Volume 1, Chapter 4: Appreciating Art, Overturning Injustice

Volume 1, Chapter 4: Appreciating Art, Overturning Injustice

In the third month of the eighteenth year of Xiande or the sixth year of the sixty-year cycle, I had reached the age of twenty-two. After I had ranked first in the imperial examinations and become the zhuangyuan, there were many people who came to my home to play matchmaker. I declined them all, using the excuse that I was still young and wished to continue to study in order to better serve the government. Thereafter, fewer and fewer people came. Many of those with discerning eyes soon realized that even though I was a young zhuangyuan, there was little chance for me to rise in rank meteorically.1 In addition, I buried myself in books, almost as if I was obsessed. This kind of person did not meet the requirements set forth by the influential families. As a result, I was able to experience a rarely occurring peace and quiet.

This day, as usual, I came to Hanlin Academy to prepare for work. I saw a huge crowd gathered in the main hall. I was surprised. To wit, even though I was a Hanlin Academic, there was still a hierarchy in Hanlin Academy. Because I was the zhuangyuan, I was able to jump over a number of ranks (including Bachelor2 and Examining Editor3 directly to a zhengqipin4 rated position as a Junior Compiler). Above me were several positions, including the Senior Compiler, Expositor, Reader, Expositor-in-Waiting,5 Reader-in-Waiting6, and Academy Chancellor7. When I looked over, I saw a diverse crowd. Amidst the crowd, at the head was the Academy Chancellor, Xie Xian, while at the back was a Bachelor who had recently passed the imperial examination alongside me in the second tier. I was greatly surprised, especially by the presence of those who were ranked as Expositor-in-Waiting and above who usually spent their time accompanying the king, all of whom were gathered here. Walking forward, I noticed Academic Yin and Academic Tian arguing heatedly. On the table in the middle was an antique painting. Next to the painting was a red piece of paper. On it was written: Green Hills Sage Riverside Painting.8 Everyone must be arguing over and trying to determine the provenance of the painting. After the king had decreed the establishment of the Palace of Sublime Culture, many people had donated their antique books, works of calligraphy and paintings, but real masterpieces were difficult to find.

Academic Yin gracefully said, “This painting must be a forgery. The earlier works by the Green Hills Sage have always been of green landscapes with a gorgeous style. His later works were influenced by his beliefs in Buddhism and Daoism, and were primarily of ink landscapes filled with tranquil beauty. Although this painting is an ink landscape, the brushwork is rugged, the clouds and mists are too eye-catching, and the rivers are roiling. Therefore, I do not believe that this is a work by the Green Hills Sage.”

Academic Tian did not show any weakness in his response. “Although what you say makes sense, but look … the paper used for this painting is carefully selected. Although well preserved, we can see that it is a work of the Green Hills Sage's time period—two hundred years ago. We can also see the presence of the seal of the Green Hills Sage. From the postscript, there should not be any problems.”

The other officials were split on both sides, arguing incessantly. Interested in what was happening, I carefully scrutinized the painting for a long time. Only after accessing my memories and using my own experiences did I make my judgement. Everyone saw that I had come. Because I had shown significant skill in appraising antique works and was a newly appointed official, the two arguing academics invariably both turned to me. The Academy Chancellor coughed and spoke, “Suiyun, what is your view?”

Walking to the table, I stood in front of the painting. Opening my mouth, I explained, “First, looking at the characters on the painting. The upper section has the words: ‘Brother Ke Ziyuan’s elegant pastime.’ The bottom section has the words: ‘respectively manufactured on the ninth day of the seventh month of the second year of Yuanyou, the 21st year of the sixty-year cycle.’ The four corners of the painting have signs pointing to the Green Hills Sage. The top left has the zhuwen9 markings of the Ningquan Paint Engraving, the bottom left has the baiwen10 of the Linyuan Hall,11 the top right has the baiwen seal of an expositor of the Gezhang Pavilion,12 and the bottom right has the zhuwen seal of the Green Hills Sage. These four seals have all appeared on the other works by the Green Hills Sage. Academic Tian is among the best at identifying the origin of seals, and is probably not wrong. From the contextual research, we can safely say that the Green Hills Sage was a famed scholar of the Jin Dynasty who was a zhengsipin13 rated Expositor-in-Waiting of the Gezhang Pavilion. After Western Jin was forced south by encroaching nomadic tribes, the Green Hills Sage was heartbroken and lived in seclusion at the Linyuan Pavilion in Sichuan. It is said that the sage was too poor to be able to rely on himself. Fortunately, he was able to receive financial assistance from the wealthy Sichuan merchant, Ke Ming, to survive through the years of warfare. If you look at the two seal markings from the Ke family, we can conclude that this painting was gifted to Ke Ming.”

