SOE Chapter 76

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Chapter 76: Spring Outing

Clouds drifted by lazily. The wind had stopped, and the warm sun was shining. The fields were a light green, plants giving off tender shoots bristling with life under the sunlight.

Three horses winded a small path toward the Temple of Compassion, clopping along in the radiant spring day. Officials and other nobles within the city were taking their families on a spring outing in the suburbs. Carriages clogged the roads large and small, from the north all the way to the Wei River in the west, and from the east to the south of Baqiao, from the south of Diwei up to Nanshan, west to Fengyi, everywhere filled with traveling, gaily dressed youths. The harsh winter was over and now it was time to step out.

The Temple of Compassion was in the deserted northwest corner of Qujiang Pond. Before the new city was built, this place had been a scenic spot in the old city of the Tang dynasty. Most of Qujiang Pond was now choked with silt, and there was not a trace of the old lotus garden, Dunhua Ward, Xiuzheng Ward, Qinglong Ward, Qujiang Ward… It had all become wasteland. Only a few scattered nouveau riche had constructed flower gardens for their leisure, but the old days of prosperity were a thing of the past.

Only the area around the Temple of Compassion was the same as before, never declining with the rising and waning of subsequent dynasties. The only difference was it used to be within the city and was now outside of it.

The Temple of Compassion was originally called Passionless Temple during the Sui dynasty, but Tang Gaozong had it rebuilt and christened Temple of Compassion in memory of Empress Wende1 Tang Sanzang went to India and acquired Buddhist scriptures and he and his disciple translated them at the temple. In the third year of Gaozong’s Yonghui reign period, Tang Sanzang requested a pagoda be constructed for him to house the scriptures. This pagoda, which was only 5 storeys tall, was the predecessor of the Great Wild Goose Pagoda. Later on the pagoda collapsed and was rebuilt in seven storeys, measuring about 210 feet. This is the current pagoda.

The name “Goose Pagoda” was famous all over. Qujiang Pond had been constructed by Han Wudi and it had a lotus garden on the side. Both were famous scenic spots and were part of the imperial garden. Beginning in the Tang dynasty, new graduates of the jinshi civil service exam were invited to a banquet there, presided over by the emperor, after which the graduates would inscribe their names on a monument at the Great Wild Goose Pagoda to leave their names to posterity. It was a grand occasion, the greatest honor during the era of the civil service examinations and has become world-famous.

Most of the names on the monument are accompanied by couplets. Bai Juyi’s is quite famous. It goes: Inscribed at the Pagoda of Compassion, the youngest of seventeen graduates.2

Therefore, most people believed that those whose names were inscribed at the pagoda were new jinshi graduates from the emperor’s announcement list, but this was not the case. After the Tang dynasty, the Temple of Compassion became a tourist spot and any traveler who visited could very well write his name there. It was as simple as writing one’s name on the monument. After Chang’an ceased being the capital, the monuments erected at the pagoda no longer contained the names of imperial and provincial new jinshi graduates but listed only those graduates from Shaanxi. Tourists posing as a lover of culture could not help but add their names to the monument, and so the names represent people of every shade and description, from well-known sages to eminent foreign monks. Naturally, those of the lower classes were represented as well. On a tree was carved the words “XX was here”. Such inscriptions could be found all over, though not just anyone could erect a monument and inscribe their name, only new guests of the imperial family.

The Temple of Compassion wasn’t anything special,3 it was the Great Wild Goose Pagoda that was famous. There were monuments all over its grounds as well as flowers and trees in abundance. It was a great place to go on one’s spring excursions. Plus, the area was flat and used to be the site of Happy Travels Park,4 also called Amusement Park. Every year on the day of the Double Third Festival, any young woman who didn’t come out was not fit to be part of one of the wealthy and influential families of Chang’an.5 In a word, it was much more fun than any dead emperor’s mausoleum or any former palace hunting park quickly going to ruin.

Double Third was on the 巳 earthly branch day of the third month, but over time it came to be held simply on the third day of the third month. It was now less than a month away from that day and the weather was exceptionally nice for the time. The ladies of the city could not wait, they just had to get out and enjoy it early.

The main road branching off from the southern gates of the city to the Temple of Compassion was bustling with carriage and horse traffic. There were few people out on foot. The riders were mostly young guys on fine horses and clad in fine clothes, looking down arrogantly on the world. Light frivolous laughter came here and there from the lavish light carriages.

