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“Audacity is what distinguishes the great scholars from the merely successful ones. Twenty-two years ago, when the examiners asked me to arrange the chapters of The Great Learning into their most proper order, I will confess, I had no answer. So what did I do? I attacked the authenticity of the entire tome. Audacity, you see. Now I am the one who marks the essays.”
The speaker was Bai Chengde, eminent scholar and frequenter of elite social gatherings. It was a warm afternoon in autumn, and he was a guest at a private literary party. Around him, intellectuals, artists, and officials mingled in walled courtyard gardens shaded by bamboo, elm, and cypress trees.
“My son is taking the examinations.” With his rustic complexion and cotton robes, Hu Gongshan was out of place amid the affluent literati of Beijing. He had nodded respectfully for the duration of Bai’s monologue, which had spanned three cups of wine and the whole of Bai’s academic and professional accomplishments. “I am a factory manager. I make tiles, sir. I have done what I can, but my boy surpassed me in learning years ago. If you could offer any advice, that is, coming from such an esteemed scholar, it would be of great value.” The words tumbled awkwardly into silence.
Bai was looking over Hu’s shoulder in an unconcealed effort to catch the eye of someone more distinguished. “Advice? My advice is to avoid such obvious attempts to flatter examiners a week before the examinations begin. Corruption has no place in our city’s most illustrious institution.”
Hu looked stricken. “It—it was not my intention to flatter you,” he stammered. “The examinations identify the best men in the empire, those most qualified to govern. You are one of those men. I know you would never allow yourself to be manipulated by flattery.”
The reply earned a cool nod of approval from the scholar. “I suppose this is your son?”
A young man had emerged from a nearby bamboo grove. “Yes,” said Hu, his face alight with fatherly pride. “This is Erchen.”
With a look of intense mortification, the youth bowed to Bai, and placed a hand on the other man’s arm. “Father,” he gasped. “He is an examiner. We cannot speak to him about the examinations.” He turned a pale, exhausted face to Bai and held up a slim, somewhat battered volume with a creased paper cover. “Of course, we would be honored to hear your opinion of the text our host assigned for this afternoon’s discussion.”
Bai made a show of consulting his own volume, which bore the same title, but was elegantly bound in pristine white silk. “I wish I could enjoy books with no literary merit,” he said with a rueful sigh. “Alas, such diversions are denied me. I am too accustomed to a higher standard. And, since your father asked me to give you advice, I will recommend that, with the examinations so near, you devote your energies to more elevated material.”
Without acknowledging them further, Bai glided away to join a group of gentlemen dressed, as he was, in robes of pale gray and blue. These were colors of affected humility, but the silk was of the finest quality and fell to the season’s most fashionable length. Amid the rustle and creak of branches swaying in the blustery weather, the scholars were alternating contentedly between criticizing the book they had been assigned to read and debating the efficacy of a mnemonic device popular among this year’s examination candidates.
In an adjacent courtyard, a circle of spectators surrounded two men sitting opposite each other at a chessboard. One of them reached out his hand and, with fingers swollen around rings, picked up the cannon piece. The spectators pointed, shook their heads, and murmured suggestions.
“Don’t distract me,” growled the man. The words ran into each other. His hand, still holding the cannon, traveled over the board until, with abrupt decision, he slapped the piece down. Then he picked up a cup of wine, drank deeply, and returned it to its place beside a porcelain bottle at the corner of the table. He swayed, leaned back, and rubbed his stomach absently, exploring the texture of silk rounded by the soft hemisphere of a large belly.
His opponent might have been the same age, but was such a picture of health and vigor that he appeared much younger. From beneath brows smooth and dark as brushstrokes, his eyes assessed the board with more amusement than concentration. He slid his remaining knight into position, revealing a trap from which there was no escape. The game was over.
The audience relaxed, but the defeated player sprang suddenly to his feet. As he rose, he placed his fingertips beneath the edge of the table and lifted, flipping it into the air. The cup and bottle smashed to the ground. The pieces scattered and spun across the cobbled courtyard. There was a horrified silence.
The victor, who had watched the table’s progress through the air without leaving his seat, stood up slowly and smiled. It was an attractive smile, languid and mobile, all the more beguiling for its hint of insincerity.
“Perhaps you did not intend your final move,” he said. “Would you like to play it again? I recall the arrangement of the pieces.” He surveyed the pieces—painted disks—that littered the garden. His broad smile thinned to one of subtle mockery.
The man who had lost didn’t appear to be listening. He ignored the question and made his way on unsteady feet toward three women whose company had been purchased for the party. They were laughing and shaking spattered wine from their skirts. Their dangling earrings sparkled. Dainty red shoes peeked out from beneath silk hems.
From the doorway of a room bordering the courtyard, two men observed the action. “Hong is eight-tenths drunk,” said one, a calligrapher known for his vast collection of bronze artifacts.
His companion was an elderly scholar who had made a name for himself with a series of essays on using dream analysis to predict examination results. “Hong is not a bad chess player even when he drinks,” he said. “But I’ve never seen anyone beat Pan.” He sighed and raised his own cup to his lips. “An examination candidate would make a bargain with a demon to acquire a mind like his.”
The spectacle was over, and they turned their attention back to the room, which was dedicated to a collection of antiquities. The calligrapher bent over in front of a low table to admire a vase glazed a fathomless blue, with a white dragon wrapped around its widest section. “For a man without a degree, I will admit that Hong has good taste.”
“His wife is the one with the taste,” replied the scholar. “Madam Hong is a connoisseur of beauty. In addition, I have heard, to being beautiful herself.” He chuckled. “I was told she read The Bitter Plum and declared it insufficiently intellectual for our gathering.”
The calligrapher was examining a bronze vessel, holding it by handles as thin as twine. “She was right. A pity Hong does not allow her to curate his bookshelves, in addition to his antiques. I have never been to a party with less stimulating discussion, our own conversation excepted, of course.”
After draining his cup, the scholar craned his neck to see if any of the delicacies remained on the tables outside. “Fortunately,” he said, “this party will end early. It is about to rain.”
The scholar’s predictive powers were borne out. Within the hour, black clouds advanced upon the city. Gusting winds gained strength. Slim trees shuddered in their pots, and golden-yellow leaves fluttered to the ground, where raindrops pinned them down. It was not yet evening, but the storm brought an illusion of night. Through the darkness, jagged bolts of lightning scarred the inky sky, and thunder mimicked the evening drums. Guests sent for covered sedan chairs to convey them home, while servants rushed to collect silk cushions from the courtyards.
In one of the mansion’s secluded gardens, three men stood in a pavilion, obscured by swaying branches and a veil of rain that poured down the tile roof and formed agitated puddles at the edges of the marble floor. A sudden flash of blue light tore the darkness apart. There was a crash, as if all the walls of the city had shattered at once.
“It’s a warning,” one hissed. “We’re going to be found out. I thought I saw someone there, hidden.” He pointed toward a dense thicket of bamboo.
“We won’t be found out.”
“But aren’t you listening? This storm means disaster, destruction. We never should have—”
“Leave the study of omens to scholars and priests.” The third man, who had been standing at the edge of the pavilion with his back to the other two, turned around and bestowed on them a languid smile. “Apply your mind to more practical considerations. There are advantages to darkness and fire.”
Copyright © 2018 by Elsa Hart