Chapter 17: The Code of the Jianghu
The man on the table put his left foot down on a gold ingot worth ten taels and kicked the dice bowl away, holding the dice up and as he addressed the crowd. “This motherf*ckin’ cheater. I threw three times and got one two three each time. Isn’t that ridiculous? I, surname Gong, have spent my whole life in the jianghu, but today it’s I who’ve been had. Friends…”
Before he could finish two bare-chested men were already behind him at the table, but five middle-aged men in teal towered before them like mountains and wouldn’t let them get closer. One of the bare-chested men said, “Brother, get down. We can talk things out.”
The man on the table paid no attention and continued shouting, “It took losing three gold ingots to see what was up. These dice are loaded. There must be a cross-shaped groove inside filled with quicksilver. I’ll put these ten taels of gold up as a wager. If I break open these three dice and they’re not loaded, then I’ll beat myself up…”
He reached into his robe to pull something out.
Before he could bend over and cut the dice open, a single-edged throwing knife sailed through the air like a flash and sank into the man’s chest.
“Ah…” The man screamed in pain and his hands went limp, dropping the dice and silver on the table with a clatter.
There was chaos as the crowd was thrown into a panic.
The five men in teal by the table roared and pulled out daggers. One said, “Son of a bitch, killing to silence him. Slaughter them.”
The five jumped on the bare-chested men, their shouts deafening.
Wenchang was an expert with concealed weapons and was already being mindful, sidling up to a man wearing a black turban in the turmoil.
The man was squeezing through the crowd, unaware someone was behind him. Wenchang’s hand snaked out and clapped the man on the shoulder. “Slow down, brother.”
The man suddenly spun to his right, ramming his right elbow into Wenchang’s right shoulder, the tip of a blade faintly discernible from his left-hand sleeve, waiting to strike. If his elbow missed, the knife in his left hand would shoot out ruthlessly.
But Wenchang was ready, his fist already anticipating it as he slammed it into the man’s right shoulder.
“Ah…” the man yelped, but the second punch was already there, then a third one pounding him, three punches in a row landing true, blazingly fast, all hitting him around the chest and stomach. Even a man of iron would not be able to take that, and he fell backward.
At the same time three men in teal advanced on him from both sides, bellowing like thunder and bearing down on him menacingly.
Wenchang was like a crazed tiger, darting right and smashing his fist into the shoulder of the man on the right before turning left and ducking and throwing his left elbow out behind him like a sudden crack of thunder. The man behind him had a knife, but just as he slashed it down, Wenchang’s elbow whammed into his midsection, doubling him over Wenchang’s shoulder and somersaulting him onto his back with a crash and yelp. He blacked out as the knife clattered to the floor.
Immediately Wenchang was facing the man advancing on his left, knocking away the knife hand launching toward his flank with his left as he bashed the man in the skull with his right, knocking the man’s head back to the right. Two chops followed, one on each ear. The man grunted and slumped to the floor.
It all happened fast, four men felled in a matter of seconds.
Wenchang picked a knife up off the floor and bent forward slightly, ready to pounce, and roared at five bare-chested men charging at him. “Stop! Unless you don’t care about living.”
His roar was like a stone-cracking peal of thunder, ear-splitting, shocking everyone present and making them weak in the knees as they immediately fell silent.
Every gambler’s face fell and they pulled back, trembling.
One of the five men in teal was attending to the man on the table who had been hit with a throwing knife, the other four circling the table, guarding them.
A dozen bare-chested men wielding iron rulers and wooden cudgels surrounded Wenchang, but no one dared get close.
Two of the four men felled were unconscious, the man on the table struggling and groaning, the knife sticking out of his chest. He was unable to sit up. The man he knocked down behind him sat up with difficulty, holding his side, his face ashen like a zombie, blue veins popping out on his forehead, sweat running down his face as he moaning weakly.
Wenchang faced the dozen men around him, showing no fear whatsoever.
Someone in the crowd called out, “It’s Master Cai.” After that, a few people slunk away one after another.
