I had originally written a character discussion about Zhousheng Chen on the backend of this post because there had been several comments on him that I had said I would respond to later when more information was revealed. However, I’ve removed it because it was just tooooo long and distracting. Sorry. If there was a question or comment you specifically wanted me to address, let me know and I will do that.
I love Xiao Nanchen Prince. ❤
Epilogue 2 – Ordinary Chimney Smoke
“Halt! Those two children over there!”
Eleven jumped in fright, blinking her wide eyes at Third Brother, who was holding her in his arms.
“Don’t be scared. Third Brother is here.” Third Brother patted her back.
More than a dozen horses had stopped near them, snorting quietly from their nostrils. Warhorses that had experienced the battlefield did indeed exude a fierceness about them.
Clutching tightly to the front of Third Brother’s robe, she tilted her head to look up at the people on the horses. Behind the two of them, that man, with reins held in his hands, was framed against a background of sunlight, and he surveyed them, two still-growing children, rather carefully.
Those dark, luminous eyes bypassed the four guards and in silence, looked straight into her eyes.
Eleven cautiously returned his gaze. Quietness surrounded them… So quiet that all that could be heard was her own heartbeat.
Several sharp, ringing sounds echoed out. Their four guards’ swords had been drawn from their scabbards. Four gleaming blades sheltered Third Brother and her within their protective circle. Although they were facing more than a dozen war horses, facing generals whose entire beings emitted an air of ferocity that could not be washed away, and facing even the Xiao Nanchen Prince, the one whom the crown prince still needed to behave carefully and courteously toward, the four of them would still defend the young miss of their household.
Never before had she seen such a situation, and she shrank herself back into Third Brother’s embrace. However, her eyes still could not refrain from flickering over to peek at him.
At last, Zhousheng Chen pulled his gaze away, and the hand holding the whip gave an offhand wave. “There is no need to make things difficult for two children. Let us go.” Upon saying this, he gave a shout at the horse, turned, and galloped away first. Behind him, his generals still had apprehensions but dared not say anything. Each also shouted at his own horse and quickly followed after Xiao Nanchen Prince, whose outline had long since vanished at the end of the road.
This was her teacher.
As Eleven stared at the dust that had been churned upwards and that white figure, her heartbeat became slower and slower. She knew that in three days, she would going with her father to formally enter into a discipleship, and he would be the man she would be following hereafter…
This unexpected initial meeting had been buried away in her heart for seven years now.
Seven years ago, she had needed the aid of Third Brother’s arms before she could lean atop the city walls and see Zhousheng Chen. Seven years later, she could stand in any place to look at the “him” she wished to see.
But, he was always leaving and returning in haste. In these seven years, even during the New Year or other festivals, most of his days would be spent in the borderlands.
And even if he did return, her senior brothers and sisters would often be accompanying him. It seemed, aside from in the library tower, she could only look upon him from afar.
Several days before the eve of the New Year, the Cui Manor sent someone to bring her home, but she stated that she was ill, having been overcome by wind-cold and it was not advisable that she embark on a long journey. She took the liberty of making the decision to remain in the prince’s manor. Upon hearing this news, Third Brother was genuinely panicked and brought with him one of the imperial physicians from the imperial palace to perform a pulse diagnosis on her. The old physician’s brows creased together for a great amount of time, but he was unable to provide any explanation, causing Third Brother to pace around anxiously.
Her eyes sparkling, she burst into giggles.
“Why are you laughing?” Third Brother was utterly bewildered, and he stretched his hand forward to touch her forehead. “Has the illness really caused your mind to go silly?”
She shook her head and extended her index finger to write something in Third Brother’s palm. However, for a long time, she made no movements.
Third Brother had doted on her ever since she was young. For her, he had willingly given up a life that could have been free and unconstrained, instead choosing to assume an insignificant post in the imperial courts for the sole reason that he could remain in Chang’an and keep watch over her. In this world, if there still might be a person she could speak the truth to, then that person could only be Third Brother.
She hesitated, but in the end, still wrote out the words: I want to wait for Teacher to return.
“Wait for Xiao Nanchen Prince?”
She nodded lightly. Looking back, in this half a year, reports of victories would frequently be received but Teacher had never once returned to the prince’s manor. Hence, she had anxiously longed for his return from the early summer to deep into autumn to today, the eve of the New Year.
She surmised, it should be time for his return.
Third Brother fell into a long silence, and with eyes that seemed filled with deep meaning, he stated, “His disciples have all long returned to their own families to celebrate the New Year. If he does not return, that would mean you will be alone at night for the New Year’s vigil.”
After pondering this briefly, she smiled and nodded again wordlessly.
If Teacher was not here, then she would stand vigil in the prince’s manor over the arrival of the New Year on behalf of him. It could be regarded as a moment of tranquility.
In the end, Third Brother ceded and allowed her to fulfill her wish. Filled with happiness in her heart, she saw Third Brother out of the prince’s manor. Snow had fallen the previous day, and now, the red plum blossoms in the manor were covered in snow. All around, red and white interspersed together. It was extremely lovely. After she saw Third Brother off, she strolled leisurely back to this place. Suddenly, she halted beneath a twig of plum blossoms, crooked her finger, and flicked the tip of the branch.
