Chapter 5: Words of Sages
"Of course not!"
A clear and bright voice sounded from outside the pavilion, and everyone looked up to see two youths in tattered clothes walk in. The one leading looked neither overly humble nor arrogant, and had a graceful demeanor. The one behind him looked clever and had charming, expressive eyes.
It was just that their clothes were indeed shabby, and the seated children whispered to each other, all of them shooting scornful looks in their direction. Xiahou Lian only caught a few remarks, which were all like "where did these beggars come from, coming here and acting so wildly," or "are these from our Xie clan? Why haven’t I seen them before" and such.
Xie Jinglan looked directly forward as he said loudly, "I am Xie Jinglan. Greetings, Mr. Dai. What my big brother said just now is not true, please reconsider clearly."
"Do you mean to say that I framed you? Xie Jinglan, you clearly stole, and there were so many eyes watching. Why don’t I call them here as witnesses?" When Xie Jingtao heard him, he slammed his hand down on his desk and stood up, his face crimson and the tip of his ears red as he argued.
Xie Jinglan smiled slightly and said politely, "When did I steal your belongings? It’s just that I picked up the books my brother had thrown away in the warehouse."
"How are books not my belongings? Our family’s books were printed in Xiuwen Hall, and each book costs several copper coins. Besides, I had stored them in the warehouse, not thrown them away. You didn’t ask and took them on your own, which is stealing!"
"Brother, don’t be impatient, all of this is merely a misunderstanding. I have a poor physique and the madam is benevolent, so she said that I did not have to go to school. However, I’ve admired the words of sages for a long time, but I am poor and do not receive stipends. I can only go to the warehouse to obtain the books you throw away in the warehouse. I’ve already received permission from the warehouse steward a long time ago to do this, so you probably never asked the steward about this and mistakenly thought that I was stealing. Today is just right for clearing this up."
After this statement, everyone understood very clearly. Evidently, the madam of this household resented the illegitimate child and didn’t let him go to school. He had no other way but to collect his big brother’s tattered books and had been barely able to study like this. As a result, not only did this first young master not let the matter go, he had framed him for theft.
Xie Jingtao was clearly stuck, and he opened his mouth, not knowing how to retort.
Just then, Xie Bingfeng spoke. "Tao’er 1, since you slandered him for no reason, aren’t you going to apologize?"
Xie Jingtao could only yield, forcing a laugh. "Yes, yes, I didn’t ask properly and wronged you."
The two of them both had forced smiles and were putting on a cordial appearance. Watching this made Xiahou Lian very uncomfortable.
Xie Jinglan had only let Xie Jingtao off the hook out of helplessness. He couldn’t make the fatty lose face completely, especially in front of Dai Shengyan. After all, if he didn’t succeed in becoming Dai Shengyan’s disciple today, then coming here would have only served to make a fool out of himself, and when the time came, it would be very easy for that fatty to deal with him.
Xie Bingfeng turned his head and put on a kindly and amiable expression as he said to Xie Jinglan, "I have never seen you before, are you in a collateral line of the Xie clan? Who are your parents? If your family is struggling, you can go to our treasury and borrow some money to subsidize them. When you’re healthier, you can also go to the clan school to study, and you don’t need to pay the school tuition."
As soon as he said this, the pavilion was so silent, not even a crow or sparrow could have been heard.
What was this?
Xie Bingfeng didn’t recognize his own son?
Xiahou Lian looked at the middle-aged man sitting in the place of honor in surprise. He was wearing the attire of a scholar-official, with a tall hat and a wide waistband, and there was a permanently solemn expression on his face. His hands were steadily placed on his knees as he sat extremely primly and without a single thread out of place. The only thing that was missing was the large characters "upright gentleman" 2 on his head. However, when Xiahou Lian looked at him, he thought of that copy of "Pleasure in the Imperial Bedchamber." Perhaps he was also hiding "Secret of the Jade House" and "Secret Play in the Spring Night" somewhere. Thus, the characters "upright gentleman" distorted and changed into "sanctimonious."
Xie Jinglan’s face was white, and his fists clenched very tightly in his sleeves.
There were a lot of children in the Xie clan, and Xie Jinglan stayed in Qiuwu Courtyard all year round, so very few people could recognize him. An ignorant person chimed in, asking, "Yeah, our family has always been very generous and benevolent. You’re in a collateral line, so we should help you out a little."
This unintentionally added frost to the snow 3, and Xie Jinglan nearly lost his balance. He gazed at Xie Bingfeng blankly. He had saluted to him countless times with the numerous Xie children on New Year or when making offerings to their ancestors, as well as saw him off from the end of the line of family members countless times when he set off for the capital on horseback.
He himself had even forgotten that he had actually never stood this close to this man before, and that this man didn’t know him at all.
