There was no place for women in the imperial court.
Feudal ethics1 drove them into the lady’s chambers, becoming fragile objects in the small courtyard of their living quarters, cared for in every way by their husbands and servants, parents and children. They were porcelain vases to be appraised for their value as they waited to be married off; they did not need lofty aspirations.
The Empress Dowager, Hua Hewei, was from an illustrated clan. She was a legitimate daughter of direct descent born to the principal’s wife of the Hua clan. Before she came of age, she had never seen the world beyond the walls of her quarters, and after she came of age,2 she was still bound within the confines of her courtyard. She wrested away the most supreme power and authority of this world from her husband’s hands, yet she never strode a step beyond that line; instead, she let down the beaded curtain and sat cautiously with her back straight behind it.3
Commander-in-chief, Qi Zhuyin, similarly came from a distinguished background. She was the legitimate daughter of direct descent born to the principal’s wife of the Qi clan, a military family of generals. Before she went to war, she was betrothed to another, but after she went to war, no one dared to marry her. She never got the conferment she deserved, only the concession before Yulong Terrace.4 The Ministry of Rites said that she was not worthy of enjoying the posthumous privilege of being enshrined and worshiped by the Imperial Ancestral Temple after death. The name, Qi Zhuyin, had been, to date, branded as the little girl of Qidong. If only Qi Shiyu’s sons had lived up to expectations, the position of commander-in-chief of the military forces would never have come to fall upon her shoulders.
Xue Xiuzhuo initially did not have the thought to support and assist Ling Ting to the throne. That acute disappointment when he found out that the imperial heir was a girl made him change his strategy right at once, but then, he changed his mind when he saw Ling Ting.
Because Ling Ting resembled Emperor Guangcheng way too much.
Any long-time minister who was old enough to have seen Emperor Guangcheng before could tell Ling Ting’s origins at a glance—this was an aberration the result of incest within the Li clan.
When the Eastern Palace fell from power during the reign of Yongyi, the only reason for Emperor Guangcheng to leave the palace was to pay a visit to Prince Qin – who had taken ill – and his beautiful, defenseless wife. Emperor Guangcheng did not have any imperial concubine who was in his favor during the later years of the reign of Yongyi. After he fell ill, the empress, Hua Hewei, took control of the former imperial court and harem to prevent him from begetting another imperial heir. It was under these layers of walls around him that Emperor Guangcheng set his eyes on his daughter-in-law.
A pity Princess Consort Qin gave birth to a girl.
Like an old lion who had exhausted every bit of his energy, Emperor Guangcheng did not even lift an eyelid when he learned of this news and subsequently lost all the lofty aspirations he once harbored. No one knew if Prince Qin had caught some wind of it, but it was not long before he passed away from his illness. Before his death, he threw Ling Ting out of Qudu. However, it seemed to be fated that Xiangyun would come across her and bring her back.
When Xue Xiuzhuo had just found Ling Ting, she was uncouth in behavior and was already in her teens. Pulling her back onto the seat of the imperial heir would be an impossible task without the determination to transform her from inside out. At first, it was tough. She had wasted too much time in Xiangyun Villa. If she herself were not resolute enough to erase all those superfluous traces on her completely, then it would have been undoable even if Xue Xiuzhuo had superhuman powers.
But Ling Ting actually “corrected” herself, one step at a time. Little by little, she scraped all those vulgar and frivolous things off herself. At first, there were plenty of words she could not read, so she studied hard through the nights. Strokes she could not write well, she would practice them day and night. She seemed to be the last remaining bit of strength Heaven left for the Li clan’s empire. She allowed Xue Xiuzhuo to see a faint glimmer of light in that deteriorating situation.
A few months ago, when the misty rain enveloped the silk-tree blossoms – when Qi Huilian rejected Xue Xiuzhuo in the loft – Ling Ting was sitting upright at the table practicing her writing.
She used so much strength in her writing that she almost broke the paper.
After she was done writing, she turned her head aside to look at the drizzling rain. She watched it for a long time without expression. Xue Xiuzhuo later came over to have a meal with her. She sat in the seat of lower priority and ate her meal with precise table manners. Xue Xiuzhuo was particular about not speaking when eating, so they never talked when they had their meals. After the meal, he would test Ling Ting on her homework. This was the most important event of the day. Ling Ting had to be precise and clear in her answers. Xue Xiuzhuo never scolded her, but he was more exacting on her than anyone else.
“Teacher.” Ling Ting paused for a moment as she lowered her head. “Am I going to have a change of teacher?”
Xue Xiuzhuo put the books in order and said with indifference, “This isn’t a matter for you to think about.”
Ling Ting was silent as she propped herself up. She listened as Xue Xiuzhuo rose to his feet and walked towards the door. She suddenly turned her head aside to look at Xue Xiuzhuo and asked, “Because I’m a woman?”
