Hi! We’re starting a new Chinese novel called Feng Xing (凤行) by Mask Feast (假面的盛宴), author of Counterattack of the Cannon Fodder Chambermaid. However, compared to that light-hearted romance, this story is a bit more serious as it delves deep into the muddy waters of the imperial court. The world-building in this is excellent, and the scheming is geared more towards men of power instead of women in the inner courtyard.
I hope you will enjoy this as much as I did!
We don’t have a fixed update schedule as of the moment.
Rain was pattering down.
When the season in Shaoxing had shifted from spring to summer, it often became rainy and cloudy. The frequent rain stimulated growth of mildew, blocked the sunlight for extended periods of time, and brought forth a musty smell that lingered in the humid air.
Fang Feng Sheng seemed to be half-awake, sensing slightly turbid air tickle the tip of her nose.
She didn’t want to wake up, but the unpleasant smell and the constant crying in her ears had disturbed her desire to dwell in her slumber.
Fang Feng Sheng had a dream about her childhood.
She was the only child of the Fang family, and her father had loved her since young. Although women were generally expected to be virtuous and without talent, her father still taught her to read at the age of three and to recite poetry at the age of five.
Later, when her father had gotten busier, he especially invited a teacher to come over and teach her.
At that time, she was already sensible enough to ask him why ‘the superior man learns and accumulates the results of his learning; puts questions, and discriminates among those results; dwells magnanimously and unambitiously in what he has attained to; and carries it into practice with benevolence’1, and further probed that, ‘The superior man keeps his weapon concealed about his person, and waits for the proper time to move; doing this, how should his movement be other than successful?’2
Her words had startled the teacher, but they nonetheless amused him. When she was ten years old, he had already taught her everything, so he lamented that there was nothing left to teach, and then requested to resign. All her father could do was consult another teacher.
In retrospect, the ten years before her marriage were the happiest days of Fang Feng Sheng’s life. Unfortunately, happiness was always short-lived. Everyone was born with their own destiny, including herself.
She was a woman, destined not to be a man.
“Miss, wake up.”
“Zhi Chun, stop shaking her. Miss was momentarily shocked. Since the doctor said nothing, wait for the girl to ease up, then let her wake up on her own.”
“But He mama3, I’m really scared.”
He mama sighed and said, “Master has always loved Miss. Although the father and daughter had their disagreements, they’re still bound by blood. Now that the master has become like this, I don’t blame Miss for being devastated.”
Oh, her dad was dead!
Fang Feng Sheng woke up from the darkness in vain, her heart aching as though there was a knife twisting within. The pain was so extreme that it could only be restrained through external force. She choked and coughed until her eyes welled with tears, and then finally vented everything out.
“Miss, you can cry, just cry out. When you’re sad, you have to cry. If you cry out all your grievances, it won’t hurt as much.” He mama embraced her and stroked her hair with her warm palm, just like she had done when she was a child.
“Nanny, my father is dead. He is dead.”
The one who had treasured her like a pearl since her childhood, the one who had indulged and spoiled her, the one who had taught her that, ‘The great man is he who is in harmony, in his attributes, with heaven and earth; in his brightness, with the sun and moon; in his orderly procedure, with the four seasons; and in his relation to what is fortunate and what is calamitous, in harmony with the spirit-like operations (of Providence). He may precede Heaven, and Heaven will not act in opposition to him; he may follow Heaven, but will act (only) as Heaven at the time would do.’4 The man who had clearly yearned for a son but was instead granted a daughter, and, despite his initial disappointment, taught her each and every one of the Fang family’s ancestral secrets.
The man had raised her as a son for more than a decade, only to later tell her——you are a woman, after all.
He was dead.
She didn’t even have the chance to tell him that she never blamed him for forcing her to marry.
A knock was suddenly heard from the outside, and it was from a girl named Xiao Tao.
“He mama, someone from the Old Madam’s place came to ask if the Fourth Young Madam is awake.”
