“Worthy Brother Fang seemed to be quite downcast.” Fan Jin Chuan, who stood rooted on the same spot, gazed at Fang Feng Sheng’s back.
Xiao Qi sympathized, “Don’t blame Young Master Fang for reacting that way. Listening to that Chen Si, this lowly one’s heart didn’t feel comfortable either. Young Sir, you say, how can there be so many villains in this world? How can they do such despicable things? Harming Chen Si would’ve been enough, but he even went as far as harming his lover. No wonder Chen Si killed him. If it were me……”
The rest, Xiao Qi didn’t dare think about. It would only remind him of some extremely unpleasant memories.
When they returned to the room, Fan Jin Chuan sat on the bed, and Xiao Qi bent down to take off his shoes for him.
But as soon as the pair of hands touched them, he subconsciously shook his foot and almost kicked Xiao Qi out.
Fan Jin Chuan coughed and corrected his expression, “Xiao Qi, how many times have I told you that I can do things like taking off my shoes and changing my clothes myself? You are my page boy. Just serve me the brush and ink; you don’t need to do these intimate things to avoid misunderstanding.”
“Misunderstanding? What misunderstanding?” Xiao Qi was baffled.
“Don’t you think Worthy Brother Fang is too close to his two page boys?”
Xiao Qi was also a clever one and immediately understood the meaning. His eyes suddenly changed and he stammered, “Young Sir, do you think that Qiu’er and Chun’er are his male lovers?”
Men seeking pleasure from other men had existed since ancient times. It was not uncommon for a high-ranking official to raise male actors1 and keep two young males as page boys at home to cover up his unspeakable hobby. Even many scholars and literati considered it elegant to be intimate with male children.2
Before Fan Jin Chuan had bought him, Xiao Qi was a servant to a rich family. Because the master had a hobby of indulging with these male children, he fled from the family and was rescued by Fan Jin Chuan.
That was why he couldn’t help but release a few heavy sighs when he brought up Chen Si.
Fan Jin Chuan recalled the way Worthy Brother Fang had pulled Qiu’er just now, and the day he discovered that the three of them slept together on the same bed. He frowned and spoke a little hesitantly, “Don’t you think those two young manservants look and act feminine?”
“Young Sir, if you didn’t mention it, this lowly one wouldn’t have figured it out. Those two boys are indeed a bit feminine, and that Gentleman Fang’s face is so white that he looks rather like a pretty boy. A man should be like Young Sir, standing seven feet tall, upright and masculine.”
“No one is allowed to make presumptions about Worthy Brother Fang! It is the act of garrulous women to speak ill of others behind their backs. I’m resting, so you should also rest quickly.” Saying that, Fan Jin Chuan lay down, but he did not sleep, and his mouth seemed to be mumbling something.
Xiao Qi had been accustomed to this master’s habits. Once he did something that was against the gentleman’s just and honorable way, he would recite ‘The Classic of the Virtue of the Tao’ for self-reflection. Anyway, he also couldn’t make sense of it, so he just treated him a Buddhist monk chanting sutras.
The streets of Yangzhou City were crowded with pedestrians.
Knowing they would soon be a thousand li apart, a farewell was necessary.
In front of a horse carriage, Fang Feng Sheng and Fan Jin Chuan stood face to face.
“This is farewell. It is unknown when we will see each other again. This foolish brother and worthy little brother get along well and are considered close friends. The thought of not meeting again is extremely difficult to bear, so I hope Worthy Brother will take care of oneself in the future.”
“Definitely. Brother Fan as well.”
Fan Jin Chuan nodded and turned around.
Not far away, Xiao Qi drove a mule-drawn carriage waiting for him.
He took two steps forward, suddenly stood still, and then curved back in large strides, “Worthy Brother, I have one more thing that I don’t know whether to say or not.”
He looked at Feng Sheng first, but for some reason he averted his gaze, seeming a little embarrassed.
“I see that worthy little brother is brimming with talent and is righteous in his actions, so I think his future is boundless. However, one must note that mastery of study lies in diligence, but indulgence will lead to neglect. Success depends on forethought, but seeking only pleasure will lead to downfall. I hope that someday, worthy little brother will be more attentive and will not neglect the root to pursue the tip.3”
“I still don’t know what Brother Fan is referring to——”
Fan Jin Chuan appeared quite flustered, as though struggling to piece his words together.
He pondered for a long time, and then finally intoned: “Worthy Brother and the two page boys should maintain some distance. This matter of frolicking and splitting peaches4 will erode one’s aspirations. Such acts violate the heavenly law and proper human relationships. This one is afraid that it might break your parents’ hearts. This foolish brother really can’t bear Worthy Brother to be subjected to damnation in the underworld. There’s nothing left to say. This one can only hope that you will conduct yourself well.”
Feng Sheng was immediately left speechless.
It wasn’t until Zhi Qiu came to her side that she returned to her senses, shaking her head with a lost smile.
“Young Master, what’s wrong?”
