T/N: What are your thoughts on Chinese idioms? If you’ve noticed, I kept the literal translations for most of them. But some, I translated to their figurative meaning as they didn’t fit well in their respective sentences. Let me know if you enjoy reading these idioms or if you find them annoying. I personally think they add charm to the story.
Sun Qing Hua’s eyes flickered in shock.
Old Madam fixed her eyes on him as she flashed a benevolent smile, “Yesterday, I received a letter from Mrs. Nan Wu, Wen Cheng’s teacher’s wife. The madam also sent some local specialties along with it. If I were to read between the lines, it seems that she has the intention of marrying into the family. What do you think about Wen Cheng marrying the Wu family’s daughter?
“Since when have… Wen Cheng and Wu family’s daughter?” Obviously, this news went beyond Sun Qing Hua’s expectations.
“Wen Cheng is talented, intelligent, and good-looking. It’s normal for girls to like him. Mother only wants to ask you, will it be advantageous to us if this marriage comes to pass?”
It would naturally be excellent. Although Mr. Nan Wu led a modest civilian life and wasn’t inclined to pursue an official career, several of his students were prominent officials in court. Moreover, the Wu family was also a prestigious family in Jiangnan. There was also an inconspicuous Mrs. Nan Wu who, although was very low-key, her father surnamed Song was now in the position of a cabinet minister.
If the Sun family could climb up by forming a connection with the Song and Wu families, Sun Wen Cheng, and even Sun Qing Hua, would benefit immensely. This would be a better marriage than the original with the Fang family.
Sun Qing Hua looked complicated.
Old Madam maintained her gaze with her smile still in place, “What? Do you feel bad?”
“Do you think Mother is intent on marrying Yue’er to Wen Cheng?” Old Madam abruptly broke into laughter and then sighed, her old eyes blossoming with a wise light: “Do you think your mother is really old and confused? It’s true that my heart aches for Yue’er, for the fact that she lost her parents at such a young age. But my heart also aches for Wen Cheng. She doesn’t have a maternal family, so Wen Cheng won’t gain anything from marrying her. If she marries someone else in the future and gets the position of a wife, then it will be a blessing. If she can’t, we can only conclude that such is her fate.”
The words have come to this point. Sun Qing Hua was never one to truly care about matters in the rear court. Apart from instructing Old Madam to never implicate Wen Cheng, he never interfered in other affairs and fully entrusted her with all household matters.
The Second Master, Sun Qing Hua, took his leave. Nothing seemed to have transpired, but whether there was anything or nothing at all, only they were clear in their hearts.
After the Dragon Boat Festival, the days only grew hotter each day.
Fang Feng Sheng was sensitive to both cold and heat, but this year was unlike the previous years. When it came to using ice, the stewards in the manor always used to push her aside and held back her share. This time, however, Feng Sheng’s portion of ice was sent over early, and she was even informed that she could order someone to request more if the amount was unsatisfactory.
With the ice, the hot summer days were more tolerable.
In a side room in Autumn Hall, the window was wide open. There was an ice basin on the rosewood slatted table next to the wall, and the breeze made the room cool and refreshing.
“This servant heard that Old Madam was not in good health these two days, so she invited over a monk from Xuan Miao Temple. Since then, Xiwu Hall has been really smoky from all the rituals. No wonder Miss was spared from paying respects. “
Feng Sheng sat cross-legged on the Luohan bed facing the window. A few books were spread out on the bedside table, while in front of her lay several sheets of rice paper and a small weasel fur calligraphy brush. From time to time, her hand brandished the brush to write a few characters.
“Miss, you said it might be because of a nightmare. What’s a nightmare? Is it like a bad dream?1 Do you think it will help to hire a monk to get rid of a nightmare?” Zhi Chun asked curiously.
Feng Sheng laughed, “Why are you asking? Did you have a nightmare?”
“This servant has never experienced a nightmare. This servant heard people say that those who have nightmares in their sleep have done several evil deeds, and this servant has never done anything wrong.”
After saying that, Zhi Chun realized that she had voiced out the wrong thing and smiled apologetically at Feng Sheng as she stuck out her tongue. All in all, Zhi Chun was also a pretty naughty girl, but only to Fang Feng Sheng could she reveal this side of hers.
“You ah!” Feng Sheng shook her head helplessly.
“By the way, Miss, this servant heard something else.”
“What is it?” It wasn’t Zhi Chun’s nature to hold her words in, so this act of speaking then deliberately stalling aroused Feng Sheng’s curiosity.
“Didn’t a noble guest enter the manor two days ago? The Second Master paid special attention to it, arranging for the guest to settle in Banyan Garden and ordering that no idlers should trespass without business.”
Zhi Chun had already spoken of this matter previously.
“Then what? When did you learn how to keep your listeners in suspense?”
“This servant isn’t keeping anyone in suspense. This servant was just afraid you’ve forgotten this matter. Yesterday, Third Miss of the eldest branch and Fourth Miss of the second branch were frolicking by the lake with their servant girls, and somehow, they broke into Banyan Garden, bumped into the noble guest, and were then thrown out.”