He mama hurriedly vacated the couch, cleared her throat, and inquired, “Who is it?”
“It’s Sister Chun Zhi.”
Chun Zhi was a first-rank maid beside the Old Madam and was always given face in the Sun Manor. Although Feng Sheng was a master, she was also a daughter-in-law of the second branch. Even Feng Sheng’s mother-in-law, the Second Madam, Song-shi5, had to say a few polite words when she encountered Chun Zhi, not to mention her.
Aunt He was a little anxious.
She was clear about Fang Feng Sheng’s character. If Master Fang was around, no matter what, at least there was someone to depend on. Now that Master had passed, the girl had no other pillar of support. If she continued to be so capricious, how could she survive in the future?
However, this was something she didn’t dare explicitly state in front of Fang Feng Sheng. But understanding her temperament, she could only cast her a pleading look.
“Miss, nanny begs you. Just treat it as a formality, okay?”
“Miss, it’s different now, so you should try to endure for your own sake.”
Fang Feng Sheng propped herself up and ordered, “Zhi Chun, help me get dressed.”
When He mama saw her like this, she finally felt relieved and asked Zhi Chun to assist Fang Feng Sheng to dress up and wipe her face, while she would accompany her out.
Chun Zhi’s arrival brought Autumn Hall to life.
The servant girls who weren’t normally present breezed out, shouting ‘Sister Chun Zhi’ one by one. Those who didn’t know would think that some noble person had arrived at the door.
Listening to the movements outside, Zhi Chun glanced at Feng Sheng with hesitation and noticed the unsurprising indifference in her brows. She released an inexplicable sigh and helped Feng Sheng don on her blouse.
“Miss, do you want to get up?”
“I can’t afford it. A patient should act like a patient.”
Zhi Chun was wondering what the Miss meant by that sentence, but He mama had already led Chun Zhi inside.
Chun Zhi was a petite girl with thin eyebrows and apricot eyes. She was wearing a turquoise blouse with a pale pink pleated skirt, and a single bun with a silver comb inlaid with rice-sized beads.
She was not beautiful, but she was dignified and generous. After stepping in, she saluted Feng Sheng and said, “It’s actually nothing too urgent for this servant to drop a visit, but the Old Madam cares about young madam’s body. The Old Madam said to let young madam grieve, and to not worry too much. The dead won’t resurrect, but the living still have to live their lives.”
Although Chun Zhi was smiling, the meaning behind her words carried considerable weight.
What ‘the dead won’t resurrect’ and ‘not to worry too much’? It was nothing more than warning Fang Feng Sheng to abandon the idea of running home for mourning.
In fact, after the incident at the Fang family’s side, members of the Sun family had been reminding Fang Feng Sheng, both overtly and covertly, that she was a wife of the Sun family, and that she should be clear about her role.
What did it mean to recognize one’s own role?
It was to consider the Sun family first in everything. It was to let the Sun family be free of troubles.
In fact, she couldn’t blame the Sun family for such a reaction. The tax and silver embezzlement case by the Liang Huai Salt Administration had caused a sensation throughout the whole province. The emperor was furious and ordered a thorough investigation. Everyone involved was at great risk. The salt distribution commissioner, Zhou Guang Rui, was the first to be embroiled, and Fang Yan, who was Zhou Guang Rui’s most important advisor, was implicated in the process. It was Fang Feng Sheng’s own father who committed suicide in prison on the second day of the incident.
On the day the news came, Fang Feng Sheng was grounded.
Of course, on the surface, they didn’t disclose her situation, and instead announced that their daughter-in-law was ill. It wasn’t until news broke out that Zhou Guang Rui had died on the way to the capital due to an illness, and that the higher-ups did not investigate further into the Fang family, that the Sun family finally breathed a sigh of relief.
But Fang Feng Sheng had already collapsed and was in a coma for seven whole days.