Feng Sheng glanced at the distant mule carriage and shook her fan, “Nothing, let’s go.”
“Young Sir, where are we going now?”
After a pause, Xiao Qi didn’t hold back from complaining, “Obviously, Young Sir said you won’t see anyone and go straight to your post, but you changed your schedule at the last minute and came to Yangzhou with Young Master Fang. Since we’re already here, aren’t you going to meet Lord Du?”
“I came to Yangzhou this time to meet Zi Yue. I told you before, so why drag Worthy Brother Fang into this matter? As for Lord Du, let’s talk about it after visiting Zi Yue.”
Fan Jin Chuan boarded the carriage and waited for a while, but didn’t feel the carriage leave yet.
“Why aren’t we leaving?”
Only then did Xiao Qi raise his whip to advance forward.
A similar conversation transpired among Fang Feng Sheng’s group.
They truly had no destination.
After a conversation with Uncle Yu, Fang Feng Sheng also briefly understood some of the situation.
The origin of the whole thing was Zhou Guang Rui’s discovery that the Liang Huai Salt Administration was ridden with all kinds of corruption, and that those with sinister intentions colluded with each other. Zhou Guang Rui was righteous in nature and abhorred evil to the core, but he was not foolish. It was evident that once he involved himself in the matter, it would be far from small. He could only restrain, carefully investigate, and collect evidence.
The more he investigated, the more appalling things were. He knew then that even if he extricated himself from all of it, he couldn’t keep his eyes closed with his cognizance of these prevalent underdealings.
For the sake of self-preservation, and out of of his loyalty to the Emperor, Zhou Guang Rui planned to expose the matter by writing a memorial to the throne.
However, the matter was too extensive. If it failed, there would be doom beyond redemption, and several others would be implicated. Out of trust, Zhou Guang Rui informed his mentor, Court Elder Song, about it, so that Court Elder Song could support him in court. Court Elder Song was also very concerned about this matter and was even in frequent correspondence with Zhou Guang Rui to provide some counsel.
Naturally, the supportive attitude of his mentor also gave Zhou Guang Rui unlimited confidence. He and Fang Yan spent a few days finally drafting a memorial, and once finished, rushed it to the capital eight hundred li5 away.
It was this memorial that started the tragic end for him and Fang Yan.
Gu Bi Chang, the salt-control imperial censor, impeached him for accepting benefits from salt merchants, as well as embezzling salt tax revenue amounting to over a hundred thousand taels of silver. As Zhou Guang Rui was far away in Yangzhou, he was not well-informed, and a raid was conducted on the Zhou Manor, where he was found to be in possession of dirty silver of unknown origin.
So Zhou Guang Rui was taken into custody that same evening, along with Fang Yan, his trusted aide.
Fang Feng Sheng pieced together these tiny bits of information from that letter, along with the few fragmented phrases Uncle Yu knew of.
Zhou Guang Rui was a cautious man, and whenever he discussed this matter with Fang Yan, he dismissed his attendants, so Uncle Yu had little knowledge about it. But, since the incident, all the friends they had previously made closed their doors. Uncle Yu was just a private advisor’s housekeeper, and usually had no relationship with those high-ranking officials. After Fang Yan died in prison, he wanted to do every method possible but failed to retrieve Fang Yan’s body.
In the end, it was their relationship with Court Elder Song that took care of it, so that Uncle Yu could take Fang Yan’s body back to Shaoxing. But Court Elder Song didn’t do it out of consideration for Fang Yan’s face, but Zhou Guang Rui’s.
It was a pity that Zhou Guang Rui also died on the way to the capital.
“Let’s find a place to settle down first, then I’ll go to the Shaoxing Provincial Hall.” Feng Sheng said.
“Young Master is trying to——”
Feng Sheng nodded.
The Shaoxing Association of Advisors was one of the most important groups in the Shaoxing Provincial Hall.
An old proverb once claimed that there was ‘no yamen without an advisor’, but it gradually evolved into ‘no yamen without Shao.’
This Shao was referring to Shaoxing.
Jiang Zhe6 had always been a flourishing literary region, and the two provinces in this region had been major provinces for imperial examinations in every single dynasty throughout history. The abundance of gifted scholars in Jiangsu and Zhejiang was well-known inside and outside the region. Being famous outside was naturally a good thing, but there was an undercurrent of bitterness that only the scholars of the Jiang Zhe region understood.
The only reason being: the more scholars sprung up, the fiercer the competition.
Every province had a fixed number of qualified candidates7 selected during the year of the court examination. There were merely no more than a hundred from big provinces, and only forty or fifty from small provinces. Other provinces seemed to have few admissions, but they were admitted from hundreds or even thousands of people. However, when it came to Jiangsu and Zhejiang, tens of thousands of people were competing for this limited quota, and many people were bound to fall behind.
Ten years dedicated to strenuous studies, waiting to be freed from this fate with raised brows, but repeatedly served with failure. It wasn’t because they lacked the talent others had, but because they were born in Jiangsu and Zhejiang.