Taking a breath, I continued, “These seal markings all have historical antecedents. I have read the Green Hills Sage’s Sichuan Chronicles14. In the ninth volume, it states: ‘During the autumn equinox, Ziyuan15 organized a feast, and both host and guest enjoyed a wonderful time. As we bade our farewells, the Ke family asked for one of my unworthy works. To express my thanks, I painted the Riverside Painting.’ I have also researched the Ke family. Although the family has disappeared into oblivion, I have found mentions in the work of Tao Kai called the Shu Records16 written during the waning years of the Western Jin Dynasty. In the chapter on Shi Chong,17 it states, ‘When Shi Chong was young, he was treated indifferently as a laborer for the Ke family. When he later became wealthy, he conspired with eunuchs and slandered the Ke family as rebels, resulting in their complete extermination.’18 If you look at the bottom left, you can see that there is also Shi Chong’s Golden Valley Garden Treasure Depository seal. After Shi Chong, along with his family, was exterminated, most of his prized possessions ended up in the imperial court. On the middle left is the seal markings of the Prince of Changling.19 The Prince of Changling was a member of the imperial clan of the waning years of the Western Jin Dynasty and was much favored by Emperor Yuan of Jin.20 Emperor Yuan was the one who seized all of Shi Chong’s possessions. It is highly likely that this painting ended up in the hands of the Prince of Changling. If we consider all of these facts, especially with such a provenance, I believe that this painting is real.”

The majority listening nodded their heads. Only Academic Yin was unable to accept these facts and inquired, “If everything you said is true, then how do you explain the painting style?”

Smiling, I replied, “This is only my personal view. If there is something wrong, I hope that everyone can point it out. Before fleeing south, the style of the Green Hills Sage’s works was bright, cheerful, and intense. Therefore, he liked to paint green landscapes. But in the years before he traveled south, his painting style slowly became increasingly tranquil. He used ink as the basis before using green color on top. It’s highly likely that he was already painting ink landscapes. Of the years he spent in Sichuan, very little of the Green Hills Sage’s works have been handed down. It wasn’t until Eastern Jin was established did he focus on ink landscape paintings. But, at the beginning, he preferred to use dense ink to embellish and had a straight and rigid calligraphy style. From this we can see that his time spent in Sichuan was a period of transition for his painting style. This also explains why so few works exist from this time period. Immature works would frequently be destroyed by their creator. I have read of the Green Hills Sage’s penchant for doing so in the seventh volume of his Sichuan Chronicles.”

Listening up to this point, everyone had accepted my judgement, the look in their eyes becoming fervently respectful. After all, someone with my extensive knowledge was quite rare.

After this incident, I was given additional work, most important of which was to enter the palace and go to the book repository to organize the official imperial documents. As we had prepared to build the Palace of Sublime Culture, an individual proposed that someone organize the histories of Southern Chu using the official imperial documents to be able to educate the younger generation of the imperial family and aristocracy. Southern Chu had been founded for sixty years and experienced the reigns of two sovereigns, Zhao She, the founding Emperor Wu, and the current monarch, Zhao Sheng. Although I did not think there was much use, the rest of Hanlin Academy all agreed and petitioned the king, delighting Zhao Sheng. Unfortunately, organizing the official imperial documents was a particularly troublesome task. Although I was a relatively new official, I was skilled. Academy Chancellor Xie Xian decided to give the responsibility to the Reader-in-Waiting, Xia Song and assigned me to assist. Xia Song was already over sixty and was preparing to retire. As a result, I was the one actually with the responsibility, while Xia Song only worked for a few days before requesting a leave of absence and returning home to rest. The most troublesome aspect of his job was the need to enter the Palace Library and work in the book repository where all of the documents were stored. And, I could not enter freely and needed to be accompanied by the eunuchs assigned to these storehouses. As a result, I began to work less than a hundred zhang21 from the king. This was must be the true meaning of being very close and yet as far as the ends of the earth.

