Part of a Memories of a Graceful Reflection translation project at fruitydeer.com.
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Source: 猶記驚鴻照影 by Feng Ning Xue Wu // Translated By: Xin (fruitydeer)
I love that the Murong daughters each have their distinct personality traits. Murong Yan is a prideful, fiery force to be reckoned with while Murong Qing, though reserved and placid like water, will not back down when push comes to shove. Both are strong minded individuals who are not so easily picked on.
In other news, I’m very excited because we’re finally reaching a turning point. Reminder that another bonus chapter is going up on the blog tomorrow.
Chapter 019: The Nineteenth Time
Father stood in a haste, facing the emperor and Qing fei who sat at the principal seat while saying that he did not dare.1
Qing fei merely smiled charmingly, interrupting Father’s niceties: “Prime Minister Murong, you need not be overly modest. All I have to ask today is whether or not you’ll let me witness the talents of your treasured daughters.”
Given that her words had already reached this point, it had become too difficult to shirk away. Furthermore, she held the honor of gui fei and had even played a song to add to the liveliness, what excuse would a daughter of the Murong Family have to decline?
I looked at the Son of Heaven sitting at the top of the jade steps. A thin smile swept across his face. He made no noises of support, but neither did he make a move to oppose.
I sighed inwardly. The arrow was already on the string, so there was no choice but for it to fly.2
Eyes lowered, my line of sight met with Nan Cheng Yao’s lackadaisical smile. I couldn’t help but become vexed, breathing a soft sigh: “Your Highness must be quite happy right now.”
As I spoke, I gently reached out and nudged him. Yan’er was with child so it would not be good to have her come out and perform. Right now, nearly all eyes in the entirety of the grand hall were on my person. The only path was to forge ahead and pray for the best in avoiding loss of propriety.
“What do I have to be happy about? With your temperament, you utilizing just seventy-percent of your skills is already quite considerable.” He smiled lazily and straightened up: “However, to be able to watch your perform under the eyes of everyone here and avoid losing face for Murong Family whilst also restraining yourself–so as to avoid stealing Qing fei‘s thunder–that in itself is quite interesting.”
I sent him a vexed glare and his black eyes seemed to darken further. However, I was not in the mood to decipher them as I readied myself to stand up and partake.
But, I instead heard a clear and elegant voice come forth in the hall: “Since Niang-niang instructs as such, Yan’er will make a crude performance.”3
While I had been in a slight stupor, Yan’er had already walked slowly to the center of the hall, her deportment graceful and beautiful in all aspects.
Evidently, Qing Gui fei did not expect that she would do this. After a start, her reaction came quickly. With her coquettish voice, she smiled: “What sort of instrument does the crown princess wish to play?”4
Yan’er smiled faintly: “Flute.”
At once, a palace maid brought over a new jade flute. Yan’er received it, and without saying much else and without obtaining any further comments, gently pressed it to her lips and began playing a song.
Inside the hall was void of any other noises. What she was playing just so happened to be the song that Qing fei niang-niang had just played, with not even a hair of a difference. But while Qing fei‘s melodies were gentle and charming, Yan’er’s was clear and elegant.
I saw Mother’s expression shift imperceptibly before swiftly recovering its usual calm.
At the end of the song, the entire room once more filled with applause. Qing fei niang-niang laughed coquettishly and spoke: “The reputation of Murong Family’s daughters are indeed justified, ah.”
Yan’er passed the jade flute to the palace maid at the side, smiling faintly: “I do not dare accept Niang-niang‘s praise. Yan’er is merely one that enjoys indulging in foolishness,5 but as chance would have it, loves this song as well and trained with much difficulty to get to this point.”
Qing fei continued to smile: “As one that also enjoys foolishness, then the crown princess ought to have heard the legend of the three songs that attracts phoenixes and touches the people. On such a lovely, festive night, the other daughter of the Murong Family also happens to be present. Why don’t we ask Third Wang fei come out and play a song so this legend can be fulfilled?”
I sighed softly. In the end, she still refused to make things easy for me.
Before I could answer, Yan’er’s voice had already sounded, still carrying with it a gentle smile: “Niang-niang agrees that this is a mere legend, so why be so dedicated to the cause?”
Qing fei smiled coquettishly: “I’m merely seeking some splendor. Third Wang fei won’t deny me the honors, right? That said, with the Son of Heaven here, who knows, we may actually be able to attract a phoenix. Don’t you think so, Your Majesty?”
