Book One, Chapter 15: The Goldfinch [1]

The next day, as Shen Zechuan prepared to receive his assignment at the Brocade Guard Headquarters, Xi Hongxuan, brother to Xi Gu’an, threw a banquet at Chaodong Pavilion. He had invited all of Qu Capital’s up-and-coming scholars and intellects for ‘elegant conversation’. 

Xi Hongxuan was a portly man, and servants were required to fan him as he sat. In his own hand he held another bamboo fan, and he tweaked it now, saying, “I got lucky this year! Even though I couldn’t get Yanqing, I managed to get Yuanzhuo!”

Xue Xiuzhuo, who held public office, could not come today, but ‘Yuanzhuo’ was the cherished disciple of the renowned Elder Hai, Hai Liangyi. These three men were on rather familiar terms, having each come from one of the Eight Houses, and being childhood friends.   

As they were speaking, a beaded curtain lifted to admit a fair young scholar. He was dressed in a cross-collared, full-sleeved robe of the darkest viridian green, and wore a book pouch at his waist. He only smiled as he caught the end of their conversation, but in the next moment the room rose to greet him, and for a time there was only the clamour of introductions.

Yao Wenyu greeted each scholar in turn, and invited everyone to their seats before he sat down himself, and said, “We meet at least every year, don’t we? I scarcely merit being called a ‘rare sight’.”

Though his manner was unassuming, not one person in the room would take him lightly. Yao Wenyu had been the child prodigy of Qu Capital, beginning to write verses at the age of eight, and reciting them at Imperial ceremonies at the age of twelve. He was the ‘yu‘, the precious piece of jade held close to the Yao patriarch’s heart. Lest his talents were allowed to fade away, he was placed under the instruction of Hai Liangyi. Hai Liangyi, a stern, exacting man, had never taken on a second pupil, and held him very dear indeed.

After a round of small talk, the conversation turned to current affairs.

Xi Hongxuan waved a hand to stop the fanning, and said, “Well, as for Qu Capital, a strange thing did happen recently. I wonder if you all remember Zhongbo’s Lord of Jianxing, Shen Wei, who took his own life to escape persecution five years ago?”

“A cowardly, treasonous wretch!” someone cried, getting to his feet. “By rights he should have been executed, and it would have been well fit to have nine generations of his family put to the block. Alas that His Majesty’s tender heart drove him to keep that remnant of that wretched family. I heard this morning that he has actually been let out. Shen Wei was a convicted criminal. How can the son of a criminal and a defaulter be trusted with official duties? How can any gentleman of learning accept this decision?”

“Aye,” Xi Hongxuan agreed, “It just isn’t right. It’s never been the way things were done!”

“Most likely it was the Dowager who wished to keep him,” someone else said. “There’s always been talk that the whelp had some sort of connection to the Huas. But how can sentiment override the law? Isn’t that making a mockery of due process?”

Xi Hongxuan sighed theatrically. “What if this sets a precedent, and opens the door for the son of every condemned official to escape culpability?”

At once, the scholars rose into an impassioned furore. The sheer magnitude of Shen Wei’s crimes would keep them from allowing Shen Zechuan’s release.

“What does Yuanzhuo think?”

Yao Wenyu sipped his tea and said peaceably, “I am never in Qu Capital, and don’t know the specifics. It wouldn’t be prudent for me to comment.”

“That’s true, you’re always travelling in your studies, so you won’t know what’s happening in Qu Capital,” Xi Hongxuan agreed sympathetically.
Then somebody piped up, “We’re all educated men in this room. We know right from wrong, we all understand the rule of law. We absolutely cannot continue to sit by watch this happen.”

Xi Hongxuan said, “But then what will you do?”

The man answered, “All of us are scholars at the Imperial Academy. If we rise up together, His Majesty will have to reconsider the matter. How about this: let’s head back— we’ll kneel in the direction of Mingli Hall together, and beg His Majesty to retract his edict and harshly censure the Shen remnant!”

