Qiang Jin Jiu – Chapter 15 : Oriole

The titles in chapter 13, 14, 15 – Little Cicada (小蝉), Praying Mantis (螳螂), and Oriole (黄雀) – are from the idiom “the mantis stalks the cicada, unaware of the oriole behind.” (螳螂捕蝉,黄雀在后). i.e., to covet and pursue gains before oneself without being aware of (or neglecting) a greater danger behind.

The next day was the day Shen Zechuan ought to make a trip down to the Imperial Bodyguards to receive his post. It coincided with the day Xi Gu’an’s younger brother of the same parents, Xi Hongxuan, hosted a banquet. He had invited all the up-and-coming scholars and promising talents in Qudu to have a civilized discourse at the Chaodong Tavern.

Xi Hongxuan was an obese man. When he sat down, someone had to attend to him at the side and fan him. Grasping on to a bamboo fan, he said, “This year is this humble one’s lucky year. Although I did not get to invite Yanqing1, I managed to invite Yuanzhuo!”

Xue Xiuzhuo had to attend to his official duties, so he could not make it this day. The “Yuanzhuo” Xi Hongxuan mentioned was the current Secretariat Elder’s, Hai Liangyi, beloved disciple—Yao Wenyu. These three men could address each other with such familiarity as they were all from the Eight Great Clans of Qudu and had forged a friendship since childhood. 

Just then, the bead curtain was lifted, and in walked an elegant scholar as gentle and as pure as jade. He was dressed in a raven blue, wide-sleeved robe with slanting collars, along with a zhaowen bag2 hanging on his waist. On hearing that, he merely smiled. The various Confucian scholars3 at the feast rose in a welcome. For a moment, the sounds of conventional greetings being exchanged rang out. 

Yao Wenyu said his greeting to them one at a time. It was only after he invited everyone to take their seats that he sat down and responded, “We meet every year. How am I worthy of the two words, ‘rare presence’?”

As humble as he was, none of those present dared to belittle him. Because Yao Wenyu was the child prodigy of Qudu in his early years. He composed poems at eight years of age, and eulogies4 and proses5 at twelve. He was the “jade” the Old Master of the Yao Clan held in his palms. In order not to let his talents wane, he took Hai Liangyi as his teacher. Hai Liangyi was, by nature, inflexible and stern. To this day, he only had this one student—one that he prized greatly. 

After the small talk, they began to discuss the current situation.

Xi Hongxuan waved his hand to signify to his attendant to stop fanning him and said, “There is indeed something strange going on lately in Qudu. I wonder if the various brothers still remember the Prince of Jianxing, Shen Wei, who set himself on fire for fear of punishment five years ago?” 

“The vile man who colluded with the enemies and cowered without fighting!” One of them seated in the row straightened up and said, “He should have been beheaded under the law. Even executing his entire clan wouldn’t be too much. It is regrettable that His Majesty is so benevolent that he just had to spare the life of that last remaining member of the Shen Clan. This morning, I heard that he had been released. The evidence for Shen Wei’s crime is conclusive. As the son of a criminal-official whose troops had suffered a defeat, how could he take up a post? How do they expect the virtuous talents from all over to accept this?!”

“Exactly.” Xi Hongxuan said, “How is this going to work out? There has never been such a precedent before.”

“Most likely, it’s Her Majesty who wants to protect him.” Someone else said, “I have long heard that this remaining member has some relationship with the Hua Clan. But how could personal relationships prevail over state laws? Isn’t this a violation of the law itself?”

Xi Hongxuan sighed, heavy-hearted. “I’m afraid this will set a precedent that will give all the future heirs of officials guilty of crimes a loophole to exploit.” 

This immediately stirred up the Confucian scholars. Owing to the severity of Shen Wei’s crimes, they could not allow Shen Zechuan to be released.

“What does Yuanzhuo think?”

Yao Wenyu drank his tea and said amiably, “I haven’t been in the capital for a long time, so I am not aware of the details. I’m not in the position to say a word.” 

Xi Hongxuan said in understanding, “That’s right. You are often away for studies, so you aren’t aware of what’s happening in Qudu.” 

