eyes dimmed. As Jiang Liang’s figure moved, he chewed harder on the red dates in his mouth until he finally gulped them all.
Song Ci was so enthralled that he wanted to find a seat to sit and watch to his heart’s content. Even though he knew that these scenes were illusionary, he was still a part of it and had begun to enjoy himself subconsciously.
However, the good times did not last. Jiang Liang’s dance soon ended. After making a curtsy, he left the stage. The spectators at the bottom yelled out to request another tune from Jiang Liang.
The theater proprietor came on stage. She was a young, plump woman. She waved her round fan3 and smiled at the audience. “Calm down, everyone. Our leading performer will still come on stage again. He just went for a change of costume.”
The plump woman called up a group of maidens dressed in red dresses to perform. This was obviously to keep the audience in suspense. Although some patrons were too impatient to wait, they could not stir up trouble for no apparent reason, so they could only wait while grumbling about it.
Feng Zhuojun set aside the red date he had half-eaten and rose to his feet. Stepping around the audience, he walked towards the three feet stage from the rear. On seeing this, Song Ci hurriedly followed after him.
Following them was the young servant who had been waiting by the entrance. Song Ci walked beside him and noted that he looked somewhat familiar. He seemed to be the man who had previously chatted with him at the tea stall.
So the man had not been joking when he said that he was Feng Zhuojun’s hired thug.
The backstage was not a place anyone could simply access. But the Feng clan was so famous in the City of Qinchuan that the people from the theater recognized him even if he had never been there before. For a moment, no one dared to stop him.
The plump woman who had just come down from the stage saw this and came over to Feng Zhuojun in a fluster. “Young Master Feng, to what do our theater owe the honor of your presence? Where are you going?”
Feng Zhuojun glanced at her and replied frankly, “I’m looking for Jiang Liang.”
“This…” The plump woman was put on the spot. “Jiang Liang is currently changing his costumes. It’s not convenient for him to receive guests. How about…”
Without stopping in his tracks, Feng Zhuojun said, “I just heard that there’s a price on the debut performance of the lead performer?”
She smiled in embarrassment. “That’s true. But that’ll be after the debut performance.”
Feng Zhuojun tapped the fan on his palm and said with a smile, “I have plenty of money.”
The lad behind him was extremely quick-witted. Although he was reluctant, he quickly presented a gold ingot before the plump woman and said dutifully, “Young Master wants to reserve your leading performer’s debut. You can save your bullshit.”
At the sight of the gold ingot, the plump woman’s eyes lit up. She hurriedly took the gold. “It shall be as Young Master Feng says!”
Who would expect Feng Zhuojun to glare at the lad? “Who said I was going to book him?”
Alarmed, the lad snatched the gold back, causing the startled woman to scream out.
Feng Zhuojun said in annoyance. “Give it to her! Why did you get it back?”
The lad could not figure out his young master’s intention. So he could only hand the gold back and looked piteously at Feng Zhuojun as if he was questioning the latter with his eyes.
Feng Zhuojun gave an awkward cough. “I just want to see him.”
Fearing that the young servant would snatch away the gold, the plump woman stuffed it into her bosom and said to Feng Zhuojun, “This way, Young Master Feng. I’ll lead you there.”
Song Ci could not help feeling amused when he saw this. He followed them to Jiang Liang’s room. The plump woman extended her hand to knock twice on the door. “Jiang Liang, stop what you’re doing for the moment and accompany this master.”
There was no sound from the room, but the plump woman said to Feng Zhuojun, “Young Master Feng, you may go in.”
Feng Zhuojun left the lad outside the room and pushed the door to enter by himself. Song Ci made his way inside through an opening and saw all kinds of dresses and costumes, rouge and powder in the room. There was an exquisite bronze mirror on the table. Jiang Liang was sitting in front of the mirror.
Dressed in a red and blue costume, he gently drew the end of his eyebrow before lifting his eyes to look at Feng Zhuojun through the mirror.