Calls of approval came loudly and quickly. Xi Hongxuan clapped his hands together in admiration. “Excellent! As expected of the torch-bearers of this nation. When you take the knee today, your names will go down in history! Regrettably I am no student of the Academy, but I will willingly go with you.”

The scholar who had spoken before now said, “That won’t do! Your brother is the Commissioner of the Eight Battalions. It will be more trouble than it’s worth if he gets implicated in this business. Gentlemen, let’s go instead!”

As the banquet ended, Yao Wenyu asked for some soft, palatable fare from the kitchen. While he waited, he could hear the covert whispers of the scholars heading downstairs. 

“What a pretty name, the ‘refined jade cut of nascent stone’ 2, but isn’t he just another spineless mollusc? Did you see him just then? Didn’t even have the guts to say a word. He’s nowhere as upstanding as brother Hongxuan!”

Yao Wenyu popped a pine nut into his mouth and smiled silently to himself, making no move to step out to defend himself. By the time the meat had been wrapped into a parcel, and he finally emerged from the Pavillion, most of them had already gone.

“Yuanzhuo, I’ll give you a ride?” Xi Hongxuan offered. 

“No need,” Yao Wenyu held up his package of food. “I’m headed for Teacher’s place.”

So the two of them made their farewells. As Xi Hongxuan watched Yao Wenyu walk away, he sneered briefly, then said, “Let’s go.”

In another part of the city, Shen Zechuan had arrived at the main courtyard of the Brocade Guard compounds. Eyes from every direction turned to him the instant he stepped over the threshold. The yard was bustling with men hurrying from one task to another, and every one of them would dart a glance at him as they rushed by.

As it happened, his usher was Ge Qingqing. He explained as he led Shen Zechuan to the Registry Office, “There are four kinds of people here in the Brocade Guards. First, there are chosen civilians, like Xiao-Wu there. They’ve got sisters at home who are menial maidservants in the Palace. When they come here, though they’re still exempted from taxes and military conscription, they do not receive wages. Second, there are those who have been recommended by High Eunuchs within the Palace, such as the Commissioner. In the third category are those who come from military families, and have been admitted on their father’s merits, such as myself. Fourth are the specialists. Those people have become masters in their field, and are personally nominated by the Emperor himself, regardless of their backgrounds. They are very impressive people, and you will meet some of them by and by.”3

Ge Qingqing then flipped up a set of door curtains and announced, “Here you are. You’ll receive your assignment and get put onto the register here.”

Shen Zechuan entered, and the hubbub within the office cut out at once. Brocade Guards of varying attires with varying waist-badges turned their unvarying stares onto him. The room descended into an unnatural silence.

“Shen Zechuan?” A man sat behind the desk, one leg propped over the other. He flipped open his book and peered at him. “That’ll be you?”

Shen Zechuan noted the motif of flying pythons on his robes. In the Brocade Guard, the flying python may only be worn by officers above the rank of Assistant Commissioner. He made a slight bow and answered, “Yes, sir.”

Strands of hair were escaping from the man’s topknot, and there were patches of stubble which had escaped his attention. He gave off a rather dissolute air. Rubbing at his chin, he quipped, “Sure enough he’s the son of a danseur. Shen Wei got his money’s worth when he spent a fortune to buy her favour. Qingqing, give him his badge.”

He threw the waist-badge on his desk to Ge Qingqing. 

Ge Qingqing caught the badge and handed it to Shen Zechuan, explaining, “Lanzhou, this is our Master Adjudicator, here today specially to pass on your badge.”

“Qiao Tianya, at your service,” Qiao Tianya said, gesturing for Shen Zechuan to look at his badge.

Shen Zechuan turned over his badge, then looked back at Qiao Tianya. 

