Part of a Peony’s Tavern translation project at fruitydeer.com.
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Source: 芍藥客棧 by Yi Mei Tong Qian // Translated By: Xin (fruitydeer)
The flower and plant spirits are literally called demons (妖 // yāo) but not in the sense that they’re all evil or demonic creatures (惡魔 // è mó). While the word yao in Chinese can have negative implications depending on context, it’d be more apt to say that these yao, in particular, are simply spirits who have been able to conjure a human form through cultivation.
I also wasn’t quite sure of the best way to translate the title for this arc, but “wine banner” refers to the flags outside of shops and taverns in the old days that advertise alcohol sales. It’s literally just a banner that says “wine” or whatever is being sold on it.
Zhuang Yuan Town, dawn, beautifully sunny.
In the flowerbed in Tong Fu Tavern’s backyard, flowers and plants woke up to the light of dawn, already anticipating the drizzle of an early morning watering.
It was now the third lunar month. Only magnolias were blooming while peonies and azaleas remained leafy green. The cypress trees were evergreen; bottle gourd vines were winding with its greenery, climbing up the walls. The entire courtyard was lush and verdant and a safflower tree lied right in the midst.
But even when the sun was high up, no one had come yet. The basking flowers and plants were already a little wilted. Suddenly, there was the sound of footsteps. The flowers and plants that had been wilting…wilted more.
“Indeed, it is ‘purple chalk holds a flame and red rouge dyes the small lotus flowers.’1 The innkeeper raised a yard full of nice flowers and the magnolias have bloomed beautifully.”
The one speaking was a young man. His figure was trim, his expression held a faint smile, and the contours of his face were fair and full of clear, intellectual air, just like a person in an ink painting.
A light breeze drifted by, blowing the the flowers and plants to and fro.
“This bugger is back again!”
“This dummy really came at this time again!”
“Ah, ah, ah, lao da,2 beat him up, beat him up!”
The little flower and plant demons were chittering about, but all the scholar heard was the rustling sounds of leaves stirring in the wind.
As lao da, Shao Zi (勺子 // spoon)3 really couldn’t hold herself back. She also really wanted to go over and give him a beating, ya, but once she transforms, they’ll be exposed and the scholar will be scared out of his wits. She watched him go towards the well to retrieve water, but his hesitation made things more troubling.
Shao Zi is a peony demon with three hundred years of cultivation. Since the day the old innkeeper scooped and planted her into the backyard, fifty years had already passed. But now, the old innkeeper’s sold the tavern, and to a dumb scholar, at that.
Initially, the scholar solemnly swore to take good care of the tavern’s plants, but at the end, he turned around and watered them only at noon, angering her to death.
The flowerbed was filled with gloomy energy and the scholar did not even notice. Walking over to towards the well, he bent over and tossed a bucket in, then pulled a full bucket back up. After lugging it for a bit, it was simply too much and too heavy, so he poured the greater half of it back in. All the demons in the flowerbed fell into an uproar.
“Pei, pei!4 He only knows how to recite rotten poems and can’t even carry a bucket of water.”
“Oh no, he’s coming, he’s coming!”
The scholar strenuously carried the bucket of water over to the flowerbed, stooped down and picked up the ladle, then scooped up a full spoon of water. The demons gulped anxiously. Then, they saw a downpour of relentless rain, pounding into the boiling hot soil and abruptly turning into scalding hot water, burning them so much that they shrank back their legs and shrieked.
The scholar slowly scooped another spoonful. Initially, he wanted to elegantly drizzle out the water, but he did not get a good grip on the ladle, so it flew out, landing on Shao Zi’s pretty little face with a “pa“…
Shao Zi: “!”
The scholar shook his head: “I really don’t have the gift for raising flowers after all, ah.” Having said that, he slowly poured the whole bucket of water into the flowerbed. The demons were halfway submerged in water, yet they saw him pat his hands in satisfaction. “Such as well.”
The drenched plant demons fixed their eyes on the scholar as he hummed a little tune and left, angrily pointing, “Lao da! Hurry and chase him away! I’ll never complain about a crude man taking over the tavern. He can’t even take good care of flowers, what’s the point of looking good and reciting poems. Pei! Who waters flowers at high noon?!”
Water droplets shook slightly off of lush green leaves. After he left the courtyard, the half-meter tall peony shook and turned into a seventeen to eighteen year old maiden, gently landing on the ground. She wore a powder white short-sleeved dui-jun5 paired with a ru-qun.6 Her hair was dark like lacquer, her facial features like a painting. Like jade-green bamboo after a rain and misty, lush mountains, she was charming and lively.
One by one, the plant demons to the side transformed into all different shapes. With a “peng” sound at the top of the head, the bottle gourd turned into a big fatty, landing on the ground with a sudden rumble.
Everyone instantly raised their fingers and hushed him with a “shh,” and the fat bottle gourd also made with a “shh” sound in a low voice. Then he said in a low timbre to the peony standing up front: “Lao da, ever since this bugger took over the tavern, there’s been a foul atmosphere. When the tavern re-opens tomorrow, what will we do?”
Shao Zi contemplated for a long while, then slowly turned around. Her gaze was vicious as she raised her hand upwards and rubbed her neck, muttering deeply: “Deal with him first.”