During those days, except for a visit from her mother-in-law, Second Madam, Song-shi, no one else from the Sun family had stopped by. But she didn’t expect that just after waking up today, one of the Old Madam’s people would come.
Feng Sheng coughed, her eyebrows half-drooping, “I have troubled the Old Madam.”
Chun Zhi glanced at Feng Sheng on the couch——
The woman on the couch was recovering from a serious illness, and her cheeks, which had originally been thin, had sunk deeper due to several days of fasting. Her face was as white as paper, and her eyebrows were long and her eyelashes thick. At this time, her inky eyes were hollow and lifeless, as though deep in thought, or seemingly observing something through empty air.
Chun Zhi’s eyes flashed with a hint of sympathy, and said with a smile, “Old Madam actually misses Young Madam, and she’s been thinking about you the past few days. Old Madam said, ‘The Fourth Young Madam is a smart person, and she knows what she’s doing. Now that she is awake, she should go for a walk in the garden while the weather is fine. She shouldn’t stay home all the time to relieve boredom and illness.’”
“Thanking Old Madam for her concern.”
“Since the Fourth Young Madam is all right, this servant will take her leave. Old Madam asked this servant to bring some tonic, which has been handed to the maids below. Fourth Young Madam has to make the kitchen stew more tonic when she has the time, so Old Madam’s efforts won’t be in vain.”
He mama sent Chun Zhi out, and the tonic that Chun Zhi had brought was delivered by the maid and set on the table, displaying just how much the Old Madam valued the Fourth Young Madam.
Not only that, following Chun Zhi’s arrival, the First Madam of the eldest branch, and Fang Feng Sheng’s mother-in-law, Song-shi, had also sent people. It seemed that overnight, Autumn Hall had become the most popular and the most boisterous place in the entire Sun family.
The significance of this event could be seen from the attitude of the maids. The yard had not been swept clean for several days, and the furniture on the hall had accumulated a layer of dust. These girls were busy bustling in and out, peering at the thriving scene.
Who dared to say that Fourth Young Madam was going to relinquish her position to Miss Yue’er?
Fang Feng Sheng watched all of it in silence.
He mama and Zhi Chun evoked concern in their eyes, but she seemed to not have noticed them. As usual, she was quiet. She commanded her servants to stew the tonic gifted by the Old Madam, drank it regularly, and ate more meals than usual.
With her health gradually improving, and as she was willing to go out for a stroll, the worry in He mama’s and Zhi Chun’s eyes finally subsided a bit, thinking that the girl had thought things through.
They seemed to be afraid that she wouldn’t be able to think straight, but what could she not think straight about?
“Granddaughter-in-law takes her leave.”
Feng Sheng wore a dark blue satin top with twig lotus flowers and a moon-white plain satin skirt. Because she had been mourning, she was not dressed extravagantly. She just used a silver hairpin to loosely secure the bun behind her head.
Since she had just recovered from her serious illness, her body was as thin as a piece of paper. However, it added to her the air of separation, and her appearance seemed less cold compared to before.
Old Madam waved her hand and said affectionately, “Go ahead. You don’t have to come so early tomorrow. You’ve just recently become well. I’m not an inhumane old lady, so it’s okay to come at a later time to pay me respects.”
“Thanking grandma’s sympathy. This granddaughter-in-law has not come to visit you these days, and my heart was really panicked. I should not be arrogant.”
“Look, look,” the Old Madam beamed at the girls around her and boasted, “I told you that Feng Sheng is a girl who knows etiquette and is afraid that she will be spoiled by me.”
“Fourth Young Madam has always been filial. There is no one in the house who doesn’t know,” Zhou mama echoed with a smile.
“Old Madam spoils Fourth Young Madam, and Fourth Young Madam is filial to Old Madam. It’s a great and good thing, and it’s envied by everyone who bears witness.”
The people serving the Old Madam had never been simple, at least their skills in flattery were all first-class.
