Purely by Accident – Chapter 12
The next day was Duanyang.
I’d fallen into a deep and exhausted slumber the previous night, shaken by my encounter with my unwelcome suitor . When I finally woke up, it was noon. The moment I stepped out of my room (still bleary-eyed), I could smell the sweet, somewhat cloying aroma of fresh zongzi. Calamus and mugwort leaves hung from every wall, giving the inn the air of an altar festooned with talismans in preparation for a ritual.
I was abruptly roused from my half-somnolent ruminations by the sight of Silly Girl scurrying past me with dainty little steps, clad in an ensemble so showy that it bordered on immodest.
I took a quick step forward, blocking her path. I grabbed a handful of her robes to hold her in place and looked her carefully up and down. She was dressed in green from head to toe, with one exception: the enormous red flower in her hair, which looked blindingly bright against the rest of her outfit.
She struck a pose that said ‘I’m yours for the asking’. Her expression held a sort of demure shyness I had never imagined seeing on her face. ‘What do you think?’ she asked me a little uncertainly. ‘Am I pretty?’
Sigh. Was there any maiden who did not harbour romantic fancies?
I nodded vigorously. ‘In these clothes? About as pretty as the star courtesan of a brothel!’
‘Really?’ Her eyes widened. ‘A star courtesan? Oh, that’s been my dream ever since I was a child!’
I found myself briefly incapable of speech.
How did that saying go? ‘One who has no shame is undefeatable’. That was Heaven’s own truth.
Silly Girl seemed to be lost in some wonderful daydream. I coughed lightly in a bid to rouse her from it. ‘Why are you dressed so… flamboyantly today?’
She was still caught up in her reverie; the look on her face was one of pure elation. ‘It’s Duanyang!’ she said.
I bit back an exasperated sigh.
‘Of course I know what day it is,’ I said. ‘But is there a rule that says you have to dress…’ Here I paused, glanced at the huge red flower dangling from her hair, gulped and went on, choosing my words carefully, ‘…so extravagantly for Duanyang?’
‘What?’ My question seemed to take her by surprise, and she gave me the disdainful look of a city sophisticate dealing with a provincial rube. Then she thought about the matter for a moment. Her head tilted to one side, and enlightenment spread across her face. ‘Of course! Your home is close to the border, so your customs must be different.’
‘What customs are you talking about?’ I asked, all the while inwardly grumbling: Customs? More like ‘wholesale corruption of morals’, if you ask me.
Silly Girl swelled with excitement at the rare prospect of schooling me. ‘”Duanyang Festival, also called the Feast of Maidens. By custom celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth month, being an occasion when maidens adorn themselves in their best finery.” Have you never heard of that before?’
With perfect honesty, I shook my head. Her face fell.
‘”String bracelets round her rosy arm;
amulets in her hair.
May we spend this day together
For the next thousand years.”
You must have heard of that, surely?’
I shook my head once again, completely unrepentant in my ignorance.
Silly Girl shook her head as well, looking greatly pained. ‘You’re so uncultured it’s scary. Fine, let me explain it as simply as I can. On the day of the Duanyang Festival, all the women who are neither married nor betrothed dress up in their best clothes to attend the dragon boat race. If some promising young man catches a woman’s eye, she gives him a hand-made sachet as a token of her feelings. If his boat takes first place in the race, the two of them can marry without their parents’ permission, and no one is allowed to stop them. That’s why the dragon boat race’ — and here her face took on that dreamlike expression again — ‘is always such a lively event.’
I was momentarily dumbfounded. The town’s proximity to the capital had certainly made the local customs permissive!
‘Where’s the sachet you made?’ I asked Silly Girl excitedly. ‘Show me what it looks like.’
Her hand protectively fell to the sash at her waist — where said sachet was no doubt hidden — as if she were keeping some precious treasure concealed from prying eyes. The gigantic red flower in her hair drooped as she looked down. ‘You’re only supposed to show it to your beloved,’ she said. ‘And to be very honest, Young Master Wei, you’re really not my type. But lots of women like pretty boys, I’m sure. Why don’t you come with me to Heron River and see for yourself?’
I was torn. On the one hand, I’d never seen a dragon boat race that promised to be as grand as this one — it would be a rare treat indeed. On the other hand, given the scale of the event, I was almost certain that my unwelcome admirer from yesterday would be there as well. What if he pestered me again?
With the air of one making a noble sacrifice, I shook my head. ‘I’m not going. Crowds don’t suit my quiet and refined temperament.’
Silly Girl curled her lip. ‘Suit yourself.’ She started to walk away, then paused, adjusted the folds of her robes and looked back at me, as if for approbation. ‘What do you think of my outfit? Will it really do?’
