☆ Chapter 43
The melancholy sound of the guqin floated in the air as it narrated what was weighing the player’s mind down, playing Jian Jia from the Book of Songs: The reeds and rushes are deeply green, and the white dew is turned into hoarfrost. The man of whom I think, is somewhere about the water. I go up the stream in quest of him, but the way is difficult and long. I go down the stream in quest of him, and lo! he is right in the midst of the water. (Translation by James Legge)[a]
Because of the blistering hot summer, all the windows were completely open. Mosquito repellent incense was placed on all the window ledges and the wispy smoke billowed in the air while the soothing sound of the guqin drifted in, cleansing one’s mind.
Ruan Zhu’s mind became empty and she sat up on the bed. As the guqin’s song came to an end, she nevertheless could not help but to sing:
The green grass is flourishing and in the white fog
there is a beautiful woman across the water.
The green grass is luxuriant and indistinct in the white fog,
there is a beautiful woman in the midst of the water.
I’m willing to go against the current to nestle against her side.
Helpless against the dangerous rapids ahead, the road is once again distant and long.
I’m willing to follow the current in the direction she’s gone,
yet saw a faint silhouette like she had long been standing in the water.
The green grass is flourishing and in the white fogAcross the Water 在水一方 by Chiang Lei 江蕾 [b]
there is a beautiful woman across the water……
The mellow voice was just like a fine wine, intoxicating the mind of people. Just earlier, Yun Shi Wei had been put into a fitful sleep by the guqin but had been quickly woken by his wife’s singing. He reach out a hand to hug her: “Spouse, it is still your singing that is nice to listen to. Listening to it is very comfortable. But, that person’s guqin song is also not bad, hearing it made me want to sleep.”
This dolt, such a beautiful guqin melody had actually been regarded as a lullaby.
Ruan Zhu suddenly felt that the two parents of the Yun clan giving her their second son as a secondary husband was a wise move. If he had been arranged as the principal husband for some other female, it would be a wonder if he didn’t end up being disliked and ignored.
In the inn’s Sky Room #3, Lu Piao Xiang’s jet-black hair spilled across his shoulders and over the white robe he had draped across himself. On his angular yet distinctly handsome face, there was a hard to make out emotion as he blankly stared at the starry sky for a very long while, while murmuring to himself:
“You really are the kindred soul I have been looking for all along.”
He had only played Jian Jia to comfort himself and very quickly, a similar song had been sung. Could this be a coincidence? No, this was clearly the mysterious arrangement of the Heavens. The world had a Lu Piao Xiang that loved the guqin, and naturally, the world would also have one that understood him–his kindred soul.
Lu Piao Xiang’s tall and straight figure stood motionless in front of the window, only returning to rest in his bed after half the night had passed.
At this moment, Ruan Zhu did not yet know that the song she had sung out of a sudden impulse would entrap the young man even further.
She was currently imprisoned inside Yun Shi Wei’s embrace with his arm as her pillow and felt a bit at peace.
Pregnant women were prone to sleepiness. Just as she was about to doze off, his noisy voice sounded from next to her ear: “Spouse, after you give birth to Eldest Brother’s child, have him eat some contraceptives to let me have some children, too. I would like a boy. After he’s born and grows stronger, I’ll teach him martial arts, horseback riding, and archery.”
Ruan Zhu suddenly felt her heart becoming suffocated with panic and opened her eyes to look at him: “Don’t tell me females have to give birth nonstop their entire lifetime?”
“Who said for a lifetime? Giving birth five or six times is enough as included among those definitely will be a few pairs of twins. For one principal husband with an additional four secondary husbands, that will be enough to satisfy the important task of carrying on each male’s ancestral line. That’s it.”
“Must I have that many husbands?”
“You don’t have to have a lot. Right now, you have me and Eldest Brother, so it will be fine to accept only three more.” Yun Shi Wei yawned: “You don’t need to look favorably on those other secondary husbands, you can just bring them home and view them as half-servants. If they should be beaten or scolded, it’s whatever. However, I’m not the same, Spouse, you definitely have to treat me well.”