Fang Feng Sheng sauntered out of Xiwu Hall, and she could softly hear the praises of the group of maids and grannies behind her. The girl named Qin’er, who was standing at the door to open the curtain, also appeared more amiable, smiled, and muttered to her to be careful with her feet.
Wang Yue’er, who had just entered the courtyard, witnessed this scene. A trace of resentment flashed in her eyes. When Feng Sheng looked over, she switched to a smiling face, strode forward, and greeted, “My biao6 sister-in-law is really early today.”
Feng Sheng glanced at her faintly. The girl in front of her was at the peak of her youth. She wore a lilac-colored blouse and a light-colored fairy skirt. She was slim and graceful, with bright eyes and bright teeth, and had exquisite facial features.
“It’s not too early. It’s always been the rule of the manor to pay the elders respect at this hour.”
Wang Yue’er lowered her head slightly and accosted her, “It’s Yue’er’s fault for being late.”
Feng Sheng didn’t respond and motioned to leave, when Wang Yue’er called out, “How is biao sister-in-law’s health lately? Yue’er was really worried when you were sick like that a while ago.”
“Thank you, biao younger sister Yue’er, for your concern.”
Fang Feng Sheng nodded to her and exited with Zhi Chun.
Wang Yue’er glared at her back, gritting her silver teeth while clenching the handkerchief in her hand.
Watching Fang Feng Sheng’s slender back disappear behind the screen, Zhou mama conveyed to the Old Madam, “Fourth Young Madam is also a smart one.”
The Old Madam was willing to give face, but she also had to know how to receive it. Since Fang Feng Sheng had dropped by Xiwu Hall today, it was evident that she understood the Old Madam’s intention.
Old Madam was wearing a long-sleeved stone-blue dress, and on her head a headdress inlaid with cat’s eye stones, etched with patterns of ‘longevity’ from the five blessings7. Although her old face was full of wrinkles, her skin was fair and tender, making her appear kind and benevolent.
When Zhou mama had been watching Fang Feng Sheng, the Old Madam gazed at her with sad and pious eyes: “She should be smart and know how to judge the situation. She can no longer be willful. If she makes a mistake, she will lose her last place of refuge. There is already no place for her in the Fang Family.”
Zhou mama sighed.
Old Madam expressed further, “She’s a smart person. I hope she’ll stay smart.”
“How about waiting for Fourth Young Master to return after the exam?”
When she mentioned this, Zhou mama also realized that she had blurted out the wrong thing and shuddered in reflex. This very moment, a seemingly angry and delicate cry came from the doorway, causing the Old Madam’s eyebrows to be tinged with a layer of helplessness.
“What’s the matter?” At the same time, the Old Madam waved her hand, and the servant girls in the hall withdrew.
Wang Yue’er threw herself into her arms with a look of reluctance: “I just want to know, grandma, why are you suddenly so nice to her? Didn’t you always dislike her?”
1, 2 & 4 excerpts taken from 易经杂说 (I Ching or Yi Jing Miscellaneous Remarks), otherwise known as miscellaneous remarks for ‘The Book of Changes’, an ancient Chinese divination text among the oldest Chinese classics, originating from the Zhou Dynasty – wiki. All these were rendered by Legge.
3 妈妈 (māmā): refers to old female servants
5 氏 (shì): maiden or clan name. Married women are usually addressed (last name)-shi to identify which family they came from.
6 表 (biǎo): refers to relatives of a different surname. Wang Yue’er is Feng Sheng’s husband’s younger cousin (born from his father’s sister), so she refers to her as 表妹 (biǎomèi), where mei means younger sister. Yue’er addresses her as 表嫂 (biǎo sǎo), where sao means sister-in-law (lit. elder brother’s wife). You see how specific they are in addressing their relatives?
7 五福捧寿—Five bats bring long life. There are five bats surrounding the word 寿 (shòu). Taking the pronunciation of the word bat, it means five different kinds of good aspects: long life, wealth, health, virtue, and happy end.