The emperor looked at Qing fei and laughed aloud: “What Beloved Consort says is very true.”
Now that the Son of Heaven had spoken, how could I dare refuse to obey? I could not help but feel that Qing fei niang-niang had levied the higher-up, intentionally bringing forth the emperor. In this situation, in the eyes of everyone else, regardless of how excessively she behaved, it was all just to help the emperor cut down Murong Family’s might. No one would ever suspect an ulterior motive.
So I accepted my fate and rose, my deportment composed as I walked to the center of the hall and spoke up amiably: “Since His Majesty and Niang-niang both command as such, Qing’er will play a song to add to the liveliness. However, Qing’er does not understand the workings of playing the flute, is it possible to play zheng6 as a replacement?”
Qing Gui fei‘s lips curled into gentle laughter as she said: “This makes things rather difficult for me. The musical instruments in the palace are plentiful, but there just happens to be no such zheng. If we ordered someone to go search for one on the streets and in wine parlors, the fear is that it may not arrive in time. Fortunately, zheng and yao qin7 are fairly similar, one just happens to be a bit more grandiose while the other cannot be brought into this magnificent hall. If Wang fei is willing to put up with this, I’ll order someone to bring over a good jin-tao gu qin.”8
Before I had a chance to say something, Yan’er had already spoken up mildly: “This song, by nature, is incredibly difficult to learn, let alone perform on yao qin. It’s unlikely anyone in the world would be able to accomplish that. Naturally, Niang-niang is very clear on this matter as well. Why not give up on the yao qin and fetch the flute. Why continue to make things difficult for us…”
“Yan’er, Niang-niang is merely jesting.” A gentle voice interrupted Yan’er’s words. I saw Nan Cheng Mian stand and move to the enter of the hall, protectively moving Yan’er behind him. Then, he paid obeisance to Qing Gui fei and said: “Er-chen‘s9 consort is thoughtless. Imperial Father, Niang-niang, please take no offense.”
The emperor continued to smile, mildly waving a hand: “No such matter, frank and outspoken maidens are adorable.”
Qing fei‘s emotions were hidden so well that not even a single drop of water could leak.10 She said with charm: “Ben-gong has always hoped for a mei-mei that would protect me like this.”
Nan Cheng Mian thanked his father genially, then took Yan’er back to their seats. Yan’er’s expression shifted slightly, but she ultimately spoke no further and quietly followed the crown prince back to sit down.
In the emptiness at the center of the great hall, all that remained was myself as I looked up the jade steps at the smiling Qing Gui fei.
Her voice sounded once again with gentle, charming laughter: “Since the crown princess misunderstood that I was troubling Third wang fei, then I can only drop the matter. And since Third wang fei is well-versed in the zheng, someone, hurry and go to the closest wine parlor11 and fetch one.”
I smiled faintly. She actually likened my to a streetside dancer. Even if I did not care, the Murong Clan could not be insulted.
So I drooped my lashes and said amiably: “How could Qing’er dare mobilize the masses just to make everyone happy? Niang-niang, please lend a yao qin, Qing’er is willing to give it a try.”
Though I was not completely unconfident, I was ultimately still a little nervous.
My abilities in qin zheng (秦筝) were learned from Su Xiu Mian. Under the moonlight and amongst the mountains and rivers, each note like moving clouds and flowing water. This, I played well. This, was what I knew.
After returning to the xiang fu, Mother found someone to teach me the techniques of playing yao qin. Though I learned it, I always felt that the yao qin could not compare to the unshackled freeness of the zheng, so I did not expend much energy on practicing.
But now, I had to use this yao qin to play a song I was not familiar with. Calmness and serenity existed only on my exterior.
It took no less than a moment for the jin-tao gu qin to get brought to the center of the grand hall. I silently recited those notes that Qing Gui fei and Yan’er played just now and slowly sat down.
Just as I was about to play, Nan Cheng Yao’s voice suddenly rang, carrying with it mild laughter: “Imperial Father, if my wang fei‘s playing is acceptable to Your Sacredness, then I’ll be taking this ‘jing-tao‘ back to the fu.”
I looked sideways at him. Though he was smiling and speaking to the emperor, his eyes were on Qing Gui fei, sending an implicit warning.
