It was once said, “Corner is gold, side is silver, center is grass.”1
Go paid attention to the board’s overall layout. The general practice of playing Go was to first occupy the corners and then tear down the sides, so as to encircle and develop towards the middle. After all, Go was mainly a word that meant, ‘surround.’2
When launching an opening ‘center’ move, one would place the stone right down the middle of the board. It wasn’t that such a move was taboo, but to land the first piece on that spot inferred that one was either ignorant of Go’s standard practice, or boastful of one’s superior Go skill with the intent of scorning the opponent.
It was naturally impossible for Zong Yue to be the former, so the only possiblity was that he was contemptuous.
Feng Sheng remained undeterred and played a piece at the lower left corner in a very mediocre manner, by no means responding to Zong Yue’s contempt. The two subsequently exchanged blows in a ‘you come, I go’ fashion.
For masters, a game of Go wasn’t so difficult upon start. They were adroit and hardly needed to expend energy strategizing moves. Thus, the two battled exceedingly fast. Zhi Chun serving tea at the side watched things in a blur as over ten stones landed on the board.
She gingerly placed the tea on the table and was about to retreat, but Feng Sheng stopped her.
“Find some snacks to eat.”
Zhi Chun peeked at Zong Yue, and in silence, went to the side to open the tea cupboard and fished out several small saucers from inside.
There were chestnuts, fennel beans, five-spice peanuts, two kinds melon seeds, and a dish of preserved fruits. Zhi Qiu veered a small table by their side and set the snacks atop it.
Feng Sheng waved her hand as she grabbed melon seeds to eat, and the two girls backed away.
Now, their Go match had reached a critical point, and both were playing very slowly. Feng Sheng nibbled on her snacks to pass the time.
One could see that she was playing with leisure. Otherwise, would she be crunching on snacks in between moves?
Zong Yue listened to that crunching noise and re-examined the Go board’s surface, clenching the back of his teeth.
“These melon seeds are good. Did you switch to a different store?”
Zhi Chun answered, “The store we frequented had closed. This is from a new store. If Young Master likes it, this servant will have someone buy some more.”
Zong Yue finally dropped a piece, and Feng Sheng, with her free hand, brought up her own Go piece and swiftly placed it on the board with apparent nonchalance.
It was Zong Yue’s turn again.
After a few more moves, Zong Yue tossed aside the piece he had pinched in his hand.
“You have nothing to say?”
The corners of Zong Yue’s mouth tightened, and he studied the innocent face opposite him.
Truly too innocent. The brownish black muffler rendered her face extremely fair and clear, albeit somewhat aloof. However, because of her pair of inky brows and eyes, she appeared a bit more carefree and unfettered.
It was completely different from when he first saw her.
It was also unlike the her that day at the Sun family, exhibiting her clever and glib bravado in front of a thousand staring eyes. Even the her during their farewell at Yangzhou was dissimilar. Sometimes, Zong Yue wondered how many faces she truly had.
“Need this prince to remind you?”
Feng Sheng blinked. “Is Your Highness, Prince Wei, talking about the life-saving grace? This scholar has already said thanks. Since Your Highness brought it up, I would like to once again express my gratitude. If not for Your Highness, I’m afraid I would’ve lost my life that day.”
Zong Yue felt that churning feeling once more, an indescribable fire even worse.
“Fang Feng Sheng, are you playing dumb with this prince?” He refused to believe that she was oblivious of his meaning.
“Your Highness, Prince Wei, this scholar really doesn’t understand what you’re saying……”
Zong Yue shot up and, because of this fierce action, toppled the board over. He wasted not a moment longer and swept away like a gust of wind.
“Ai, this person is truly baffling. What’s he even angry about?”
As these words left her mouth, Feng Sheng observed his back, but the emotion in her eyes was a bit peculiar. After standing for a while, she squatted down to retrieve the Go stones, and Zhi Chun and Zhi Qiu, who were momentarily aghast, hastily stooped down to join her.