Banyan Garden was adjacent to Jing Lake. It was the most scenic place in the entire Sun Manor, and thus served as the manor’s guest house. As the Shaoxing prefectural magistrate, it was inevitable for Sun Qing Hua to receive friends or various official lords whenever they graced him with a visit, so this Banyan Garden was specifically designed to entertain such people.
But, to throw out two chaste maidens?
Feng Sheng blinked.
Zhi Chun pursed her lips and smiled mischievously: “It was quite a mess. Anyway, Fourth Miss was crying so hard that many of her servants learned about the incident. Today, the Second Madam found Fourth Miss a doctor who prescribed some medicine for bruises. It was said that Fourth Miss had injured her buttocks from the fall.”
Now Fang Feng Sheng finally understood why Zhi Chun was giggling.
She didn’t hold back and laughed with her.
“This servant heard from someone that the noble guest who lives in Banyan Garden is a very handsome gentleman, so this servant is guessing that the Third and Fourth Miss are interested in that gentleman now.”
Zhi Chun wasn’t wrong, but she only had a shallow understanding of the full story. From this, Fang Feng Sheng could surmise that the noble guest had an extraordinary identity, so it wouldn’t be surprising if the Sun family had the desire to climb up.
The longer she stayed in the Sun family, the stronger Feng Sheng’s hatred for this place grew. They appeared moral and upright on the surface, but behind the scenes they were all about petty tricks and deceit. She didn’t know what to think about using two pure and unwed maidens to hitch a ride to the sky on the dragon and phoenix.2
Xiao Die walked in and stood firmly outside the second door to report, “Fourth Young Madam, Old Madam beckons you to come over.”
Feng Sheng set her brush down: “Did she say anything?”
“This servant doesn’t know. The person who came only said to ask Fourth Young Madam to go there.”
Feng Sheng hopped off the couch, and Zhi Chun helped her put her shoes on. She once again changed into her outerwear and took Zhi Chun with her to Xiwu Hall.
Zhi Chun was right. Xiwu Hall was really smoky, and traces of the rituals were still visible in the courtyard.
The weather was already hot, and even though there was wind, it couldn’t blow away the burning smell.
She hadn’t seen the Old Madam for a few days, and she had changed a lot, as though she had aged many years all of a sudden.
She was half-leaning on a soft pillow looking stoic, and on her forehead rested a wet and cool handkerchief. Zhou mama was feeding her medicine. Feng Sheng gestured to pay respects, and Old Madam swallowed the medicine in her mouth before raising her hand.
“Okay, no need to be so polite. I called you here today for a reason.”
“What can I do for grandmother?”
Old Madam said nothing.
Zhou mama next to her explained: “Old Madam’s health has been poor lately. After the rituals, the Great Master informed us that Old Madam would require help from a junior family member to copy scriptures. The young masters of the eldest branch and Fourth Young Madam are all aware that Fourth Young Master isn’t around. The other misses are young and their handwriting is mediocre. Old Madam recalled that, in the manor, only Fourth Young Madam writes so well that even Fourth Young Master sang praises. She wants to ask Fourth Young Madam to help copy scriptures.”
“Grandmother isn’t well. It’s a given for this granddaughter-in-law to serve grandmother. How can I reject such a request? Since grandmother likes Feng Sheng’s writing, Feng Sheng is naturally willing.”
“The Great Master also mentioned that the person copying the scriptures should pray for the Old Madam with a pious heart.”
As she said this, a servant girl trod over with a tray, and atop it was a scroll of scriptures, on which were written the words, ‘Sutra of the Past Vows of Earth Store Boddhisatva.’
“The Great Master said to copy this scripture nine times, as nine represents infinity, as well as the vast devotion present in the heart of the one copying the scriptures.”
Nine times. How long would it take to finish it?
Zhi Chun’s eyes revealed surprise, while Fang Feng Sheng’s eyes only flickered, still smiling.
“The Great Master also said that Old Madam’s life is short of water, so it would be best to copy scriptures where water is nearby. This servant and Old Madam have checked all over the manor and concluded that Lin Bi Pavilion has the most water within its vicinity, so Fourth Young Madam……” Zhou mama paused, seemingly feeling a little embarrassed that she was asking for too much: “This servant has already ordered someone to clean up the place, and everything is ready. Fourth Young Madam only needs to go over during the day and can return to Autumn Hall at night.”
Old Madam coughed and said, “Feng Sheng, it’s been hard on you.”
“What is grandmother saying? Doing filial piety for the elders is something the younger generation should do.”
“This servant thanks Fourth Young Madam on behalf of the Old Madam.”
The next day, after Fang Feng Sheng went to Xiwu Hall to pay her respects, she had Zhi Chun accompany her to Lin Bi Pavilion.
Lin Bi Pavilion was located in the back garden of the Sun Manor, near the Jing Lake. Shaoxing had an abundance of water, and the water in this lake originated from the Fu River. The lake was adorned with willow trees along its periphery, and in the summer, the cool breeze was most relaxing.
It was also one of the best places to see in the whole of Sun Manor, second only to Banyan Garden.