Someone among them spoke, “All of us here are learned men who are widely read in the classics and literature. We are all men with a sense of honor and shame, and we are all well-acquainted with the law. We mustn’t simply sit and do nothing.”

Xi Hongxuan said, “Then, what should we do?” 

That person answered, “We are all students of the Imperial College.6 If the public sentiment is roused, then His Majesty would have to reconsider it. Why not let us return and kneel together before Mingli Hall to beseech His Majesty to retract his order and punish the remaining member of the Shen Clan severely?!”

Sounds of assent rose among those at the feast. Xi Hongxuan clapped his hands and said in commendation, “Excellent! All of you here are indeed the pillars of the country. You will be remembered throughout the ages for this kneel today! This humble one is ashamed. Although I’m not a student of the Imperial College, I’m still willing to join all of you.”

The Confucian scholar who had spoken earlier said, “That wouldn’t do. Brother Hongxuan’s elder brother is the Seal-holding Commander-in-Chief of the Eight Great Training Divisions. If you get implicated in this matter, then you would only stand to lose. Gentlemen, let’s us be the ones to go!”

As the feast came to an end, Yao Wenyu called the shopkeeper to steam some tender and palatable meat dishes. As he waited, he listened to the whisperings of the Confucian scholars who had gone downstairs.

“What ‘Yuanzhuo the Unpolished Jade’?7 Isn’t he just a coward? Look at him earlier. He didn’t even dare to say a word. How can he be compared to Brother Hongxuan’s benevolence?”

Yao Wenyu sent a pine nut to his mouth and let loose a soundless laugh. However, he did not step out to contend with them. By the time he came out after his meat bun was ready, the scholars had already more or less dispersed. 

Xi Hongxuan said, “Yuanzhuo, shall I give you a lift?”

“No, thanks.” Yao Wenyu lifted the meat in his hand. “I’m heading for Teacher’s residence.” 

Both men bid each other farewell. Xi Hongxuan looked at Yao Wenyu’s departing back and sneered for a moment before he said, “Let’s go.” 

On the other side, Shen Zechuan had already arrived at the Imperial Bodyguards’ courtyard. He strode across the threshold and earned himself the gaze from everyone all around. The entire compound of hurrying and busying Imperial Bodyguards just had to catch a glimpse at him even when they were just passing by. 

The one leading the way was Ge Qingqing. He took Shen Zechuan to the duty records room and said, “The Imperial Bodyguards are sorted into four groups of men. The first group is selected from civilian households,8 where their sister is the ‘female head of household’9 who sweeps10 in the palace. The brother would then come to the Imperial Bodyguards and put on a temporary authority token.11 Although he is exempt from service, he is not paid a salary. An example of this group is Xiaowu. The second group are those who have received a recommendation by the palace-gonggong, called ‘Conferment by Eunuch’s12 Recommendation’. A case in point is the Commander-in-Chief. The third are those born of military households, with the position inherited. I’m a prime example of this. The fourth group are those with specialized skills and talents in different fields. These are chosen by His Majesty himself irrespective of their backgrounds. This category of men are all very formidable. You will naturally get your chance to meet them in the future.” [1]13

As Ge Qingqing spoke, he lifted the hanging screen and informed him, “This is the place where you need to register in the official records to receive your post.” 

When Shen Zechuan entered, the noise in the records room came to an abrupt halt. All the Imperial Bodyguards with different attires and different authority tokens turned their heads over. A strange silence descended upon the hall. 

“Shen Zechuan?” The man sitting behind the table with his legs crossed pushed aside the book before him and looked at him. “That’s you, huh?”

Shen Zechuan saw him dressed in a flying fish attire.14 Imperial Bodyguards whose ranks were not of Assistant Regional Commander and above were not allowed to wear this attire. So he gave a slight bow and replied, “That’s me.”

This man’s hair was hanging over his forehead, and his stubble had yet to be tidied. His behavior and bearing were rather unconventional. He touched his chin and smiled. “As expected of the son of a dancer-courtesan. Shen Wei’s extravagant spending all just to win the smile of the beauty back then had not been in vain. Qingqing, give him the token.”