“What a damper! Pick them up. I’m going out.” Feng Sheng straightened her back and stood up.
“Young Master, where are you going? It’s so cold outside and you’re not yet well.”
“I’m going to find Brother Fan.”
Fan Jin Chuan wasn’t at the rear court, but at the front court.
Feng Sheng found him in the study room behind the civil court.
Seeing Feng Sheng, behind the large table, Fan Jin Chuan’s eyes flickered for a moment. “What’s wrong? I have some official business here.”
“Nothing important. I just haven’t seen my lord for a few days and it feels a bit strange.”
“What’s strange?” Fan Jin Chuan stood up and pretended to search for something in front of the bookcase. “I’ve been busy with official business these days, so I had no time to visit Worthy Brother. How’s Worthy Brother’s illness? The doctor already told you to recuperate for a few more days. You still can’t run outside. It’s cold now, and you might catch a cold.”
“I only come out for walks when I’m bored in my room.” Feng Sheng ambled closer and looked at the bookcase, then raised her eyebrows at him. “As for what I find strange, of course it’s Brother Fan’s attitude. Brother Fan seems to have been avoiding me lately.”
“Avoiding you? How’s that possible? Worthy Brother misunderstood. I’ve just been busy with official business.”
See, being too open and guileless was also a disadvantage. Take Fan Jian Chuan, for example. Telling this kind of lie was completely uncharacteristic of him, making it so obvious. At a glimpse, one could sniff out his diffidence.
Feng Sheng was powerless against it and sat on a chair by his side.
“Did something happen?”
“It’s nothing, really. Worthy Brother shouldn’t think too much.”
“But I’m your advisor. If you keep being so dismissive and evasive, I might not be able to continue.”
Hearing this, Fan Jin Chuan was shaken and a little pained. He probed, “Is it because of His Highness, Prince Wei?”
Feng Sheng asked curiously, “Why does my lord think so?”
Fan Jin Chuan could no longer uphold his lie. He also thought it a little too rude to keep having his back to her. He casually took a volume of books and headed to the writing desk, but instead of sitting down, he began tidying the tabletop again.
“Prince Wei seems to have made this trip for you. He had once intended to invite you as a protege, and I can see that this intention hasn’t yet been dispelled, so……”
“So, you think I’ll leave with Prince Wei?”
“He saved your life. If he asks, I’m sure it will be hard for Worthy Brother to refuse.”
Feng Sheng’s face turned cold. “Who told you that I’m leaving with him?”
Fan Jin Chuan raised his eyes to look at her. “Then, Worthy Brother won’t leave with Prince Wei?”
His especially limpid eyes contained a bit of ineffable apprehension. Feng Sheng was obviously quite incensed, but the fire was now all adrift and had instead transformed into helplessness.
“We haven’t finished what we needed to do. How can I leave?”
Fan Jin Chuan’s eyes brightened.
“So, Worthy Brother never planned on leaving?”
“You wish for me to go so badly?”
For some reason, Fan Jin Chuan couldn’t dare look into her eyes. “Of course not, it’s just that……” His tone suddenly turned downcast, and only after a while did he say, “This brother is ashamed in his heart.”
“Ashamed of what?”
Fan Jin Chuan didn’t say anything at first, but he really couldn’t stand the sight of Fang Feng Sheng eyeing him with intense scrutiny. He firmly slumped his head down, hinting that he had cut off his means of retreat.
“Worthy Brother took all the dirt on himself, but I stayed out of it. Worthy Brother braved through hardships outside, but I rested easy. This time, even His Highness, Prince Wei, had realized you were in danger, and I, alone, didn’t notice. If His Highness Prince Wei hadn’t insisted on going there, I’m afraid Worthy Brother…… Even after that, I was clear of the culprit behind the incident, but I was incapable of action…… The longer I stay here, the more I question my ability to become a good official, or what the definition of a good official even is……”
Was he perplexed?