Wenchang drew the dagger from the bracer on his left arm, its blade glittering, cold and menacing. He spoke in a heart-rending voice, “First you use false dice to cheat people, then have the nerve to kill someone with a throwing knife in front of everyone. So bold and reckless. You all are too vicious. I’ve caught the culprit. Anyone who’d like to stop me from turning him over to the authorities will be cut down on the spot.” He turned to a man in teal by the table. “How is he?”
“Dead,” the man said through clenched teeth. “The knife pierced his heart.”
“Find the three dice to use as evidence,” Wenchang said.
“Someone took them during the chaos.”
“I’ll stand guard here. Send two people to report to the authorities. Get the leader.”
The four men in teal looked around, but all the doors were blocked by the bare-chested men. It would not be easy to break through them to go report to the authorities.
The entranceway curtain was brushed aside and Walking Retribution came in leading eight big men, his huge frame intimidating. He walked ahead by himself, unarmed. “Master Cai, are you looking to spar?”
“I caught the murderer and am assisting everyone in launching the murder case. Taking someone’s life is a serious matter. I couldn’t just stand by watching with my arms folded.”
Walking Retribution laughed wildly. “Taking someone’s life is a serious matter? What a riot. Us jianghu men don’t go to the yamen. A few deaths don’t matter.”
“Well, I’m going to the yamen. A murder must be brought to justice and not allowed to go unpunished.”
“How will you get to the yamen?”
“I’ll take the culprit and turn him in.”
“You’re gonna try it? Little brother, do you think these men here will give their consent?”
“A life for a life, that’s the law. I don’t need their consent.”
“Haha! They are Bald Flood Dragon’s underlings; they don’t show themselves in public. You want them to go to the yamen? Haha! You’re really naïve.”
Wenchang was stunned when he heard they were Bald Flood Dragon’s men. He thought for a second, then said coldly, “I don’t care who they are. They must be brought to justice.”
Walking Retribution stood twenty feet away, a dark look on his face. “Master Cai, I know you’re not a man of the jianghu so I can excuse your ignorance. Us jianghu men are fugitives, eking out our lives at the point of a knife blade. No one will go with you to report the crime. At worst they might settle things privately and deal with it. We are beyond the reach of government. The authorities don’t get involved in our private disputes. Us men of the jianghu have our own code; we never use knives against commoners. If something were to happen we’d have to flee into exile, because the common man is under the government’s jurisdiction. There, murder is truly a serious crime. But us men of the jianghu are totally different. Death squares all accounts. No one will go with you to the courts. You won’t even be able to find the body. You can see for yourself if you will really be able to take the culprits out of here. Your five friends there would never go with you to the yamen. Your testimony will only drag you into a difficult situation with the authorities and bring trouble for yourself.”
“I don’t believe things could be that lawless.”
“Whether you believe it or not is your business, but that’s how it is. Like you, in your shop or out on the streets. At most we might beat you half to death and leave you there. But here it’s a different story entirely. After we kill you, no one will report to the authorities, no one will come forward on your behalf, and no one will be able to find your corpse. You will have to make due with airing your complaints to King Yama. Put the knife down and you can go quietly. Those five guys can wrap their friend’s body up in a sheet and take him out. We won’t give them any trouble.” Walking Retribution spoke loud and clear, as if he were settling a few trifling matters.
The five men in teal picked up their friend’s body. One of them said, “We’ll settle this another day. For now we appreciate the favor.” They walked out of the room.
Wenchang watched the men disappear outside with an indescribable look on his face. He understood why men of the jianghu didn’t go out in public. They didn’t want to run into the authorities, who in any case couldn’t solve their problems.
Walking Retribution walked to the badly beaten suspect on the floor and stooped to help him up. Wenchang darted over. “Don’t touch him.”
“You won’t leave?” Walking Retribution said disdainfully.
“You have a death wish?”
“I’m already a runaway. If I’m officially to become a fugitive, living or not is a mere trifle; causing trouble is a certainty.”
“So what’s your plan?”
“The murderer is a man of the jianghu, but heedless of the jianghu code he attacked silently from among the crowd, not fighting face to face, secretly throwing a knife to kill someone! Hmph! So I’ll use the code of the jianghu to deal with him and ask him to pay with his life.”
“Oh! You talk big, posing as an upholder of the jianghu code! Fella, you must have a death wish.”