Some of the carriages were followed by sedan chairs or guards on horseback. But some were ladies in single-horse or double-horse carriages without a male escort, just a grizzled old driver and an old mother or aunt accompanying them. These were eminent women from important families; no one would dare be impertinent with them. Some of the bolder women had the window curtains pulled back, not afraid of the glittering eyes of men.

Wenchang led his two servants, but he was in no hurry. He would be heading west in a few days so he wanted to take advantage of the nice weather to see some of the famous sites around Chang’an. He called himself by the surname Wen and was decked out lavishly, no different from anyone else. He just wanted to spend the thousand or so taels of gold, helping out the poor and disguising himself during his short stay in Chang’an while also setting up an intelligence network to protect himself and prepare for his stopover in a few days. He was thinking of every detail.

Three light carriages galloped past, leaving behind a fragrant wind. He took a few deep whiffs and flared his nostrils as he looked back. “Smells nice, Goldie!”

The lanky servant was called Goldie. He was around sixteen, the only son of a bricklayer. He was gentle and quiet. He giggled. “Master, That’s the second madame of the Bai residence on South Avenue, of course she smells nice.”

“Heheh! How do you know it’s a Bai family carriage?” Wenchang asked.

“There are two cypress trees painted on the side, didn’t you see, Master?”6

“Haha! No wonder. I don’t know the insignias of the important families in Chang’an. I’m so ignorant.”

Hoofs pounded behind him as four horses charged toward them, the riders young men wearing skyblue fur coats draped over their shoulders. They whipped their horses in high spirits and blew past Wenchang and company like a gale-force wind and went after the light carriage that had just passed, laughing and talking all the way.

“Who are they?” Wenchang said.

“In response to Master, that’s the well-known young masters of the Wu residence on North Avenue.”

“What are they like?”

“Expert ladies’ men, rakes known to all throughout the city, but they’re not bad guys, just a bit too haughty.”

Then he heard hoofs stamping and a carriage rattling. Wenchang turned and whipped his horse over to the left side of the road a little. “That man probably isn’t a wanton playboy.”

Goldie shook his head. “His gown is tattered, I don’t know who that is.”

About a hundred feet behind a horse came on at a trot, just a little bit faster than Wenchang and his servants. The rider wore a faded gray lined gown and a square cap on his head. He had finely chiseled features, a straight nose and a square mouth. Medium height. His face was a bit pale, like he was sick. A long bundle hung from the saddle and he held a big pipa in his left hand. A cloth bag hung over his neck and dangled at his side. He was squinting, head bobbing, looking pleased with himself.

Wenchang’s other servant was called Sterling. He was a city beggar enlisted into Wenchang’s services. He was fourteen, clever and cunning. “Master, I know that man.”

“You know him?”

“Yes, I know him. That’s Old Chai, an itinerant minstrel who often shows up at Taibai Tavern.”

In those days, itinerant singers were not limited to girls and the pipa was not a woman’s instrument. The really famous pipa musicians weren’t women, but men. Tang dynasty virtuoso Master Shanben and his disciple Kang Kunlun were pipa experts, and Nine Fingers Liu Gu from the capital and Kaifeng’s Master Long Kaiping of this dynasty were also pipa masters, known all over. But there were no famous women pipa virtuosos.

A hundred feet behind Minstrel Chai a light carriage was hurrying along, bridle bells on the two horses tinkling. The carvings on the carriage were striking. On either side of the carriage a pair of flying swallows were carved and underneath the words: Capital Tian. One glance and it was obvious this was one of the eight distinguished families of the capital: Wei, Du, Fu, Duan, Song, Tian, Li, and Jin.

Don’t look down on Goldie, he belonged to one of the eight families, given his surname was Jin.7 In Chang’an, the most powerful of the eight were the Wei and Du families. They had produced chancellors during the Tang dynasty. Weiqu and Duqu were large villas erected by the two families in the south.

Even further behind were two horses, the riders both dashing young scholars. They wore soft furs and a sword and were about twenty or so years old, spirited and sitting their horses free and easy as they galloped on and were soon right behind the carriage. They took to either side and rode alongside the carriage.

The driver of the carriage was an old servant wearing a winter cap. Deep lines grooved his calm face. He looked askance casually and flicked the reins and the horses picked up their sprightly pace, trotting along evenly, bells clinking, the carriage trundling steadily behind, quite pleasing to the ear. The young man riding on the left chuckled an snapped his whip out lifted the green window curtain.

Wenchang and company kept ahead, but they frequently turned to look at what was happening behind them.

The whip lifted the window curtain and a light laugh came from within, followed by a snort and then an affectedly sweet voice, “So rude! Hey! You Chang’an playboy, aren’t you being a bit too frivolous? Don’t disturb the miss.”

