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)
We’re moving into a different setting for a short while, which means this section will be a bit heavier on the terms compared to usual. As usual, refer to the footnotes if needed by hovering or tapping.
The monk uses a term that I’ve translated as imperial teacher, but it’s actually more akin to a master of arts employed by the country. In this case, one specializing in Buddhist rites.
Shao Zi asked: “Why do you want to kill him? And those other people in town?”
“A life for a life. They’ve all murdered before, but the ya men1 does not question and does not ask questions, letting them off scot-free. The orchid cactus can see the ugliness in people’s hearts and make them repent until they choose to take their own lives. Those who have not done great evils will not need to worry.” The monk fell silent for a moment, then said, “I was originally an an imperial teacher for Yin Country and had always guided the Imperial Clan in spreading goodness by setting by example and leading righteous lives. One day, the crown prince of Yin Country took the lives of thirty-seven people without just cause, but the government didn’t dare make a fuss. So if one harbors evil intentions, how useful can the law really be?”
“Without law, the world will become even more chaotic.” The scholar shook his head, but saw that the monk remained silent, eyes cast in the direction of the orchid cactus on the table.
Prior to blooming, the orchid cactus was pure as white and free of impurities. Once it entered full bloom, it became a blood-like rouge, its charm2 deadly enough to steal one’s soul.
Out of the blue, a decadent sound entered the ears of the scholar and Shao Zi. It was like someone was chanting sutras. Yet, it also sounded like someone was reciting in song. It felt as if an orchid cactus was blooming under their feet, winsome shades of red dazzling their eyes. But when their gazes lifted, it turned out to be the sun reflecting brightly.
“The monk is in a dreamscape.”
The scholar spoke quietly while Shao Zi stared at the grand hall of the Imperial Palace. With his delicate features and draped in Buddhist robes, the monk held his staff, standing just outside the doors. Standing there was an attractive maiden wearing the garb of palace maids. Her expression was anxious: “Imperial Teacher, De gui ren3 is having another nightmare. His Majesty ordered that you hasten over.”
Shao Zi was bewildered. This monk that looked like he was on the down and out really was an imperial teacher once upon a time.
In a low voice, the monk continued to chant scriptures that they did not understand, his words transcending deep into his dreamlike state. However, the thoughts and feelings of yesteryear had long since left a deep imprint in his heart. He slowly opened his eyes and gazed upon the version of himself that was still full of youthful vigor, and saw “him” nod towards the palace maid, Qing Qing,4 who was in charge of attending to his everyday needs before gathering large strides towards Jin He5 Park.
As soon as he entered the vermillion doors, he could sense that the courtyard was filled with eeriness. Though his magical power was strong, his skills were not at the level of a master capable of transcending the skies. Still, it was just enough. With a soft grunt, he stamped his staff into the ground. His palms and fingers pressed together as he repeatedly recited words that sounded only cryptic to others, “Na-mo-he-luo-da-na-duo-luo-ye-ye, na-wu-a-li-ye.”6 Though bystanders could not understand, it seemed as if the agitation in their hearts began to clear, becoming clean as a pond.
The wailing from inside the room became even more tortured, shocking a man so much that he grunted, “Who is causing disturbances outside, where are the guards?” The guards standing outside exchanged looks of distress, not knowing whether or not they ought to drive the imperial teacher away. Then, another sharp cry came from within. With heads full of perspiration, the guards could only cross their swords. “Imperial Teacher, you’d better leave first.”
Qing Qing stopped them from up ahead and said: “Every time demonic evils cause trouble, the imperial teacher uses the same methods. How dare you behave disrespectfully?”
The guards revealed awkward expressions: “But His Majesty…”
Thin lips opened and closed slightly, his voice carrying into the inner room. Finally, the emperor staggered outside, his complexion pale: “D…demon!”
The guards rushed to protect him. A gust of sinister wind brushed across, causing everyone to tremble.
That sharp cry continued throughout the palace hall. He grunted softly, and the Buddhist incantation stopped abruptly. It was as if a golden bell covered them, swathing the sounds into a halo of golden light, compressing smaller and smaller until he enclosed it back into his palm and the sound was no more.
The emperor had long been escorted away under the protection of the guards. He tucked that ball of light back into his sleeves and turned around to face the maiden dressed in blue (青 // qing) palace robes. He asked: “Why have you not left? Are you not scared of demons?”
The depths of Qing Qing’s eyes still held traces of fright, but she replied: “Qing Qing serves Da ren.7 If I ran away because of demonic evils, that would make me too incompetent.”
The elegant face smiled, the sight akin to seeing akin to a white lotus emerging from cracked soil for the first time, free of imperfections. Like a rare, good seedling.
He returned to his room and washed up, feeling every time as if this could wash away all the dust on his body. When he came out of his bath, the corridor was already filled with palace workers bowing as they held up all sorts of rare and precious goods in offering. A eunuch communicated the message: “Imperial Teacher meritoriously removed the demon. All of this was bestowed by the Sacred One.”
Qing Qing came forth and led the palace workers inside with the gifts. He said: “De gui ren suffered the harassment of a demon. She must nurse her body well and cannot come into contact with animals. Even birds will not do. Gong-gong,8 please take note.”
The corners of the eunuch’s mouth curved: “What Imperial Teacher da ren has spoken of need not be done.”
He asked, puzzled: “Why?”
The eunuch replied: “The Sacred One already decreed that De gui ren be granted death.”9
He was shocked: “And why is that?”
“De gui ren‘s heart has been sullied and tainted by demons, which is considered inauspicious. Once she dies, her body must be burned and her ashes scattered in an outside lake. When the time comes, I must trouble Imperial Teacher with administering the ritual rites.”
