Chapter 2: White Tiger Star
In the old days, from Huguang to Shaanxi, you had to start from Nanyang prefecture in Henan, past Funiu Mountain and then on through Fushui Pass and into Shaanxi. Eighty years ago, after suppressing the Jing-Xiang Rebellion, Yunyang prefecture was set up, and going via the Han river mountain area caused trade routes to open up and provided a new way to enter Shaanxi without going around through Henan; one could just go up the Han river.
But taking the Han river was pretty far if you wanted to get to the capital of Shaanxi, Xi’an. Instead you could just pass through Xichuan county in Henan to enter Shaanxi, or go up Red River to Xi’an. These routes were much closer.
The road from Henan to Shaanxi, at Fushui Pass, went through Shangnan, Wu Pass, and Fine Horse Village post station, directly to Shangzhou. The whole mountain area from Shangzhou to Xi’an was under the jurisdiction of Xi’an prefecture.
That area had been a restricted area, but after it was opened, it gradually flourished, and in recent years that old road had become the most important passageway for traveling merchants, comparable more or less to Tong Pass.
Ninety miles1 west through Wu Pass along the ancient road was a postal relay station called Fine Horse Village Station. About forty miles from the station the road merged with Red River. If you went through this water passageway you didn’t have to go through Wu Pass.
Red River, at this drainage basin, was quite dangerous, with a strong current, passing through innumerable gorges and dangerous rapids, so that only boats of five dan2 and under could pass through. Therefore it was not much traveled.
About twenty miles from Fine Horse Village were two dangerous rapids, the first called Shadow Rock Rapids, and the other further downstream called Small Shadow Rock Rapids. Going up the rapids ten or so miles was the not-so-famous Black Dragon Pond of Tiger Head Peak.
Two or three miles up the west side of Tiger Ridge was a small mountain village called Cai Family Village. The village had a population of about a hundred households, all surnamed Cai. It was nor more than twenty miles from Cai Family Village to Fine Horse Village.
It was said that Cai Family Village had been moved from Henan, but you’d have to check the clan genealogy to see if that true or not; in any case, it’s not important, no need to check.
If we go back twenty years, it would be the 15th year of the Jiajing reign period of the Great Ming dynasty.
Worms breed in decaying matter, and that’s no lie.
The emperor was caught up in Daoist practices, and the Daoist priest Shao Yuangu sent people who would stop at nothing to find for the emperor rare longevity elixirs, sending the whole world into chaos. Because the emperor wanted to live forever, the Daoist fed sheep ginseng, then killed the sheep to feed to the dogs, then killed the dogs to make medicine to give to the emperor to replenish his original essence. Absolutely absurd!
The court officials were led by Yan Song, a notorious treacherous official of the Ming dynasty; that goes without saying.
And the border areas? Awful. At the southeastern border, those Wokou pirates were like a raging fire, making it so that the people had no means to make a living, and many became destitute and homeless.
The Manchus again attacked the passes, and attacked, and attacked again; beacon fires spread ten-thousand miles, and blood flowed like a river.
Yet day after day the emperor sought immortality, and massacred several high officials who urged him to give up his superstitions.
The Great Ming dynasty was tottering, beyond cure.
All over the country taxes were heavy, penalties and punishments were severe. Government officials were lazy. Everyone turned a blind eye and held their hands out to the common people.
At Cai Family Village, in the seventh day of the ninth month of the fifteenth year, a future fugitive was born.
It was the Cai Family Village head’s younger brother of the second branch, Cai Chong’an’s son, christened Wenchang. For four generations the naming order in Cai Family Village has been Chong, Wen, Shang, Wu.
Because he was Chong’an’s son, his name was Wen, his given generation, Chang. His child pet name was fitting: they called him Little Tiger.
Little Tiger was truly infirm. He could not speak before the age of three, and he could not cry. This was Cai Chong’an’s very lifeblood, so he burned with anxiety. He feared the child would turn out to be mute, or worse yet, that he was the White Tiger Star reborn. It was said that if the White Tiger Star opened its mouth, whoever he called to would be cursed with bad luck. The person called to would definitely die. The common people believe in the supernatural, and this superstition was widespread.