Must she really have five husbands?
Lu Piao Xiang’s figure flashed in her mind. If he was counted as one, it would be pretty good. But for this matter, she did not want to make the decision and wanted Yun Shi Yi’s agreement, to avoid wounding his heart.
The ancient Chinese man also needed their principal wife to give their nod of approval before the husband had the privilege of taking a concubine. Then, her accepting a secondary husband also could not be a case of thinking for oneself and acting accordingly.
Was the idea of one female paired with many males too shameless, yes or no?
Ruan Zhu’s cheeks blushed from shame at her own thoughts.
But immediately, she defended herself. It was not that she was unsatisfied, it was the dignified law and she had no choice but to comply.
Even if she collected five of them, she had to find ones that she personally liked, right?! If there were two people yet she loathed to be with either, she was better off not having them.
She thought all of this and nudged aside Yun Shi Wei’s hand on her chest, gradually falling asleep.
After more than a month, Yun Shi Yi had yet to return. A letter from the relay station said that things had become somewhat troublesome and for her to patiently wait for a little while longer.
Ruan Zhu felt somewhat reassured. It was fine as long as nothing had happened to her husband.
This year’s drought was particularly severe, especially in the South. Starting from a month earlier, several refugees had arrived at Mao Er Town from villages and other areas at the southern periphery of the country. It was said that not a single grain was reaped in many cases and farmers had no choice but to beg for food. Half of these people stayed and begged while the other half fled north. The majority of the elderly and feeble that finally reached Mao Er Town refused to go further north.
Foodstuffs became precious and prices skyrocketed. Rice rose from last month’s price of five hundred coins for one dan to one thousand coins. Furthermore, the price was still rising. Even the prices of salt, oil, and other household essentials were getting higher and higher.
The local official could be considered diligent and had set up a food center on the streets. Thin porridge was ladled out twice a day, allowing the commoners that were unable to afford to eat a way to survive. There were also many youngsters with strength to work that saw this as free food and felt even more disinclined to leave.
The number of idle people in Mao Er Town had increased and troublesome events such as fights, looting, and stealing started breaking out.
Just last night, several ruffians had rushed into the inn, scaring the guests. They had snatched a few valuables and then left. If it weren’t for martial experts being present, they would most likely have stolen even more.
Ever since becoming pregnant, Ruan Zhu always slept lightly and would wake at the slightest sound of activity. When the few thieves had just noisily entered the inn, she had been startled awake.
Both the receptionist and innkeeper had hidden themselves. The first floor was the dining area and it also had several guest rooms that were of a lower quality used by poorer guests. From that area, the thieves did not have large fish to catch so they proceeded into the second floor.
Ruan Zhu heard noise from the stairs and then the sound of what seemed to be weapons smashing doors open. She thought it was strange and opened her eyes. She shook Yun Shi Wei but he was deeply asleep and did not wake.
At this moment, Lu Piao Xiang’s voice came from outside the door: “Madam Yun, don’t be afraid. I am here.”
Ruan Zhu was startled and unexpectedly felt comforted. This kind of emotion, she had only ever experienced before with Yun Shi Yi. She composed herself and got up to dress herself neatly before pulling the sheets over Yun Shi Wei as this guy had the habit of sleeping naked.
Sounds of fighting very quickly came from outside the door, along with the ringing of gold and iron. Perhaps the hoodlums had suffered a loss as–thud thud thud–she heard the sound of something or someone falling down the stairs.
From that, Yun Shi Wei was finally roused from his slumber and rolled off the bed, throwing a pair of pants on before running outside with his copper rod that weighed several catties, only pausing to ruthlessly strike at each one of the thieves, driving out all of the plunderers.
She lay down on the bed for a long time, unable to sleep. If Yun Shi Yi was here, he would have definitely carefully pressed her against his chest, soothing her. Longing suddenly overcame her like a tide and her eyes overflowed with tears.
