Qiang Jin Jiu – Chapter 146 : Yuanzhuo

Translated with: Jia<3




Shen Zechuan suddenly said, “Ding Tao.” 

Ding Tao kept his little book away and leaped over the obstruction to grab the arm of one of them. “What are you people hiding? Move away for the Young Master to take a look.” 

Fei Sheng noted their shifty eyes and hemming and hawing, so he bellowed, “What? Is this donkey not yours?” 

A sharp-eyed Ding Tao yelled, “Young Master, there’s a man below!”   

The surrounding Imperial Bodyguards stepped forth and encircled them. Most of these people were local ruffians from the city of Dancheng, and they could not help but cower in fear when they saw the hostile expressions of the Imperial Bodyguards, what’s more when these Imperial Bodyguards were also all armed with blades. So before Fei Sheng could give his order, they all dispersed in an uproar, revealing the man on the ground. 

Yu Xiaozai lifted the hem of his robe and moved in closer for a look. He bent over and exclaimed in shock, “Why is there so much blood? Quick, help him up quickly and call for a physician!” 

Fei Sheng squatted down to check on the man. “These legs are a goner. Someone broke them.”

This man refused to look up, instead propping himself up for a moment to say in a hoarse voice, “… The cat is mine.”    

Embarrassed, Fei Sheng picked the cat up and put it before the man, explaining, “I thought it was a stray cat. Is this donkey yours too? You’re not from Dancheng, are you?”  

The man did not answer. He coughed at the ground. As he covered his lips, Fei Sheng caught a glimpse of the handkerchief in his palm. This handkerchief was exquisite. Even though it was dirty, its quality and material were not commonplace. These fingers were long and slender, without any calluses on them; it was not the hand belonging to someone used to manual labor or menial work.  

In an instant, Fei Sheng changed his attitude and said, “Let me help you up. You can no longer walk on these legs of yours, and you are so badly ill. The most important thing at present is to have a physician take a look as soon as possible.” 

The man suddenly clenched his fists, and his coughing intensified. The handkerchief he used to cover his lips was stained with blood. He was clearly in a terrible state, yet his etiquette was impeccable as he lowered his eyes and said, “I wouldn’t dare to trouble you. Thanks for asking.” 

Yu Xiaozai saw the zhaowen bag1 hanging around the man’s waist and realized that this man was a scholar. He could not help but feel more deeply concerned as he turned his head back to say to Shen Zechuan, “Vice Commander, he doesn’t seem to be a wicked person to me. Why don’t we—”   

“Vice Commander?” The man’s tone suddenly changed. “Vice Commander Shen, Shen Zechuan?”   

The surrounding Imperial Bodyguards promptly held on to their blades. Shen Zechuan raised a hand as a gesture for them to hold it and asked, “Are we old acquaintances?” 

The man felt a tidal surge of emotions. He wanted to say something, but he ended up coughing out blood. His Adam’s apple bobbed, and his coughing grew even more intense as his pale, trembling fingers bent and dug into the ground, gouging out tracks while he mumbled over and over again, “Shen Zechuan, it’s you!”

This voice gave Qiao Tianya a sense of déjà vu. He turned around. 

Shen Zechuan slowly crouched down and looked directly at the man. The man moved away the handkerchief covering his lips and propped himself up on the ground with his arms. His eyes seemed to have been set ablaze, filled with the madness of someone who was staking it all on a cast of the dice. He lifted his head. Just as everyone thought he would wail and go hysterical, he let out a very soft laugh. This laugh was like the ripple of spring waters, fleeting and ephemeral, before it quickly plunged into a bottomless abyss of raging inferno, where the fire burned everything clean along with his unbending pride and free spirit, turning an immortal free from worldly cares into a pile of filthy ashes. 

Qiao Tianya recognized him now.

A veil of misty rain descended upon past memories of a pair of like-minded confidantes playing the zither under the willows amidst the lush scenery of spring. That upright, one-of-a-kind young master in green had also ended up with his legs broken by another. Just like that, the unpolished jade that Hai Liangyi and the Yao clan had cherished and treasured for half a lifetime had been so easily besmeared with mud.

Qiao Songyue suddenly felt at a loss. He intuitively felt that he should not continue staring at Yao Wenyu like this, but he once again saw himself in him. They both lived in the Moon Palace.2 Qiao Songyue had descended, and a dashing, fan-holding young master of a prominent clan had turned into a blade-wielding, down-and-out Qiao Tianya. He thought their chance encounter was transient, but he never expected that they would be fellow sufferers commiserating with each other the next time they met again half a year later. 

The word “commiserate” was truly overwhelmingly agonizing.   

