By the time Yu Xiaozai spoke to this point, the tea on the small table had already gone cold. He continued, “I don’t understand. The students were initially so harsh on the officials of humble origins, then why would they flock to Xue Xiuzhuo overnight? Don’t tell me Xue Xiuzhou, who is merely the common son of the Xue clan, would be able to do his best for those from humble families more than Minister Kong from Cangjun Commandery, who has been diligent in administering state affairs? The Grand Secretary went to the trouble to pave the way for us. But who would have expected that it’s still the noble clans who gained the upper hand in the end?”
“Xue Xiuzhuo might not necessarily let the noble clans gain the upper hand.” Xiao Chiye poured cold tea and said, “He struck this round when his opponents were unprepared, and so caught both sides off guard. The empress dowager had been going around in circles with Han Cheng because she had no one in her hands to use. Xue Xiuzhuo obviously had not leaked any words of it to the conservative noble clans headed by the empress dowager. Furthermore, at the time when the former emperor passed away, he had Han Cheng trapped as a pawn. In other words, he had already offended the noble clans, and this is something he knows better than anyone else.”
With a worried frown, Yu Xiaozai said, “I’ve been thinking about it on the way here, but I still can’t figure it out. I don’t understand what his intention is. The foundation of the new emperor is unstable, and she’s a woman to boot. If he did so for merely a moment of power, then even if the Xue clan rises in power, he wouldn’t be able to last long under pressure from the empress dowager and the others.”
Thoughts flashed through Shen Zechuan’s mind. He contemplated it for a moment, then said, “We can’t let go of any clues if we want to probe into a person’s motive. During the reign of Xiande at the Nanlin Hunting Grounds, Hua Siqian was forced into rebelling, and it was Secretariat Elder Hai and Xue Xiuzhuo who masterminded it. At that time, Xue Xiuzhuo held office as the Chief Supervising Secretary in The Office of Scrutiny for Revenue and audited their accounts. You said that Secretariat Elder Hai mentioned this matter before he died in remonstration. Then my guess is that Xue Xiuzhou was aware of the inside story of the Zhongbo troops’ defeat. This was probably the reason he could later go on to join forces and work as one with the Juexi’s Provincial Administration Commissioner, Jiang Qingshan, to investigate and take out Hua Siqian. Looking at it this way, this person is not of the same kind as Wei Huaigu, because he has been striking out the noble clans right from the start.”
“I once heard Xi Hongxuan talking about him. He said Xue Xiuzhuo was busy all day with governmental affairs. After I took office as the Northern Judge of the Imperial Bodyguards, I sorted out the case records the Imperial Bodyguards and the Court of Judicial Review joined forces to investigate. I discovered that he did indeed handle many cases after he was transferred away from the Office of Scrutiny for Revenue to the Court of Judicial Review. Secretariat Elder Hai was an upright person who would never stoop to flattery, and his repeated promotion of Xue Xiuzhuo is not without merit. Even His Excellency Cen has spoken to me many times about Xue Xiuzhuo. His political achievement to date could be said to be outstanding among the up-and-coming talents.”
Enlightened, Yu Xiaozai said, “To tell you the truth, Vice Commander, this is where I can’t figure it out. All along, Xue Xiuzhuo has a good reputation. Even the imperial censors from the Chief Surveillance Bureau hardly have any objections of him. The Chief Surveillance Bureau’s appraisals of him are excellent. This is clear as day to everyone, so I really can’t understand the rationale behind his current actions. Because as we have seen before, he’s not a man like Pan Rugui who would seize the opportunity to get rich.”
Xiao Chiye leaned back slightly and put up his arms. He said to Shen Zechuan, “That’s right. We talked about Xue Xiuzhuo too when we were in Qudu. Yao Wenyu said before that although he was not accepted by Secretariat Elder Hai as his pupil, he was very much in Secretariat Elder Hai’s good books, and this was the reason Secretariat Elder Hai let him hold the crown during Yao Wenyu’s coming of age ceremony. In the first few years when he joined the imperial court, the essays1 he wrote were all on doing away with the prejudiced views of the noble clans in the hope that the imperial college, headed by Hua Siqian, could be restored to its former glory in its heyday during the Grand Preceptor’s time. As you know, other than Hai Liangyi, the Grand Secretariat – as well as the Six Ministries under it – was then composed of officials from noble clans. For a time, priority during the selection of officials in Qudu was given to those from distinguished clans. Even the illiterate thirteenth son of the Hua clan could take up an important post in the Ministry of War and intervened with the Imperial Army’s affairs. Kong Qiu was still stewing in the Ministry of Justice at that time, while Liang Cuishan from the Ministry of Revenue was repeatedly demoted during the same period, with no hope of a transfer and promotion.”
