It was a jugglers’ troupe.
They seemed to be a family. A middle-aged man and his son were executing a juggling act, while a woman at the side was holding a gong and banging it to attract the audience.
Feng Sheng had seen this sort of trick before, but Zhi Chun and Zhi Qiu had not and were greatly entertained.
The man announced that he would spring towards the Queen Mother of the West’s1 peaches of immortality orchard to delight the crowd by plucking a peach. The crowd watched him elevate a rope from a plate and toss it to the sky. The rope stood in the air and rose higher and higher until none remained on the plate. The man stretched out his hand to pull and tug at the rope, as if to check if it was firmly fastened.
“I’m old and clumsy. Son, you go.”
“Father, I’m not going.” The little boy appeared so terrified that he couldn’t cease bawling.
The man’s face was forlorn as he convinced, “Son ah, our family has been wandering destitute around this place. We’ve spent all our money, so we can only rely on our ancestral skills to make a living. Your siblings haven’t eaten for two days. Go steal a peach of immortality to please the onlookers. When we receive rewards, our family will no longer worry about food and drink.”
The father and son pair briefly staged a tragic show until the father eventually persuaded the boy. He rubbed his hands and climbed up the rope. His ascend was so swift that he soon reached a range invisible to anyone looking up.
At this time, there was an indistinct sound of scuffling, and the rope suddenly waggled. Just as the crowd of onlookers were ridden with apprehension for the boy, a huge peach plunged from the sky.
The man called out, “This is the peach of immortality my son has stolen!”
The sound of a blood-curdling screech followed thereafter. Several chunks of limbs plummeted down, wrapped in garments alike to what the child had been wearing.
The man pounced on top of him and bewailed, “My son, ah! The immortal tending the Peach Garden must’ve caught my son and killed him!” The woman striking the gong also surged to the man’s direction and wept so mournfully that the crowd couldn’t help but snivel in sympathy at the sound of her voice.
Someone in the crowd threw in, “We watched the trick, but we didn’t think it would harm the child. When the wealthy show up at the market, these people need to put on a show.”
Thus, people loosened their purses one after another. Zhi Chun also didn’t hold back, fishing out a small piece of broken silver and flinging it in the gong.
Feng Sheng stood at the side laughing and watching, then shook her head in amusement.
“This trick is a scam. That person definitely didn’t die,” Fan Jin Chuan suddenly asserted.
Feng Sheng promptly strode over and jerked him out of the circle, saying, “Alright, you already know it yourself. No need to reveal it once you’ve seen through it. It’s not easy for these people wandering around the country to ask for a bowl of rice.”
“But they’re deceiving others.”
Feng Sheng loosened her grasp. “Then you go ahead and expose them.”
That moment, the crowd behind them burst in cheers. The little child who had died actually rose from the dead and was thanking the audience.
“It’s not easy doing their line of work. One’s willing to beat, and the other’s willing to get beaten. Do you think the onlookers are foolish, ah? It’s just a way to make the festival more lively and fun.”
“Worthy Brother, were you able to see through the trick in the middle of the act?”
Feng Sheng cast him a sideways glance. “If I were able to sniff out other people’s unique skills, I would’ve stopped being an advisor and set up my own stall to show off. It’s much more profitable than being an advisor.”
Hearing this, Fan Jin Chuan immediately associated it with an incident shortly after Worthy Brother Fang had become his advisor.
It concerned Feng Sheng’s salary.
Everyone knew that Shaoxing’s private advisors were exceptional, but they were also known for being expensive, starting around at least one hundred taels of silver per year, discounting the three festivals and six rites,2 four seasons of clothing, and daily meals. This was the salary for only the most average advisor. For ones renown, such as those who had served as advisors to governors or high officials of the frontier, even a pay of a thousand taels was anticipated.
However, the annual official salary of a county magistrate was no more than seventy taels, so although Fan Jin Chuan was very frank and straightforward the day he conveyed his proposal, he felt quite tangled on their way to Taizhou. After several bouts of dithering, he never had the nerve to voice it out and was in an endlessly embarrassed state. However, Feng Sheng took the initiative to ask about the matter. Under the pretext of primarily consulting Brother Fan for knowledge and not for pay, they settled the matter by concluding her salary to be thirty taels a year.
How could Fan Jin Chuan not perceive that Worthy Brother Fang was only being sympathetic to his dilemma? But, he really couldn’t follow the example of officials who exploited others under various fabricated pretexts.
At the same time, he couldn’t help but imagine——a scene of Worthy Brother Fang wearing coarse clothes and striking a gong to showcase unique skills. He couldn’t resist chortling.
“Worthy Brother is a really funny person.”
This interjection was too abrupt. The two of them turned to check. There stood Gou Qing in a red brocade robe, holding two collectible walnuts3 in his hand and eyeing the place with a smile on his face.