The Sacred One smiled and agreed while repeatedly shaking his head. On the one hand, it was due to this headache-inducing son who behaved like a wild card. On the other hand, there was a sense of helplessness stemming from his love and favor.
Qing Gui fei spoke no more, lowering her head slightly as she quietly sat anew next to the emperor.
As for Nan Cheng Yao, he seemed to perceive my gaze, so he looked over at me and smiled lackadaisically: “I have had my eye on this ‘jing-tao‘ for a long time and finally have a chance. Wang fei, don’t let me down.”
I raised my fingers, placing them on the strings. Naturally, my thoughts of deliberately seeking victory did not emerge as a consequence of his words. But at this point, I no longer dared harbor any thoughts of hiding my abilities. All I prayed for was to play the song to completion; even better if I made no mistakes and avoided losing the dignity of the Murong Clan.”
One by one, notes rang between my fingers. At the very beginning, there was a slight, unavoidable roughness, but at last, it became akin to tranquil spring waters, slowly becoming fluid.
I could not pay any heed to the expressions of everyone in the hall; I couldn’t even spare the time to differentiate between the notes I was playing. I could only follow my instincts and let the strings take flight between my fingertips.
At the very last strum, my finger pulled back slightly. A single drop of fresh blood slid along my fingertip and slowly fell to the surface of the qin.
Next to my ear came an incredulous cry of shock from Mother, bringing me back to my senses. The entirety of the great hall was a sea of silence; not a single voice could be heard.
It made me feel as if that cry of shock from just now was but a mere hallucination.
I did not know how much time had passed. All four corners were so quiet that it was almost bizarre. I turned back and looked at Mother, but her expression was blank and she did not react to me at all.
Then, I subconsciously turned to the side and sought out Nan Cheng Yao. He was looking at me impassively, his eyes dark and so deep that there was no end in sight.
I was at a bit of a loss, but at this moment, a lone applause emerged from ahead of me and to the right, breaking the stillness that flooded the room.
I lifted my gaze and looked over. On the crown prince’s face was a thread of a genial smile. He stood up and looked at me with eyes of praise, applauding gently.
As if roused by the sounds of his applause, the entire great hall instantly grew into a thunderous applause that did not stop for a long time.
Translator’s Note: Who else loved how theatrical this chapter was? The tension in the room was palpable.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not at all well-versed in ancient artistry, but of the limited Chinese dramas and movies I’ve watched, one of my favorite gu qin scenes has to be from Red Cliff (2008), where the characters played by Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung play an improvised duet. The scene and music pulls you in with a sense of hypnotism, building up layers of sound until it culminates with a release of tension.
The song itself features a melody from Guang Ling San, which is actually about revenge and death. In the movie, the characters are using their artistry to gauge the other person’s character and communicate matters of warfare. So this is likely nothing like the song played by Murong Qing, heh. I’d imagine that the song she plays is a bit more melodious, but matching this level of intensity. Regardless, I like the ambiance here and thought it’d be a fun clip to share.
- He’s expressing humility and that he doesn’t dare claim that his daughters are the best, let alone more talented than an imperial concubine.
- 箭在弦上: Fig. Having reached a point of no return.
- I couldn’t figure out a better way to phrase it, but she’s deliberately lowering herself and her skills with self-deprecatory comments.
- Tidbit: Crown princess in Chinese is tai zi fei (太子妃), which means crown prince (tai zi) consort (fei).
- Another self-deprecatory remark to lower her talents and abilities.
- Recall that this was the zither instrument that Murong Qing played in Chapter 2. Also referred to as gu zheng and qin zheng.
- 瑤琴 // Yao Qin: Another word for qin or gu qin; the prefix “yao” means jade. Qin is a type of zither that is different from the zheng in both structure and sound. It’s said to be more prestigious and was limited to the upper classes, scholars, and royalty because one needed to recognize Chinese characters to be able to read and play the music. This is probably why there’s also more historical documentation on the qin. Here’s a Wiki article that briefly describes how the notations work. The zheng, though versatile, wasn’t viewed with as much regality and was more so an instrument of the people.
- 驚濤古琴: I think this is a specific make of qin from ancient times that has jin tao engraved on it. Some of the best condition qin from the Ming and Tang Dynasties have this engraving.
- 兒臣 // Er Chen: deprecatory illeism that means “child-subject.” Used by the children of the emperor when speaking to the emperor or his consorts.
- She’s saying it in a belittling way. The original term used is more akin to a local pub.