Xue Xiuzhuo stood still and turned back to look at Ling Ting too. Ling Ting never averted her eyes. She was just as calm as Xue Xiuzhuo.
“I’m a woman.” Ling Ting said. “If the new teacher isn’t willing to teach me for this reason, then I’d like to ask to see him.”
Xue Xiuzhuo turned around again and changed his shoes. The sound of rain outside intensified. He said, “No. You just don’t have the affinity to be teacher and pupil with him. I’ll still continue to teach you.”
“Affinity is the most difficult thing to make do with. Wise teachers are hard to seek. I’m not willing to let a teacher slip by because of this.” Ling Ting had already stood up. “Teacher.”
But Xue Xiuzhuo paid her no heed, nor did she answer her. He lifted the curtain, and the young servant boy waiting on the outside hurriedly held up the umbrella. Without letting the servant touch the books, he went down the stairs and left.
Ling Ting stood where she was and watched through the gap in the same curtain as Xiu Xiuzhuo walked a few steps before he disappeared in the rain. She knew this was a soundless rejection from Xiu Xiuzhuo. No matter what other people thought of Xue Xiuzhuo, he was, in Ling Ting’s eyes, exceedingly calm under that gentle and refined mask of his. He was even a little conceited; he would never open himself up to manipulation by others, and it was rare for him to heed the words of others.
Ling Ting could only let the matter drop. She sat back down, flipped open the essay on contemporary politics that Xue Xiuzhuo had left behind, and copied Xue Xiuzhuo’s characters. But she could never write like him. Because she did not know how to rein herself in diplomatically. Her strokes were just like steel blades that would never go around in circles.
◈ ◈ ◈
Several months later, the scorching sun blazed down upon Yulong Terrace where a densely packed mass of court officials was kneeling. These were officials from humble backgrounds headed by Hai Liangyi. After the sixth month, Han Cheng brought back a boy from his own clan and claimed this child to be a descendant of the Li clan.
Under Yao Wenyu’s meticulous care, Hai Liangyi’s condition took a turn for the better. The first thing he did when he attended court was to reject Han Cheng’s memorial in his capacity as the Grand Secretary of the Grand Secretariat. He also demanded an official verification of his child’s identity. But the emperors of the Li clan were all dead, and it was impossible to determine if this child was a descendant of the Li clan based on the empress dowager alone. Both parties reached a deadlock, with no one willing to make any more concessions.
“I was the Eight Great Training Divisions Vice Commander during the reign of Yongyi, and I was also the top military officer under Emperor Guangcheng’s command. I have a private letter from Emperor Guangcheng entrusting the care of the child to me. Grand Secretary, is this not enough either?” Han Cheng had gained power recently and so dared to refute Hai Liangyi on the imperial court.
Hai Liangyi did not have the same vigor as before after his illness. His heart would palpitate and his hands would tremble just by standing for a few moments. He stepped out and said, “Mere words without a factual basis. If the commander is willing to make the private letter public and hand it over to the Grand Secretariat for examination, then you and I would have no further need to engage in such a war of words on the imperial court.”
Han Cheng sneered inwardly to himself. There was no imperial heir at present, and it was the throne being left vacant that Hai Liangyi should be getting anxious about. For him to be so unwilling to make a concession, he must already have found a candidate. So he said, “The throne has been left empty for more than a month. What is the Grand Secretary still waiting for? The Grand Secretariat has been deliberating over it. Has it still not come up with a solution?”
Hai Liangyi was sweating all over. He felt a stifling oppression in his chest, so he took a short breather before continuing, “We sorted out the clan register and found out that the second son of the former Prince Yan’s grandson born of a concubine is still in Huaizhou. He is a descendant of the Li clan with a traceable lineage. According to the rules, no one else but him is fit to be the current crown prince candidate.”
“Prince Yan was the Prince of Huaizhou during the reign of Wanxuan. His descendants of direct lineage died in battle at Luoxia Pass, and those born of concubines further down are all from the collateral branch of the clan. How can they be called the bloodline of the Li clan if we were really to go into it? The second son of Prince Yan’s grandson born of a concubine is already approaching seventy years of age, so how can he still head the government?” Han Cheng smiled. “Furthermore, it’s a long and bumpy journey. How is he going to stand this kind of physical and mental torment? Grand Secretary, there is simply no way we can discuss this further in detail!”
Both parties stood their ground, with no one backing down. There were still students from the imperial college kneeling outside. The empress dowager listened behind the bead curtains for a moment before saying, “Although this matter is urgent, there is still room for discussion. Secretariat Elder, the Grand Secretariat assists in governmental affairs, and there has never been a time when I do a perfunctory job of matters. If you have objections, you can come over to Mingli Hall to discuss it face-to-face with me. Please get the students to disperse.”
She spoke in a soft voice, but Hai Liangyi could hear the displeasure.
