“It really is a good painting—mist covered water extending into the distance, a single lonely boat. Extraordinary technique,” I calmly said, nodding my head in admiration. After all, due to my status, I could not lose all semblance of self-control. If I was disproportionately joyous with my praise, then I would have to take care of some matters for this person, no? With my status, there were some things that could be taken care of requiring only the slightest effort. There were some things that would be better to look on without doing anything.1 Although His Imperial Majesty was presently quite wise, one had to remember that he was already over seventy. I had heard that he was planning on passing the throne to the Imperial Grandson. If he were to become muddled and suspicious of subjects like myself, there was no way for me to have an appropriate conclusion to my career. When Liu Zhen, the middle-aged man who presented me with the gift, saw my expression, a look of anxiety flashed across his eyes. Cautiously, he said, “Your Ducal Grace, this nephew’s father is old and muddled. He should not have recklessly authored that book. I beseech Your Grace to say a few good words on behalf of my father in consideration that you two were class colleagues2 and were subjects together.”
“Is that so? What book has Brother Wenju authored? Quickly let me take a look. I am extremely fond of Brother Wenju’s written works.” My interest was piqued. That year, I had passed the imperial examination with his old man, Liu Kui, Liu Wenju. I was first, he was second. But to tell the truth, I had always admired his writings. He was careful with his writing and his histories were complete and accurate. If it weren’t for his pigheaded stubborness, refusing to serve a second master, he would have easily been the court historian. Earlier, I had heard that he had penned the Southern Chu3 Dynastic Records. I had high expectations … but lately there had been no news of this work. Liu Zhen showed an awkward expression. From within his bosom, he removed a cloth bundle and passed it to me. When I opened the bundle, I saw a book with a faded cover titled Southern Chu Dynastic Records. With excitement, I opened the book, completely forgetting that there was an outsider in the room. After I rapidly read a few lines, a wry smile appeared on my face. Brother Wenju really did not leave any sentiment or face for me. Lazily setting down the book, I spoke in an unrestrained voice, “Worthy nephew, go home for now. I must consider the full details of this matter. You must know that this venerable one has not been involved in politics for a long time.”
After seeing Liu Zhen off, I called out in a loud voice, “Xiaoshunzi! Xiaoshunzi!” Following my cries, an elderly gentleman entered from outside. He looked like he was in his forties. His appearance was delicate, his face pale and whiskerless. This person was my trusted aide who had followed me for over fifty years, Li Shun. He was once a eunuch in the Southern Chu Palace. He had superb martial arts. Supposedly, he had already reached the level of a grandmaster. For what reason was it supposed? Because I did not know any martial arts, of course. But seeing as he was over sixty and yet looked middle-aged, it must be true. Before, there were those who did not believe that such a skilled martial artist like Li Shun would loyally serve a weak and harmless4 scholar and had attempted to bribe him. I won’t speak of how miserable their ends were so that no one will lose their appetite after hearing it. With a wry smile, I said, “Liu Kui is a remnant subject of Southern Chu. It hardly matters if he says something unduly excessive. Why do the ranking officials in the court even care about this?”
Li Shun smiled and replied, “My Lord must have forgotten. Next year, the Imperial Grandson will succeed the throne. The Crown Princess is your eldest daughter. Under these circumstances, everyone wants to curry favor with you. Only Liu Kui of all people remains so stubborn, insisting on placing your venerable self’s biography among other Southern Chu officials. Even if you weren’t bothered by it, the dignity of the Crown Princess and the Imperial Grandson must be upheld.”
“That’s true!” I suddenly saw the light. Forget that within this history, Liu Kui had written that I was “treacherously sinister, a profound schemer.” Everyone knew that he wasn’t someone particularly sensitive to politics. If it weren’t for Xiaoshunzi’s advice and my efforts to put my safety above all else, I fear I would have been eliminated long ago. Thinking of this, I indifferently replied, “Go speak with Roulan and tell her that Liu Kui is one of the last remnant subjects of Southern Chu. There is no point in making matters difficult for him. There are some things that even if he didn’t say, others would say. Although the Biography of Jiang Suiyun that he wrote about me is caustic and acerbic, it conforms to fact. Him writing my biography prevents others from writing without basis. Moreover, this matter won’t involve the Imperial Grandson. Tell the Crown Princess there is no need to be so meddlesome.” Xiaoshunzi respectfully withdrew.