“Elephant handler’s, huh,” Qiao Tianya said. “That’s where you’ll be heading. Qingqing will show you there in a moment. But for now, there’re some rules you have to listen to. Our Brocade Guard badges are just as precious as the Eight Battalions’. While off-duty or on leave, you must keep it in a secure place, and it is never to be lent to another person. Even though everyone’s split off into twelve different divisions with different duties, none of those is our primary duty. Our primary duty is to serve the Emperor. Whatever His Majesty says, we will do. Aside from your duties within the Twelve Divisions, you will also serve on a rotating roster with the ‘Surveillance’ department. When there is a major assignment, such as when we were chasing you down five years ago, we need His Majesty’s ‘Imperial Appointment’, which comes with documents and a special badge that gives permission to arrest. What your assignment may entail is neither up to me, nor up to the Commissioner. Everyone draws lots for it.”4

Shen Zechuan had heard all this from Ji Gang previously, and said nothing now, head bowed.

“One last thing,” Qiao Tianya got to his feet and looked about him at everyone in the office. “The Brocade Guard operates with one heart and one mind. When you wear our badge, you become our brother. Every old score is null and void. There’s no such thing as setting up your brothers or screwing them over behind their backs. Any person found to have done such a thing will have their badge confiscated, their name struck off, and their person cast into the Imperial Prison to be dealt with severely.”

All gazes returned to their tasks at once.

Qiao Tianya nodded in satisfaction, and said to Shen Zechuan, “You may go.”

Shen Zechuan bowed to him and followed Ge Qingqing out.

“I thought they might have placed you somewhere like the Fan Bearers Division with the Department of Ceremonies,” Ge Qingqing looked at Shen Zechuan. “Elephant handling… I guess that works too.”

“I made a thousand and one guesses,” Shen Zechuan said, smiling wryly, “But I never guessed that they would send me to train elephants.”

“The Imperial Stables Division is the real place to be these days. The prized horses they tend to all belong to noble families, and when you have that connection and you make yourself a familiar face, it becomes easy to get a promotion. As for the Elephant Handlers,” Ge Qingqing’s expression turned odd. “…You can’t exactly call it an easy job, and there’s the Morning Court to attend. Those long-nosed behemoths really aren’t easy masters. On the other hand, the Commissioner rarely visits, and it’ll be hard to find trouble with you there.”

The Elephants’ Arena was located by Qu Capital’s Mingli Avenue, and had direct access to the Kailing River. In hot weather, the elephants had to be driven to the river to drink and take bathes. Not only that, at dawn each day, six elephants had to be led to stand on either side of the Palace steps for Morning Court. The number of elephants in formation were increased for court held on days of festival, or special occasions such as the Hunts. These elephants arrived at court with the ministers, and were dismissed at the same time too. However, ministers who are unwell are rarely able to beg off court, but the elephants may do so as they wished. They worked on a roster too, just like Brocade Guards.5

Shen Zechuan had never so much as looked after a puppy, and now he was going to be shepherded into elephant husbandry. One could only say that life was unpredictable.

The two of them were still on the road to the Arena when they heard hurried footsteps running after them.

Ge Qingqing turned around. “What is it?”, he asked.

The Brocade Guard who was sent after them looked Shen Zechuan up and down, his expression grave, and said, “Waist-badge suspended. He won’t be starting his duties today. Return to the Registry immediately.”

Shen Zechuan asked, “Has the Palace sent through a new posting?”

“There are no new orders from the Palace, but three thousand scholars from the Imperial Academy have gathered to request that His Majesty retracts his decision and take strict action against you!”

Ge Qingqing blanched and looked towards Shen Zechuan.

Xiao Chi’ye was serving out his confinement sprawled out on his bed, flipping through a novel. He did not rise even when Chenyang announced the arrival of Prince Chu.

“I’m in confinement,” Xiao Chi’ye did not look up. He was eating berries. “How can you just walk in like that in broad daylight?”