When Yun Shi Wei returned, it was already the latter half of the evening. The inn had met with thieves and no one had the thought to sleep. His wife had received a fright but he actually went to go chat with those people until the middle of the night. She didn’t know where his large tendency to gossip came from.
“Spouse, why haven’t you slept yet?”
Ruan Zhu silently shook her head and lifted her head to look at him: “You should also be tired, go to sleep!”
Yun Shi Wei climbed onto the bed, and soon, sounds of snoring could be heard.
But Ruan Zhu was still preoccupied with the pain of separation. If Yun Shi Yi was here, he would coax her to sleep first before sleeping himself.
She stayed like this with her eyes open, terribly missing him, before finally closing her exhausted eyes when the sky was about to brighten.
The day was bright and she was awake, but without any vigor.
“Spouse, the inn’s owner has invited me for dinner as thanks for helping them last night. You should also go!” Yun Shi Wei came inside and placed a large bag of things on the table, “There’s nothing of interest in staying inside the room every day, just sleeping. It would be better to eat a meal to dispel your boredom.”
“What are you carrying?” Perhaps it was because she barely slept last night, but she didn’t want to move and invited Nuan Chun and Nuan Qing inside to freshen her up. This work had previously been Yun Shi Yi’s and never had she been served by others before.
“Walnuts. The innkeeper sent them, saying it’s for you to boost your body with as it’s good for pregnant women to eat.”
Ruan Zhu recalled that walnuts were good for a fetus’s brain. This was also Yun Shi Yi’s child and must be nurtured well: “Crack open the shell and hand me the inside flesh.”
Nuan Chun and Nuan Qing carried in water for her to wash her face with and they busily went about in servicing their young Miss. Wearing a simple skirt, inserting a hair clip and beaded flowers……Even if she currently had no energy, Ruan Zhu still followed the habits she had acquired in her previous life and did not allow a single part of herself to not be neat and orderly.
She ate some rice and reclined against the head of the bed, accepting the walnut kernels that Yun Shi Wei handed over, slowly eating them one by one.
“Spouse, this Mao Er Town is about to be thrown into chaos. I heard there are revolts over in the county town. They’ve smashed the yamen, robbed the granary, and the stockpiles of the wealthy families have also been cleaned out by bandits until there was nothing left. The county magistrate and yamen baliff had taken advantage of the situation and fled. Nowadays, the county seat is under the rule of bandits.”
Ruan Zhu was alarmed. What the ancient aristocratic families feared the most was bandits. The poor did not fear them because they did not have anything worth stealing but that was not the case with the wealthy. Like this, she would also be one of the bandits’ targets, right?
“Spouse, you don’t have to worry. Mao Er Town is located at the border so there are quite a few army troops stationed here. Even if bandits did come here, they wouldn’t be able to obtain many advantages. I can’t say for sure, but after fighting them for a few days, maybe they would all be eliminated.”
Ruan Zhu was unconvinced. During the early stages of formation, the bandits’ general fighting spirit would be high and incomparably brave, and the army may not necessarily be their opponent. Many regimes had collapsed because their heart had weakened from infighting caused by contradictory views, allowing outside enemies to take advantage of their instability and annihilating them in one swoop.
She slowly said: “Reasonably speaking, we should leave this unstable area as soon as possible. But if we do and Lord Husband returns and is unable to find us, that would not be good.”
Yun Shi Wei thought for a bit: “I will send a letter to Liu Zhou tomorrow through the relay station, saying that we will all meet again in Lan Zhou. Spouse, how about that?”
Ruan Zhu shook her head: “In the turmoil and chaos of war and with a land full of starving people, will he actually be able to receive the letter?”
During this disaster, there must be a lot of people that starved to death, right?
It was hard for her to imagine a situation where people starved, but every Chinese person that had experienced the large □ that covered over half of China in the 1960’s would understand.[c]
A neighbor of Ruan Zhu had said before that when his father was young, he had fled alone from the south to the Great Northern Wilderness because the northeast had more food. On the road, he ate the meat off of corpses and when he arrived in Heilongjiang, there was still a hand left in his bag. He buried the hand and then abstained from meat for many years afterwards.
