During the course of the meal, nothing else transpired. Bao-shi was very cordial and kept adding dishes to Feng Sheng’s bowl.
Feng Sheng somewhat felt that eating was wrong, but not eating was also wrong. She later grew disquieted and promptly whisked away after the meal.
“Mother, come in with me for a moment. I have something to tell you.”
“What is it? So mysterious.” Bao-shi, who was busy clearing the table with Man’er, wiped her hands and stalked to the inner room with her son.
Fan Jin Chuan paced back and forth a few steps and faltered for a long while before soliciting, “Mother, tell me, were you deliberately targeting Worthy Brother Fang today?”
“Targeting? Why would I target him? Shuan’er, are you blaming mother for calling you by your nickname? Mother will remember that and will never do it in front of others again.”
“Mother. Mother, you know that’s not what I’m talking about!”
“So what are you trying to say?”
Fan Jin Chuan was also at a loss for words. He had always adhered to filial piety. Now, however, just because of some mere trifles, he began maliciously speculating his mother’s motives. He himself couldn’t pinpoint exactly what was adrift, but his vision and intuition wouldn’t deceive him.
“Mother seems to have uttered some ill-suited words several times today. Mother, are you holding a grudge against this son because of the courtyard matter? Worthy Brother Fang is a very good person. All this son is good at is studying assiduously, and he has helped this son a lot. As for Worthy Brother Fang’s two servant girls, they’re young and impulsive, so mother shouldn’t bicker with them over some trivial matters.”
“You’ve taken the words right out of my mouth. What else do you want your mother to say?” Bao-shi cast an irate look at her son. “Mother didn’t intentionally target that Worthy Brother Fang of yours. If you don’t like that I’m here with Man’er and feel that we’ve disgraced you, I’ll leave with Man’er tomorrow so we’ll stop obstructing your sight.”
With that, Bao-shi scampered to the cabinet and rummaged through her clothes, intending to pack up.
“Mother, what are you doing!”
“Mother is now old. Mother will go back to the countryside after disrupting your work. Anyway, there are still over a dozen mu1 of land at home. Man’er and I can just farm, and it will suffice……”
“Mother, this son didn’t want to drive you away. This son just……”
After placating Bao-shi with arduous effort, Fan Jin Chuan was deeply fatigued. When he trudged out from the inner room, he caught sight of Man’er positioned by the gauze cover.
As soon as he hove into her view, Man’er instantly sidled behind the gauze cover. Fan Jin Chuan suddenly felt even more weary.
After standing there watching his back vanish from her line of sight, Man’er approached the inner room.
“Mother, are you alright?”
Bao-shi, flumped on the edge of the bed, patted her leg and said, “How can I be alright? How could that son overturn the sky on his mother? When he was little, he didn’t like to study, so this mother would always deal with him that way, and it would work every time.”
Man’er replied with an ‘oh.’ She glimpsed at the clothes haphazardly tossed on the bed and scooted over to help Bao-shi neaten them.
Bao-shi scrutinized her well-behaved and taciturn manner, hating iron for not becoming steel. “You have to work harder. That little fox-spirit is not a simple character.”
“Mother, don’t say that about others. It sounds rather improper.”
“If I don’t say it like that, then how should I say it?”
Man’er froze and ceased speaking.
“Foxes can be male and female, and fox-spirits likewise so. I shouldn’t have hid in the countryside the first two years because I wanted to idle away, unexpectedly letting such a fox-spirit wind around my Shuan’er. He’s clearly an adult man, yet his face is fairer than a lady’s. With an especially slender waist and a raised buttocks, where is he in any way like an adult man? He obviously has the appearance of a woman. It’s said that such a man is a scourge among the people.”
This was allegedly according to her second paternal uncle’s son-in-law’s third paternal aunt’s husband,2 a middle-aged man known as Uncle Da Wang.
Uncle Da Wang was from the same village as the Fan family and was also closely related to them. He was a fellow in the bodyguard business and often traveled extensively. Because he frequented the market and meandered about, Bao-shi had twice dragged him to deliver goods to Fan Jin Chuan. One time, Uncle Da Wang brought back news of her son’s situation. Bao-shi was initially unbelieving, but Uncle Da Wang had narrated it in such vivid detail. She immediately bundled up her things and prodded Uncle Da Wang to find someone to ferry her and Man’er over.
When they finally arrived, who would have thought that his stories were indeed true?
Bao-shi had lived a large half of her life; what kind of things had she not seen? The way he, her son, eyed that Advisor Fang was entirely the way a man looked at a woman.
This, she couldn’t misinterpret!
Man’er had been quietly tidying up and perservering in silence.
Bao-shi had blurted out several sentences but felt somewhat unsatisfied. “Man’er, what do you think?”