‘Mm…’ I stroked my chin as I made a show of pondering her question. Then I raised a finger, pointed at her face and declared, ‘You look as lovely as a flower…’
She was beside herself with delight.
I moved my finger upwards, bringing it level with the flower in her hair. I paused meaningfully, then drew my finger back down so that I was once again pointing at her face, and finished, ‘…placed on top of a pile of dung!’
She stared at me, the wind completely taken out of her sails. Her jubilant expression from a moment ago had frozen on her face, making her a most comical sight.
I laughed so hard I nearly gave myself an internal injury.
Furious, she stamped her foot. ‘You… you… Just you wait! I’m going to Heron River right now to look for the princess. She’ll set you straight!’
‘Do, by all means,’ I said. ‘The princess will only compliment me on my sound assessment.’ I smacked my lips smugly, then realised there was something wrong with the whole picture. ‘What? Heron River? The princess has gone there to watch the dragon boat race, did you say?’
Silly Girl only turned on her heel and stalked off, clearly feeling it beneath her to waste another word on me.
I was outraged.
Eldest Princess Chu Feichen, how dare you! You and I went through a wedding ceremony that night at my bandit stronghold, so you’re no unmarried woman! Even if we discount that, you’ve since promised me your hand in marriage, so at any rate, you’re hardly unbetrothed! Being a married woman, or at least a betrothed one, you’ve no business taking part in a courtship ritual. Yet not only are you attending this gathering, you didn’t even think to mention it to me? What do you take me for? I’m your bandit chief husband and your future prince consort, you— you— you unvirtuous wife!
In a flash, I was out of the inn and racing towards the river. I could hear Silly Girl shouting after me, ‘Young Master Wei, where are you rushing off to in such a hurry?’
I soon arrived at Heron River. The air was filled with the din of gongs and drums, interspersed with the roar of fireworks being set off. A score of sleek wooden boats waited on the river. The prow of each boat had been carved into the shape of a dragon’s head; they looked as if they were grandly surveying the scene. Each vessel held a full complement of paddlers, and at the bow of every boat stood a drummer. The latter were beating their instruments energetically.
Spectators lined both banks of the river, their cries of excitement reverberating through the air. But where in this crowd — which was packed shoulder-to-shoulder — was the princess?
Silly Girl caught up with me. ‘I nearly died trying to keep up with you,’ she gasped, clutching at my arm. ‘I thought you said you weren’t coming? But then you just ran all the way here!’
I scanned the crowd. ‘There are too many people. Where’s the princess?’
‘Hm…’ Silly Girl dragged out the syllable, as if to give herself a chance to catch her breath. She pointed to a raised platform that was just visible in the distance, further along the river. ‘You see that platform over there? It’s right next to the finish line for the dragon boat race. The princess must be up there. It’s high enough to give you a good view of the race, and close enough to the river that you can easily make your way to the winning boat, if you wanted to give your sachet to one of the young men there!’
I’d like to see her try! As I sprinted towards the platform, my teeth clenched, I contemplated hanging a copy of Feminine Virtues inside the roof of the princess’ coach.
With a three-beat flourish of the drums and a wave of the red starting flag, the dragon boat race was finally under way. The boats advanced side by side along the river, their prows cutting through the waves. In their excitement, the spectators surged forward. Caught up in the rush of the crowd, I was finding it difficult to keep pace with the boats, much less outrun them.
Then I felt a tug at my sleeve.
The voice of my unwelcome admirer from yesterday boomed out above my head like the cry of some particularly persistent ghost. ‘Young master, you— you came!’
Ah. My greatest fear had been realised. ‘Greetings to you too, young master,’ I said, giving him a fake smile over my shoulder as I unsuccessfully tried to yank my sleeve free. ‘And farewell…’
Instead of taking the hint he simply stood there, unmovable as a mountain. His expression was outright euphoric. ‘I knew you would come, young master. Because it’s the Duanyang Festival today, and that’s when lovers find their happily ever after.’
I rolled my eyes impatiently. ‘Yes, yes, the Duanyang Festival — the Feast of Maidens. What’s that got to do with a grown man like you?’
He was visibly hurt by my disinterest. That impressive beard trembled; its owner seemed to be on the verge of tears. ‘Young master, do you think so little of me? My heart is as pure and constant as any maiden’s, I’ll have you know.’
Lacking the strength to argue further with him, I simply ripped my sleeve from his grasp — leaving him holding the torn-off cuff — and rushed forward once more. The crowd, however, was far too tightly-packed for me to make much headway. Within moments, I felt my persistent admirer’s grip on my arm once again. He was holding my torn-off cuff aloft in his other hand, and his expression had gone from abject misery to pure exultation. ‘This cut sleeve lays bare your heart, young master. Finally you understand my feelings!’