“Regardless of whether Lord Husband can receive the letter, send the letter out tomorrow. Tell him not to worry about the business anymore and quickly come back. No……go send it out today, I’ll write the letter, immediately go send it to the relay station.”
Starting from the Tang dynasty, a few smart people decided to use horse relay stations also as a hub for business because these stations had an enormous cost. Not only did this plan succeed in the target of ‘using business to make up losses,’ it was also profitable. As to why relay stations have evolved to sending letters or potentially delivering lightweight goods, well, not only was it convenient, but it also was more economical.
Ruan Zhu got hold of pen and paper and hurriedly wrote a letter, sealing it before handing it to Yun Shi Wei. Money was merely worldly possessions. It would be fine as long as her child’s father could return home safely.
“Spouse, the streets are very chaotic. You’re with child so if there is nothing, don’t randomly walk about. If there’s something, just let Nuan Chun and the others do it.”
Yun Shi Wei went out with the letter and did not return until the afternoon.
“Spouse, I delivered the letter you wrote to the envoy of the relay station just as there was a fast horse headed to Liu Zhou. It’s about six hundred li, so if he hurries and rides nonstop, I reckon he should be there in around five or six days. I gave him some extra silver and he promised he would definitely personally hand the letter over to Eldest Brother.”
Ruan Zhu’s worried heart eased slightly. Holding onto the window ledge, she surveyed the streets. Not long ago, Mao Er Town was flourishing but now it was a ruined sight to behold, with famished refugees everywhere in tattered garments. They were either lying down under the eaves of a random home or knocking on doors, begging for food from house to house as they clutched at a broken porcelain bowl.
If it was the former Ruan Zhu, she would have been flooded with empathy and gifted the money she had on her to a few of the impoverished people unable to afford to eat.
But now that she was pregnant, as a qualified mother, she must properly look at her child. Letting them grow up healthy was her biggest wish. Though others’ lives were also valuable, they could not compare to the life of the child in her belly.
It’s not that I’m unwilling to help you, I’m worried I’ll become a public target. If by chance my economical status is accidentally revealed, others will be envious and perhaps even my life would not be safe.
“Spouse, the innkeeper’s invitation for dinner tonight, are you going?”
Ruan Zhu quickly glanced at him: “I am not and also forbid you from going.”
It was easy to guess what the innkeeper’s plan was. During times of turmoil, who wouldn’t want to find someone with skill to help them, either with fighting off thieves or traveling with them as they fled?
Unfortunately, this fool was too easy, actually believing someone was offering something for him free of charge as if he was a living god.
Three days later, when Ruan Zhu’s letter had yet to reach Liu Zhou, a letter from Yun Shi Yi arrived. The tone was strict, telling them to immediately depart from Mao Er Town, and that it would be good if they could return to Lan Zhou, but should hide in a secure location if the political situation became too messy.
Very quickly, Ruan Zhu received a piece of news–the imperial court wanted Mao Er Town to be used as the headquarters for dealing with the rebels.
The author has something to say: A neighbor had said before that when his father was young, he had fled alone from the south to the Great Northern Wilderness because the northeast had more food. On the road, he ate the meat off of corpses and there was still a hand left in his bag when he arrived in Heilongjiang. He buried the hand and then abstained from meat for many years afterwards.
This story is true, there genuinely was this incident. I have met the old man’s son, and my husband has met the old man before. I don’t know what frame of mind he was in that year when he had to eat corpses?
[a] Translation found (here)
[b] 在水一方 is a song originally written for the 1975 Taiwanese romantic film of the same name (English name The Unforgettable Character). Originally sung by Chiang Lei, it has also been covered by various artists since then, notably among them was Teresa Teng. (Youtubes of Chiang Lei and of Teresa Teng)
[c] The □ is referring to the Great Chinese Famine (1959-1961) where tens of millions of people are estimated to have died from starvation. All three sites I checked have this box, perhaps it was censored because the famine was largely caused by Mao Zedong’s policies? (Wikipedia)