Hearing the final line, those gathered were puzzled. The poem had appeared in spring in the capital, and had spread throughout the land. Apart from the mention of the river that had made the readers uncomfortable, numerous poets had always assumed that nothing about this poem could be nitpicked. But the last four lines were the best part, and they were unsure why Zhuang Mohan felt otherwise.
"The reason the first four lines are the best," said Zhang Mohan coldly, "is not because the last four lines are not good, but because... the last four lines were not written by Master Fan!"
With these words, there was a great hubbub in the hall, which quickly turned to a deathly silence. No one said a word.
Fan Xian pretended to be stunned, but he understood many things. As things quietened down, he leant on a table, drunk, looking at Zhuang Mohan with a smile on his face.
A few months before, Lin Wan'er had said that people in the palace were saying that his poem had been copied. At the time he had taken no notice, but he had not expected today's explosive reaction. Guo Baokun had brought up this matter. Obviously, it had been incited by some noble or another.
After he came to the capital, the one thing he had to his name was his so-called literary reputation. If he had completely destroyed his own reputation, in this world which prized literature and morality, the only thing to do was to break off the engagement.
Fan Xian had felt greatly uncomfortable after Zhuang Mohan had read the first four lines. Seeing that Master Zhuang still did not know that the river was the Yangtze River, he realized that his greatest fear had still not come to fruition. If he wanted to testify to his plagiarism, Zhuang Mohan could only rely on his own scholarship and reputation to pressure people and nothing more.
But he did not know how the eldest princess had persuaded the greatly renowned Zhuang Mohan to come from so far away to act so vilely.
Some time passed. His Majesty frowned. Plagiarism was a grave denunciation, but if Zhuang Mohan had nothing to rely on, why would he dare to spread such idle gossip within the walls of the royal palace of the Kingdom of Qing?
"Baseless," said Zhang Ziqian, the assistant minister of the Ministry of Rites who had been sitting by Fan Xian's side. He smiled. "Mr. Zhuang Mohan is a great master. Many students have read his books of research on the scriptures. Throughout the land, no one would dare doubt Mr. Zhuang's words. But on this matter of plagiarism, perhaps he has been deceived by some villain."
He looked at Guo Baokun, the son of his superior. He had absolutely no fear of revealing who this villain he mentioned was.
Zhuang Mohan raised his head, a complex mood behind his wise eyes. "The last four lines of this poem were written by my old teacher travelling through Tingzhou. Because it is a posthumous work, I have had it on my mind for decades, but I do not know how Master Fan happened to come upon these lines. Things long-buried may once again see the light, and I believe this to be true. But Master Fan has built his reputation upon this, and I cannot let that pass. Scholars must cultivate their hearts and their virtue, and the poems belong to finishers. I adore the works of talented people. I am not willing to recklessly expose this matter, my reason for coming to the Kingdom of Qing was to see how the son of an official conducts himself. I did not expect that Master Fan would not know how to repent, instead acting all the more triumphant."
Fan Xian almost smiled. It was truly shameless, he thought, but the others around him did not smile at all. The atmosphere in the hall had become utterly stifling. If this was true, not only would Fan Xian no longer have face in official literary circles, all of the court of the nation would lose face.
All of the scholars of the land treasured Zhuang Mohan's essays on virtue
and behavior; of this there was no doubt. Furthermore, Zhuang Mohan had said that it was written by his old master; it was tantamount to using his teacher's moral standing as proof, and who would dare doubt that?
The officials considered it confirmed that Fan Xian's poem was a copy, and fixed him with grotesque loathing glares. But this matter could not change the truth: after all, it involved the reputation of the royal court of the Kingdom of Qing, so His Majesty glared coldly at Shu Wu, Grand Secretary of the Pavilion of the Imperial Library. After a moment of awkwardness, Grand Secretary Shu stood up with some difficulty, and first paid his respects to Zhuang Mohan. "Teacher, it is an honor."
Grand Secretary Shu had once travelled to Northern Qi to study under Zhuang Mohan, and so he greeted him according to the etiquette appropriate to teachers and students. He believed that what Zhuang Mohan had said was true, that Fan Xian had copied the poem, but under the Emperor's strict gaze, he could not help but stand and speak on Fan Xian's behalf. "Teacher. Master Fan has always been a talented poet. The ballad that he performed previously was also particularly fine. If he has plagiarized, it would be hard for people to believe, and it would appear that he has no need to do so."