I had absolutely no idea how to respond. By now it was clear that he wasn’t going to listen to sweet reason, and so I was forced to resort to my martial abilities. I took advantage of a moment of inattention on his part to push him away, then used qinggong to leap onto the nearest dragon boat.
The drummer on the boat glanced at me when I landed, then resumed his work with renewed vigour. The boat surged forward, cutting through the water as easily as a sharp knife splits bamboo. I took a moment to compose myself, pleased with this turn of events. Not only did this allow me to avoid my troublesome admirer’s advances, I would also be able to reach the platform all the sooner. As the boat moved further along the river, I could make out the platform more clearly: a bevy of graceful figures was clustered atop it, and even from a distance I fancied I could hear their soft cries of excitement.
My persistent admirer, however, turned out to have some martial prowess himself. Following hot on my heels, he leaped onto the same boat. He then fished something out of his pocket and thrust it at me. Seeing no other escape route, I took a deep breath and jumped onto the next boat.
With unrelenting persistence, my admirer followed suit.
I sighed, took another deep breath, then leaped onto the next boat, and the next. Where I went, he followed. The spectators cheered, clearly believing we were here to make the dragon boat race even livelier. Amid their thunderous applause, we made several complete circuits of all the boats in the race.
And then a gong rang out, declaring a winner in the race.
I looked down and saw that the boat I happened to be on had crossed the row of buoys marking the finish line. The paddlers whooped with joy, raising their arms in triumph — victory was theirs!
When I looked up again, the princess’ smiling eyes were the first thing I saw — as beautiful and unattainable as the moon reflected in a pool of water, or a bamboo grove glimpsed through a drift of clouds. She returned my gaze briefly with a single bewitching glance; the sight of that was enough to put all the other women on the platform in the shade.
I gaped at her, grinning foolishly. All thoughts of calling the princess to account for her many crimes against me had completely left my head.
The winning boat docked beside the platform. Women came rushing up, each seeking out the young man on whom she wished to bestow her favour. The princess took a step towards me.
At that very moment, a blushing maiden ran up to me and thrust a sachet into my hand. A powerful fragrance rose from it, strong enough to make me sneeze. When I looked up again, the princess’ eyes had gone completely cold for some reason.
I stood there awkwardly, clutching the sachet and wondering how best to gently let down the red-faced young woman in front of me. Suddenly, the sachet was snatched away from me and replaced with something that looked like a coarse sack.
My persistent admirer loomed over the young woman, his face like thunder. ‘This gentleman and I have already declared our love for each other, you shameless hussy!’
The poor girl gave me a reproachful look and ran off, burying her face in her hands. My admirer turned to me delightedly, twirling a strand of his beard around one finger. ‘Dearest master of my heart, may I ask your name? From where do you hail?’
His eyes glowed with unmistakable sincerity.
I desperately flung the princess my most pathetic look, but to no avail. She simply stood by with her arms folded across her chest, utterly unconcerned. Her eyes glanced from my torn sleeve to the sack-like object I was holding and back again. That enigmatic smile was once again hovering about her face.
I threw all caution to the wind. ‘I understand how you feel,’ I told my persistent admirer. ‘But I’m unable to return those feelings. You see, I’m already betrothed.’
He started violently, disbelief written all over his face. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that the princess had allowed the smile to slip away; she was now looking a little pensive.
‘You must be shy, young master,’ said my persistent admirer — who was turning out to be rather good at making excuses for me. ‘But really, there’s nothing to worry about. The Duanyang Festival is an occasion for challenging society’s deep-seated prejudices after all, and whatever some people may think, there’s nothing unusual about two men finding love with one another.’
There was nothing for it. Fine. If I die, I die. Clearing my throat, I said as loudly as I could, ‘I’m not trying to go back on any promises you think I might have made, young master. The truth is, I really am betrothed. Although we’re not yet formally married our hearts already beat as one, and we’ve promised to be true to each other for as long as we live.’
‘I don’t believe you.’ His lip trembled visibly. ‘Who is she? Who is this future wife of yours?’
I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and pointed straight at the princess. When I dared to re-open my eyes, I saw that my admirer’s face had gone positively ashen. The princess, on the other hand, was utterly self-possessed. There she stood, looking like a completely disinterested spectator, with her robes fluttering in the breeze.
Suddenly, my suitor took a menacing step towards her. ‘Since you’re not yet married to my sweetheart,’ he began in an unsteady voice, ‘then let us compete fairly for his affections!’
A crow flew past, crying out, ‘Caw! Caw!’ Sweat broke out all over my body.
The princess reached up and adjusted her brilliant green jade hairpin. Another smile blossomed slowly across her face. She was heart-stopping in her loveliness: unparalleled and without rival.