For a moment, he was speechless: “But this had nothing to do De gui ren. The same thing would happen to anyone that the demon attaches itself to. Since the demon has been expelled, why must this crime be placed on her head? Is this not nonsense?”
In a hushed tone, the eunuch quickly alluded: “Those words must not be be mentioned, yo.10 In reality, even if she is not bestowed with death, how could she receive the Sacred One’s favor after a situation like this? It’s impossible, of course. Without the favor of the Sacred One, it’s just as well a path to death. One may as well die a little earlier and be at peace.”
He became inexplicably frustrated: “How could you carelessly draw conclusions about another’s matters?”
The eunuch did not engage in a war of words with him. Once the palace workers set the goods down, the eunuch led them away.
Once he went back inside, Qing Qing poured some tea: “Da ren, no need to get angry. There is no need to take words that the eunuch said just now to heart.”
He shook his head and looked at her as he asked: “That De gui ren…is she not the most favored consort of the emperor? How is he able to kill her just like that?”
Qing Qing smiled bitterly: “In the confines of the rear palace, how could true favor exist? I entered the palace seven years ago. The number of favored consorts I’ve seen has been no less than ten. At most, they’ll be doted on for some time before getting tossed to the side. One De gui ren is trivial. Even without her, there are still several young maidens with beauty as gentle as water to take her place. The Sacred One has no reason to take the risk of touching De gui ren, so killing her sooner will give him peace of mind.”
He pressed his palms together in prayer, chanting, “My Buddha is merciful,” but he only felt muddleheaded. It turned out that the lives of others could be discarded so easily. And the one discarding others was acting out of selfish needs, even able to go on living a free and unfettered life.
Qing Qing took a fan to fan away his heat, yet she could not fan away the restlessness in his heart.
Within the dreamscape, half a year passed in a blink of an eye.
He continued to help the Imperial Clan exorcise evils and pray for blessings, hoping to bring peace to the lands by looking after the family that ruled this nation. Except, the filth being dispelled from this place increased, and all was just as Qing Qing had anticipated. Several months ago, another Li gui ren came along. Then, another Song chang zai.11 The previous De gui ren had long been forgotten in the shadows.
In the wintery depths of the twelfth lunar month, the skies were grey and he was woken up by the frigid cold.
He was not an ascetic monk. Since youth, he had practiced in a monastery erected by the Imperial Clan. Food and drink was not a concern, and after he was personally taught by the head of the monastery, he very quickly entered the Imperial Palace to become an imperial teacher. In the summer, there were people to fan away the heat, allowing him to sleep well under a light breeze. In the winter, there were people to maintain the furnace, making it feel as warm as if it were early spring. But the furnace was not heated today, freezing him to the point of waking up from his dreams with a start.
There was no fire in the charcoal stove on the floor. All that remained was ashes, presumably from the night before. Where was the Qing Qing that helped him set the fire?
He put on his Buddhist robes and went outside. It was snowing.
Seeing the sky filled with silvery white, he suddenly felt that the world was pure of filth. But he was lying to himself. His heart was filled with bitterness, and upon seeing a palace maid carry water over, he asked: “Where’s Qing Qing?”
The palace maid froze, then nodded in reply: “She’s feeling unwell, so she went to rest.”
He heard a tremble in her words and asked again: “Where’s Qing Qing?”
The palace maid’s legs went soft and the basin of water fell to the ground with a crash as she kneeled and said: “Qing Qing is inside the maids’ quarters, but…Da ren, please save her!”
Without inquiring further, he began running in the direction of the maids’ quarters.
Oftentimes, he would often run like this whenever there was a demonic evil to be dealt with, so the guards assumed there was some sort of evil presence and did not stop him, nor did anyone dare to follow along.
He rushed inside. The other palace maids were still working and thus, were not inside the room. He looked around but saw no one. After searching for a good while, he finally saw a lump underneath a blanket. He walked forward with light steps: “Qing Qing.”
He wanted to lift the blanket, but she grasped onto it with a death grip, her voice low as she said: “Da ren, go back. In the future, Qing Qing will no longer be able to serve Da ren.”
Translator’s Note: The Great Compassion Mantra that the monk recites is one of the most popular Buddhist mantras and is said to be transformative and has benefits like purification and relieving people of their suffering and burdens. Taking time to recite it every day is like sending goodness into the world and can help bring one into a meditative state. It derives from Sanskrit but has been translated and sung in other languages.
Here’s an audio of the Mandarin version for those curious:
- 衙門 // Ya Men: Referring to the local governmental offices in feudal China.
- 妖冶 // Yao Ye: Also means pretty or flirtatious but literally means demonic seduction. There are many ways to describe this in Chinese, but the author likely chose to use the term yao ye because the yao is the same character for demon.
- 貴人 // Gui Ren: Noble Lady. Rank tends to vary between dynasties, but Noble Lady is usually an official wife (consort) as opposed to concubine.
- 青 // Qing: Light blue with a hint of green, similar to cyan or aqua.
- 金鶴 // Golden Crane
- From the Great Compassion Mantra (大悲咒 // Da Bei Zhou). See Translator’s Notes for some more info.
- 大人 // Da Ren: Title of respect for seniors, meaning akin to “great one.”
- 公公 // Gong Gong: Polite address for eunuchs, particularly those with seniority.
- The word used here is like reward/gift/bestow instead of sentencing/punishment of death. Ouchie…
- 喲 // Yo: Interjection that works as a friendly urging.
- 常在 // Chang Zai: First-Class Female Attendant. Term literally means “often present.” This was a low concubine ranking during the Qing Dynasty.