Saying so, he tossed the token on the table that had already been prepared to Ge Qingqing. 

Ge Qingqing caught the token and handed it to Shen Zechuan. He said, “Lanzhou, this is the Judge15 of the Imperial Bodyguards. He made a special trip here today just to deliver the token to you.”

“This humble servant is Qiao Tianya.” Having said that, Qiao Tianya motioned for Shen Zechuan to look at his token. 

Shen Zechuan turned the authority token over and looked at Qiao Tianya again. 

Qiao Tianya said, “The Domesticated Elephants Office, is it? That’s where you will be going. Qingqing will lead you there later. But first, there are some rules I have to tell you. Our Imperial Bodyguards tokens are as precious as the tokens from the Eight Great Training Divisions. When you are not on duty on your days off, you have to keep it properly. You cannot lend it out to outsiders. Although everyone is assigned to duties in the Twelve Offices, those aren’t your main job. Our job is to serve His Majesty. We do whatever His Majesty tells us to do. Other than the assignments in the Twelves Office, we also have to take turns to serve as ‘eyes and ears’. If something major happens, such as our arrest of you five years ago, we will need His Majesty’s ‘imperial edict’.16 Only when we have the document and the special tokens for arrests in hand that we can proceed. Allocation for any missions we get will not be decided by me or the Commander-in-Chief. Instead, everyone will ‘draw lots’ and let the lots decide.” [2]17  

Ji Gang had briefed Shen Zechuan on this before. So he nodded his head and said nothing.

“One last thing.” Qiao Tianya stood up and looked around everyone in the hall. He said, “The Imperial Bodyguards are all of one mind. Once you hang our authority token, you are our brother. All kinds of grudges in the past will disperse with the wind. There will be no secret attempts to frame or make a fool of our own brother. If there is, and you are discovered, then all your tokens will be revoked with your names struck off, and you will all be kicked into the Imperial Prison to be dealt with severely.”

Everyone around them turned their gazes away and focused on their own work.

Satisfied, Qiao Tianya turned and said to Shen Zechuan, “You may go.”  

Shen Zechuan bowed in farewell and followed Ge Qingqing out of the door. 

“I thought it would be an Imperial Regalia post like the Fan Office.”18 Ge Qingqing looked at Shen Zechuan and said, “The Domesticated Elephants Office… works fine too.”

“I have had many conjectures too.” Shen Zechuan smiled and said, “But I never thought that I’d be going to raise elephants.”

“The Domesticated Steeds Office is currently a good place to be posted to. The golden saddled horses are all raised on behalf of the nobles. It’s easy to get a recommendation for a promotion once you have contacts with them and go on to be on familiar terms with them. As for the Domesticated Elephants Office…” Ge Qingqing had an odd expression on his face. “… It’s not really an idle job. You even have to attend morning court sessions.19 And those batches of elephant lords are really a pain in the ass to serve. But the Commander-in-chief hardly goes there, so it won’t be easy for him to create trouble for you.” 

The Domesticated Elephants Office was close to Mingli public road in Qudu’s Imperial City, which led right to Kailing River. When the weather was hot, they had to herd the elephants over to the river to drink and bathe. Not only that, during the daily morning court sessions, they also had to lead six elephants to stand at both sides of the imperial stairs. If there was a major festive court meet, or a hunting extravaganza, then they had to increase the number of elephants. These elephants would not only attend morning court sessions like the morning court officials did, but they would also be dismissed from court sessions together with the morning court officials. But while the morning court officials would find it a challenge to recuperate if they were to fall ill, the elephants could, since they were just like the Imperial Bodyguards who took turns to be on duty. [3]20

Shen Zechuan had never even raised a dog before, and now they were giving him the impossible challenge of raising elephants. All he could say was that, life’s unpredictable.

Both men were still on their way when they heard someone running after them.

Ge Qingqing looked back and asked, “What’s the matter?” 

The Imperial Bodyguard who came after them looked at Shen Zechuan and said with a solemn expression, “The token is suspended. He can’t take up the post today. Return to the records room quickly!”

Shen Zechuan asked, “Is there a new deployment order from the palace?”