Zhuang Mohan had already sat down. He cleared his throat and spoke gently. "Shu Wu, could it be that you suspect that I am using my old teacher's name in vain?"
Grand Secretary Shu was dripping with sweat. He did not dare to say a word, and he could not bear the Emperor's cold stare. He withdrew with sincerity. If anyone still had their doubts at this point, it would be akin to accusing Zhuang Mohan of lacking any sense of shame as a scholar, and no one dared to assail his reputation.
But the Emperor was no ordinary scholar. He was not Concubine Shu, nor was he the Empress Dowager. He had never liked this Zhuang Mohan and so he spoke coldly. "The Kingdom of Qing attaches great importance to laws and decrees, unlike the frail and weak Kingdom of Northern Qi. If Mr. Zhuang wishes to accuse someone of a crime, then he must provide proof."
All those present could hear the anger in the Emperor's voice. If Zhuang Mohan were truly accusing Fan Xian of plagiarism, it was possible that Fan Xian could never show his face again.
Zhuang Mohan smiled, and had his attendants following behind him take out a roll of parchment. "This is a letter personally written by my teacher. If any learned person were to look upon it, they would know how old it is." He looked at Fan Xian and spoke with sympathy. "Fan Xian's poetic talent is but a pale imitation. Though I do not know the poet's inner feelings, how could Fan Xian write the last four lines of this poem considering the life experiences he has had?"
The hall was silent, save for Zhuang Mohan's aged but steady voice reciting the poem. "Ten thousand miles of sorrowful autumn, such cold? One hundred years of sickness, this was when my teacher climbed to a great height in his last days. That torrential river water, fills the eyes with desolation... Master Fan is still young, how can he have known a hundred years of sickness?"
As Zhuang Mohan continued to speak, everyone was more and more convinced that this poem could not have been written by a young man. Zhuang Mohan's voice resonated for a long while. "Many hairs of frost refers to gray hair growing everywhere. Master Fan' has a head of fine black hair. It would be hard to say that he has anything to worry about."
"As for 'frustrated, I stop drinking my murky wine'," concluded Zhuang Mohan gently, "regardless of whether Master Fan's family background is fine or frustrating, with this line 'I stop drinking my murky wine', perhaps Master Fan does not understand why my teacher said such a thing." He looked at Fan Xian, his face suggesting that he did not have the heart to say it. "In my teacher's later years, he contracted a lung disease. So he could not drink wine, and this is why he said that he 'stopped drinking'."
Having said this, the officials of the Kingdom of Qing finally lost heart. They no longer had need of that roll of parchment; with these unexplainable questions, Fan Xian's charge of plagiarism was inescapable.
At that moment, a round of applause suddenly resounded in the previously-silent hall.
Fan Xian, who had seemed to be bent over the table drunk, suddenly stood up and smiled at Zhuang Mohan. The applause slowly died down, and he felt a certain respect. Naturally, no one knew who this Mr. Zhuang's teacher was, but his opponent had successfully deduced Du Fu's circumstances from the poem. His illness really did correspond with that of the literary world's greatest master.
But Fan Xian knew that Zhuang Mohan was trying to entrap him. Perhaps the roll of parchment had been handled beforehand, and therefore he could not admire it in the end. A wild impetuousness appeared on his bright and handsome face, and he laughed drunkenly. "Mister Zhuang truly places no importance on his teacher's reputation. I do not know what could cause him to disregard the luminaries of the past."
Those around him assumed that being exposed had caused him to have a nervous breakdown. They found any more talk increasingly hard to bear, and frowned deeply. The Empress quietly instructed servants to fetch the imperial bodyguards, so as to prevent Master Fan from making a scene. To her surprise, the Emperor waved his hand dismissively, imploring everyone to listen to what Fan Xian had to say.
Fan Xian staggered forward, a mocking expression in his eyes. "Bring in the wine!" he yelled loudly.