Qiao Tianya hastily averted his gaze, unwilling to look any further. 

◈     ◈     ◈

It was already late at night, and the lights inside the house were not very bright. The physician’s apprentice came out with the prescription in hand. Fei Sheng took it and handed it over to his subordinate to fill the prescription of medicinal herbs. The few of them were standing in the corridor. Ding Tao was surprisingly well-behaved as he held that cat in his arms.   

Fei Sheng forced a smile and said to Qiao Tianya, “Who would have expected it to be him? This…”

What was there for him to say?

Stories of the “Unpolished Jade Yuanzhuo” Yao Wenyu had been widely circulating for many years in Qudu, and in all of them, he was hailed as a “banished immortal”3—a wayward genius living among men. Even Fei Sheng, who had never associated with the literati, had heard much of this name. Who would have thought that the free and unfettered wanderer of the rumors would end up in such a state? He was even more downtrodden than Yu Xiaozai when the latter first came. 

Yu Xiaozai had already cried once, and now he was facing the wall, overwhelmed with grief as he choked with sobs, “… How… how can they let the Grand Secretary down?!” 

Fei Sheng consoled in a dry voice, “The way of the world is unpredictable. Youjing, please don’t be too upset.” 

Qiao Tianya leaned against a pillar in the corridor, hidden under the shadows. He did not say a word. 

They had not stood for long when Kong Ling saw the physician out and beckoned to them. Qiao Tianya fell a few steps behind and bowed his head down to ask the physician a few questions. The physician answered him truthfully, and Qiao Tianya fell silent for a few moments, then turned aside to let someone send the physician away. 

The bamboo blinds that had been let down in the room kept out some of the candlelight. The interior had been partitioned off. Shen Zechuan sat outside the partitioned area and said something to Zhou Gui in hushed tones. On seeing them enter, he only said, “Fei Sheng, you will be on night watch. Ding Tao, go back to your courtyard and sleep. Youjing, there’s no need to worry. The kitchen is decocting the medicine as we speak.” 

Yu Xiaozai turned aside to take his seat. After a moment of silence, he spoke, “Young Master Yao…” 

Kong Ling was a perceptive and empathetic man; he knew it was inadvisable to discuss it in detail here. Bemoaning Yao Wenyu’s fate or showing Yao Wenyu pity were, to Yao Wenyu, tantamount to torture at this point; it was no different from death by dismemberment. So he rose to his feet and led Yu Xiaozai. “It’s late tonight. Youjing, Young Master Yao has only just arrived; let him rest for a night. It’s not too late for us to come visit him again tomorrow.” 

With that, he turned back to bow to Shen Zechuan and said to Zhou Gui, “We still have to discuss matters in the study later. Your Excellency, please come with me too.” 

Yu Xiaozai, having received a gentle reminder from Kong Ling, followed suit and rose to his feet to bid farewell too. Before he left, he cast a glance at the inner room and saw the shadows of trees intersecting with the flickering shadows of the candlelight. The man within was silent. Yu Xiaozai thought of Hai Liangyi once more. His eyes involuntarily reddened. Holding back a long sigh, he hurriedly strode across the threshold of the door. 

The night was bleak, and the veil of moonlight cast upon the flowers and plants in the courtyard made them appear sickly and listless. The few wind chimes hanging under the eaves swayed with the wind, dancing to the tinkling tune of metal against metal. Yao Wenyu lay on the couch, his consciousness scattering to the beats of the wind chimes. In his trance, he had returned to Qudu

Misty rain pervaded Qudu

Yao Wenyu donned mourning attire and sent off Hai Liangyi to Mount Bodhi. This mountain was once the burial site of his paternal grandfather, and now, it was the burial site for his teacher. He stood in that drizzle, unable to take in the scenery, unable to recognize the way that could take him back.

The Yao clan had produced national scholars of great talents. They were full of vim in the successive reigns of Dazhou, and they were also the mainstay of the divisive noble clans. But during Emperor Guangcheng’s reign, Old Master Yao revolutionized the clan’s traditions and renounced the prejudices between family status. He reached out to the common descendants of humble origins who were denied opportunities due to a lack of connections to the powerful and influential. From then on, the Imperial College flourished. The Yao clan began exploring a different path, but this path came to a premature end in the hands of the Empress Dowager, Hua Hewei, and Hua Siqian. By the time it came to Yao Wenyu’s father’s generation, the Yao clan was already on the decline. Although the Yao clan still had some influence and prestige left, it was no longer on par with what it once was during the time Old Master Yao had been alive. The most fatal of all was that the Yao clan was faced with a dearth of descendants in this generation—they only had one Yao Wenyu. The rest were all descendants from the collateral branch of the clan, and there was not even one among them who had come out top in the imperial examinations in spring. 