His eyes reflected the light from the lantern, like speckles of starlight in a sea of black. Feng Zhuojun was spellbound as Jiang Liang fixed his eyes on him.
Jiang Liang looked at him and raised the corners of his lips to reveal a beautiful yet mocking smile. “You grace us with your presence, Young Master Feng. What can I do for you?”
Feng Zhuojun ordered the lad to close the door and walk slowly towards him. From time to time, he looked at him, but he did not say a word.
Song Ci walked around the room once, suddenly feeling something off.
Why does this scene look so familiar?
“Why are you quiet?” Jiang Liang asked.
Feng Zhuojun walked to his side and folded his arms to lean against the wall. All the while, his lowered eyes were fixed on Jiang Liang’s face.
Feng Zhuojun’s silence made Jiang Liang impatient. He frowned and stood up. A chill crept into his eyes. “Let me guess. Is Young Master Feng thinking why would a man dress up as a woman?”
“Young Master Feng, since you feel disgusted, why come here?” Although Jiang Liang’s face was as delicate as a lady, it was still menacing when laced with anger.
Feng Zhuojun watched with solemn eyes as Jiang Liang stepped closer to him. When he saw Jiang Liang coming to a stop before him, he said, “I came to apologize to you.”
Jiang Liang looked stunned and said ludicrously, “To think there would be a day Young Master Feng would lower his head before effeminate men like us.”
“I wasn’t talking about you.” Feng Zhuojun said in all seriousness.
Jiang Liang looked at him and waited for him to continue.
Feng Zhuojun seemed nervous. He imperceptibly took a deep breath and said to Jiang Liang, “I wasn’t talking about you the day before yesterday on the boat. But it seems like you misunderstood, so I came to explain.”
“That’s not necessary. In any case, it isn’t the first time.” Jiang Liang spaced out for a moment and said, “Furthermore, it’s a known fact that Young Master Feng hates people like us. You don’t have to make a special trip for this.”
“It’s necessary!” Feng Zhuojun blurted it out in a moment of anxiety. After saying so, he added coyly, “In any case, I don’t want you to misunderstand.”
Jiang Liang could not get this young master’s intention either. His face was as confused as the lad earlier.
“Also, earlier on, I heard the people in the city saying that I detest you. I came to clarify that it’s all a rumor. I’ve said nothing like that.” Feng Zhuojun said, “I’ve never said that you were effeminate. I don’t loathe you either.”
“You’re lying.” Jiang Liang said, “Why bother to hide it from me? We are complete strangers. I’ll not use this to vilify you. Disgust is disgust. I can feel it ever since the first time I met you.”
Vexed, Feng Zhuojun paused for a moment before saying, “I was too young then… There’s really no reason for me to lie to you. Everything I’ve said is the truth.”
Jiang Liang, however, did not believe his explanation. He turned his face aside and said, “Whatever you say. You’re the big spender.”
He continued, “If you’re done here, please leave. I still have another performance.”
“Those people at the foot of the stage are all considering the price to buy you once you are off-stage. If you know of this, would you still give all you’ve got to your performance?” Feng Zhuojun asked in a deep voice.
“Of course I know it.” Jiang Liang said. “This is the way it is in this theater. Didn’t you also spend silver in order to stand here and talk to me?”
“What I spent was gold.” Feng Zhuojun corrected. “I can buy you…”
“For your insignificant guilty conscience?” Jiang Liang said with biting sarcasm. “Forget it, Young Master Feng. You don’t owe me anything, so why waste your money? I’d advise you to leave this theater earlier, in case you feel like puking later.”
“I told you I wasn’t talking about you the day before yesterday on the boat!” Feng Zhuojun subconsciously raised his voice.
Song Ci cast a look at Feng Zhuojun and wondered why this person was being so persistent. Wasn’t it good enough to have explained himself? Why insist on making Jiang Liang believe him?