The eunuch supervising these storehouses was surnamed Wang. His hair was already white. To sit every day for twelve to fourteen hours was detrimental to his health. During the first day, I said, “Eunuch22 Wang, we will probably have to spend up to half a month here. You don’t have to be polite. Just find a low-ranking eunuch to come help. If I need your assistance, I will come find you every few days.”23 Eunuch Wang was already getting up in years and had an idle position. Although the book repository was very close to the Imperial Library, the eunuchs of the Bureau of Ceremonies were all young and vigorous with the favor of the king. Eunuch Wang could not even get close to the king. As he was in no position to vie for the King’s favor, no one would bother to find trouble for him. So, he didn’t have to worry even if he wasn’t conscientious. Therefore, he dispatched a young eunuch, called Xiaoshunzi,24 with less than a year’s experience, to help me. This young eunuch’s intelligence and few years of schooling was very rare amongst eunuchs. Not everyone could have the education offered to those in the Bureau of Ceremonies.

When I saw Xiaoshunzi, I froze. If I remembered correctly, this was the young boy I had met upon arriving in Jianye who was selling himself to bury his father. How did he now become a eunuch? As there was probably something sad, it was not appropriate for me to ask him. Since he didn’t recognize me, I pretended that he was a stranger. This young eunuch was not bad, not only ably organizing the four treasures of the study, but also quickly finding the petition or imperial document that I needed. We worked together harmoniously. A job that should have taken twenty days would probably only take twelve or thirteen at the most.

At noon on the third day, after lunch, as I was drinking a light tea and preparing to take a brief respite, Eunuch Wang suddenly burst in assisted by two young eunuchs, yelling, “Xiaoshunzi, Xiaoshunzi, where did this young blasted servant go?” Curious, I looked at him, wondering what was going on.

Seeing me, a smiling expression appeared on Eunuch Wang’s face, “Jiang zhuangyuan, you’re here too?”

Rubbish. If I weren't here, where would I be? I wasn’t allowed to return home to take my afternoon nap. While I was thinking this, I said, “Eunuch, what’s happened? Has something happened to rile you up so?”

Angrily, Eunuch Wang spat out, “The little bastard Xiaoshunzi’s hands aren’t clean; he has stolen my beloved snuff bottle awarded to this old servant25 by the previous emperor.”

Opening his eyes wide, Xiaoshunzi kneeled on the ground, and said, “There is no such thing, this servant26 does not have the gall nor the bravery to steal something bestowed by the emperor.” Having been castrated more than a year ago, before the age when children begin to physically mature, his voice was high-pitched. Now panicked, his voice became even more jarring.

Clearly his throat, a young eunuch helping Eunuch Wang said, “How dare you talk back? Do you think we don’t know? You were originally a criminal found guilty of robbery. When Steward27 Wang lost something, I immediately thought of you. And as expected, when we searched your room, we found the snuff bottle.”

His face green with fear, Xiaoshunzi prostrated himself and replied, “This servant didn’t do it, this servant didn’t do it. Someone is definitely trying to frame me.”

Eunuch Wang furious replied, “Are you saying that I framed you or Xiaofuzi28 framed you?”

Sweating with fear, Xiaoshunzi prostrated himself next to me, begging me, “Jiang daren, you are someone educated. Please help me explain to the Head Eunuch. These last several days, this servant has been helping by the daren’s side. How do I have the time to steal anything?”

I was originally watching the scene unfold before me in high spirits, having already seen what was going on. I noticed that although Xiaofuzi was a good actor, I could see that his breathing was agitated and his heart pounding, and had already concluded that he was deliberately framing Xiaoshunzi. But Xiaoshunzi’s background was not clean, so I did not have any way of explaining the situation. I did not want to become involved in any palace disputes so I gave him a gave a brief and indifferent look and didn’t say anything. Xiaoshunzi quickly became agitated. Seeing that I didn’t say anything, Eunuch Wang ordered, “Have him bound and sent to the discipline room. The sentence for the crime of stealing something in the Royal Palace is death. Have him beaten to death.”

Suddenly remembering the scene that I witnessed where Xiaoshunzi had tried to sell himself to bury his father, my heart softened. Since this wasn’t something major and he was innocent, I quickly thought up a plan. I impartially said, “Eunuch Wang, seeing this servant cry so hard, maybe he is innocent?”

Hesitating somewhat, Eunuch Wang responded, “We did find the snuff bottle hidden in his room.”

With a smile, I asked, “He has been following me the last few days. When was the Eunuch’s snuff bottle lost?”

Thinking, Eunuch Wang answered, “I used it last night. It disappeared around noon.”