“Mother, what do you mean? What should I think, ah?” Man’er mumbled.
“You’re such a silly girl! That son of mine is a wooden lump with a brain. He grew up reading the sages’ books and only pays attention to those pedantic words. He definitely hasn’t realized yet that his own thoughts about that Advisor Fang are amiss. This time, you have to work hard, ah. Drag him back.”
“Mother, how can I drag him back, ah? I can’t, either.”
“As the old saying goes, when a man chases woman, between them lies a mountain; when a woman chases a man, between them lies only a layer of gauze.3 Shuan’er’s father was the most handsome and most promising young man in our village. He had a small and fair face and would walk around carrying a book bag, pined after by several women. I wasn’t the best-looking among my peers, but he later married me because I had taken great pains. He studied at a private school and would pass through a sorghum field. I would wait for him there every day. I’d stuff him with a handful of chestnuts one day, a purse the next day, and a sweet potato the day after the next. If he didn’t want them, I’d stuff them right back. After a while, he grabbed my hand and questioned my intentions. He eventually took the initiative to drag me to his side, and things just fell in place.”
“But mother, I……”
“Anyway, I’ve told you everything you need to know, so don’t say that Mother didn’t help you.”
Fan Jin Chuan lingered outside the courtyard for a long time, then he ultimately clenched his teeth and wandered in. Unexpectedly, upon his entrance, he saw Fang Feng Sheng lounging in the courtyard.
The bright moon hung high, the night sky was like ink, and the stars were bright.
Under the moonlight, there was a stone table with a lounge chair next to it. Feng Sheng was reclined on the lounge chair, beside her a wine jug atop the table. Clasped within her hand was a wine cup, and she was drinking to the moon in solitude.
“Worthy Brother is so elegant.”
“The moon looks good today.”
Fan Jin Chuan rested himself on the stone bench by the stone table and raised his head to marvel at the moon with Feng Sheng.
On the disc-like moon, one could vaguely discern the outline of its varying shades. It really seemed as though there was a Moon Palace built up there, and situated within was a person named Chang’e accompanied by her rabbit. There also stood a man named Wu Gang, unceasingly chopping up the self-healing osmanthus tree.4
“Yes?” Feng Sheng glanced at him, then once more beheld the moon.
Fan Jin Chuan was suddenly bereft of speech. He fidgeted twice and said, “You’ve witnessed such a joke today. My mother, she’s actually not half bad….”
“Auntie is quite good.”
As soon as these words flowed out, Fan Jin Chuan couldn’t continue.
He could only shift back to appreciating the moon.
Unknowingly, the jug of wine was emptied.
Unknowingly, the night grew deep.
Zhi Qiu came out and urged, “Young Master, it’s time to rest.”
Feng Sheng rose to her feet. “My lord, rest early.”
Fan Jin Chuan watched her back disappear behind the door and stood for a while longer before leaving.
Feng Sheng lay on the couch, and Zhi Qiu put the cover down.
“Young Master, you……”
“Rest early. I’m sleepy.”
In the following days, Feng Sheng sunk into a state of idleness.
They had secured the arrangements and were just waiting for the fortunate time for the grain to ripen. After more than a year, Fan Jin Chuan was now slightly more adept at grappling with the county yamen‘s official duties, from small matters like subordinates stealing and shirking duties, to big ones like a few criminal cases.
He was now not how he used to be. With Feng Sheng’s imperceptible influence, he had also gradually grasped that he sometimes couldn’t handle things fairly and had to eliminate, strike and be cognizant of various tricks.
As such, if there was nothing to do outside, Feng Sheng was even more unoccupied.
After two days’ leisure in the county yamen, Feng Sheng jaunted outside to kill time. She would either find a theater to listen to the opera or go to the northern or eastern part of the city to glory in the bustling excitement, the easiest way to loll around.
“Advisor Fang is so elegant.”
Feng Sheng raised her eyes to the other side and laggardly uttered, “Sit, Brother Gou.”
“I heard others say that Advisor Fang has been frequenting Deqing Lou to watch the opera lately. I had initially dismissed it as nonsense from the people below. Why have you been so carefree and idle recently?”
“Merely have nothing to do.”
Feng Sheng feigned pouring tea for Gou Qing with levity, and in the process sneaked a glance at the other person, sensing something odd about him but unable to distinguish exactly what.
When Gou Qing sat down, she felt even more strange because the other person didn’t even say anything. Gou Qing usually wasn’t this reticent.
“If Brother Gou has something to do, just go busy yourself. I’m truly too idle, so I’m just killing time.”
“Fine, then. I indeed have some matters to attend to.”