‘Compete fairly?’ She tilted her head to one side, as if puzzled. ‘Do you think you’re in a position to “compete fairly” with me?’
She descended unhurriedly from the platform. Smiling, she held out a hand to me. ‘Zisong.’
‘Yes?’ I took her outstretched hand eagerly, and it was only through a tremendous effort of will that I managed to stop myself from drawing her into my arms.
She reached out with her other hand and pinched my waist in a mild rebuke. ‘You attract lovestruck followers so easily,’ she said with a fretful little frown. ‘Whatever shall we do?’
Still gawking at her, I let my heart overtake my head and reached down to caress the hand that still lingered at my waist. My questing fingers encountered something hard. When I looked down, I saw that she’d slipped a jade pendant into my palm. It was faintly warm to the touch, and I could feel some slight depressions on its surface, as though some design had been carved into it.
I held the pendant up for a closer look. Sure enough, two characters had been engraved on its surface. They read simply: Feichen.
The princess’ given name. My heart melted at the sight.
‘I don’t have a sachet with me, alas,’ the princess said. ‘But perhaps this jade pendant will suffice to bind you to me?’
Translator’s note: Taken in conjunction with Chapter 11, the parts of this chapter dealing with Zisong’s unwelcome suitor are susceptible to an uncomfortable trans reading, which was almost certainly not intended by the author or received as such by its original audience. I have tried to de-emphasise this through my translation choices, but I acknowledge that the reading is present nevertheless. The only consolation I can offer is that it is not a major feature of the novel, and the character in question makes his exit at the start of the next chapter.
- On Duanyang, see footnote 2 to Chapter 11.[return to text]
- In Chinese, 人至贱则无敌. This is a riff on the saying 水至清则无鱼, 人至察则无徒, which means ‘water that is too clear has no fish; one who is too critical has no friends’. The latter saying originates from Ritual Records of Dai the Elder (大戴礼记), the Western Han scholar Dai De’s (戴德) reworking of the Book of Rites (礼记). The Book of Rites is one of the Five Classics (五经) that lie at the core of the Confucian canon.[return to text]
- In Chinese, 端阳节, 又名女儿节, 俗以五月初五日为期, 饰小闺女, 尽态极妍. This is a quotation from Miscellaneous Notes from the Wanping County Office (宛署杂记) by the Ming Dynasty official Shen Bang (沈榜), a record of local politics, economics, culture and customs compiled by the author during his time as magistrate of Wanping County.[return to text]
- In Chinese, 彩线轻缠红玉臂, 小符斜挂绿云鬓. 佳人相见一千年. This is the second half of a ci poem by the Song Dynasty poet Su Shi (苏轼), set to the tune of ‘Silk-Washing Stream’ (浣溪沙). The poem describes the festivities during Duanyang: the ‘string bracelets’ and ‘amulets’ are talismans for warding off misfortune and ill-health. The final line is said to be addressed to his concubine Wang Zhaoyun (王朝云), who followed him into political exile.[return to text]
- In Chinese, 一朵鲜花插在牛粪上. A saying used to denote something good or beautiful being paired with something bad or ugly, usually in the context of a talented or beautiful woman being paired with an untalented or ugly suitor.[return to text]
- In Chinese, 妇德. This is not a real book, but its title evokes Four Books for Women (女四书), a collection of texts intended for the education of young upper-class Chinese women in the late Ming and Qing Dynasties. The four books are: Lessons for Women (女诫, also translated as Admonitions for Women, Women’s Precepts or Warnings for Women) by the female Han Dynasty scholar Ban Zhao (班昭); Women’s Analects (女论语) by Song Ruoshen (宋若莘) and Song Ruozhao (宋若昭), two sisters who were employed as court poets during the Tang Dynasty; Domestic Lessons (内训) by Empress Xu (徐皇后), consort to the Yongle Emperor (永乐帝), who was the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty; and Sketch of a Model for Women (女范捷录) by Madam Wang née Liu (刘氏), mother of the Ming Dynasty scholar Wang Xiang (王相).[return to text]
- In Chinese, 轻功, literally ‘lightness skill’. A martial arts technique which gives practitioners the ability to move with great swiftness and agility.[return to text]
- In Chinese, 势如破竹, literally ‘force of breaking bamboo’. Bamboo is said to be easy to split as its stem is hollow.[return to text]
- A trope often seen in Japanese animation. When a character says or does something foolish or embarrassing, one or more crows are shown flying past, crying ‘aho! aho!’ ‘Aho’ is Japanese onomatopoeia for a crow’s call and also means ‘fool’ or ‘stupid’.[return to text]
- Traditionally, a Chinese woman’s given name — particularly if she was of high rank — was considered a very intimate fact about her, and would be known only to her immediate family members, her husband and possibly her close female friends.[return to text]