Shen Zechuan nodded his head slowly and said, “The fact that he was able to hold the post of the Chief Supervising Secretary in the Ministry of Revenue at that time is an indication of Hua Siqian’s intention to send him away. The Chief Supervising Secretary is an important post that would give him direct access to the emperor. But at that time, Emperor Xiande was unable to take charge of the government. Hua Siqian, who was in charge of the Grand Secretariat, had the final say over whether he would be able to build up an outstanding track record in this position. It was at this period that Xue Xiuzhuo’s approach to tackling matters began to shift. He went from taking radical measures to keeping a low profile for a time, eventually settling into the way we later come to be well-acquainted with.”
The more Yu Xiaozai listened, the more alarmed he was. He said, “But since he is in the same camp as those from humble origins, why didn’t he get in touch with us? That Han Cheng…”
“He gave the best he could in the incident leading up to Li Jianheng’s ascension to the throne, but very quickly, he came to the realization that Li Jianheng was not bold, decisive, and visionary enough. Back then, Li Jianheng was constantly wavering in the tug of war between several parties, and the officials of humble origins led by Secretariat Elder Hai failed to get rid of the empress dowager.” Shen Zechuan turned his head aside, causing the little jade on his right ear to be obscured by shadows. He continued, “The imperial college students repeatedly mentioned weakness in their attacks of the officials from humble origins. This is probably the reason Xue Xiuzhuo no longer trusts scholars of humble births. Secretariat Elder Hai’s conservative policy allowed Dazhou to survive, but he also gave the noble clans a chance to catch their breath. The noble clans give to one another, like how Wei Huaigu fell this time only for Han Cheng to rise. This is not the result Xue Xiuzhuo wanted—”
Shen Zechuan suddenly stopped and narrowed his eyes.
“No wonder he took Teacher away.”
Qi Huilian was the most important figure of the radicals—those who were in favor of thorough and complete political change. He had been actually working hands-on in the Eastern Palace. The Crown Prince did not live for long, yet he could still accomplish feats such as the registration of the common folks into the census register,2 tapping on the Eastern Palace’s subordinates’ diligence in discharging their official duties and tenacity to forge ahead regardless of public opinions. If Xue Xiuzhuo wanted to change the conciliatory approach during the time Hai Liangyi headed the administration, then he was bound to seek Qi Huilian’s help.
But Qi Huilian declined. So Xue Xiuzhuo handed Qi Huilian over to Han Cheng.
Shen Zechuan pursed his lips tightly. His side profile was cold and detached under the candlelight. He said, “He’d stop at nothing to achieve his aims. This person doesn’t believe anyone else. He still wants to rely on the new emperor to sustain Dazhou, and for this, he does not hesitate to offend the old-school noble clans. He wants to bring in new blood to Qudu and overhaul the system. We defeated Wei Huaigu and the others in Qudu, and their falls have now turned into vacancies in which he can install these new blood. Your Excellency Yu, you’re wrong. It was not how wonderful the emperor’s daughter was that the memorial he presented could move the hearts of all the scholars in the world, but his last sentence.”
There is no law in the world that decreed that priority should be accorded to those of lawful birth and those from distinguished clans during the selection of court officials!
The noble clans’ domination of the upper echelons of the government once again turned Dazhou into an imperial court dominated by the eight clans. The Li clan emperor’s assertiveness, or the lack of it, dictated whether those from humble backgrounds would be able to kill their way out of the heavy siege laid by the eight clans. They underwent a low period during the later years of the reign of Yongyi. This was too long a time. What they desperately needed was a sovereign who was well-disposed towards the scholars of humble origins. Gender did not matter. As long as this person was able to rouse the hearts of the humble scholars, and shoulder the weight of the humble families’ expectations after the successive passing of Qi Huilian and Hai Liangyi, then this person would be embraced.
After the empress dowager took charge of the government, those of humble origins not only had to put up with the intensified ostracism but also the weakness and incompetence of the Li clan’s emperors that had taken firm roots in the minds of the masses. The reason why the students were so harsh on Kong Qiu and Cen Yu was that they could no longer endure the repeated concessions made by the present imperial court. Hai Liangyi, who had endured it for a lifetime, had already died in remonstration, so why must Kong Qiu still keep on enduring? The reform of the world was at hand, right now! Doing nothing was tantamount to a neglect of duty!
But was it really a good time now?
Shen Zechuan thought otherwise.
Why did Hai Liangyi endure it? Because the noble clans had already become a chronic disease of Dazhou. They ought to have scraped the bones and healed the wounds long during the reign of Yongyi. But as it turned out, the troops of Zhongbo suffered a defeat before Hai Liangyi could make his move. Dazhou was just like an old man in his twilight years who was kicked in the waist by another until he coughed out blood. It was hard for the external wounds to recover, and even harder for the internal wounds to heal. Right before his death, he questioned the imperial court, asking if this was everyone’s fault for exacerbating the issue. But did this “everyone” include himself too?
If he had not pushed Hua Siqian every step of the way.
