Qiang Jin Jiu – Chapter 184 : Discourse

Translated with: Jia<3

Chazhou was hit by an unbroken spell of wet weather in the tenth month, and the sound of rain drumming rhythmically against the banana leaves outside the windows was audible even with the curtains down. Luo Mu was not in his official garb but his common robe1 as he sat in the seat to the right of the guest of honor. He surveyed his surroundings and discovered that the interior of this teahouse was already filled to the brim with people. Guests hailed from all corners of the land, and a sizable number of them were wearing sandals and rain cloaks made of straw.

The incense by the window burned out just after midday. Luo Mu heard movements and straightened up to look at the door, where he saw that oil-paper umbrella swaying slightly aside to reveal that figure in darkish blue2 scholar attire3 beneath. The latter’s large, meandering sleeves rested on his knees, with a cat lounging between them. Delicate wrist bones peeked out under those sleeves, accentuating those fingers of his and making them appear all the more long, slender, and strong. 

Yao Wenyu bent over in his wheelchair and said with sincerity, “My apologies for having kept the various elders waiting.”   

The little wheels rolled over the wooden floorboards as Qiao Tianya pushed Yao Wenyu in. Murmurs of whispers promptly rose in the room. Those who had not removed their woven hats earlier took them off now one after another. Countless gazes fell upon Yao Wenyu, watching him attentively.   

Yao Wenyu came to a stop before the round window. 

“We have all gathered here today to attend the discourse our young friend Yuanzhuo here has invited us to.” Elder Mei of Qinzhou, who was smoking his pipe, tapped it and looked at Yao Wenyu. “It has been a year since we last met, and my young friend’s poise has far surpassed that of before.”

Tea had already been served, and that particular incense was lit up yet again. 

A so-called discourse was simply an oral conversation. Host and guests sat facing each other, and they would absolutely not touch upon political affairs or civil issues, only on profound and esoteric subjects. This was why Luo Mu was not wearing his official attire today. They had to go back and forth with one another as they engaged in verbal discussions while seated in the venue, and this required the participants to be not only erudite and insightful but also poetically eloquent.

Yao Wenyu, having traversed all over the world in his search for knowledge, was adept at the art of it, which was why his one invitation could garner hundreds of responses, allowing him to organize a dialogue in Chazhou. He was an articulate conversationalist in the past, and his ideas were original and distinctive. As he did not enter civil service despite being born in a noble clan, he was far more popular than Hai Liangyi among the recluses who were averse to politics.

Elder Mei had already been waiting for an hour, so he cut to the chase after the exchange of customary greetings. “I see that my young friend has changed.”

Yao Wenyu answered, “This body is not my own; this change does not reflect my own.”

Elder Mei ceased smoking his pipe. “I can see it with my own eyes. If you have not changed, why aren’t you standing up?”

Yao Wenyu put down the horsetail whisk he had just been holding on to. “Was I standing a year ago when I conversed with you in Qinzhou?”

“Of course you were,” Elder Mei said.

Yao Wenyu thus replied. “Then, I’m still standing right now.”

Luo Mu had once participated in such a discourse when he had been pursuing his studies in Dengzhou, but that had been merely an informal discussion among fellow students of the academy. Kong Ling was also talented at sophistry, but for some reason, he had not shown up today. The conversation continued, as did the drizzle outside. Everyone in attendance was listening with bated breath and rapt attention. 

With his back leaning against the door, Qiao Tianya watched the raindrops splash on the sides of the eaves and cast a hazy veil over the mountains in the distance. Yao Wenyu’s voice was crystal clear, and his calm and collected answers seemed to fall like chess pieces he let drop in the courtyard, one at a time, pitter-pattering in this rain. 

◈     ◈     ◈

Li Jianting sat in her seat and asked Xue Xiuzhuo, “Since a discourse can convene the wise and virtuous together, why isn’t the imperial college organizing one?” 

Xue Xiuzhuo closed the book and answered her with a question, “What kind of people can participate in it?” 

“All the learned men in the world,” Li Jianting replied.

“That’s not right.” Xue Xiuzhuo looked Li Jianting in the eyes. “It’s those who have nothing to worry about in the world.”    

Xue Xiuzhuo participated in such discourses before, although not that many times. To court officials like him, Jiang Qingshan, and the others, these so-called intellectual and philosophical conversations were mere rhetoric, since the participants discussed neither state affairs nor civil and agricultural matters. These discussions were all the rage in the thirteen cities of Juexi, followed by the eight cities of Qudu. Pan Lin and the other young masters of the noble clans held Yao Wenyu in such high esteem because Yao Wenyu rarely touched on political affairs, which was kind of unconventional. But such unconventionality had to be built on the premise that he did not have to worry about the basic necessities like food and clothes. Such conversations went extinct in Zhongbo after the reign of Xiande. Was it because of the lack of learned scholars in Zhongbo? No, the real reason was that there was no longer a person who wasn’t starving in Zhongbo. 

Li Jianting pondered it over for a moment. “In that case, what use is there for Yao Wenyu to invite all of these people without a care in the world?” 