Jiang Liang apparently found Feng Zhuojun unreasonable too. He said, peeved, “Then suit yourself, Young Master. I’m going on stage to perform.”
With that, he turned around to continue tidying up his attire. But Feng Zhuojun suddenly grabbed hold of his wrist and pulled him back. “I handed over the gold, so your time now belongs to me. You still want to perform? Aren’t you afraid that I’ll tear down this theater in a fit of anger?”
Song Ci felt a buzz in his head. No wonder the lad felt that their relationship was bad when they first met. He must have been eavesdropping outside and had heard bits and pieces of their conversation. However, he did not know that Feng Zhuojun had come to apologize to Jiang Liang.
“Then what do you want?” Jiang Liang held his emotions in check. Even though he was angry, he did not show it.
“Why won’t you believe my words?” Feng Zhuojun pouted. He looked a little aggrieved.
“I believe you.” Jiang Liang said, “I believe all your words.”
But it was clear that he did not believe him. Feng Zhuojun gritted his teeth in indignation. He suddenly grabbed Jiang Liang’s face with his hands and bore his lips down on him.
Song Ci, who had been standing and watching at one side, was dumbfounded. This scene caught him off guard, and he did not manage to look away in time. He watched on with fixed eyes as Feng Zhuojun’s domineering kiss landed on Jiang Liang’s lips. He did not even give the latter a chance to resist.
Jiang Liang was stunned too as he let Feng Zhuojun have his way with his lips and lick his alluring rouge clean.
Feng Zhuojun lowered his eyes and pressed his forehead against Jiang Liang’s forehead. The tip of their noses touched. He asked in a hoarse voice, “Do you believe me now?”
Jiang Liang struggled for a moment. “Feng Zhuojun? Have you gone crazy?”
Feng Zhuojun embraced him tightly and said into his ear, “You are the one who forced my hand. I said I didn’t hate you, but you didn’t believe me.”
“It’s fine if others don’t believe me, but you can’t…”
“You clearly know that I’m a man.” For some reason, Jiang Liang stopped struggling. “Didn’t you say…”
“I know. Didn’t you say so before?” Feng Zhuojun thought back to that year and imitated Jiang Liang’s tone. “Jiang Liang is my name. Also, I’m not a maiden… I remember it all.”
“But what can I do even if you aren’t a maiden?” Feng Zhuojun said, “No matter how I restrained myself, there will be a day I cannot hold it back anymore. The reason I’m here is because I have hit my limit.”
“I just want you to know that I don’t detest you. On the contrary, I like you so much that I always stare at you in my dreams. It doesn’t matter whether you are dressed as a woman or if you are in your original appearance as a man. As long as I lay my eyes on you, I can’t look away.”
“Isn’t that just lust at first sight?” Jiang Liang said in a low voice, “How many people are there like you who professed their liking for me merely because of my looks?”
“To tell the truth, I thought it was lust at first sight too. But this went on for too long. That was when I sensed something wrong.” Feng Zhuojun smiled wryly. “Later on, I sorted out my thoughts. I’m merely in love with a man in the role of a huadan,4 a lowly performer. There’s nothing I’ve to hide.”
On hearing this, Jiang Liang began to struggle again. “That’s right. You are a young master, while I’m a lowly performer. We are indeed not well-matched for each other.”
Feng Zhuojun tightened his embrace and stroked his hair with a hand. “In my heart, you are merely Jiang Liang.”
Jiang Liang fell silent. No one spoke for a long time.
Song Ci felt as if he had been struck by lightning as he froze beside them with a look of disbelief on his face. The world turned black before his eyes. In just a split second, he felt as if half of his life had taken leave of him.
- 娘子 Niangzi. it’s a form of address for one’s wife, or a polite form of address for a young woman, i.e. Lady Jiang.
水袖 literally water sleeves. The long, flowing silk sleeve extensions (usually white) in Chinese opera costumes, which are worn by both male and female characters
团扇 Round fan used by ladies.
- 花旦 Huadan. A female role in Chinese opera.