The young rider laughed and grinned cheekily. “Okay! Second Miss? I’ve been escorting you all this way and it’s been all toil and no credit. Why so mean? You just put the curtain down and hide inside. Why even go out on a spring outing? Aren’t you being too stingy to hide that pretty face behind a window curtain? Haha!”

“Flatterer! Who asked you to escort?” Second Miss laughed and fastened up the curtain, in a good mood.

As long as a girl said something to give him an opening, a hopeful man would continue his pursuit. The worst was if she ignored him and gave him the cold shoulder. So the young man squared his shoulders and said, “Second Miss is Chang’an’s most delicately beautiful flower. All the young men of Chang’an are duty-bound to escort you.”

“Hooey! Who needs your escort? There are many delicate flowers in Chang’an, stop chasing this miss’ carriage.”

“Second Miss, you must know that that notorious bandit Cai Wenchang robbed Young Master Li’s carriage before and turned the city upside down. If that guy were to appear, Second Miss…”

“Hmph! Sir Song, if Cai Wenchang showed up do you think you two could stop him? Are you better than Master Yan? Go on! Sir, if Cai Wenchang really showed up, you, you’d probably…”

“Hmph! You’re simply looking down on me and underestimating me, Song An. Fine if Cai Wenchang doesn’t show up. But if he does, this gentleman will chop off his head and present it to the authorities and get the reward.” Sir Song’s response was cocky and self-assured.

The double-horse carriage in the middle in between two riders nearly took up the whole road, but by the time they reached the horse in front of them, laughing and talk all the way, Minstrel Chai did not make way but rode down the center of the road so that the carriage could not pass.

At the same time, they were also approaching Wenchang and company. The carriage was faster than the horses, and they were faster than Wenchang’s horse. If Wenchang did not yield he would hold up the horse and carriage behind him and they’d all be packed together.

The carriage slowed and a fragrant wind emanated from the carriage, the girl inside hanging out the window, the Song brothers on either side, talking and laughing with the pretty young girl and maidservants in the carriage, so they didn’t notice someone was blocking the road.

Wenchang whipped his horse and got over to the left, but the other horse behind went slower and slower and didn’t overtake him. Wenchang eyes flashed like lightning when he saw the man wore a sword of some kind at his waist and figured he was a martial artist, not just an ordinary singer.

Minstrel Chai tottered along in the saddle. He eyed Wenchang and company and put up the reins and shifted his pipa.

Two clear strums of the strings and then several sporadic notes, the harmonious melody undulated in through the air, quite soothing.

“That’s a really nice pipa,” Wenchang said, loud enough for him to hear.

“Haha! Oh no, you’re too kind.” Minstrel Chai smiled at Wenchang and nodded politely.

A burst of wonderful music danced out under Minstrel Chai’s fingers, then his low, clear voice thrummed through the air:

Roaming far and wide, a wandering life.

Stars shine above, below tears of strife.

Grief, oh grief, men drift along,

World of troubles vast, but only I am wronged.

Wenchang was a bit dejected. He gave a bitter laugh. “Brother, gotta face the facts, the world is like a board game with the pieces resetting over and over again. No need to quibble over the details…”

Just then, the eldest Song boy rode out toward the horse in front and yelled, “Hey! Is this old jenny half-dead or what?”


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  1. 601-636 CE. Called Empress Zhangsun while she was alive, her given name is unknown. She was the wife of Emperor Taizong of Tang and the mother of Emperor Gaozong. Her posthumous title, “Wende”, means “civil and virtuous”.
  2. The author made a mistake in the original text. He gives the couplet as “大雁塔下題名處,十七人中最少年。” but it is actually “慈恩塔下題名處,十七人中最少年。” The author had Great Wild Goose Pagoda instead of Pagoda of Compassion. The latter refers to the Wild Goose Pagoda and the Temple of Compassion at the same time.
  3. Note: This temple is usually known in English as Daci’en or Ci’en Temple but I translated it because that is hard to pronounce if you don’t know pinyin. But if you want to look it up online, use the pinyin instead of my translation. The temple as well as the two wild goose pagodas are still there in Xi’an today.
  4. 樂遊苑 is usually rendered in pinyin as Leyou Park because scholars are lazy I guess, lol. “Happy Travels” sounds much more inviting, don’t you think?
  5. Double Third Festival occurs in April, the exact date varying based on the lunar calendar, but it’s on the third day of the third month. It’s a day to go out, picnic, pluck orchids, etc.
  6. The name “Bai” 柏 means “cypress”.
  7. Jin 金, gold.