Looking at the ridge of the house not far away hidden behind lush trees, Zhi Chun, who was helping Feng Sheng organize her brush, ink, paper and ink stone, expressed: “Miss, it’s quite close to Banyan Garden. Master said to keep the misses and maids under control and not to trespass in the vicinity. With us being here, are we trespassing or not?”
Feng Sheng didn’t need to spare it a glance to figure this out. In fact, she had discovered this back when she first arrived at Lin Bi Pavilion. Lin Bi Pavilion was a waterside pavilion built next to the Jing Lake, and Banyan Garden was also built adjacent to the lake, with only a tree-lined path separating the two.
“It was Old Madam who asked us to come here to copy scriptures. After all, the two places are separated, so as long as you and I don’t wander in, the rest has nothing to do with us.”
Zhi Chun always felt that there was more to Miss’s words, but when she tried to analyze them, she couldn’t seem to grasp any implicit meaning, so she could only assume that she was thinking too much.
She went to fetch water to clean Feng Sheng’s hands. Feng Sheng came to sit down in front of the desk, closed her eyes for a moment, and then lifted the ink-dipped brush and wrote on the rice paper.
One by one, small, black, and rounded characters materialized under her brush.
Feng Sheng wrote in small regular script.3 Small characters such as hers were mostly used for daily needs, ranging from small letters to exam papers.
Su Dongpo4 once said: It’s difficult to write large characters in a dense and seamless manner, and it’s difficult to write small characters in a broad and generous manner. When writing large characters, because of the wide area to be written, it inevitably gives a person a mentality that can be unrestrained, and as a result, the characters easily become loose. The opposite is true for small characters, as the area available for writing is too small, and the writer is afraid that the writing area will be too cramped to write on.
The so-called difficulty in size referred to this.
Being able to write small characters well, not to mention which style, at least when it came to calligraphy, was considered a slight accomplishment.
Fang Feng Sheng’s small characters were extremely well-written, upright, elegant, round, and neat. The whole piece appeared to have consistent and similar brush strokes, but the characters were different and coordinated. It was difficult to hide the high-spirited momentum.
Zhi Chun looked fascinated by the side. She hated that she had followed Miss for so many years, and Miss had taught her a lot, but she couldn’t support the wall with mud.5 The words she could write so far were only enough for people to recognize.
Amidst this, she still didn’t forget to grind ink for Feng Sheng. As the thick black ink slowly ground out, she returned to the past in a daze.
It was nighttime, and Miss lit the lamp to read, while she stood by the side, her red sleeves adding fragrance.6
“What are you thinking about?”
From the corner of her eyes, Feng Sheng observed this silly girl rigorously grinding ink, squatting there with her chin on her hand, her soul traveling to the skies.
It looked silly.
“This servant is reminded of the old days when Miss was also writing, and this servant and Zhi Qiu helped you grind the ink. When do you think we can leave here, Miss?”
“That depends on when Old Madam makes her move.”
“When on earth will the Old Madam make her move, then? This servant noticed yesterday that Old Madam didn’t seem to be in good spirits. She looked like she’s aged a lot, and she shamelessly asked you to copy scriptures. Miss, she wasn’t even concerned about how exhausting it was for us to walk up so many steps.7 For this reason, Uncle Yu even went to buy a special ink for you to copy scriptures smoothly. After handing over the ones you’ve finished, she merely accepted them. How come there hasn’t been any movement?”
“How do you know that Old Madam hasn’t thought of a way? Maybe Old Madam has already made her move, but we have yet to realize it.” Feng Sheng said without even raising her eyebrows. Suddenly, she heard a voice approaching from afar.
“Made her move?”
The rest of the words came to an abrupt end as Zhi Chun also heard speaking.
“Master, watch your step.”
1 The term they use for nightmare here is 梦魇 (mèng yǎn). When Zhi Chun asked, “Is it like a bad dream?” she used 噩梦 (è mèng), which actually also translates as ‘nightmare.’ I translated it as ‘bad dream’ instead to differentiate. The former is a more ancient term, while the latter is more commonly used.
2 攀龙附凤: hitching a ride to the sky on the dragon and phoenix (idiom); fig. currying favor with the rich and powerful in the hope of advancement
3 There are several Chinese script styles, and regular script is one of them. It looks like this:
4 Su Dongpo’s given name was actually Su Shi, and Dongpo was his pseudonym. He was a Chinese calligrapher, gastronome, painter, pharmacologist, poet, politician, and writer of the Song dynasty. This guy is said to have contributed a whole lot to the Chinese culture.
5 烂泥扶不上墙: idiom meaning ‘useless, worthless’
6 红袖添香: ‘red sleeves add fragrance,’ an idiom referring to when scholars in ancient times were accompanied by young and beautiful women in the study while they were… studying.
7 Honestly unsure if I grasped this correctly. There hasn’t been any mention of climbing up stairs prior to this one, so I assume the pavilion they’re copying scriptures in has a lot of stairs? Or it means something else entirely. Anyway, once I’m clear of the actual meaning, I’ll let you know.