Only after Gou Qing left was Feng Sheng able to figure out what was weird about him. Besides his uncharacteristic silence, she also perceived that Gou Qing’s complexion looked off, as if he had been seriously ill.
After stepping out of Deqing Lou, Gou Qing’s cheeks couldn’t help but twitch.
The attendant who had been trailing after him noiselessly stepped forward and offered him a hand. “My lord?”
“Your injury hasn’t yet healed and you’re not supposed to go out. That De……”
Gou Qing’s eyes were stern. “Silence!”
With the onset of autumn, apart from having to agonize over the autumn floods every year, they also had to stew over the weather preceding the autumn harvest, so the county yamen was gradually getting busy.
The grain’s milk stage had reached the final phase, and the autumn harvest arrived once again. Luckily, nothing deplorable occurred this year. With the previous year’s experience, everything fell according to order.
Fan Jin Chuan ventured back after a busy day, physically and mentally exhausted. Before he entered the door, he saw Xiao Qi casting him meaningful glances. Indeed, when he strode in the room, Man’er was loitering inside.
“Brother Jin Chuan, I saw that the soles of your shoes are torn. I made you two more pairs. Go ahead and check if they fit.”
Over the past few months, Man’er had already sewn Fan Jin Chuan several pairs of shoes, so how could they not fit? Fan Jin Chuan nonetheless still sat down and tried them on.
He didn’t want to try them on, as he had already done so before, but Man’er was rarely seen so stubborn. Although she didn’t speak, she kept watching beside him until he caved in.
“Thank you. Xiao Qi, take it and keep it.”
He shot another complicated glance at Man’er and said, “Miss Man’er, I already told you before that I’ve always regarded you as a little sister. If you’re willing, I can marry you off as my little sister.”
Fan Jin Chuan had thrown Man’er these words several times. He had initially found it difficult to expel but was eventually able to convey it without concession. He had esteemed that this time, the other would still be unresponsive and would only persist fashioning him shoes and giving him food and such. Unexpectedly, Man’er opened her mouth.
“Is it because of Fang……”
Right this moment, someone strolled in.
It was Fang Feng Sheng.
Fan Jin Chuan recalled their previous discussion and rose to his feet. “You can go back. I have official business.”
Man’er gazed at him and ambled away with a lowered head.
Feng Sheng laughed dryly, “I seem to have come at a bit of an unfortunate time.”
Fan Jin Chuan gave her a complex stare before raising his spirits. “It was nothing. Let’s first talk about proper business.”
The two of them proceeded to the study. Atop the writing desk lay a blank memorial paper already unfolded.
Feng Sheng poured some water in the ink stone and commenced grinding ink for Fan Jin Chuan.
They were both waiting in prudence. Feng Sheng ground the ink with the vigor of a soldier on the battlefield, while Fan Jin Chuan’s eyes were fixed absently on the memorial paper.
The sky unconsciously darkened.
Xiao Qi crept in and lit a lamp. This momentary light came abruptly and woke the two people up.
“My lord, have you thought about it well?”
“We’ve been planning for several days. Aren’t all our plans just for this day?”
Feng Sheng was unable to continue.
Following the autumn harvest, the local taxes were escorted to the capital, and it was also time for the salt administration to turn over the salt tax to the higher authorities. However, the salt tax revenue this season was even more dismal than last spring’s, now not even two or three-tenths less.
Both the imperial court and the common folk were greatly frightened, and the Jianping Emperor was furious. These past few days, the whole court was deeply unsettled, and all parties were tearing apart the matter of salt tax like a raging fire. It was the best time for Fan Jin Chuan to submit a memorial.
If they didn’t do it now, then when would be the best time to do it?
“Once this memorial is handed out, you may face great distress or even imprisonment. It may even cost you your life. You may even be reviled by everyone under the heavens, or even……”
“I will go forward against thousands and tens of thousands.”5 Fan Jin Chuan dipped his brush into the ink and wrote the first word on the memorial paper.
Haha, the more I write about the critical moment, the more I get stuck. Things have eventually become clear on matters of salt. It will be an earth-shaking matter.
1 亩 (mǔ): unit of area equal to one fifteenth of a hectare
2 Pretty sure the author is just trolling.
3 She’s saying that it’s much easier for a woman to approach men than for a man to approach women.
4 嫦娥: Chang’e is the Chinese goddess of the Moon, and she has a rabbit. The rabbit often is portrayed as her companion, constantly pounding the elixir of life for her.
吴刚: Wu Gang is a figure in traditional Chinese folklore and religion. He is known for endlessly cutting down a self-healing osmanthus tree on the Moon, a divine punishment which has led to his description as the Chinese Sisyphus.
5 Actually a quote from Mencius, translated by James Legge. The language Fan Jin Chuan uses here is pretty archaic.