Feng Sheng found Fan Jin Chuan’s perplexity unsurprising. Throwing a pedant into such a place would inevitably shatter his three views3 and impel him to reorganize them. The result of this reorganization could be two extremes: It could give him a high fighting spirit and a staunch conviction, or ruin him at a stroke and lead him to drift with the waves and go with the flow.
Feng Sheng certainly wasn’t looking forward to Fan Jin Chuan’s ruin, regardless of her own motives, her position as his friend, or even as his private advisor.
“Haven’t we previously discussed this matter of me shouldering the stigma and you staying out of it? In a play, someone has to wear the black mask, and someone also has to wear the red mask.4 Both are indispensible, that’s why Brother Fan appears to be doing nothing. But, how sure are you that you’re not contributing to the play? As to whether or not you become a good official, I can’t answer that. All I can say is, when you feel discouraged, just think of your original intention.”
“What was your original intention?”
What was his original intention?
To become a good official.
However, the definition of a good official was too vague. The words ‘good official’ was merely an inherent concept externally provided to him. He only knew that good officials were good and corrupt officials were bad. It was analogous to discussing military tactics on paper.5 He had initially assumed that he would become a good official just by being assiduous in his duties, but coming to Taizhou, he realized that it was too onerous to be a good official who didn’t drift with the current, or one who could alleviate the common people’s burdens.
It was akin to being caught in a huge net. One desired to do certain things, but was incapable and powerless. The gentleman’s way, which he had earnestly believed in, no longer seemed applicable. He even wanted to be adept at circuity, as well as do something that, on the surface, wasn’t the ‘right’ thing to do…..
That old farmer’s face suddenly streamed through his thoughts——
“Actually, everyone here knows, but no one dares tell you! I’m old and my whole family is dead. They all died in the flood, and I’m left alone with this weary old body to muddle my way through. I’m not afraid to die……”
“If the waterways are blocked, how can we dredge? The heavens and earth are not benevolent, and they consider all living beings as disposable objects. This is heaven’s way of exterminating the common people!”
Fang Feng Sheng’s face also flashed before his eyes——
“Would you dare defy the world?”
“Only when Liang Huai is in chaos, so chaotic that His Majesty can’t stand it, will we be able to break through and do as we desire……”
“I can’t answer that. All I can say is, when you feel discouraged, just think of your original intention. What was your original intention?”
Fan Jin Chuan snapped back to his senses, only to discover that Fang Feng Sheng had, at some point, walked out the door.
“Worthy Brother, I have one more thing to say.”
“What is it?” Feng Sheng returned with a smile.
Gazing at her face, Fan Jin Chuan was suddenly in a trance.
Recalling the day Prince Wei had carried Worthy Brother Fang, and the way Gou Qing had drunk and joked at the theatre, he was actually bereft of speech and only felt that the Worthy Brother Fang looking back his way was somewhat inexpicably quite attractive.
When he was at the front court in the afternoon, Fan Jin Chuan brooded over this incident as though ghosts and gods were at work in his head.
When he returned to the rear court in the evening, he couldn’t resist asking Xiao Qi a question.
“What do you think of Worthy Brother Fang’s appearance?”
This confused Xiao Qi.
“Young Sir, this lowly one doesn’t understand what you mean.”
“It’s just, it’s just……” The words were already at the tip of his tongue, but Fan Jin Chuan swallowed them back, “Forget it, it’s nothing.”
Xiao Qi was even more confused and couldn’t help but scratch his head.
That said, Fan Jin Chuan couldn’t resist paying extra attention to Fang Feng Sheng and had, several times, formulated pretexts to see her just so he could gauge if his attraction was only an illusion.
“Brother Fan, it’s your turn.”
Fan Jin Chuan returned to reality and couldn’t resist sneaking another glimpse of her.