Xie Jingtao was also stunned, and he said blankly, "What collateral line, Father, he’s Xie Jinglan, your third son!"
Xie Bingfeng’s mouth was wide open and he was tongue-tied. He looked at Xie Jinglan for a while without saying anything, controlling his bearing with difficulty so that he wouldn’t appear too flustered. It was just that his expression contained surprise, embarrassment, and shame, yet no guilt.
Xiahou Lian felt bitter and anguished, and he unconsciously moved closer to Xie Jinglan, quietly holding Xie Jinglan’s cold hand.
Xie Bingfeng smiled stiffly. "Haha, Jinglan has grown so big already. I’ve been away for so long, I somehow forgot what you looked like. Jinglan, you wouldn’t blame me, right?"
Xiahou Lian thought, He doesn’t recognize his appearance, but he can’t have forgotten his name too, right? Could it be that the name "Jinglan" wasn’t chosen by him at all?
Xie Jinglan’s voice was a little erratic, and he practically couldn’t find the right tones. "Father has worked very hard day and night and has been busy with government affairs. Jinglan… understands."
"The two of you, hurry up and take a seat." Dai Shengyan hastily came to smooth things over. "Right, the one at the side, you have not introduced your name yet. Just then, I saw you rowing a boat on the pond in the distance. I would very much like to get acquainted with you."
Xiahou Lian had been standing for a while, but only now did he notice that the seated people were all Xie children, and that there were no bookboys. He saluted with clasped hands before saying, "I’m Xiahou Lian, Young Master Jinglan’s bookboy. Just now, I was too hurried and didn’t notice that bookboys aren’t needed here." He paused and glanced at Xie Jinglan, who was still a little shaken up, making him unable to feel at ease. "I usually listen to the young master when he studies, and I also admire the ways of sages very much. Sir, if you could let me stay and listen?"
"Of course you can." Dai Shengyan nodded and smiled. "Since you have a learning spirit, how could I stop you?"
After drinking tea, it was as if the farce from just then was washed like the tea leaves in their stomachs, and everyone tacitly forgot about that matter. Dai Shengyan stroked the tip of his beard that proudly curved up, cleared his throat, and struck his gavel 4 like a storyteller. At once, everyone seated fell silent, and all eyes were uniformly looking at that wrinkly mouth, waiting for him to speak.
"Let me ask you all, what are your purposes for working so hard to study the books of sages?"
Upon hearing this, everyone looked at each other.
What were their purposes?
Wasn’t it just to climb official ranks and get rich? If it wasn’t for the imperial court’s imperial examination, who would be holding an old book all day long and rotely memorizing it?
To be a little nobler, in short, it was just to "cultivate the self, regulate the family, govern the state, and bring justice to the world 5." To defend and stabilize the country, to pacify the chaos and to calm the misery; these broad principles could be easily said if one simply opened their mouth, and easily written if they simply picked up their pen. These words had been repeated so many times by past intellectuals that they had become rotten and had long since lost their meaning.
However, none of these things were what Xie Jinglan was thinking.
Xie Jinglan understood his own desires very clearly.
What he wanted had never been a peaceful world and a prosperous society or to make the world better. He had never cared about how many pastries the peddlers on the streets sold, nor how many more people had been buried in mass graves, much less where there were severe droughts or major floods. Even if blood formed rivers, as long as he could stay stably in his home, what did that have to do with him?
What he wanted had always been a day when these people in the Xie clan who had forgotten him, bullied him, and resented him would finally weep in regret underneath his feet!
He just had to use a little bit of his imagination for that scene to make his blood boil and to feel very delighted. This delight sustained him through painstaking studying, so that he wouldn’t hesitate to stay up so late that his head became dizzy and his eyes blurred, to force down the sages’ nonsense into his stomach.
However, he could only let these words fester in his stomach. He must first pretend to be an upright gentleman who was concerned for his country and its people, and carefully wrap up these dark and despicable thoughts under his gentle, modest, and courteous exterior, not letting any of it be revealed.
Xie Jinglan, who had been heavily damaged by his own father, unconsciously went further and further down the long, crooked path. Resentful vines took root and sprouted in his heart, entangling into an unravelable and uncuttable knot. All of this was hidden under his delicate and weak exterior of a young master, though the smile he was accustomed to putting on didn’t have any sincerity in it.
Xiahou Lian poked his hand, and Xie Jinglan grasped Xiahou Lian’s hand, saying softly, "Do not worry."
Xie Jingtao was the first to speak, his confidence unwarranted. "For me, it is to cultivate the self, regulate the family, govern the state, and bring justice to the world, which is to be a scholar-official."
Dai Shengyan didn’t approve or disapprove and merely shook his large but emaciated head that rested on his skinny neck, motioning for the next person to speak.