At once, everyone cast a “our lao da really is mighty and awesome” gaze. Then they each went back into the ground in satisfaction to soak in the moisture.
Shao Zi didn’t go in. She recalled how in the past, every day when dawn approached and the morning sun shrouded over the earth, the old innkeeper would carry water over just as the first rays of early light broke through the morning haze. He would scoop a full ladle of water and expertly raise his hand to drizzle it. Wrapped in morning light and refracting colors of the rainbow, the water droplets would land on the flowers and plants, getting rid of the grime accumulated overnight so they could cultivate in ease all day long.
But not too long ago, the old innkeeper said, “I started as a little innkeeper and became the big innkeeper, and now I’m an old innkeeper. It’s time to go back to my hometown and enjoy old age in peace.” Then, amongst the many people interested in buying the tavern, he ended up picking that dumb scholar.
She had nearly cried as she leaned by the door and anxiously watched him hand the deed over to the hands of that scholar, hearing him repeated over and over that he must water and fertilize the plants.
After explaining everything, he sighed softly, full of reluctance as he left with his wife.
With light footsteps, Shao Zi followed the old innkeeper from behind, accompanying them all the way to the main gate, treading barefoot on the bluestone road and watching as the two elderly figures supported each other. Under the big red lanterns lining the street shops, they gradually disappeared to never be seen again.
Thinking about the farewell of the prior night, Shao Zi inhaled sharply and rolled up her sleeves: “I’m going to go beat him up!”
The fat bottle gourd hurriedly held her back: “If you go right up and beat him, he’ll report to the authorities and our tavern’s reputation will be damaged!”
Shao Zi’s eyebrows twisted as she muttered deeply: “Then I’ll go somewhere nearby and dig a pit, then bury him inside.”
Unparalleled in grace, the majestic Lady Xin waved a hand and the tree full of magnolia blossoms (辛夷花 // xin yi hua) shook along with her. Splendid and captivating, she was well-versed as she spoke: “If a murder case arises, will our tavern even be able to stay in business? How about…lao da, you dress up as a ghostess and frighten him. You’re an expert, anyways.”
Seeing everyone else nod deeply in agreement, Shao Zi became irritated: “What do you mean, ‘I’m an expert.”
“Normally, when bad guys come to the tavern, isn’t it you, lao da, who personally takes matters into her own hands and dresses up as a ghostess to scare them off?”
…Thinking it over in detail, it seemed to be the case. In order to help Grandpa protect the tavern, every time there was a wicked person, she was the one who took care of it. Shao Zi paused and sighed. She was clearly a beautiful little peony flower, how was it that she embarked on this road of no return.
Whatever, it’s all for the tavern!
Nightfall, still winds, lanterns alight.
Under front of everyone’s “hurry and do away with the scholar” gaze, Shao Zi resolutely jumped into the scholar’s room. As she crouched on the windowsill, she watched the young man as he read a book under a light. Rubbing her chin, she took a step forward. The moment her toes made contact with the ground, she transformed into a white-robed ghostess with long hair draped on her shoulders.
Shao Zi first took a look at herself in the mirror. Seeing her red-eyed and blue-faced appearance, she was rather satisfied. She floated over to the table, sitting across from him. She leaned forward and blew on the oil lamp and the lights in the room flickered.
The scholar didn’t move.
Shao Zi racked her brain, then shuffled close and blew a gust of cold air onto his face.
The scholar continued to read his book.
“What a nerd, he even wants to manage our Tong Fu Tavern. Clearly, he’s aiming for a cadence of financial loss.” Shao Zi pouted, raising her hand to block the pages. Her fist slowly took form, but he was still indifferent!
Shao Zi looked at her hand. Mortals should definitely be able to see it. This tactic has scared away many fierce ruffians that had come to cause trouble. Then, Shao Zi simply revealed her ghostly figure altogether, bounding around at his side. From time to time, she would blow on his neck or use her hand to block his line of sight. She even mess with the window, making “pi-li-pa-la” noises.
Half a shi chen later…7
The demons who were crouched in the courtyard, waiting for Shao Zi’s triumphant return, looked up and peered towards that deluxe room. Unable to tear their eyes away from the shadow reflected on the window as it hopped about, they were completely perplexed.
Translator’s Note: Here’s another photo that depicts a short-sleeved dui-jun and ru-qun set.
- He’s quoting a line of poetry about magnolias from Tang Dynasty poet, Bai Ju Yi. I wasn’t able to find a proper translation, but my take is: the beauty of red magnolias is beautiful like lotus flowers colored in red and purple.
- 老大 // Lao Da: Similar to saying big boss, leader, or eldest. Here, it’s spoken with ‘gang’ vibes.
- The “shao” in shao zi, the word for spoon, is a different character than the one in shao yao, the Chinese word for peony, but they share a phonetic component and have the same tone.
- 呸 // Pei: Expression of spitting, similar to bah! or pfft! Implies disdain.
- 對襟 // Dui Jun: A type of outerwear worn by women that has a parallel collar.
- 襦裙 // Ru Qun: The oldest type of han fu, primarily worn by women, that consists of a blouse and wrap around skirt.
- 時辰 // Shi Chen: An archaic timekeeping method. One shi chen is equivalent to two hours. Half of a shi chen is one hour.