Wenchang grinned. “Anyone willing to come to the aid of another in upholding justice is a person with a death wish.”
“How do you plan to dispose of him?”
“Knife for a knife.”
“You have the guts?”
“A person with a death wish has the guts to do anything,” Wenchang said loftily. He raised the knife.
“If you touch a single hair on his head I’ll flay you alive,” Walking Retribution said, stepping forward as he spoke.
Wenchang looked around and called out, “Gentlemen, listen up! A murder must be paid with one’s life, just as a debt must be repaid with cash. Since this gentleman speaks in the name of the jianghu code, so I will use the code to punish the murderer. He attacked that man covertly with a throwing knife. I will return him a throwing knife.”
By that time the suspect had come to and was sitting up. He now scrabbled backward. Wenchang’s speech concluded, he turned to Walking Retribution. “Make way.”
Instead, Walking Retribution took two steps forward. “Let’s hear you talk like that while I’m flaying you. Then you’ll be considered a real man… Son of a bitch!”
He had just said “man” when the knife whipped passed his midsection and a a shout was emitted behind him as the murderer fell down, the knife lodged in the hollow of his shoulder.
As soon as he felt the knife rush past him Walking Retribution knew it was bad. He assumed Wenchang had killed the man with that knife so he cursed out of reflex as he twisted to dodge out of the way. Actually, if he was really trying to dodge out of the way he might just be on the ground right now, because the knife hit the murderer just as he was twisting away, his reaction too slow.
The crowd erupted and the bare-chested men drew their sabres. Walking Retribution howled and charged, shouting, “Everyone back, I want to catch him and flay him alive.”
He was careful about the gleaming dagger in Wenchang’s hand, reaching out to grab his dagger hand when he pounced, trying to lure away the dagger, then close in and seize it, his other hand ready to attack.
Wenchang sneered and put away the dagger as he circled to the left. “Don’t worry, killing you would defile my immaculate blade!”
He launched his attack as he spoke, taking the initiative, his hands driving like a violent storm, wildly attacking with a flurry of five punches and four hand chops, along with three kicks to the lower body.
Walking Retribution had also practiced internal breathing, so he could take a punch. His massive hands guarded himself tightly, but he couldn’t stop Wenchang’s extraordinarily vicious attack. His left hand suffered a punch while his right hip caught a leg kick with an explosive smack. He was a bit flustered and unable to keep up, his internal breathing not quite up to snuff. Wenchang’s strikes were incredibly powerful, each punch penetrating to the marrow of his bones, like he had been hit by a thousand-catty sledgehammer, his horse stance weakening as he was continuously retreating on his back foot.
Wenchang was overwhelming, pressing in step by step, bolting a fist in toward his belly in a move called “Black Tiger Snatches the Heart”.
Walking Retribution was consumed with rage, belting out a right fist with “General Leads the Cavalry” as his left hand counter chopped at Wenchang’s right ribs with “Wu Gang Chops the Osmanthus”.1
Wenchang retracted his fist and shot an elbow out with “Phoenix Spreads Its Wings”, pivoting on his left foot as he stepped in to avoid a punch. His elbow came in under Walking Retribution’s arm, jabbing him in the chest.
Walking Retribution brought his right hand down and grabbed Wenchang’s right shoulder, but he had just been hit in the chest so his strike lost a lot of power.
“Ah…” He wailed, and fell back, slamming his back against the wall, shaking it. There was nowhere left to retreat. Striking with an elbow or knee was vicious and powerful; the blow nearly burst his right lung. It was really hard to take.
Wenchang stuck close and attacked furiously, not letting up, his left fist bolting out like lightning in a chain of five punches, each one a solid hit.
“Ah! Ah ah…” Walking Retribution wailed, lashing his hands out, scrabbling to block, but it was too much for him. The last punch hit him square in the origin pass acupoint2 on his lower abdomen and he screamed in pain and pitched forward.
Wenchang bounced back and once again drew his dagger. “Who’s next? I’m waiting.”
Walking Retribution wobbled as he struggled to stay conscious. He tipped over and fell, crashing like a great mountain. He mumbled, “Well done, you… you will… will pay for this… with your life.”