If he had been able to deal with it with a more conciliatory attitude back then.
Would Zhongbo be able to avoid the subsequent tragedy of having its cities massacred?
Hai Liangyi did not know, but this incident directly affected the way he headed the administration in the later period of Emperor Xiande’s reign. He partook in the imperial court with an even more placatory attitude. He did not dare to act rashly again. He had the reckoning and awareness of one mired in the current political situation, but these were things that the fledgling students did not understand.
Perhaps Xue Xiuzhuo did not have the power to guide the direction in which the students of the world moved. But he was no doubt a fisherman standing among the stormy waves trying to figure out the most optimal time to cast his net. This person did not return empty-handed after rolling and crawling in the official circles for many years. He even understood the dispute between the humble scholars and the court officials more than Shen Zechuan did. Since the flames of war of the old clique had already been ignited, then the sparks erupting at present had similarly kindled a fire in those of them who upheld the same ideals.
Xue Xiuzhuo had repeatedly asked to be under Hai’s Liangyi tutelage in a formal teacher-pupil relationship. But he did not get his wish. He eventually turned to Hai Liangyi to ask for help. And still, he failed to get his wish. He seemed to be a rock in the tussle between both parties, destined to use his own method to charge his way out amidst the bloodshed. This was a merciless character who would not even spare himself.
Ruthlessness brimmed in Shen Zechuan’s eyes. He felt as if he had been thwarted. He was driven out of Qudu, like a stray dog with its tail between its legs, beaten to the point he was almost defenseless.
Xue Xiuzhuo was able to forsake Xi Hongxuan instantly at the right time, and he emptied the Xi clan’s silver warehouses before Shen Zechuan made his move. This showed that he had long been preparing for this day. And what had Shen Zechuan been doing at that time? He was still naively thinking that he could rely on his eloquence to drive a wedge between the noble clans, even though it was clear that Xue Xiuzhuo had long revealed his mettle during the Imperial Army’s silk case.
Shen Zechuan had already been defeated once. Since he was still alive, then he had to fight this battle to the end. As someone who had inherited Qi Huilian’s life work, he could not accept himself being dogged by defeat again and again. They had already gone from a battle-free Qudu to the crumbling land of the frontier that was torn apart by disunity. He had to stand up again immediately. Otherwise, there would be no place for him in these turbulent times. There were no weaklings among the up-and-coming talents who were looking on covetously like a tiger eyeing its prey. He had to acquire the rights to challenge the other party before he could sit down and delve further into the topic of beliefs in a calm manner.
Xiao Chiye looked at Shen Zechuan’s silent side profile and suddenly asked Yu Xiaozai, “Have you seen the empress?”
Yu Xiaozai happened to be fishing out the letter Cen Yu wrote to Shen Zechuan from his robe. On hearing this, he gave a start and said, “Not yet. Before I left Qudu, the Ministry of Rites was already starting to prepare for the enthronement ceremony. The empress dowager wanted to summon the emperor’s daughter for a meeting, but Xue Xiuzhuo declined.”
Xiao Chiye’s hanging fingers swayed gently. He said, “Looks like he isn’t that confident of success either. Then let’s wait and see if the empress he has nurtured in four short years is a paper tiger who would topple over at just a touch. I’d like to see just how long she would be able to bluff Qudu.”
Shen Zechuan returned to his senses. After composing himself for a moment, he said, “I just hope she isn’t a second Li Jianheng.”
Xia Chiye was tired from leaning. He straightened up his upper body and asked Yu Xiaozai. “We still don’t know what her name is. If they are going to register her in the imperial registry, then is it possible that she’s called Li Jianting?”
A strange expression came over Yu Xiaozai’s face. He extended his finger to write on the mat, one stroke at a time. “It’s this name all right. But it’s not the same character as the former emperor. Rather, it’s Jianting, with different words. Li Jianting.”3
Taken by surprise, Shen Zechuan exchanged glances with Xiao Chiye.
Will edit later _(: 」∠)_ Also feel free to feedback.
- Specifically essays on current affairs presented to the emperor as advice on government policy
- 黃冊 Huangce, or registers/book served during the Ming Dynasty to provide basic data for taxation and recruitment based on the household’s classification according to their occupation. It was mainly divided into three categories: civilian, military, and craftsman.
- Shen Zechuan initially thought it was written as 李建婷. The Jian is the same as the Jian in Li Jianheng (李建恒) and Li Jianyun (李建云 a.k.a. Emperor Xiande). This is a “generation” name, where each member of the same generation (i.e., siblings and paternal cousins of the same generation) share a common syllable. (For example, in the Xue Clan, this character is “Xiu” for Xiuyi and Xiuzhuo’s generation.) Ting (婷) is a common female name, which is also the same Ting in her original name, Ling Ting (灵婷). However, Yu Xiaozai said it was written as 李剑霆 instead (which sounds more masculine too).