What a coincidence, that on the thirteenth day after the child’s third birthday he spoke. Not only “mama”, but he also said “dad”.
Not half a month later Fine Horse Village suffered an epidemic. It spread to the east through Nanyang in Henan, and to the west to Shangzhou, killing hundreds of people. For the four or five hundred people in Cai Family Village it was like an ill wind blowing through, blowing down a hundred or so of the old and young, including Chong’an and his wife. Hand in hand they went down together to the netherworld.
From an early age, Little Tiger was like a tiger cub; he safely weathered the epidemic and grew more robust by the day.
Many people from Cai Family Village fled the town when the epidemic rolled in, and in three years not more than a third came back. Because of all this, Cai Family Village declined. The fields north of the village were left untended and left to go to waste.
The village head, as he was the chief, could leave the village. But Heaven has eyes, and the village head along with his wife and their only son Wenhua, made it through the epidemic.
As for Wenchang, not only did he have nothing to rejoice over, his life of misery was just beginning. The village head and his wife did not blame Heaven, but instead blamed Little Tiger for the calamity that had befallen the village. The White Tiger Star had opened its mouth and not only killed its father and mother by calling their names, but also destroyed a hundred or more villagers, the worst disaster in the village’s history. How could such a thing be tolerated?
No one plowed the field of Little Tiger’s household, and no one lived in the house. Instead he passed his day with his father’s elder brother. How could there be any happy days to come?
Not only that, but the old and young of the village, because of the White Tiger Star moniker given him by the village head and his wife, looked upon Litter Tiger as a nail in their eye. Fortunately Little Tiger was still young, otherwise he would long since have been ordered by the ancestral temple elder to be buried alive.
Little Tiger thus survived in this environment, grew up in the midst of bitter hatred.
When he was six he began herding cattle for his uncle, even though the cattle were twice as tall as he.
At eight he harvested wheat in the fields, making him endure unbearable suffering.
He ate only leftovers, causing his bones to be thin as firewood, yet his body remained stronger and sharper than others’, no sickness, no pain. Beaten with a rod, boxed in the ears, he didn’t care.
He was forbidden to play with the other youngsters in the village, but outside the village, out in the countryside, especially at Tiger Ridge, the children held no enmity or grudges, and they were enthusiastic about playing with Little Tiger; he was mischievous and fearless. He would brave all kinds of situations. He caught birds and tamed dogs. Amazingly, he became the group’s leader.
So it was he grew up in this abnormal environment.
To the west of the village there was a mountain, not too tall, and on one side was Shadow Rock Village, with a population of a hundred of so households. There were three families here: Zhang, Wang, and Jia. The village head was surnamed Zhang, given name Liangzuo. It was said that the three families originated in Henan, but twenty or thirty years before the Cai family, so the fertile lands on the west side right up to Fine Horse Village all belonged to Shadow Rock Village.
In Fine Horse Village Zhang Liangzuo set up an iron shop, an oil business, and a mill. All in all he was half-farmer, half-businessman. He was not permitted to wear silks and satins, but he wore what he liked anyway. In a village so far from the seat of government, where even the local authorities were lax regarding county matters, why would they go looking for trouble? These days, the less trouble the better.
In Shadow Rock Village they set up a school where they taught the wild little monkeys how to read. All the students were thirteen years old or younger; the older kids went to Shangzhou to go to school. Those who failed the examinations went back home and hired a private tutor, or went straight to the fields to tend the crops.
The teacher at the school was not a local. It was said he came from Kaifeng prefecture, a poor scholar down on his luck, but well-learned. His surname was Shang, given name Lan. He had an effeminate build. His eyes weren’t great; he was about sixty years old, so it wasn’t odd that he had bad eyes. But he was accomplished. When he saw you he he would squint and smile. all the villagers liked him. No one even bothered to go check his family background.
Shadow Rock Village also lost a lot of people in the epidemic, but Village Head Zhang didn’t blame Heaven and he didn’t blame others. He just worked hard to restore the village, giving out money and doing all he could to support the families. Not only did the school not close, he even added a place for martial arts training, and he went to a lot of expense to go to Shaolin to invite two learned and virtuous monks and settled them in at Great Deliverance Temple, which became the site of the martial arts training facility. The temple was close, next to the school.