After a moment’s silence, Xue Xiuzhuo turned his gaze to look at the swaying banana leaves in front of the window. The rain poured with urgency, as though this was the same day he had played chess with Yao Wenyu. 

◈     ◈     ◈

The sky had already darkened outside the teahouse, but the dialogue had yet to end. Elder Mei, being advanced in age, was tired from all the sitting. He was debating with Yao Wenyu over the nature of “the changed and the unchanged”, and he had already drunk several cups of tea to moisten his throat. 

Elder Mei cleared his throat. “The change I’m talking about is the physical changes before our eyes, and it’s not just that. You have changed, and so have the times and the world. You’re no longer the same ‘you’ as you have been earlier, even more so the ‘you’ from one year ago.”   

All eyes fell upon Yao Wenyu, waiting for his answer. But Yao Wenyu slowly lowered his sleeves and bowed to Elder Mei from his wheelchair. “You are absolutely right.” 

His words sparked an uproar the moment they left his mouth. This debate was clearly not over. They came all the way here from afar just to hear them duke it out until a clear victor emerged. Who would have expected Yao Wenyu to simply concede defeat of his own accord? 

“Gone is the glory of the Yongyi reign. Dazhou is already on the wane. With the invasion by our foreign enemies in the northeast and the collusion of officials and merchants in the southwest, just how many places are there left for us in this world to converse freely about the mysteries of the universe?”

A commotion broke out in the room at these words. An enraged Elder Mei tossed his pipe aside and covered his nose and mouth with his sleeve. “Foul! Foul! FOUL! What an unbearable stench! How intolerably vulgar! Why has Yao Wenyu become Hai Renshi?!”  

The tea tables clattered noisily as several people rose to their feet. Luo Mu hurriedly got up too and attempted to dissuade the others, but then he heard Yao Wenyu, who was before the window, laughed. The more he laughed, the louder his laughter was. “Look at how severe the misappropriations of the commoners’ fields in the eight cities are. The vision of the starved dead dotting the streets everywhere is no longer just empty talk—I’ve changed, and so has the world. You are right smack in the middle of it. How long can you remain unchanged for?”     

Elder Mei originally wanted to leave, but on hearing Yao Wenyu, he could not refrain from rebutting, “Without what keeps them alive, all living creatures will perish.4 To change or not to change is the natural order of the world. You strayed from the Way5 and fell into the trappings of this secular world. Are you trying to emulate Qi Huilian and Hai Liangyi by being a virtuous gentleman?!”6 

Yao Wenyu said, “The one who forced this change on me today is none other than you and this very society.”

Elder Mei could barely catch his breath as he held onto the table and said, “Letting nature take its course is the natural order of things!7 What has Qi Huilian changed? And what has Hai Liangyi changed? You are following in their footsteps. Yuanzhuo, oh, Yuanzhuo! This is but a futile attempt!”  

Yao Wenyu schooled his expression and said, “Since you speak of the natural order of things, then this empire shall change as it ought to, and this world will descend into anarchy as it must. You may very well continue to stand by and do nothing if you so wish. I have already abandoned my Way; I’m going to step into this turbulent world.” 

Elder Mei stomped his feet in anxiety and yelled like a child, “No, come back! Come back!” 

Xue Xiuzhuo subscribed to the philosophy that “one must live or die with his principles”.8 This was the creed Grand Mentor Qi believed in, as did Secretariat Elder Hai. Yao Wenyu was the only one among them who didn’t. But Yao Wenyu’s move today was a clear break from his past belief in letting nature run its course. This was a declaration to all that he had forsaken his original self to become a man of the secular world. 

Pelts of raindrops fell right before Qiao Tianya’s eyes into the water puddles, where they burst into tiny sprays of water and stirred up ripples. A small fish with fine scales leaped out of a ripple, and Kong Ling, who was near the pond, caught it and tossed it back.  

Fei Sheng was holding up the umbrella while Kong Ling and Shen Zechuan, both wearing bamboo hats, fished by the pond. 

Kong Ling cast out the hook again and said, “After today, men with lofty aspirations ought to be flocking to Cizhou.” 

Shen Zechuan said as he held onto the fishing rod, “If men with lofty aspirations were this easy to obtain, how would I have kept missing Mister each time?” 

Kong Ling laughed. He avoided answering and merely lamented, “This move of Yuanzhuo is both a ‘change of path’ and an ‘undertaking of path’. He did it to tell the world that Secretariat Elder Hai’s legacy still lives on in Cizhou. He’s no longer the same man he was before.” 

“Shenwei’s brush and ink are already in place.” Shen Zechuan said. “Whether Yuanzhuo can redeem his reputation in the hearts of the scholars in the world depends on this lyrical expression of his.” 

Yao Wenyu was attacked by the students during the initial imperial college crisis because of his birth origins, but now, he had taken on a different path from that of Elder Mei and the others. With the help of Gao Zhongxiong’s highly effective and emotive penmanship, those two legs of his could become a definitive statement of will and ambition. In addition, the questions that were to follow would no doubt include the reason he came to Cizhou. If he was guilty of a crime, then why didn’t the imperial court send anyone to arrest him? By thinking down the line of this question, one would be able to see a Zhongbo that had already been fractured. 