The palace maids at the back saw his crazed expression and did not dare to approach. A cabinet minister who felt great indignance toward Fan Xian brought a wine jar weighing roughly a kilo from the back and set it down in front of Fan Xian.
"Many thanks!" Fan Xian laughed, breaking the clay seal on a wine cup and drinking from it like a whale sucking in sea water. In a short while all the wine in the jar had entered his belly. After a drunken belch, he began to feel thoroughly tipsy. He had drunken a great amount that day, and now his hasty drinking had made his face ruddy and his eyes wet and sparkling. He swayed back and forth.
He staggered toward the head table, moving as if he were doing some sort of dance. He pointed at Zhuang Mohan's nose. "Is this great master really going to carry on talking like this?"
Zhuang Mohan sniffed, and the smell of alcohol assailed his nostrils. He frowned slightly. "Young sir, it is best if you repent. There is no need to do yourself such harm."
Fan Xian looked him in the eye and smiled. "Everything has its cause and its effects," he said, his diction unclear. "Mr. Zhuang accuses me of plagiarizing his old teacher in these four lines. I don't know why I would want to copy him? Don't tell me that using that ballad from before, I could not win fame in life and in death?"
The words "fame in life and in death" were very fine, and even Zhuang Mohan felt somewhat moved. He felt an urgency, and compelled by circumstances, he was harming the good name he had held all his life. He could not bear to meticulously frame this young man, and he slowly moved his head away. "Perhaps Master Fan copied that too," he said faintly.
"Copied from whom? Could it be that the ballad I wrote was also copied? Could it be that Mr. Zhuang has studied everything on earth, and knows every single line of poetry, and is entitled to determine whether I have plagiarized?"
Seeing Zhuang Mohan's fingers lightly tapping the scroll of parchment on the table, Fan Xian laughed bitterly. "Master Zhuang, this scheme might be enough to fool a child. You say that I have plagiarized your teacher's poem, but I am baffled. If that is so, then why has this poem never been seen in this world before I wrote it?"
Zhuang Mohan seemingly did not wish to debate with him. Fan Xian spoke softly. "Sir, you say that my hair is not white, and thus I cannot speak of white temples. I am in good health, and thus this hundred years of ailments cannot be... but you are unaware, sir, that I have enjoyed making trouble all my life. I plan to start my life anew. You do not know my past, and yet you do me such an injustice. How dull."
He did not know whether he had truly drunk too much, or whether he was taking a rare opportunity to vent feelings of despair that he had had for a long time. Fan Xian's handsome and neat face had suddenly taken on a deranged expression.
"A poem is one's inner voice," said Zhuang Mohan gently, looking at him. "Fan, my young friend, this is not your past, so how can you have written such a poem?"
"A poem is literature," said Fan Xian, eyeing him coldly. "In poetry, talent is what is paid attention to. Perhaps my poem talks of worries, but who can say that one cannot turn things that one has not experienced into poetry?"
His words were extremely arrogant. He compared himself to a great talent, thereby saying that Zhuang Mohan's inference from the poem was untrue!
Hearing this, Zhuang Mohan frowned and he laughed bitterly. "Do you mean to say that you can write a beautiful poem on something that you have never encountered personally, any time, any place?" The great master did not believe it. Even if he were a great poet, there was no way he could possess such a skill.
Seeing that his opponent had fallen into his plan, Fan Xian smiled. With no thought to etiquette, he grabbed a wine cup from the table and drank it in one gulp. He looked at him, calm, his eyes intoxicated but more and more filled with burning passion. Suddenly, he waved his hand and called out.
"Bring in the paper!"
"Bring in the ink!"
"Bring in the people!"
The people in the hall were puzzled by his drunken yells, but the Emperor calmly ordered the palace maids to comply with his demands. After a moment of preparation, the hall was clear, with just a table, an ink-stone, and one person, standing alone and arrogant in the middle.
Fan Xian stood somewhat uneasily. With some difficulty, he spoke courteously to the Emperor. "Your Grace, may I borrow the services of a palace eunuch to write?"
Although the Emperor did not understand why, he nodded in approval. A eunuch scribe walked over to the table, set out a sheet of white paper, and ground down an ink stick. Unexpectedly, Fan Xian resisted his feelings of drunkenness and shook his head. "One is not enough."
