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SUDDENLY A SNOW STORM
The Qiantang river stretches from the west, where its waters swell day and night, past the new imperial capital of Lin’an and the nearby Ox Village, on to the sea in the east. Ten cypresses stand proudly along its banks, their leaves red like fire. A typical August day. The grasses are turning yellow beneath the trees and the setting sun is breaking through their branches, casting long, bleak shadows. Under the shelter of two giant pine trees, men, women, and children have gathered to listen to a traveling storyteller.
The man is around fifty, a pinched figure in robes once black, now faded a blue-gray. He begins by slapping two pieces of pear wood together, and then, using a bamboo stick, he beats a steady rhythm on a small leather drum. He sings:
“Untended, the peach blossoms still open,
As misty, fallow fields draw the crows.
In times past, by the village well,
Families once gathered to vent their sorrows.”
The old man strikes the pieces of wood together a few more times and starts his story.
“This poem tells of villages, where ordinary people once lived, razed by Jurchen tribes and turned to rubble. One such story concerns Old Man Ye, who had a wife, a son, and a daughter, but they were separated from one another by the invasion of the Jin. Years passed before they were reunited and could return to their village. After making the perilous journey back to Weizhou, they arrived to discover their home had been burned to the ground by enemy forces, and they had no choice but to make for the old capital at Kaifeng.”
“The heavens unleash unexpected storms,
People suffer unforeseen misfortune.
“Upon arrival,” he continues, “they encountered a troop of Jin soldiers. Their commanding officer spotted the young Miss Ye, by now a beautiful young maiden, and eager to capture such a glorious prize, he jumped down from his horse and seized her. Laughing, he threw her onto his saddle and cried, ‘Pretty girl, you are coming home with me.’ What could the young Miss Ye do? She struggled with all her might to free herself from the officer’s grip. ‘If you continue to resist I will have your family killed!’ the man shouted. With that, he picked up his wolf-fang club and smashed it down on her brother’s head.
“The netherworld gains a ghost, just as the mortal world loses one more soul.” He breaks again into song.
“Old Man Ye and his wife threw themselves on top of their son’s body, weeping and sobbing. The commanding officer raised his wolf-fang club and once again brought it down on the mother, and then once more on the father. Rather than cry or plead, the young Miss Ye turned to the soldier and said, ‘Sir, rest your weapon, I will go with you.’ The soldier was delighted to have persuaded her, but just as he let down his guard the young Miss Ye grabbed the saber from his waist, unsheathed it and held the point of the blade to his chest. Was she about to avenge her family’s death?
“Alas, it was not to be. Being experienced on the battlefield, the soldier knew that if he took a deep breath, tensed his muscles and pushed against the blade, she would tumble to the ground. Then he spat in her face. ‘Whore!’
“But young Miss Ye brought the blade to her neck. That poor, innocent girl.
A beauty made of flower and moon,
And so was taken the sweetest soul that night.”
He alternates between singing and speaking, all the while beating his small drum with the bamboo stick. The crowd is entranced by the old man’s words; they snarl with rage at the soldier’s cruelty, and sigh at the young girl’s sacrifice.
“Dear friends, as the saying goes, ‘Keep honest heart and ever gods in mind. For if evil deeds go unpunished, only evil doth one find.’ The Jin have conquered half our territories, killing and burning, there is not an evil deed they have not committed. And yet no punishment is forthcoming. The officials of our great Empire are responsible for this. China has plenty of men, healthy and willing to fight, yet every time our army faces the Jin they turn and run, leaving us peasants behind to suffer. There are stories, a great many stories just like this one, north of the Yangtze. The south is a paradise in comparison, but still you live each day in fear of invasion. ‘Rather be a dog in times of peace, than a man in times of trouble.’ My name is Old Zhang, thank you for listening to the true story of young Miss Ye!”
The storyteller bangs together the two pieces of pear wood and holds out a plate to the crowd. Villagers shuffle forward and drop a few coins onto it. Old Zhang puts the coins into a pocket and starts gathering his belongings.
As the crowd disperses, a young man of about twenty pushes his way up to the storyteller. “Sir, did you just come from the north?” He is short but strong, with two hairy caterpillar eyebrows stretched across his brow. He is from the north; it can be heard in his accent.
“Yes,” the old storyteller answers, surveying him.
“Then may I buy you a drink?”
“I dare not receive such favor from a stranger,” comes the old man’s reply.
“After a few drinks we will no longer be strangers.” The young man smiles. “My name is Skyfury Guo,” he says, before pointing to a handsome, smooth-faced man behind him. “And this is Ironheart Yang. We were listening to your story, and we enjoyed it very much, but we would like to talk with you, ask you some questions. You bring news from home.”
“Not a problem, young man. Fate has brought us together today.”
Skyfury Guo leads the storyteller to the village’s only tavern and there they sit down. Qu San, the owner, hobbles to their table on his crutches and sets down two jugs of warmed rice wine, before returning to fetch snacks of broad beans, salted peanuts, dried tofu, and three salted eggs. Afterward, he sits down on a stool by the door and gazes out as the sun dips lower toward the horizon. Out in the yard his young daughter is chasing chickens.
Skyfury Guo toasts the storyteller and pushes the simple snacks toward him. “Here, please eat. Out in the countryside, we are only able to buy meat on the second and sixteenth days of the month, so I’m afraid we have none tonight. Please forgive us.”
“The wine is enough for me. From your accents it seems that you are both from the north?”
“We are from Shandong province,” Yang replies. “We came here three years ago after the Jin invaded our hometown. We fell in love with the simple life in the south, as well as the people, and stayed. You said before that the south is a paradise, with only fear of invasion to disturb the peace. Do you really think the Jin will cross the Yangtze?”
The old storyteller sighs. “It is as if gold and silver covers the ground, everywhere your eyes are met with beautiful women, such is the richness and enchantment of the south compared to the north. There isn’t a day that passes that the Jin do not think about invading. But the final decision lies not with the Jin but with the Song Imperial Court in Lin’an.”
This surprises Skyfury Guo and Ironheart Yang. “Why do you say that?”
“We Han Chinese outnumber the Jurchen by more than a hundred to one. If the Imperial Court decided to employ honest and loyal men, our great Empire would prevail. With one hundred of our men against one of their worthless soldiers, how could the Jin army win? The northern half of our country was handed to them by three generations of useless Emperors, Huizong, Qinzong, and Gaozong. Grandfather to grandson, they all entrusted our country to corrupt officials who oppressed the common people, and purged all the mighty generals who wished to fight the Jin. Such a beautiful land and they gave it away! If the Imperial Court continues to fill its grand halls with corrupt officials, then they may as well kneel before the Jin and beg them to invade!”
Copyright © 1957 by Jin Yong (Louis Cha)