“There’s no new order from the palace. But three thousand students of the Imperial College are on hunger strike and kneeling in protest to beseech His Majesty to retract his order and to deal with the Shen Clan severely!”

Ge Qingqing’s countenance changed as he looked at Shen Zechuan. 

Having been grounded for punishment, Xiao Chiye lay on the couch and flipped through the storytelling script.21 Even when he heard Chen Yang announce Prince Chu’s arrival, he could not be bothered to get up. 

“I’m being grounded.” Xiao Chiye ate a fruit without raising his head. “So why are you swaggering in this brazenly?”

Li Jianheng tossed down Xiao Chiye’s viceroy token and said in agitation, “Ce’an! Something big has happened!”

Xiao Chiye’s eyelid twitched. 

Li Jianheng continued, “Three thousand students have kneeled to ask His Majesty to punish Shen Zechuan severely! They kneeled until it was dark and went on a hunger strike to force His Majesty to retract his orders. When His Majesty heard of this during dinner, he was so angry that he collapsed back onto the bed again!”

Xiao Chiye looked at that authority token and said, “Toss it out.” 

“… The Eight Great Training Divisions won’t break the students up. So they told me to deliver the token back to you. If the Imperial Army can disperse the students tonight, then your score with them will be written off!” Anxious, Li Jianheng stamped his foot and said, “The Imperial Army can’t do anything else, but isn’t it easy to deal with a few students who don’t even have the strength to truss a chicken? It’s a good thing!”

Xiao Chiye lifted the book to cover his face. After a moment of silence, he said through clenched teeth, “And what a fucking good thing it is.”

The students of the Imperial College were future candidates for the Imperial Court, and they could influence the way the wind blew among the local Confucian scholars. Xi Gu’an knew that they were hot potatoes he could not lay a hand on. If Xiao Chiye really moved these three thousand students today, then the first one to be buried under their brushes and spit in the future would be him!

“Where is Shen Zechuan now?” Xiao Chiye suddenly sat up and asked with his hands on his knees. 

“I heard that he went to the Imperial Bodyguard’s records room early in the morning.” Li Jianheng looked at him putting on his clothes and followed up with a question, “Where are we going? Are we going to look for Shen Zechuan?”

Xiao Chiye went down the stairs where Chen Yang had already prepared his horse. He mounted it and spurred it on to depart. 

Author’s Notes: 
(I’ve split up the three author’s notes and affixed it to the relevant paragraphs for easier reference. Please refer to [1], [2], [3] for the translations of Tang Jiuqing’s author notes.)

Lianyin’s Notes:
Those titles of sources with * are translated by me and are not official titles in English. If you wish to search for those sources, please use the Chinese names in 《》 instead. 

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  1. Xue Xiuzhuo’s courtesy name
  2. 招文袋 a small bag hung at the waist for keeping documents or money.
  3. 儒生 Confucian scholars; these scholars, whose exemplar was Confucius, were schooled from an early age in the canonical literature and the philosophical works of the Confucian traditions in preparation for the civil service examinations, especially if they had the ambition to become government officials.
  4. song; one of the three sections of The Book of Songs (《诗经》), comprising songs in praise of imperial ancestors sung on sacrificial occasions.
  5. fu; commonly translated as “rhapsody” or “prose poetry”; it is an intricate literary form combining elements of poetry and prose, much cultivated from Han times to the Six Dynasties period.
  6. 国子监 Directorate of Education which evolved from the Imperial College (or Academy), the highest educational body in imperial China. I’ll use the term Imperial College here from the students’ point of view.
  7. 璞玉元琢 literally, Unpolished Jade Yuanzhuo (Yuanzhuo is Yao Wenyu’s courtesy name); unpolished jade here refers to a talent who is still unknown but with the potential to be “polished” into someone that shines, like a top scholar (also known as a zhuangyuan (状元), who would have a bright future before him.)
  8. Households were classified and recorded into the Huangce or yellow registers/yellow book (黃冊) according to their occupation to provide basic data for taxation and recruitment. It was mainly divided into three categories: civilian (民户), military (军户), and craftsman.
  9. 女户 Female(-only) household where there is no man in the household and the woman is the head of the household.
  10. 洒扫 to sprinkle or splash water over the ground before sweeping and cleaning.