This Gou Qing was truly an odd person. Whether he was attired in official robes or regular clothes, he always emanated a sort of libertine deportment. He wasn’t at all like a court official appointed by the imperial court, but rather like a fellow with white silken breeches4 who all day long sought pleasure only from cockfighting and dog-racing.
He wasn’t handsome and could only be regarded as upright, but his pair of peach blossom eyes exuded from him a particularly romantic temperament. Jutting out of the crowd looking offensively conspicuous, Feng Sheng could already spot several good women passing by this place discreetly surveying him.
“Lord Fan, Advisor Fang.”
After exchanging niceties, Gou Qing inched closer, “Advisor Fang, it wasn’t easy for me to find you. I wanted to invite you out to see the lanterns, but I didn’t expect you wouldn’t be at the county yamen.”
Fan Jin Chuan stepped forward and said, “Inspector Gou is quite refined. No official business today?”
Gou Qing shot him a strange stare and answered, “Isn’t Lord Fan also quite carefree and leisurely? Since the whole city is collectively celebrating today’s Lantern Festival, the Military Inspectorate’s people arranged their own assignments.” After this reply, he told Fang Feng Sheng, “There will later be a fireworks display in the east of the city. It’s a rare sight. Would Advisor Fang like to go together?”
Feng Sheng readily acceded and asked Fan Jin Chuan, “My lord, want to go together?”
He naturally had to come along.
The group of people traveled to the east of the city. Apparently, a lot of people had also caught news and rushed forth the same direction in succession.
The crowd was congested. The horde jostled along a few people as they advanced foward, and every so often, there would be shoving and squeezing. This moment, Fang Feng Sheng felt deep regret. Had she known earlier, she wouldn’t have agreed to watch the fireworks set off.
Amidst the crowd, someone stomped on her, nearly tripping her over.
An arm stretched out from behind her to support her up.
“Advisor Fang must be careful. If you fall in such a crowded place, you will be trampled on.”
It was Gou Qing.
Fang Feng Sheng felt that he stood a tad too close to her and slightly pressed him away out of unease. She turned her head to attempt locating Fan Jin Chuan and the others, but discovered that the crowd had scattered them apart.
“We better walk out first and find an open space to wait for them.”
Gou Qing pulled her hand and marched out. The crowding inevitably impelled them to collide against each other between walks. However, Feng Sheng suspected that he was doing it on purpose and sensed that he was teasing her.
Yes, she was obviously posing as a man, but rather felt like a woman being taken liberties with. Such an inkling also wasn’t unwarranted.
With great difficulty, they wedged out and stopped at a secluded street corner.
“Are you alright, Advisor Fang?”
Feng Sheng’s face was slightly flushed from the throng and the heat.
She smiled and assured, “I’m fine.”
Gou Qing’s eyes were fixed on her rosy cheeks. He twiddled his walnuts and smirked. “I’m glad nothing happened. I’m afraid Lord Fan would eat me if anything did.”
Feng Sheng laughed. “Inspector Gou is joking.”
Gou Qing shifted the walnuts between his fingers and chuckled. “Joking? I don’t believe that. With Advisor Fang’s intelligence and wisdom, it’s impossible for you not to sense Lord Fan’s vigilance against me. He’s making me appear like some man-eating tiger, afraid I would devour Advisor Fang.”
“That’s an even more ridiculous statement.” Feng Sheng snickered dryly and racked her brains for a topic to divert their conversation, when a sudden gloom consumed her vision. She raised her head and saw Gou Qing’s face almost within reach.
Gou Qing’s eyes deepened, and a certain glint seemed to manifest in them.
“Can Advisor Fang see through my intentions?” His voice was hoarse and ambiguous.
Feng Sheng released a half-suppressed laugh and took a step back, “Inspector Gou must not make fun of Feng Fu. You and I are both men. What other intentions would you have?”
“A man pleases another man’s heart. This doesn’t seem to be something worthy of surprise.”
“Does it have anything to do with our cooperation?”
Gou Qing’s gaze darkened upon these words. “It’s naturally irrelevant.”
Feng Sheng nodded. “Since it’s irrelevant, I wholeheartedly refuse to spoil this cooperation with Inspector Gou. After all, a good partner is difficult to find.”
Gou Qing peered at her and smirked. “Advisor Fang, I was jesting. I didn’t expect Advisor Fang to take it seriously. It all arose from our cooperation.”
“I was actually also joking with Inspector Gou. Our cooperation will start once spring arrives. I hope Inspector Gou will give it due care when the time comes.”
As she said that, Feng Sheng caught sight of a particularly eye-catching jade rabbit lantern in the crowd not far away. She hastened closer to see. Who else could it be but Fan Jin Chuan?
He clasped the lantern with his arm held high, as if afraid someone would knock it over.
“Inspector Gou, I just saw Lord Fan. I’ll go to where he is.”
She hurried over that way.
Fan Jin Chuan spotted Feng Sheng, his expression pleasantly surprised, and struggled to squeeze out.