The dusky yellow lighting tinted Feng Sheng’s fair and jade-like face with a layer of honey. Looking down at the Go board, her remarkably curled and thick lashes, as well as her long inky eyebrows, manifested her grace and fortitude. She was half-reclined on a soft pillow with one hand subconsciously stroking her dark red prayer beads, her demeanor languid and placid.
“Brother Fan, are you still playing or not? If not, let’s take a break?”
“Play, of course. The game isn’t over yet.” Fan Jin Chuan scrambled to put down a piece, yet this piece was like a lamb chucked to a tiger’s den. Feng Sheng couldn’t help but knit her brows. “Forget it. Brother Fan seems to be preoccupied and is no longer in the mood to play. It’s not too early. I want to rest. Brother Fan should rest as well.”
Fan Jin Chuan stood up and hurriedly headed out the door. Feng Sheng bored her puzzled eyes into his back.
“Colour’s five hues from the eyes their sight will take; music’s five notes the ears as deaf can make; the flavours five deprive the mouth of taste; the chariot course, and the wild hunting waste make mad the mind; and objects rare and strange, sought for, men’s conduct will to evil change……”6
“Lord Fan, what’s the chanting about?”
Fan Jin Chuan abruptly paused in his tracks and looked towards Zong Yue and De Wang, who were standing in the darkness by the light under the corridor.
It was precisely De Wang who spoke.
The night breeze was very cold and it felt as if snow was imminent.
Brushed by a puff of cold wind, Fan Jin Chuan instantly felt much clearer in the head.
“No, nothing. Why is His Highness Prince Wei standing here? It’s——”
“This prince had nothing to do and came out for a walk.”
Out for a walk at this time?
However, this moment, Fan Jin Chuan wasn’t in the mood to speculate. He nodded to Prince Wei, perfunctorily spouted out words about the bitter cold weather, and hastily left to avoid catching a cold.
De Wang stole a glance at Zong Yue’s face and said, “This Lord Fan even has this kind of eccentricity? Is it because he reads too many books that he’s become crazy, reciting books even while walking?”
“He’s reciting ‘The Classic of the Virtue of the Tao’.”
“’The Classic of the Virtue of the Tao’?” Well, speaking to De Wang about ‘The Classic of the Virtue of the Tao’ was simply like playing a lute to a cow.
Noticing Zong Yue stop, he very cautiously inquired, “Your Highness, will you still look for Advisor Fang?”
Zong Yue didn’t say anything and turned around to stride away.
Colour’s five hues from the eyes their sight will take; music’s five notes the ears as deaf can make; the flavours five deprive the mouth of taste; the chariot course, and the wild hunting waste make mad the mind……
What drove Fan Zi Jin, who was always well-mannered and polite, crazy?
De Wang seemed to hear a faint sound of something shattering, but didn’t dare look up and trailed in lockstep.
Zong Yue is a big child who doesn’t know what to do with his feelings. Please ignore him for the first half of the story… he eventually gets better.
1 金角银边草肚皮: Corner is gold, side is silver, center is grass is a Chinese Go proverb. It means that territory in the corner is the easiest to surround, followed by the edge, and the center is the hardest place to get territory. Note that in this proverb, the center of the board is referred to as a belly (肚皮), so the literal translation for the third item is grass belly, or belly is grass. Source
2 围棋 (wéiqí): The word “Go” is a short form of the full Japanese word igo 囲碁. The Japanese word igo probably derives from Mandarin, which literally means “encirclement board game” or “board game of surrounding”. To differentiate the game from the common English verb to go, “g” is often capitalized.
3 三观: three conceptions or ideas about life, world and values.
4 In Chinese Opera, the black mask is the neutral character: indicates impartiality and integrity. The red mask is the positive character: red means prosperity, loyalty, courage and heroism. Red indicates intelligence and bravery
5 纸上谈兵: lit. military tactics on paper (idiom); fig. theoretical discussion that is worse than useless in practice; armchair strategist; idle theorizing
6 This is from Laozi’s 道德經 (Dao De Jing), the repression of desires. Translation by James Legge.