“Due to the passing of Emperor Tianchen, the imperial examinations held in spring were done away with. Following right after, Secretariat Elder Hai remonstrated with his death, and the imperial college students attacked the officials of humble origins from all sides. Many people handed in their resignations during this period, and Qudu still has to maintain the stability of the three parties this winter.” Shen Zechuan swung his fishing rod. “Xue Xiuzhuo already has half a foot in the Grand Secretariat by virtue of the heir apparent to the throne. For this reason, the empress dowager must suppress the practical doers faction led by him; she can’t let him become a minister with genuine regent powers in his hands. In that case, when will he be able to fulfill his promise to the imperial college? He and Yuanzhuo are both old acquaintances and fellow students under the same teacher; so there must be more than meets the eye now that Yuanzhuo has switched to my camp. Moreover, the transgressions of the Li clan are already a fact long known to all, and copycats are popping up one after another seeing that King Yi of Fanzhou has yet to be taken down. Even if Xue Xiuzhuo wants to retaliate and fight back now, his hands are tied. No matter how you look at it, all he can do this winter is to get beaten.” 

“The mess created by the noble clans is way too great.” Kong Ling shook his head as he grasped his fishing rod. “The empress dowager refuses to release her grip on power, and everyone in the Grand Secretariat has lost heart. Meanwhile, Xue Xiuzhuo is still in the fledgling stage of his authority. As long as the three parties remain locked in a stalemate, the eight cities’ misappropriation of commoners’ fields will remain unresolved. The longer this drags on, the more advantageous it will be for the prefectural lord.”   

Just as they had discussed here, Gao Zhongxiong’s essays went into circulation a few days later. The tailwind Hai Liangyi left behind had not fizzled out at all. As long as their message was sincere, it could evoke a collective, emotional sigh. The contents of Yao Wenyu’s discourse in Chazhou had long ceased to be important; what was crucial was that even the ignorant students who could not tell one grain from another had to face up to the fact now. 

And that was, in just six months, Qudu had completely lost the ability to maintain stability in its empire. The man Yao Wenyu had aligned himself with was called Shen Zechuan, a felonious subject who rebelled and fled Qudu half a year ago with Xiao Chiye. However, they had not only escaped execution, but were even on the up and coming now.  

The empress dowager could not command the Qidong Garrison Troops into moving, so Han Cheng came out of obscurity once more to ask the Eight Great Training Divisions to dispatch troops to exterminate Shen Zechuan, who was far away in Cizhou. But the Ministry of War declined on the grounds that Qudu had no generals. The conference was a very unpleasant one, and with the end of the year closing in on them, the relationship between the three sides grew increasingly tense. 

Once the snow started falling, the number of refugees who sought asylum in Cizhou and Chazhou ballooned. At the same time that Tantai Hu was recruiting soldiers for the garrison troops in Dunzhou, the Imperial Bodyguards were also enlisting new members. Shen Zechuan planned to put Hairigu together with the Imperial Bodyguards. By the time Shen Zechuan realized it, the twelfth month had come, and just as he was getting his new year gifts ready, a bout of unprecedented heavy snow came calling at Libei. 

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  1. 道袍 Daopao; not to be confused with a Daoist priest robe. This was a common robe typically worn by men in the Ming Dynasty.

  2. 襕衫 Lanshan, a Chinese traditional hanfu made especially for scholars
  3. 万物不(无)以生将恐灭 from Daodejing (道德经) by Laozi (Lao-tzu, 老子) , also known as the founder of philosophical Daoism.
  4. 道 “the Way”, or the path, is a conceptual term used by the school of thoughts, although it has different connotations for Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. Daoism embraces nature. The Way, or Dao, according to Laozi and Daoists, is the natural order of the universe, and Daoism emphasizes doing what is natural and “going with the flow” in accordance with the Way, with the aim of becoming one, or in harmony, with nature.
  5. The concept of “gentleman” or “man of honor” (junzi, 君子) in Confucianism (a different philosophical stance from Daoism), is a virtuous man who is noble in character and an exemplar for his conducts, morals, principles, etc.
  6. 无为而治,道法自然 Specifically, “govern not by interfering in all that goes against nature, for the Way models itself on what is natural.” i.e., man should observe the law of nature and go with the flow. From Daodejing (道德经) by Laozi (老子).
  7. Full line 天下有道,以道殉身;天下无道,以身殉道。(未闻以道殉乎人者也。) Specifically, “when the Way prevails in the empire, it goes where one’s person goes; when the Way is eclipsed, one’s person goes where the Way has gone. (I have not heard of one’s Way being dependent on their manifestation in other men).” i.e., One must live or die with his principles, acting for himself, not with regard to other men. The Way here refers to one’s principles. Contrary to Laozi, Mencius (or Mengzi, 孟子) subscribed to the Confucius school of thoughts, which regards the Way, or dao, as the way human beings ought to behave with principles and propriety in society and government. (To put it simply :V)