Deliberately furrowing my brows, I stated, “This is definitely difficult to determine. How about this? I29 am well versed in the Book of Changes, and am able to determine a man’s fate and identify injustices. Please allow me to perform a divination.”

As a eunuch who had lived a life filled with bumps, Eunuch Wang was quite superstitious. His eyes lighting up, he exclaimed, “Daren can divine fate? Excellent! Please help this old servant perform the calculations.”

Waving my hand, I replied, “Such a small divination does not require calculations. How about this, since we are trying to detect injustice. Those suffering injustice have an upright state of mind. I have a method. Have the accused Xiaoshunzi and the accuser Xiaofuzi each take this medicinal pellet that I have concocted. After I’ve beseeched the Heavens, if they are innocent, then they will be unharmed. If they are guilty, then they will suffer stomach pain.” As I finished speaking, I retrieved a small jade bottle from within my robes. Shaking out two small pellets, I handed them to the two young eunuchs.

Smiling, Eunuch Wang said, “Excellent, let this old servant witness the abilities of the zhuangyuan. You two, quickly swallow the pellets.”

Without any hesitation, Xiaoshunzi swallowed the pellet. Xiaofuzi hesitated briefly before pretending to swallow the pellet. Instead, using a trick, he hid the pellet in his sleeve. Such good ability, I thought with a sigh. Then I pretended to beseech the Heavens. After about the time it takes for a stick of incense to burn,30 Xiaoshunzi’s face swiftly turned white. Gasping in pain, he fell to the ground clutching his stomach. Nothing happened to Xiaofuzi. Gleefully, he said, “As expected, you were the thief. The lord zhuangyuan’s prayers have come true.”

Hesitating, Eunuch Wang looked at me. Just as he was about to give the order, I smiled faintly and said, “Although I do have some ability, I have no way to request the divine to punish you. I concocted this pellet to cleanse one’s stomach. Yesterday, I had heard that due to Eunuch Wang’s age, he suffers from indigestion. This kind of medicine is perfect for the elderly to use with lotus seed soup. If a young man with vigorous blood flow were to take this medicine, he would suffer from acute stomach pains. Xiaofuzi, where did you hide your pellet?”

Frightened, Xiaofuzi backed away, only to see Eunuch Wang step in front of him with a single, big stride. Eunuch Wang caught hold of Xiaofuzi’s wrist and twisted. In pain, Xiaofuzi could do nothing as Eunuch Wang easily found the pellet in Xiaofuzi’s sleeve. After Eunuch Wang released his grip, Xiaofuzi fell to the floor, frightened out of his wits. Indifferently, Eunuch Wang said, “Xiaoshunzi, quickly go to my room. There is a bowl of lotus seed soup on the table being cooled.”

Nodding his head, Xiaoshunzi rushed out. After a while, he returned, a look of relaxation on his features. Smiling such that he was almost squinting, Eunuch Wang said, “Thank you, my lord zhuangyuan for thinking of this old servant.” Saying so while he bade his farewell, he quickly took the bottle of medicine from my hands and departed. Not long afterwards, two middle-aged eunuchs came and took Xiaofuzi away.

Thankful, Xiaoshunzi prostrated himself before me, saying, “Benefactor has now saved me twice. Even if Xiaoshunzi were to work tirelessly, there is no way that I can repay this kindness.”

My eyes widening, it took some time before I could respond. “You still remember me?”

Blushing, Xiaoshunzi replied, “Actually, this servant immediately recognized my lord zhuangyuan. I would forever remember the time daren so generously helped me.

A bit curious, I asked, “Then why didn’t you say so earlier?”

He hesitated for a long time before answering, “This servant … this servant was lying when I earlier tried to sell myself in order to bury my father.”

As my eyes widened, Xiaoshunzi continued, “This servant originally hailed from a scholarly family. When my father died, my uncle stole the inheritance and secretly sold me into a theatrical troupe. This servant thus began to wander all over the world. I could not take the troupe’s insults and fled with a few brothers. Without any livelihood, we could only beg, steal, and cheat. Last time meeting daren, I was working with an old beggar. He played my father, while I played the filial son. Daren generously helped. Two of our co-conspirators, blinded by greed, secretly followed daren.…”

Reaching this point, Xiaoshunzi became even more embarrassed. I instantly realized who had knocked me unconscious. Still a bit confused, I asked, “You had so much money, enough to live. How did you … how did you.…” I couldn’t finish the question.