The twig swayed and quivered, dropping the snow that had been on it and revealing its damp flower petals.
On this same day one year ago, he had also performed the same action.
She smiled, closing her eyes and remembering how he had looked as he stood beneath the red plum blossoms. The Xiao Nanchen Prince, whose heart lay with the country and the people, had stood beneath the plum tree and carried out such a meaningless action. So very whimsical and so very astonishing to others watching. Last year, she had been beside him, and when she saw this, she could not hold back a laugh. He had detected this and turned to look at her.
In those gentle, glistening, deep black eyes, there were only her and red plum blossoms.
“Young Miss? Shall we prepare for dinner to be partaken?” The maidservant beside her interrupted her thoughts.
Eleven pulled her mind back, and as if her thoughts had been seen into, her ears instantly burned red. She shook her head over and over.
Seeing her suddenly so playful, the maidservant had felt that Young Miss’s illness seemed to be somewhat better and she could breathe out in slight relief. When Young Miss shook her head in refusal to have her meal, though, she again felt rather anxious. While Eleven returned to her room to read, she still went to prepare a lavish dinner. Even though it could not be considered a “family reunion dinner,” the evening meal for New Year’s Eve should still be more elaborate.
After all, Eleven had a very honoured status and should not be treated poorly.
However, after the meal was prepared, Eleven continued only to hold her scroll in hand, reading from when the golden sun was set high in the sky until the lamps and candles were burning throughout the room. Only when she had reached a point of extreme hunger did she rise from where she was, select a plate of small refreshments, and then return back to the desk, where she began to lay out a game of chess.
Very late into the night hours, she still did not feel fatigued.
The black and white chess stones before her had managed to blur time. With one hand supporting her chin, she would stare at the game for a long while before setting down each stone.
The entire time, her shadow cast on the window was noiseless, just like its owner. Ever so patient…
“Warm some wine.” A voice suddenly broke the quiet. Her head whipped upwards. Her dark, shining eyes were filled with his silhouette… He came near, lowering his eyes to look at the chessboard.
For a moment, all that could be heard were voices from behind her, one after another paying ceremonial respects.
He seemed to have thought of something else and casually added, “Tonight is the eve of the New Year. Bring out some [Sichuan] peppercorn also. Eleven, you are engaged in a game of chess with yourself?”
She nodded, coming off the daybed to personally pour some tea for him.
The tea was hot. She had instructed very early on that once the tea had become lukewarm, it should immediately be replaced. Because, she knew he would return.
Seeing that Young Miss was finally willing to move from where she was, the maidservant joyfully instructed people to warm up the food again and prepare for dinner. When Eleven saw the table laden with food and Teacher sitting beside her, smiling cheerfully, she suddenly felt her stomach rumble hungrily, and at last, the idea of eating entered her mind.
Zhousheng Chen picked up the warm wine ewer and poured a small sip into a cup for her before turning his hand to fill his own cup. Eleven looked at him in surprise. All these years, this was the first time he had asked her to drink wine. He appeared to see directly through her uncertainty and explained gently, “On the night before the New Year, one must drink a cup of pepper wine with one’s family before the New Year’s vigil can be considered as begun.”
She finally comprehended, remembering that Du Fu had indeed written a poem that said, New Year’s vigil at brother’s home; over pepper wine we sing.
However, the Cui family did not observe such a tradition, and here in the prince’s manor… it would seem he had never before done so either. But, she could not remember.
While he spoke, he took a pinch of peppercorns from a coloured liuli-glass cup and placed it into her wine cup, then added some into his own as well. At the table, there was only him and her, and hence, the cups they were using were also a pair. Shi Yi gazed at the pair of jade-colored wine cups, blinked her eyes, and smiled.
Family reunion dinner. A night for New Year’s vigil.
This was her first New Year’s Eve spent with him. A New Year’s Eve with only her and him.
And, this was also her last New Year’s Eve spent together with him.
Three years later, she departed the prince’s manor and returned to the Cui family to learn the proper rituals for her grand marriage ceremony, and he, by imperial decree, had ridden into battle to purge the border areas of threats.
On the return journey home, they encountered a snowstorm.
There, in a place she had never before set foot, she spent a night and stepped into another New Year.
By imperial orders, she was soon to marry and her position would become even more exalted. Along the way, the various government officials had all attended her respectfully and even offered up their entire manors for her lodgings. The person who came to meet her was Third Brother. Mother seemed to know that Third Brother was the only person who could set her heart at ease. In the vast prince’s manor, only Xiao Nanchen Prince could cause her to fall into true, heartfelt laughter, and in the great Cui family, only before Third Brother could she abandon herself to weeping.
That night, she asked only for a writing brush, ink, paper, and inkstone as well as an ewer of wine and a plate of [Sichuan] peppercorns.
Even Third Brother was not allowed to enter.
In her ten years in the prince’s manor, she was most adept in chess and painting.