In high spirits, I opened the Biography of Jiang Suiyun and began to read it. Although my life was still incomplete,5 it wouldn’t matter if I took an advanced look.
In the sixteenth year of Xiande,6 the fourth year of the sixty-year cycle, after the King recovered from a slight illness. As autumn approached, the King ordered a special imperial examination to celebrate his recovery. Jiangnan’s scholars were delighted, traveling in large groups to the capital. On the fifteenth day of the eighth month, the results were announced. Coming in first was Jiang Zhe of Jiaxing. From that point, Suiyun was not yet famous. Many asked, who is this person?
Jiang Zhe, styled Suiyun,7 was born in the fourth year of Tongyuan,8 the forty-fifth year of the sixty-year cycle. His father was Jiang Mu, styled Hanqiu.9 As a young man, Hanqiu’s family was poor. However, he was refined, distinguished, and accomplished. An aristocratic family with a long friendship with Hanqiu’s family married their beloved daughter to him. With the world in turmoil, Hanqiu could not forge a path for himself, refusing to take up an official post, passing his days teaching his son. Towards the end of the eighth year of Xiande, an epidemic swept through Jiaxing. Hanqiu’s wife passed. Not long after, Hanqiu broke off relations with his in-laws over a trifling matter. Even though he was sick, he traveled afar with his son. Arriving at Jiangxia,10 Hanqiu became extremely ill. Suiyun sought treatment for his father. By chance, he met the Medical Sage, Sang Chen. Doting upon Suiyun’s encyclopedic knowledge, Sang Chen taught him everything. Soon after, Hanqiu gradually recovered and Sang Chen crossed the Yangtze River and went north. Taking care of his father, Suiyun remained in Jiangxia. In the eleventh year of Xiande, the fifty-ninth year of the sixty-year cycle, Hanqiu passed, leaving behind the twelve volumes of the Distant Purity Collection. This work was refined and fresh, much beloved by later generations.After Hanqiu died, Suiyun was too poor to bury him. At this time, Jiangxia was garrisoned by Lu Xin, the Marquis Who Suppresses Distant Lands. The marquis sought a teacher for his son. Suiyun went to interview for the position. Seeing he was so young, the marquis intentionally made things difficult, ordering Suiyun to showcase his talent. From Suiyun’s brush flowed a thousand words. Shortly, he penned the Autumn River Rhapsody, containing the verses, “Soon the moon rose above the eastern mountain, hovering between the Dipper and Cowherd. The river stretched white, sparkling as if with dew, and its glimmering water merging with the sky. We let our craft drift over the boundless expanse of water, feeling as free as if we were riding the wind bound for some unknown destination, as light as if we had left the human world and become winged immortals.”11 With this verse, Marquis Lu was startled, standing to thank Suiyun. He ordered his heir to come out to formally become a student and seek instruction …—Southern Chu Dynastic Records, Biography of Jiang Suiyun
- 袖手旁观, xiushoupangguan – idiom, lit. to watch with folded arms, to look on without lifting a finger
- 同年, tongnian – someone who passed the imperial examination in the same year; in Chinese officialdom, the most important relationships that one possessed were with one’s teacher and with colleagues who passed the imperial examination in the same year
- 南楚 – Southern Chu, a kingdom (king)
- 手无缚鸡之力, shouwufujizhili – idiom, lit. without the strength to truss a chicken; weak and harmless
- 盖棺论定, gaiguanlunding – idiom, lit. don’t pass judgement on a person’s life until the lid is on the coffin; an incomplete life cannot be judged
- 显德, xiande – lit. manifesting virtue
- 随云, suiyun – lit. following the clouds
- 同原, tongyuan – lit. same origins
- 寒秋, hanqiu – lit. cold autumn
- 江夏, Jiangxia – Modern-day Wuhan
- This is from a rhapsody penned by famed Song Dynasty poet Su Shi, Su Dongpo, entitled “First Red Cliffs Rhapsody” (前赤壁赋). This rhapsody was written while Su Dongpo was traveling on a boat and arrived before the Red Cliffs, the location of a famous battle of the Three Kingdoms period.