“Worthy Brother, where have you been? We’ve been looking for you.”
Feng Sheng turned back to check on Gou Qing, but found that the corner was now unoccupied. She replied, “I got separated because of the crowd. I was looking for you too. Where are Zhi Qiu and the others?”
“Uncle Yu and Xiao Qi followed them. We’re meeting at the stone sign later on. There were too many people, and everything else fell amidst the mob, so this was all that was left.”
Fan Jin Chuan spoke with great shame and handed over the lantern.
Feng Sheng noticed his disheveled lapels, his shoes trampled by footprints, and his tousled hair bun, yet the jade rabbit lantern remained in good condition. It was evident that he had shielded it with utmost effort.
“Worthy Brother seemed to like this lantern very much, so I kept it safe.”
Feng Sheng’s eyes flickered as she retrieved the lantern. “I do like it. Thank you, Brother Fan.”
“Don’t mention it. Thanks for what? By the way, where’s Inspector Gou? The last thing I remember was seeing him with you.”
“Him, ah? Probably got separated.”
“Then let’s first find Xiao Qi and the others. Don’t wander off this time. I’ll hold Worthy Brother. Give me the lantern, too. I’ll hold it for you.”
The jade rabbit lantern once again returned to Fan Jin Chuan’s grasp. His other hand was pulling Fang Feng Sheng’s wrist through his sleeve.
The two elegant gentlemen with contrasting temperaments, but both very handsome, amidst the crowd strolled hand in hand carrying an eye-catching lantern. They were as beautiful as a painting and aroused the attention of many passers-by.
From afar, a muffled noise exploded, as if a cowhide drum thumped in their hearts.
With a few ‘swoosh——bang’ sounds, the sky lit up not far away. A large expanse of fireworks exploded in the air, some like silver snakes and some like blooming chrysanthemums, all very beautiful. From the sky, large pieces of sparkle were pouring down in torrents, forming silver and gold waterfalls, rendering a spectacularly breathtaking view.
Exclamations arose all around, and everyone stopped in their tracks to goggle at the magnificent and resplendent fireworks.
Fang Feng Sheng and Fan Jin Chuan were also gawking at the marvelous display.
Taking advantage of the gap between watching the fireworks, Fan Jin Chuan gingerly shifted his sight to the handsome face beside him. He nudged the hand that was still holding Feng Sheng’s, suddenly feeling that it actually wasn’t unpleasant. It would be nice to have Worthy Brother Fang as his advisor for the rest of his life.
The trick the jugglers did is called Immortal Rope*, one of those ancient Chinese tricks. It seems that this trick was mentioned in ‘Strange Stories from the Chinese Studio’ (Liao Zhai).**
* This is a liberal translation. Though, the term 神仙 (shén xiān) refers to Daoist immortals, or supernatural entities in general. In modern times it could be used for fairies, elves, leprechauns, etc. Also figuratively referring to lighthearted people.
** Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio (a.k.a. Liao Zhai), is a collection of Classical Chinese stories by Pu Songling, comprising close to five hundred ‘marvel tales’, which serve to implicitly criticize societal problems then. Dating back to the Qing dynasty, its earliest publication date is given as 1740.
1 王母娘娘: Queen Mother of the West is a goddess in Chinese religion and mythology and attested from ancient times. The Queen Mother of the West usually is depicted holding court within her palace on the mythological Mount Kunlun, usually supposed to be in western China. Although not definite, there are many beliefs that her garden had a special orchard of longevity peaches which would ripen once every three thousand years, others believe though that her court on Mount Kunlun was nearby to the orchard of the Peaches of Immortality. No matter where the peaches were located, the Queen Mother of the West is widely known for serving peaches to her guests, which would then make them immortal. She normally wears a distinctive headdress with the Peaches of Immortality suspended from it.
2 三节: Refers to three festivals: Dragon Boat Festival (5th day of the 5th lunar month, Mid-autumn festival (15th day of the 8th lunar month), Spring Festival (Chinese New Year)
六礼: Six rites: Becoming an official, Marriage, mourning, offering to gods or ancestors, visit home village, meet people (the gentleman/scholar ceremonies)
I’m guessing that on top of the base pay, the official has to pay his advisor a ‘holiday’ pay on the three festivals.The six rites probably refers to the official’s gift or contribution to his advisor when one among the six happens.
3 文玩核桃: Collectible walnuts (a.k.a. Wenwan walnuts) are a separate strain from common walnuts that are eaten and are considered more elaborate in texture and color. Wenwan walnuts date back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) and became widespread in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). Records show that there was an emperor of the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) who was so addicted to playing with the nuts that he ignored state affairs. The walnuts became an extremely popular hobby in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). From emperors and ministers to aristocrats and savvy urbanites, many Chinese people carried a pair of Wenwan walnuts with them wherever they went. (Source)
4 纨绔子弟: a hedonistic or good-for-nothing son of a rich family