The second young master who was sitting behind Xie Jingtao, Xie Jingtan, responded, "I am small-minded and do not have high ambitions. I only wish to have a bright future and live unfettered with no regrets."
Dai Shengyan smiled. "Although you do not have high ambitions, that is still a difficult matter."
Everyone sitting said their piece until it was only Xie Jinglan left. Dai Shengyan’s gaze landed on Xie Jinglan, and he nodded lightly.
Xie Jinglan made a long salute with clasped hands and replied, "I am dull, but I seek to have a clear conscience and to have no regrets and hold no resentments." His expression was indifferent, as if the event from before hadn’t happened.
Dai Shengyan looked at him and sighed. This Xie clan got worse by the generation. At the time, he must have taken leave of his senses to accept their good-for-nothing father as a disciple. He hadn’t been able to refuse Xie Bingfeng’s repeated invitations to be a guest at Xie Manor, so he had come only as a formality. As expected, the Xie clan’s disciples were each more unpromising than the last. Disregarding their uncomeliness, even the way their brains had developed was an injustice.
However, he hadn’t expected that among the roomful of colorful, clucking roosters, there was actually a white crane, though this white crane’s personality was too stubborn and his back was too straight, and he was afraid that he would snap apart sooner or later.
Being old and close to death, who hadn’t Dai Shengyan seen before? This brat Xie Jinglan’s pretense of dignity naturally had nowhere to hide in front of him. His clenched fist, reddish eyes, and overly stretched spine all expressed that this teenager was far from the calmness of his exterior.
He was only doing his utmost to hold on to the little face he had left.
After listening to everyone, Dai Shengyan only nodded toward Xie Jinglan. Everyone knew the answer, and Xiahou Lian breathed a long sigh of relief; this trip hadn’t been for nothing.
In front of everyone, Xie Jinglan performed the discipleship ceremony 6. Dai Shengyan helped him up, his hands akin to chicken claws holding onto Xie Jinglan’s arm. It was the dead of winter, so Xie Jinglan was wearing many layers, but he still felt his scalding hot hands that were like soldering irons, practically burning through his coat.
"Jinglan, you have not been bestowed a courtesy name 7 yet, right?"
"I am not of age yet 8, so I have not had the time to receive a courtesy name."
"No matter." Dai Shengyan looked at his little disciple, and his eyelids moved, clarity shooting out from his muddy eyes. "You have suffered hardships, and it is lamentable that your heart is as firm as a rock. You have high ambitions and a resolute purpose, but your personality is too stubborn and you’re too hard-hearted. In the future, you won’t be good, you’ll be wicked! As your teacher, I’ll give you the name ‘Yi’an 9,’ as I hope you can live comfortably and peacefully, follow your heart, and be unfettered and have no regrets.
Always remember that no matter how difficult the world is, the heart must remain noble and kind."
It was as if a basin of cold water had been poured onto Xie Jinglan, drenching him from head to toe and freezing him thoroughly. The despicable thoughts he had tried his best to conceal in his heart seemed to have been read clearly by Dai Shengyan.
What clear conscience could he have when the Xie clan kowtowed to him to repay him for the years of humiliation.
How could he have no regrets when he held great power and could wield life or death as he wished.
How could he hold no resentments when the people he resented fell into a mire and couldn’t get out!
Just then, Dai Shengyan had seen right through his unspoken words. Xie Jinglan was very ashamed but had nowhere to hide, and he unconsciously wanted to run away. He didn’t understand why Dai Shengyan would still want to take him as a disciple when he was this type of person.
He saluted with difficulty and said, "I will keep that in mind."
Xiahou Lian was listening in confusion and didn’t understand whether this thin old man had praised or criticized Xie Jinglan.
No matter, no matter, it didn’t matter whether it was praise or criticism as long as Xie Jinglan was accepted.
He couldn’t understand, but he saw the jealous gazes from everyone around them. Although it hadn’t been him seeking a teacher, his proud little tail was perked up as he swaggered behind Xie Jinglan, leaving the Wangqing Pavilion with envious gazes trained on them.
The entire way, Xie Jinglan was silent, his face pale, making his sickly appearance even more evident than before.
Xiahou Lian’s proud tail immediately drooped as he walked next to him at a loss. He liked liveliness, and once the mood of his surroundings went down, he would feel very uneasy. Xie Jinglan had first suffered a serious blow from his father and then successfully became Dai Shengyan’s disciple. With one sorrow and one joy, he didn’t know whether he should say something consoling or congratulatory.
He kept feeling that there were no appropriate words.
He suddenly thought of something and quickened his pace to get in front of Xie Jinglan before opening his arms and hugging Xie Jinglan tightly. Xie Jinglan was startled and he began struggling, saying angrily, "What are you doing?!"