Smiling, Xiaoshunzi replied, “It may have been retribution. We were purported to be bandits by others and were captured by government soldiers. As we had tried to rob an imperial family member and had committed numerous offenses, we were sentenced to death. As we were still young, the judge on the case gave us the chance of entering the palace as a slave. My comrades were unyielding and were sent to the execution grounds. I was afraid, and thus entered the palace.”

Sighing, I said, “You weren’t afraid, you were brave. Although life is filled with bitterness, we still persistently try to stay alive. For you to live and to make light when speaking on this subject—to me that is brave. Those who take death lightly, are only running away from their responsibilities.”

Suddenly, Xiaoshunzi kneeled again, tightly clutching my legs. I was in so much pain that I peed myself.

Thereafter, that young man did his utmost to attend to me. I later learned that Eunuch Wang was a powerful martial artist and had taken Xiaoshunzi under his tutelage. Prompted by a sudden impulse and admiring his fortitude, I smuggled in a handwritten copy of the Sunflower Manual. Xiaoshunzi did not say anything, but in a serious manner, accepted my gift.

Half a month later, I left the palace carrying the organized official imperial documents. More importantly, I gained a friend who would come visit me in the dead of night. 


  1. 飞黄腾达, feihuangtengda – idiom, lit. the divine stead Feihuang gallops; to achieve meteoric success in one's career
  2. 庶吉士, shujishi – a position within Hanlin Academy that does not necessarily have an official rank rating and is assigned to help monitor one of the six ministries of Chinese government; it typically is granted to those placed highly in the imperial examinations
  3. 检讨, jiantao – examining editor
  4. 正七品, zheng qipin – upper seventh ranked
  5. 侍讲学士, shijiang xueshi – expositor-in-waiting
  6. 侍读学士, shidu xueshi – reader-in-waiting
  7. 掌院学士, zhangyuan xueshi – academy chancellor, the official who heads Hanlin Academy
  8. 青山居士临江图, qingshan jushi linjiang tu – a 居士 is a Buddhist layman who has not become a monk
  9. 朱文, zhuwen – a seal that uses red characters
  10. 白文, baiwen – a seal that uses white characters
  11. 临渊堂, linyuan tang – lit. Facing Profound Hall
  12. 奎章阁, gezhang ge – was historically the royal academy of the Yuan Dynasty and of the Korean Joseon Dynasty; being portrayed in the story as also the royal academy of the Jin Dynasty
  13. 正四品, zheng sipin – upper fourth-ranked
  14. 蜀中纪事, shuzhong jishi – lit. Shuzhong Chronicles; Shuzhong refers to Sichuan
  15. Refers to Ke Ming (柯明), styled Ziyuan (子远)
  16. 蜀志, shuzhi – lit. Shu Records; refers to Sichuan
  17. 石崇, Shi Chong – a Jin Dynasty official; the sixth son of Western Jin’s Minister of the Masses, Shi Bao
  18. 灭九族, mie jiuzu – the nine familial exterminations refers to a punishment where the crimes of the individual becomes, by association, the crimes of the family, resulting in the complete execution of the criminal themselves; the criminal’s living parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren, siblings and siblings-in-law, uncles and aunts and their spouses, spouse, and spouse’s parents
  19. 长陵王, changling wang – lit. Prince of Changling
  20. 晋元帝, jin yuandi – Emperor Yuan of Jin, Sima Rui was the last Emperor of Western Jin and the first Emperor of Eastern Jin; in the face of encroaching nomadic tribes in the north, he was forced to move his court south of the Huai River
  21. 丈, zhang – about ten Chinese feet (3.3 meters)
  22. 公公, gonggong – a respectful way of calling eunuchs
  23. 隔三差五, gesanchawu – idiom, every few days
  24. 小顺子, xiaoshunzi – lit. little follower
  25. 老奴, laonu – lit. this old servant; used by elderly slaves, servants, and eunuchs to refer to themselves
  26. 奴才, nucai – lit. this servant; used by slaves, servants, and eunuchs to refer to themselves; also is used by their owners
  27. 管事, guanshi – steward; often used to refer to a supervisory eunuch; in this case Eunuch Wang is a supervisor of the book storehouses
  28. 小福子, xiaofuzi – lit. little fortune
  29. 下官, xiaguan – lit. this lower-ranking official; used by officials as a deferential way of referring to themselves when talking with higher-ranking officials; while eunuch ranks are not rated according to the system, this term was used to be polite
  30. A stick of incense took about 10-15 minutes to burn; faster during the winter, slower during the summer
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