For years relations between Shadow Rock Village and Cai Family Village had been good, but while Shadow Rock village prospered, Cai Family Village declined. It could not afford to hire teachers and didn’t want to anyway, but they discussed it with Village Head Zhang, and asked that the little monkeys be allowed to go to their schools.
Village Head Zhang was generous and didn’t object. He felt duty-bound, seeing as how the two villages were separated by hillside, they were practically family, so he agreed.
Henceforth, the Cai Family Village kids went to Shadow Rock Village in the morning, then came back at noon, and in the afternoons they were free.
Only Little Tiger was left out of the school, so he started to feel alone. At eight years old, the golden age of childhood, yet he had already lost his childlike innocence. He was more mature than the other kids. Growing up so miserably, maturing faster was the natural outcome.
He was tall, but too thin. He looked malnourished, but his bones were stronger than the other kids’. It was said that none of the villagers ever saw him smile. Such a hidden, icy, resentful, and surly expression earned the village elders’ disgust.
People are strange animals. Things that are unpleasant to the eye, become more unpleasant the more you look at them. He was such a thing in the village. But he felt the same about the village elders. He just couldn’t understand why he was unable obtain the villagers’ affection or sympathy. As time went on, even if someone showed him affection or sympathy, he didn’t need it anymore, and he didn’t want it. He locked his spirit away in the forbidden garden of his heart. He no longer accepted anyone’s affection or sympathy.
Autumn arrived. The vegetation began to wither, the morning thick with frost. To those who have clothes this is no big deal, but for him who had only a single ripped, unlined garment, it was hard to feel comfortable. One morning, old man Zhao went to the dilapidated west wing of the courtyard, a padded jacket draped over his shoulders, breath smoking white fog, and rapped on the door and yelled, “Lazy worm, you’re still not up? You want a beating? Go to the southern warehouse and put up the wheat.”
Old hired-hand Zhao was a vagrant from Fine Horse Village. At the beginning of every winter he would get a job planting wheat, and at the end of summer and beginning of fall he would harvest the wheat and then go back to Fine Horse Village and stay there a couple weeks before returning to the village. He had been at Cai Family Village for four years. This fellow was not good people. At any rate he didn’t treat Wenchang like a person. He was rude to him and mean.
Little Wenchang was never without his tattered cotton nest. He wore his one article of clothing all year long. He had worn it for two years, which normally wouldn’t be so bad, but he was the god of wealth for the fabric stores, as he wore out his clothes extra quick. His clothes were already a third ripped up.
He pulled open the door and a burst of cold wind hit him head-on and he shivered. The house was big enough, but few people lived there. No one lived in the east and west compounds. Only he lived in the two rooms in the outer wing of the western compound, so how could it not be cold?
Uncle Zhao, you go on ahead,” he said, stepping outside. “I’ll be right there.”
“It’s almost light, hurry up. Ah!, Why don’t you put on more clothes?”
More clothes? Shivering in the cold, he said grumpily, “I’m fine. What is it to you?”
Old Zhao muttered in surprise, and scolded him. “You dog biting Lǚ Dongbin3, you can’t appreciate a person’s good intentions…”
“Leave your good intentions and feed them to Big Yellow.” Big Yellow, that was the family’s best hunting dog, Wenchang’s most beloved companion.
Old Zhao didn’t like being talked back to. He stepped closer and said, “You son of a bitch, you…”
“Shut your filthy mouth!” Little Wenchang shouted.
Old Zhao couldn’t take it. He raised his hand to box Wenchang’s ears. “You’re gonna get it!”
Whap! He smacked Wenchang in the back of the head. Wenchang wasn’t going to allow that; in fact he was already countering, colliding with the old man like a wild bull.
An eight year old kid fighting with an adult farmer. Just close your eyes and you can imagine the result. This time, when he got smacked in the back of the head, everything went black and Wenchang fell down in the yard and rolled twice. Old Zhao laughed, “Haha! You were probably already cold, just wanted to work up a sweat… Ah!… Oh!”