Although Han Cheng went all out to push forth this child, he had always been submitting his memorials in the capacity as the former Vice-Commander of the Eight Great Training Divisions; he never got the officials from the noble clans to second his proposal. This was to, firstly, allow the Han clan to become the only support the new emperor could rely on, and secondly, avoid suspicion.
Avoiding suspicion was exceptionally important.
Hua Siqian and Pan Rugui both failed because they did not know how to avoid suspicion. Forming cliques for one’s selfish ends was a great taboo in the imperial court. It had not been long since the empress dowager took control over the imperial court again. At present, she was just like the emperor. What she could not stand to see was her ministers flocking together to become a force powerful enough to coerce her into making policy decisions. As such, she did not promote officials from humble backgrounds as a gesture of goodwill, nor did she promote officials from the noble clans in order to secure her power. She seemed to understand that Dazhou had already come to a certain point. Instead of pinning her hopes on a puppet like she had done a few years before, she might as well count on herself.
Hai Liangyi was sick for two months, during which officials from humble backgrounds were extremely jittery and on edge. With Kong Qiu and Cen Yu taking the lead, they carried out plenty of discussions in private, and they also repeatedly submitted memorials to ask the empress dowager to let Hai Liangyi return to the imperial court to administer state affairs. Not only that, the students from the Imperial College still had the nerve to engage in idle talks of state affairs. The sixth month had only just arrived, and there were already rumors that the empress dowager had seized power and established herself as the ruler.
The empress dowager did not have any overt discussions with Hai Liangyi, but she increased the frequency of visits paid by the eunuchs. This was a kind of covert prompt. So Hai Liangyi attended court as soon as the sixth month came around, when his illness had just taken a turn for the better. Although he had, in the past decades, asserted that he never was a part of a faction or clique, he had already become the direction in which all the scholars of humble origins in the world looked to. This was a fact he could not deny even if he wanted to. He had already turned into a powerful “force” of sorts.
Hai Liangyi fell ill, and everyone in the world panicked. Hai Liangyi rejected Han Cheng’s memorial, and before the empress dowager gave her reply, the officials and students had already kneeled for a day. Without realizing it, he had become the thorn in the empress dowager’s flesh, far more than the overbearing Han Cheng.
Hai Liangyi braced himself to hang on and said, “The imperial college students have the duty to discuss official affairs to begin with, and the imperial court is a place where the world has their eyes on. It’s only when there are discussions that there can be strategies. Your Majesty heads the administration diligently and attends to affairs personally. Still, officials are appointed to share the burdens of their superiors at the top and oversee the work of their subordinates at the bottom. It’s Dazhou’s blessing that they are concerned about state affairs. What’s more, the matter of the crown prince is not just a family affair. This subject thinks that it’s only by letting them remain here that we can have an open discussion on the issue of the new emperor.”
It was not stuffy and warm in the hall. There were bamboo blinds hanging everywhere to hold in broken blocks of ice. To Hai Liangyi, it was even a little cool. He stood with his head lowered after he was done saying his piece. Behind the beaded curtain, the empress dowager remained silent for a long time. It was only when Hai Liangyi’s legs were aching that she finally answered in an unhurried tone.
“What the Secretariat Elder has said makes sense. In that case, I shall listen to you. As for the matter of the second son of Prince Yan’s grandson, I still have yet to see the clan registry, so it’s inappropriate for me to come to a conclusion. But Han Cheng’s people are already here. Do you want to let the Court of Judicial Review assist in the checks, or would you prefer the Ministry of Justice to do it? I shall do as you say.”
If a character’s reason for appearing is not convincing and their actions are not logical, then it won’t matter if this person is a male or female; it won’t save the story from collapsing. When I first did the mind map of the characters, it occurred to me that the female characters might get discussed. But I didn’t expect discussion about whether the entire book is enough of a serious drama with their presence. When Qi Zhuyin appeared, someone mentioned that she was a self-insert Mary Sue. But actually, in the year before last, I’ve put up a few Qiang Jin Jiu paragraphs on Weibo, and Qi Zhuyin and Ling Ting were among the characters who made an appearance back then. If their appearance makes no sense, would it definitely make sense if I change them to a “he”?
Thank you for reading.
As usual, you are free to dislike the novel or the plot or settings (just stop reading, easy as that) but please refrain from bringing the author personally into tirades. Thank you.
- 天理 “Law/Principles of Heaven” i.e., feudal ethics as propounded by the Confucianists in the Song Dynasty
- 及笄 for a girl to reach the age of fifteen in old days
- i.e., to hold court behind a screen or curtain. A practice in ancient China, where the Empress or Empress dowager was allowed to preside over the imperial court without actually being seen by her subjects since women were prohibited from politics. This would usually be done by a child emperor’s mother, who would serve as regent and rule in place of the emperor. It’s different from actually declaring herself sovereign and ruling as the ‘emperor’ herself.
- For a refresher, see chapter 51