She enjoyed holding a brush in hand to paint, but even during the times when she had been alone, she had still never dared to openly paint his countenance, instead, only hiding him amid the painted sceneries of flowers, grass, and landscape. Painting after painting. She had left them all in the prince’s manor, hanging on the walls of what had once been her bedchambers. She surmised, she would not be the only person who understood those paintings. The person whom she had concealed within them would undoubtedly understand them also.
Upon his triumphant return, when he saw the entire room of paintings…
She halted the motions of her brush. Tears fell like rain. They stained the paper, the ink, and also the man painted on the paper.
After two cups of wine, she could already feel drunkenness upon herself. She flourished her brush and fluidly began to paint, but it was no longer lotuses, flowers, or grasses. Behind him, she added mountains and flowing streams, common dwellings, and smoke spiraling up gently from kitchen chimneys — stretching continuously back for thousands of miles.
The land he held in his mind and heart.
Not one built upon outstanding military achievements. Not one of mountains of corpses and bones. But one of ordinary people and common dwellings amongst mountain streams and flowing rivers.
The ordinary chimney smoke of mankind. The smoke of battlegrounds.
In his life, he took no wife and had no offspring, choosing instead to place himself amid the hundreds of miles of smoke of battles, solely as an exchange for thousands of miles of unbroken stretches of ordinary chimney smoke.
And she, after having studied painting for ten years, at last, on this night, painted a man.
Those features, the unparalleled manner demonstrated in each gesture, belonged only to him.
The scroll of paper was completed without pause. In the end, the painting took form and became him.
守夜 “shou ye.” Literally, this means “to guard or stand watch over the night. “ It is often called 守岁 “to guard or stand watch over the year” and basically means to see in the New Year. This is a Chinese tradition that dates far back into antiquity. The family gathers to enjoy the blessing and happiness of a family in union, and together, they stand watch over the arrival of the New Year. I will refer to this as “New Year’s vigil.”
团圆饭 “tuan yuan fan.” The “family reunion dinner” is the dinner, usually on Lunar New Year’s Eve, in which the family gathers together to celebrate the upcoming New Year. Often, after dinner is done, the family members will sit together and wait for the arrival of the New Year, i.e. New Year’s vigil.
花椒酒 “hua jiao jiu.” Drinking pepper wine, containing Sichuan peppercorns, was a tradition during Lunar New Year and was drunk during the New Year’s vigil to warm the body.
守岁阿戎家，椒盘已颂花. A line from 杜位宅守岁 “New Year’s Vigil at the House of Du Wei”, written by Tang dynasty poet, Du Fu.
琉璃 “liu li.” Liuli, sometimes called liuli glass or liuli crystal is the art of creating ancient Chinese coloured glass, with roots stretching back thousands of years. The art form was considered very sophisticated and would not be found within ancient common households.
One of my favourite things about Mo Bao Fei Bao’s writing for this novel is the character of ancient Zhousheng Chen, the Xiao Nanchen Prince. Though there actually are not many explicit scenes of him and many of them were found in Shi Yi’s memory, his presence seems to be a thread that carries through the entire story. He truly was righteous and selfless. In his entire lifetime, up to his death at age 31, he took no wife and had no offspring. While the romantics in us want to think it was because his heart belonged to Eleven, keep in mind, when Eleven became his disciple at age 7, he was already 21, well within marrying age.
So why did he not marry? Perhaps, he believed, 匈奴未灭，何以家为, a saying from the historical figure, General Huo Qubing that approximately means, “The enemy invaders have not yet been vanquished [and the common folk are still in suffering], so how could I [as a general fighting for the people] think about building my own family? “Or perhaps, it could simply be, he did not want to burden any woman with the weight of having to worry about and possibly even lose a husband on the battlefield. Regardless of the reason, he truly showed through his actions that he chose to set aside all of his personal goals, feelings, etc. and make only the good of his country and people his goal and priority. There were comments before by readers that, they weren’t sure why, but they did not hold it against Xiao Nanchen Prince that he chose to give up Eleven. May I propose that it was because we saw that he would give Eleven what love he could — in the form of care, in the form of gathering teas for her, in the form of pouring out all he knew into his teachings to her — so that everyone knew that she was special to him, but he never once made her a promise of being able to be with her? I believe he drew a line in the sand and kept their relationship pure not simply because of their teacher-student relationship. He cared not for power, fame, or wealth, so he easily could have ridden away with her on horseback that day and never turned back, finding a place where no one knew them and living the rest of their lives. But he knew that he had to choose the common people because their suffering and need for a defender was greater than the love between two people. And Eleven knew that was his choice as well.
His righteousness and selflessness are traits that our minds have grasped, but because we see him through Eleven and Shi Yi’s fragmented memories, we are also exposed to his caring, his strictness as a teacher (e.g. Eleven’s punishment for wasting tea), his gentleness… just enough to make him not seem like a figure that is unreachable, to see him as a real person with emotions and feelings, but not enough to pull him off of the pedestal.
Simply brilliant to me. 🙂
1 of 1 Prologue
56 of 56 Main story segments
2 of 3 Epilogues