"Fan Xian, what are you trying to pull?" The Crown Prince, not far from him, could not stop himself from speaking up. But the Emperor calmly acknowledged his request. A smile gradually spread across his face. It seemed that he had guessed what was about to happen.
Fan Xian smiled and looked at Zhuang Mohan. Fighting back his drunkenness, he spoke with the three eunuch scribes by his side. "I shall speak, and you shall write. If you write slowly, and cannot copy them, I cannot say them a second time."
The three eunuchs were inexplicably nervous. A number of people had guessed what Fan Xian was preparing to do. How could he get people to believe that his talent was on a par with a great master? It was not very late in the evening, and the late summer evening breeze was not even slightly cool But the atmosphere in the room gradually intensified, like the sound of a drum on a battlefield.
"Even a prairie fire cannot destroy the grass, it grows again when the spring breeze blows... the many flowers will gradually grow to dazzle men's eyes, sprouting where horses' hooves have not trod... even heaven and earth have their endings, the regret of our parting will last forever and never end."
With no warning, and no mulling over the issue, Fan Xian had blurted out a section of work entirely by Bai Juyi in no time at all. And then there were ten more verses. He stood by the table, looking at the night sky outside the palace hall, reciting without ceasing this famous poem that he had strangely committed to memory. The eunuch scribes brandished their pens and scribbled rapidly, almost unable to keep up with him.
The onlookers were silent, savoring the words.
Facing an unceasing torrent of plots and plans, under enormous pressure, he had finally exploded. In his madness, he cared only about reciting this poem he had memorized, completely uncaring whether the eunuchs had remembered it or whether the observers could understand him. Profound and eloquent words from his previous life came through his thin lips, sounding in the palace hall of the Kingdom of Qing.
Zhuang Mohan's expression gradually changed to one of amazement.
And once the people began to simply enjoy watching the spectacle, he could not help but mutter to himself that these poems had nothing in them that anyone had heard before, but they were truly brilliant verses. Could it be... that they were all written by Master Fan?
"Evening arrives, the sky wanting to snow, no matter what, may we drink a cup..." this was Bai Juyi's drinking.
"Do you not see, my lord..." next it was Li Bai's turn to drink.
"The shadow becomes three persons..." this was Li Bai, still drinking.
"But only the host can get the guest to drink..." still this was Li Bai, drinking.
"The yesterday that abandoned me cannot be retained; the today that leaves my heart in disarray causes me great worry..." this was Li Bai, already drunk.
The people in the hall thought of the gentleman's previous breach of etiquette, and gradually sat gathered around Fan Xian. Hearing the poem he recited, their faces were filled with astonishment and disbelief. Everyone was listening to the poem. There were quite a number of geniuses in the world, but since ancient times, there had never been anything resembling such a scene as this.
They had seen poems being written, but not like this! Writing a poem was not like selling cabbage at a vegetable market - but countless verses spilled forth from Fan Xian's mouth without him even having to think about it. How could it be different to selling cabbage?
Although there were some odd phrases in the poem, that was because the people gathered knew nothing of the classics of that world. They were dumbstruck. These verses... every single one was a masterpiece!
Fan Xian still had yet to finish. The gathered officials looked at Fan Xian, whose expression was becoming monstrous. They felt like this handsome young man was not of this world, and was a celestial being reborn in this life. Filled with shock, the three eunuch scribes who had leant their labor to the sober-headed Grand Secretary began to engross themselves in the verses that fell from his mouth and passed on. Young Master Fan had said that he would not repeat them.
Fan Xian had no idea what he looked like. His eyes remained closed, his brain turning rapidly, recalling these verses while he thought of his next move. If he had let the officials know that he currently had the leisure to think of other things, perhaps they would be even more astonished.
He felt a little bit thirsty, and so he stretched his hand out to the side, where the Grand Secretary was discreetly holding some wine. He placed it carefully into his hand, so as not to disturb his concentration.