In particular, Shaoxing had always been a place where great talents gathered. Five to six out of ten gifted scholars in Jiangsu and Zhejiang came from Shaoxing. Shaoxing had narrow land and a dense population. The serious imbalance of population and land ratio made the local people in Shaoxing feel more crisis than those in other places of Jiangsu and Zhejiang.
Very few of them would stagnate at another round of imperial exam preparatory literary studies; once they failed, they would find another way out.
What was the other way out?
To teach or to engage in trade was the lower-class option, but the upper-class route was to pursue a career as an official’s aide to seek advancement.
Firstly, most masters of these aides were officials who could potentially associate themselves with influential people, and if these masters rose to the top, it was only natural for their personal aides to have better prospects. Secondly, the aides could be familiar with the miscellaneous affairs of the yamen in advance. Since they already had this advantage, if one day they were to pass the imperial examination, they would naturally get twice the effect with half the effort.
Over time, a kind of general practice took shape. Nowadays, people paid special attention to the personal relationships in their hometown, and inevitably, they would recommend relatives, friends, and even fellow villagers. It was initially just one introducing to another, gradually building up a climate, and then eventually establishing a monopoly; so much so that they even introduced to people an inherent notion——Shaoxing was a place of private advisors, and nine out of ten aides in the country were from Shaoxing.
There was also a very typical case of an influential family becoming private advisors; for instance, the Fang family.
In essence, the Fang family should be considered a literary family, but the head of the Fang family’s first generation was more pragmatic and laid down a rule: The children of the family must not neglect their studies nor their ancestor’s profession, and if they were over thirty and failed to be successful in the exams, they should switch careers to follow the path of their ancestors.
Like the Fang family, there were many, many more in Shaoxing.
Countless officials were also willing to invite Shaoxing’s private advisors as their own.
The only reason being: Shaoxing’s private advisors had formed a trend from the previous dynasties up until the present, and they had even penetrated into various government offices, either as private advisors or clerks.
Someone once said: all those in charge of calculations under the thirteen departments of the Ministry of Revenue were from Shaoxing.
As one could see!
While inviting a private advisor from Shaoxing, in fact, one was also inviting the intricate and knotty web of relationships behind him. If one wanted to get promoted in officialdom, one couldn’t just rely on getting the job done, but must also know how to communicate. If one’s advisor was from Shaoxing, as well as the advisor of one’s superior or colleague, one could bridge a connection with the other for only half the work, and one could also play the role of threading through the eye of the needle.8
The place for these Shaoxing people to get in touch with acquaintances from their hometown was none other than the Shaoxing Provincial Hall, which was known in various regions.
Fang Feng Sheng looked up at the words ‘Shaoxing Provincial Hall’ on the top of her head and stepped inside.
She didn’t bring Zhi Chun and Zhi Qiu with her out today, only Uncle Yu.
Just as Fang Feng Sheng entered the provincial hall, a convoy marched through the street behind her.
More than twenty riders crowded around a carriage, and at a glance one could tell they were not ordinary people.
In the meantime, Zong Yue swept the words ‘Shaoxing Provincial Hall’ out of the corner of his eyes and raised his brows.
De Wang also took a glance at it, cursing in his heart that these guards couldn’t even pick a road well and didn’t know that the two characters ‘Shaoxing’ were an eyesore to Master recently.
But he wouldn’t dare tell that to his face, so he could only shrink beside him like a quail.
1 There’s more of an economic aspect to this, like raising actors as mistresses. Another historical background for this: The actors were really young when they entered the theatres because they needed to be flexible for the acrobatic acts. They were often also servants of the main leading actors. Hence: young boys. They were probably originally from these theatres and these perverts liked them and took them away. These boys were often poor or unwanted and dumped in theatres, but most of them are most likely born into them.
2 In these ancient books that they were taught, I believe they really really hated women. Because women seduced men and led them astray from the literati path—their only one true path to officialdom. As such, literati looked down on women, and not only because of patriarchy. These young men were only focused on studies and were never allowed to have some fun, to the point where they had pent up sexual desires. I believe this was the only outlet for them without the fear of women, without people talking about them. Since two men being friendly was “normal.”
3 舍本逐末: to neglect the root and pursue the tip (idiom); to neglect fundamentals and concentrate on details
4 分桃: split peaches, euphemism for male homosexuality
5 里 (li): ancient measure of length, approx. 500 m, but this really varies depending on which dynasty.
6 江浙 Jiāng Zhè: abbr. for Jiangsu 江苏, a province in southeast China, and Zhejiang 浙江, a province in east China. The Shaoxing 绍兴 they’re always talking about here is a prefecture level city in Zhejiang.
7 贡士 gòng shì: candidate who has successfully passed the first grades of the examination system, but not yet the court examination (殿试), the final level of imperial examination
8 穿针引线: get the thread through the eye of the needle (idiom); fig. act as a go-between; act as a matchmaker; act as liaison