  11. 腰牌 literally authority token, it’s a small tablet hung at the waist to prove one’s identity, especially for people in governmental posts or acting in an official capacity.
  12. 中官 Zhongguan, may refer to eunuch
  13. Author’s Notes [1]: For relevant information, please refer to the “Summary of the Imperial Bodyguards’ Roles”* 《锦衣卫职能略论》, “Imperial Bodyguards”* 《锦衣卫》, and the “Imperial Bodyguards Selection Book”* 《锦衣卫选簿》. In fact, there were eight kinds of Imperial Bodyguards selection if we were to go into details. But here, the plot only called for the introduction of four kinds.

  14. 飞鱼服, literally “Flying Fish Attire” (no idea what its official name in English is). It’s the official outfit of the imperial court’s secret service (锦衣卫), who not only serve as elite bodyguards but were also given authority to overrule judicial proceedings in prosecutions with full autonomy in arresting, interrogating and punishing anyone, including nobles. (Extra Pic).
  15. 镇抚 Judge of the Imperial Prison, which specialized in using torture to suppress corrupt officials. During the Ming Dynasty, there were a Southern and Northern Prison (镇抚司) subordinated to the Imperial Bodyguards. The Southern Prison was in charge of interpreting military laws and managing military craftsmen while the Northern Prison was responsible for cases entrusted by the Emperor.
  16. 钦提, orders of the imperial edict penned and approved personally by the Emperor himself to arrest criminals of serious crimes.
  17. Author’s Notes [2]: When it came to undertaking missions, the Imperial Bodyguards indeed decided by “drawing lots”. This was to prevent anyone from leaking relevant intelligence in advance.
  18. 扇手司 A bureau or office in charge of fanning duties. This office was originally a subordinate organization under the former Imperial Procession Guards (銮仪卫) during the Qing Dynasty. Here the author mentioned it under the Imperial Regalia Bureau (仪銮所). Historically, the Imperial Bodyguards (锦衣卫) were originally known as the Yiluan Si (仪銮司), or Imperial Regalia Service. It was only changed by Emperor Hongwu during the Ming Dynasty in 1382 to the Imperial Bodyguards Command (锦衣卫亲军指挥使司). Thus, the Imperial Bodyguards came to be responsible for being the Emperor’s bodyguards, and at the same time, inherited the ceremonial duties for the morning court sessions or the Emperor’s inspection tour processions from their Imperial Regalia times, including this Fan Club Office in this novel. (Sorry, Lianyin sucks at naming stuff.) Long story short, remember that this is a work of fiction. The author combines elements from both the Ming and Qing Dynasties in the novel; it’s not a 100% accurate/factual historical novel.
  19. 早朝 Court sessions held in the morning for the Emperor to discuss state affairs with his ministers.
  20. Author’s Notes [3]: For details about elephants bathing with the entire city watching, you can refer to “A Summary of the Imperial Capital Scenery”* 《帝京景物略》. The Imperial Bodyguards is a miraculous organization. Those who were spies included not only those who could write in shorthand but also painters. They had painters, physicians, beast trainers, silversmiths, blacksmiths, explosive-makers… and even translators. (No, Lianyin is not one of the Imperial Bodyguards). Their selection requirements were high, and most were top-notch professionals in their fields. Under normal circumstances, they required recruits to be tall, with long legs and powerful arms. In “Ming Dynasty in 1566” 《大明王朝1566》, Liu Heping mentioned that the Imperial Bodyguards asked for men with “arms like tigers, waists of bees, and legs like mantises”, as well as those who “would be able to brisk-walk over one hundred and sixty li a day”. They could cross a two-zhang high wall just by climbing over it with their arms, break another man’s throat with just their bare hands, and forfeit sleep for as many days their missions remained incomplete. So, from the looks of things, Ce’an was actually more suited to be in the Imperial Bodyguards.
  21. 话本 Script for storytelling; Song and Yuan literary form based on vernacular folk stories.