From the lords of the Book of Songs, to the mute horses of Gong Zishen, to the bright moonlight of the Tang dynasty, the spring rivers of the Song dynasty, Du Fu's greenhouse, Su Dongpo cooking Huangzhou fish, Du Mu visiting a prostitute, Liu Yong also visiting a prostitute, Yuan Zhen crossing a vast ocean to live with his mistress, Li Qingzhao with her harp and her inexplicable thoughts of beautiful times, Ouyang Xiu's fierce love for his niece (this was an unresolved miscarriage of justice).
Fan Xian closed his eyes, took a sip of wine, "wrote" a poem, he finished three cups and had produced three hundred poems!
In the wide hall, countless points of light and shadow seemed to flutter, gradually congealing into a scene that only he could see behind his closed eyes. It was the poets of his previous world, old handsome men and young handsome men, singing effortlessly beneath the bamboo. A bare stomach on the bed, with the fast winds of the pavilion, the sad tears shed on the riverside.
This was all from his previous world, all that Fan Xian had from his previous world, and in its sudden way, it had abruptly descended on the world of the Kingdom of Qing, assailing men's hearts. With the help of all the outstanding poets throughout eternity, Fan Xian struggled against Zhuang Mohan.
He suddenly opened his eyes. He looked at Zhuang Mohan coldly, like he was looking at another world from a distance.
"Do you not see, my lord, how the yellow river's waters wind their way toward Heaven?" Who could be more unconstrained than Li Bai?
"Waves crash and cleanse heroes of ages past." Who could be more bold than Su Dongpo?
"Last night the rains were thin and the winds sudden, although I fell into a deep sleep my drunkenness had not abated." Who could be more graceful than Li Qingzhao?
Who could rival the strength of luminaries of ages past all in one person?
With a loud clatter, Zhuang Mohan's trembling hand finally lost its grip on his wine cup, and it fell to the bluestone floor, smashing into countless pieces.
Silence. A moment of silence.
Some unknowable amount of time later, Fan Xian finally stopped his mad performance. But the people in the palace hall of the Kingdom of Qing could not escape from this state of mind. The scholars and the eunuch scribes were the first to awake from it. They slumped down on the floor, rubbing their aching hands, staring at Fan Xian as if he were some kind of supernatural entity.
Fan Xian was drunk. He swayed as he walked toward Zhuang Mohan, and extended a finger pointing at his nose, wagged it, and after a drunken belch, he spoke quietly.
"In commentary and interpretation, I am inferior to you. In writing such things... you are inferior to me."
The hall was still silent, so though he had said it quietly, everyone heard it clearly. The officials now believed his words entirely. They prostrated themselves in admiration of young Master Fan's poetic talent; regardless of Zhuang Mohan's great prestige, when it came to poetry and literature, every single person who had listened to Fan Xian's "recitation" of the 300 ancient poems could never believe that anyone could ever match Fan Xian's poetic talent.
Now no one wanted to bring up the matter of plagiarism. Everyone believed what Fan Xian had said, this so-called genius could write staggeringly incredible poetry about things he had never experienced. What was that? It was the work of an immortal of poetry! Plagiarism? What plagiarism?
Since no one believed that Fan Xian's poetic talent could have been copied from anyone, it was clear that Zhuang Mohan was lying. As they looked at Zhuang Mohan, they could not hide their disappointment, their pity, and their disdain. This great master, who had enjoyed a stellar reputation all his life, had suddenly found himself lacking in virtue in old age as he waged war on the young.
Zhuang Mohan looked at Fan Xian as if he were a monster. There was sadness in his eyes, and inexplicably, he felt a sudden melancholy in the pit of his stomach. He covered his mouth with his white sleeve as he spat blood.
His Majesty's face wore a smile that was not quite a smile as he looked at Fan Xian. "Why do you not show such talent every day?"
Fan Xian seemed drunk but was not drunk. He met the Emperor's gaze. "Poetry and literature are things for cultivating the mind, not a skill for struggling ferociously."
The words were a little shameless; had he not seen this evening as a ferocious struggle? Fan Xian finally could not hide his drunken discontent. He fell buttocks-first to the ground before the Emperor, squinting his eyes at Zhuang Mohan's trembling lips. "I'm tired and I want to sleep," he mumbled. "And screw you."
Finally finishing Li Bai's final pose, Fan Xian fell into drunken dreams at the Emperor's feet.