In recent years, the eight clans had all undergone a change in heads and members. The Yao clan was no longer able to command the same level of respect from the others. Most of the juniors in their clan who still served as officials were in idle positions with practically no obligations; none were third-grade ministers in esteemed positions like those from the Wei clan. Although Yao Wenyu was a student under Hai Liangyi and was friends with many of the literati, he had no scholarly honor or official position to his name; he had not married Commandery Princess Zhaoyue of the Fei clan either. Other than the reputation he had for his talent, he had nothing at all, and in the end, even his reputed fame had forsaken him. He was like the falling leaves on this mountain, reduced to nothing but mud. Worthless. 

Qiao Tianya lifted the bamboo blinds and turned sideways to step aside. Shen Zechuan entered the room and sat on the chair that the physician had previously sat on to take pulses. As the candlelight flickered, Shen Zechuan spoke, “You’ve been poisoned by someone, it’s inadvisable for you to stay out in public. If you don’t mind, you can stay at my home. My teacher and yours are considered colleagues, and you are old friends with Ce’an. There’s no need to stand on ceremony.”  

Yao Wenyu’s freshly washed face was a picture of calm as he continued to listen to the wind chimes beneath the eaves. After half a moment, he answered. “There’s no need to be so tactful. The reason I came to Cizhou was to seek refuge and throw in my lot with the Vice Commander.” 

Shen Zechuan rested his folding fan on his knee and said, “I’m now living under another’s roof making a living and trying to get by. I only dare to be called brothers with you, not master and servant.”

“The revival of Cizhou was in no small part due to the efforts of the Vice Commander.” The heavy trauma inflicted upon this body one after another was meant to make him die. Yao Wenyu started coughing again. He was but one scholar. It would prove to be hard to eradicate his illnesses now that they had taken root in his body. He was now heavily ill, much weaker and frail compared to half a year ago. He clutched his handkerchief, covering his mouth for a moment before continuing. “I heard about the Vice Commander’s deeds on my journey here, and I’m of the opinion that the Vice Commander wasn’t trying to obtain the six prefectures of Zhongbo, but Qudu. Once the trade routes between Cizhou, Chazhou, and Huaizhou are established, it will be able to provide direct access to the mutual trade market in Libei to the northeast, and keep the grain routes of Qidong in check towards the southeast. The military forces of Dazhou on both ends using the routes will have to pass through the Vice Commander’s scrutiny. The way they fight and the timing of their battles in the future will all lie in the hands of the Vice Commander.” 

Shen Zechuan brushed open his folding fan with his fingertips and set it on the handle of the chair. He did not respond.

“Furthermore, the geographical position of this trade route is special; if the Vice Commander thereby establishes a trade route town, Qudu’s east, south, and north sides will all be as good as secured. The Eight Great Training Divisions have limited military strength, so it’d prove impossible for Qudu to break through the Vice Commander’s siege on all three sides if they don’t have assistance from Qidong in the future.” Yao Wenyu cast a sidelong glance at Shen Zechuan. “The Vice Commander is a visionary man with great foresight, strategizing ahead for years down the road.”   

Shen Zechuan stared at Yao Wenyu. 

If not for the fact that this person was in such dire straits, even Shen Zechuan himself wanted to kill him, what’s more the others. Shen Zechuan had multiple explanations regarding the intent for the trade routes between the prefectures of Cizhou, Chazhou, and Huaizhou, but it was what Yao Wenyu said that was his real motive—By causing Qudu to lose its direct military route with Libei, not only could Chazhou contain Hezhou, it could also obstruct Qidong’s provision supply routes. Shen Zechuan wanted to encircle Qudu

“But Qi Zhuyin might not be willing to give the Vice Commander time.” Yao Wenyu could not hold back his coughs, covering his lips with a handkerchief again and again. “She is watching each and every one of your moves from behind in Qidong; she’ll see through it, eventually. If the Vice Commander is successful with this move, it’s naturally all’s well that ends well, but if it falls through, you’ll be caught in an assault by both Qudu and Qidong. When the time comes, you will be attacked from the front and rear. Even if Libei was willing to deploy troops to help, they cannot resist the Biansha Cavalry and fight the garrison troops of Qidong simultaneously. The lack of military forces is presently the most fatal chink in the Vice Commander’s armor. That is why the Vice Commander is linking up Cizhou and Chazhou, re-organizing the census registers, and taking in refugees—it’s all for the sake of quickly establishing an army under your command.”   