Li Jianheng threw down Xiao Chi’ye’s Governor’s badge and exclaimed, “Ce’an! There’s big trouble!”

Xiao Chi’ye’s eye twitched.

Li Jianheng continued, “Three thousand scholars are petitioning His Majesty to censure Shen Zechuan! They’ve knelt till sundown, so now they’ve announced a hunger strike to force His Majesty’s hand. His Majesty heard the news at dinner and got so angry he’s had to lie down again!”

Xiao Chi’ye looked at the waist-badge and said, “Toss it out.”

“… the Eight Battalions won’t go up against students, so there you go— they’ve told me to give your badge back. If the Imperial Guard can get the scholars to disperse tonight, then they’ll wipe your slate clean!” Li Jianheng stamped his foot impatiently, “The Imperial Guard won’t do for other things, but it’ll be a piece of cake to deal with a few scrawny scholars! This is a great opportunity!”

Xiao Chi’ye brought his book up to cover his face. He was silent for a few moments, then ground out, “What a fantastic fucking opportunity.”

Not only were students from the Imperial Academy future ministry candidates, they already held sway amongst scholars in regional areas. Even Xi Gu’an knew they were hot potatoes. If Xiao Chi’ye laid a finger on any one of these three thousand students tonight, he would be drowned in ink and spittle tomorrow.

“Where is Shen Zechuan right now?” Xiao Chi’ye sat up abruptly, hands on his knees. 

“Word is he went to the Brocade Guard’s Registry Office first thing in the morning.” Li Jianheng watched him throw clothes on and ran after him, asking, “Where are we going? Are we looking for Shen Zechuan?”

Xiao Chi’ye bounded down the stairs. Chenyang had readied his horse. He vaulted on, and rode off immediately.

Author’s Note: The Brocade Guard was a remarkable organisation. Their surveillance department employed not only stenographers, but also sketch artists. They employed artists, physicians, animal trainers, silversmiths, blacksmiths, firearms experts… and translators. They had very high requirements for recruits, and their specialists are usually top of their fields. General recruits had to have long legs, be tall, and have exceptional arm strength. It is mentioned in Liu Heping’s ‘Ming Dynasty 1566″ (刘和平《大明王朝1566》) that a Brocade Guard had to have ‘arms like a tiger, a waist like a wasp, and legs like a praying mantis’, and the ability to ‘speedwalk more than a hundred and sixty li (80km) in a day’. They could scale walls 22 feet high by arm strength alone, break a man’s neck with their bare hands, and forewent sleep for days until their mission was complete.

[1] The past two chapter titles and this one refer to a proverb: 螳螂捕蝉,黄雀在后. The mantis stalks the cicada, but the goldfinch waits behind.

[2] Yao Wenyu (姚温玉), courtesy name Yuanzhuo (元琢). Yao Wenyu embodies the ideal gentleman: 温, to be warm and even-tempered. 玉, to be peerless, immaculate, and self-luminous. When they talk about this rising star, they call him ‘璞玉元琢’: ‘raw jade’ – ‘begins by carving’. Every piece of jade has to be carved and polished to reveal its lustre. Yuanzhuo will find his own trials in the coming years.

[3] The author lists their references here: 《锦衣卫职能略论》, 《锦衣卫》,《锦衣卫选簿》. Technically, the Brocade Guard recruits their men from 8 different avenues, but only 4 are introduced here for narrative reasons.

[4] The Brocade Guard genuinely drew lots for assignments to prevent leakage of classified information ahead of time.

[5] More information about the city coming out to watch elephants bathe can be found at 《帝京景物略》.

2 thoughts on “Book One, Chapter 15: The Goldfinch [1]

  1. I remember being confused about why suddenly there were academy scholars and the POV seemingly changed, but it wasnt confusing this time around. probably because I’m rereading and processing things better this time. anyway, lanzhou almost having to handle elephants when he never took care of a pet is still funny to me.


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