Xiahou Lian pressed Xie Jinglan closer. He was very strong, which Xie Jinglan had already learned a while ago; sure enough, he still couldn’t break free.
"My mother said that when you’re sad, hugs will make you feel better. Young Master Jinglan, besides my mother, I’ve never hugged anyone before, so consider yourself lucky."
Xie Jinglan stopped struggling and buried his face into Xiahou Lian’s shoulder. He was silent for a long time. There was suddenly something cold on his face, and he tasted salt. He was afraid that Xiahou Lian would notice that he was crying, so he purposely said coolly, "I don’t need your pity!"
Unfortunately, he hadn’t completely mastered the art of concealment, and before he even finished, the bitterness hidden in his words had already been exposed.
Xiahou Lian let go of Xie Jinglan, grabbed his wrist, and started sprinting.
"Hey, what are you doing!" Xie Jinglan turned pale with fright.
Xiahou Lian didn’t say anything as he pulled him into a sprint, knocking over countless servants who cursed at them. The wind hurt their faces, and Xie Jinglan felt that his lungs were like old box bellows that craftsmen had to pump with all their strength. The cold wind that entered his mouth became warm air that he breathed out and dissipated into white condensation, and the tears on his face were all dried by the wind.
He was taken to the walls surrounding the back kitchen. Xiahou Lian made him stay where he was and stepped onto the surface of the wall, putting his hands on the top of the wall. He propelled himself up with a strenuous step and flipped into the yard. Xie Jinglan was still panting heavily; they had run too fast and his lungs were practically about to explode, so he hadn’t been able to stop that reckless rascal.
He was extremely angry, and he looked around and made sure there was no one before he used all of his strength to pull himself up the wall and poke his head over with difficulty. Not looking had been fine, but now that he had, he was instantly frightened out of his wits. That bastard had actually flipped into the kitchen through the window, and there were many servants and chefs bustling about, though no one had noticed this uninvited guest. Xiahou Lian was hunched over and tiptoeing like a cat, concealing himself behind stoves. He took a jar of wine with him before flipping back out from the window.
When Xiahou Lian jumped back down from the wall, Xie Jinglan, whose heart had been in his throat, finally relaxed. He pulled Xiahou Lian’s collar in exasperation and cursed, "What in the world were you thinking?!"
"Calm down, calm down." Xiahou Lian used a soothing voice to smooth Xie Jinglan’s ruffled feathers. "Since alcohol can drown all sorrows as well as celebrate happy things, it’s perfect to drink right now. Come on, let’s drink!"
Xiahou Lian dragged Xie Jinglan to a secluded spot, and knowing that Xie Jinglan liked cleanliness, he specially used his sleeve to wipe the rock seven or eight times before letting him sit down.
Xiahou Lian took a sip of the wine, and the pungency made his eyes water. He handed the wine to Xie Jinglan. Xie Jinglan didn’t take it; he didn’t drink alcohol, much less alcohol that someone else had already drank from. Xiahou Lian coaxed him for a long time before Xie Jinglan finally tilted his head back reluctantly and held the wine jar in the air as he took a sip. He regretted it right when his tongue touched the liquor, and he coughed, unable to catch his breath.
Xiahou Lian laughed loudly and paused for a bit before saying, "Young Master, I don’t pity you. I just can’t look at other people being sad. If you’re sad, I’m also sad with you. Besides, what’s there to pity about you? It’s not like you’re missing any limbs, nor are you lacking clothes or food. You have enough to eat and drink everyday, and you can also study and take the imperial examination. You have a promising future, so what’s there to take pity on?
"In this world, there are tons of people worse off than you. In the past, when I traveled around with my mother, I’ve seen my share of pitiful people. There are men with strange diseases who have abscesses all over their bodies, there are servants who live and die alone and have been beaten by their masters until their dying breath before being thrown into mass graves, there are old people whose sons have died on the battlefield and all that is left in their houses are their daughter-in-laws and the little babies they cradle in their arms. As for you, isn’t it just that your parents don’t love you? Compared to them, you’re practically living in paradise."
Xie Jinglan opened his mouth, but he didn’t say anything.
"What courtesy name did that old man give to you again? ‘Yi’an?’ I think that you live quite an easy and comfortable life, and you don’t have to do manual labor. Before, when I was on the mountain, I didn’t know where the next meal would come from during famines."
Xie Jinglan seemed to understand what the miserable conditions Xiahou Lian had seen were like.
In Xiahou Lian’s view, not having enough to eat, not having clothes to wear, and being on the brink of death was true misfortune. For Xiahou Lian, who was so endlessly carefree, how could physical and mental suffering compare to these? But anyway, he couldn’t help but be curious about what Xiahou Lian’s past life had been like, and he kept feeling that it couldn’t have been that good.
"Just now, you said that your mother took you to travel around. Could your mother be the leader of an opera troupe?"