Shen Zechuan snapped his fan shut and said with a smile, “Yao Yuanzhuo’s reputation is truly well-deserved. But with your level of intelligence, how did you end up wandering the streets of Zhongbo? If you want to build a career, the climate in Qudu is perfect right now. Regardless of whether it’s the Empress Dowager or the Grand Secretariat, they are all better able to pay the price you deserve than I can afford, Shen Zechuan.” 

Yao Wenyu made to sit up, so Qiao Tianya stepped forward to help him up and put a pillow behind his back for support. He did not look at Qiao Tianya; it was as though he did not recognize him. With his long fingers holding on to the handkerchief, he turned his head aside and coughed into the handkerchief. The muffled sound of coughing persisted for quite some time. He stared at the shadows on the wall and answered in a hoarse voice, “Xue Yanqing, in his support of the heir apparent to the throne in Qudu, coerced the Grand Secretariat and Her Majesty the Empress Dowager and schemed to lead the Imperial College into pushing for reforms. However, it’s my belief that Dazhou is already beyond cure; rather than restore Qudu to its former glory, why not demolish it and rebuild it from scratch? Should Dazhou lose its deer, all under heaven will chase after it.4 Even a commoner of humble origins like Lei Changming has had the desire to reign supreme. When Qudu’s reforms are put into action, people in all other places will begin to rise in rebellion. Disputes among the heroes are inevitable. The Li clan’s emperor is already too powerless to turn the tide around..”   

Yao Wenyu turned back and looked attentively at Shen Zechuan amidst the dimming light. Complex emotion swam amidst the reignited fire in his eyes as he enunciated each word. “Anyone in the world can sit on the throne. The Li clan can. So why not you, Shen Zechuan?”    

Shen Zechuan held up his folding fan and replied coldly, “My aspiration lies not in this.”

“You can’t fool me.” Yao Wenyu spoke under his breath. “You’re on this path right now.”

“I can jolly well support someone else to the throne.” Shen Zechuan smiled. “There is more than one person with the surname ‘Li’ in this world.”

“Six years ago, when the troops of Zhongbo suffered a defeat, you lost everything. And six years later, when Qudu suffered another defeat, you lost it all once again. When the next six years come around…” Yao Wenyu’s lowered eyes were distant and detached, “… will you still be willing to place your life and destiny in the hands of another? You are completely unsuited to be a mere subject of the state. Being subjected to the control of others has already become a lifelong indignity of yours.”

There was an abrupt shift in the atmosphere within the room. Shen Zechuan grasped his folding fan with his fingers. Although he was quiet, he still looked as if he could kill without qualms in the next moment. It was impossible to read what was in those expressive eyes of his. The wind chimes outside the window tinkled, and bleak shadows of rustling trees fell upon the edge of his robes, on which he trod beneath his feet. 

Shen Zechuan abruptly smiled. “If Mister is willing to play for my team, then all matters in the future regardless of its significance can be discussed. Qiao Tianya, serve the tea.” 

Yao Wenyu accepted the tea and stirred the foam aside, but he did not drink it immediately. His wrist was of the same color as the teacup, but it was piteously thin and frail. He gazed at the floating tea leaves and said, self-deprecatingly, “You can skip the ‘Mister’. I lost to Xue Xiuzhuo in Qudu, got both of my legs broken, and was this close to losing my life. Didn’t you ask me why I came here?” 

 Yao Wenyu was silent for a while.

“Because I want to finish this game of chess with Xue Xiuzhuo, win or lose, live or die.”




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Footnotes

  1. 招文袋 a small bag hung at the waist for keeping documents or money.
  2. 广寒宫 Guanghan Palace, or Moon Palace; a mythical palace in the moon. Legend goes that it is inhabited by the goddess of the moon, Chang’e, the Jade Rabbit, and the woodcutter Wu Gang.
  3. 谪仙 literally, an immortal who has been banished from heaven to live on earth; an epithet for exceptional individuals such as the Tang poet Li Bai (who also wrote the poem, Qiang Jin jiu). i.e., a wayward genius
  4. The original quote is “Qin lost his deer, and all under heaven chased after it” 「秦失其鹿,天下共逐之」 from Records of the Grand Historian • Biography of Marquis Huaiyin 《史记·淮阴侯列传》. Deer is a metaphor for the throne. It’s an illustration of the rise of numerous rivaling warlords contesting for supremacy to capture the prize, the empire lost by the Qin Dynasty. So Yao Wenyu is saying that if Dazhou lost its legitimacy on the throne/the empire, then all the heroes in the world are free to make a grab for it.