According to the laws of Da Liang, criminals on death row were only executed at spring and autumn of each year, known as the ‘Spring Execution’ and the ‘Autumn Execution’ respectively. Once He Jingzhong realized that his son could not hope to escape from blame and would undoubtedly be sentenced to death, he switched to pleading for Qi Min to delay the passing of the sentence to after the Spring Execution, to buy more time for his son in the hopes that some opportunity might arise in the future.
Unfortunately, the Earl of Wen saw right through him, and with a powerful witness in his grasp and the mood of the capital on his side, his attitude hardened, and he lingered in the Ministry of Justice day and night, demanding for the case to be sentenced. The Crown Prince had just lost the Ministry of Revenue, Lou Zhijing, and so he was definitely going to make the most of this opportunity for revenge, and began prompting his subordinates to accuse Qi Min of misconduct and neglecting his duty, claiming that he was purposefully refusing to investigate this case. After a few days of this, the Ministry of Justice was finding the situation difficult to handle, and as Prince Yu also felt that, since the death penalty was unavoidable, dying half a year earlier or later didn’t make much difference, he quietly signaled Qi Min, and within a few days, the case was opened, witnesses and evidence were gathered, and He Wenxin was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death by beheading.
The day after the case was sentenced, He Jingzhong collapsed ill in bed, and the imperial physician diagnosed him with disturbed consciousness and discord of the vital energy, and advised him rest and quiet.
It was now the end of the year, and the time had come for the Ministry of Appointments to arrange for the evaluation of all court officials to determine the following year’s promotions and demotions. Officials also tended to send new year gifts to the court, and even reserve officials were allowed to move about openly during this time, and so took advantage of the holiday to forge new relationships or strengthen old ones, in the name of bringing new years’ wishes to one another¹. So no matter how you looked at it, this was the busiest time of year for the Ministry of Appointments, and He Jingzhong’s sudden illness was leading to confusion and chaos.
Just as much of the Crown Prince’s secret income had come from the Ministry of Revenue, most of Prince Yu’s extra profit came from the Ministry of Appointment’s power over promotions and dismissals, and the flow of money that always came pouring in at this time of year could not afford to be disrupted because of the Minister of Appointment’s sickness.
But some things couldn’t be hurried, and He Jingzhong had indeed been severely shaken by his son’s sentencing and was not faking his illness, and so neither pleading nor scolding would be of any use in getting him out of bed. Prince Yu saw that the situation was becoming more and more desperate, and was forced to call a meeting of his most cunning strategists to discuss how to solve this problem.
Two days later, Prince Yu personally visited He Jingzhong’s residence, dismissed everyone from his presence, and spent some time warmly comforting this subordinate of his.
How exactly he comforted him, no one knew. They only knew that, a few days later, He Jingzhong seemed to have recovered and had returned anew to his court duties, easily resolving the confusion and chaos that had arisen in his absence, and busied himself every day handling the yearly evaluations and seeing external officials, often working late into the night, as if he was giving his life to the service of his lord, as if his grief was giving him energy. The Crown Prince, looking on from the side, couldn’t understand what was going on.
But the Crown Prince wasn’t really in the mood to pay much attention to He Jingzhong just then, because all his time was being spent on another matter, which was also a matter that was currently troubling the Ministry of Rites.
At the end of the year, the most important task for the royal family were the sacrificial rites – sacrifices to the ancestors, sacrifices to the nation, and sacrifices to the gods. To the court and to the imperial family, whether the rites were performed correctly determined whether the following year would bring fortune or calamity, and so not even the slightest mistake could be made in the ceremony.
It was then that Xie Yu keenly recognized that an opportunity of great benefit to the Crown Prince had arisen.
According to the rites of Da Liang, those of the Inner Palace below the rank of consort² could not participate in the rites, and could only kneel in a circle outside the ceremony. But according to those same rites, after the Crown Prince had sprinkled the ceremonial wine, he had to kneel and touch the robes of his father and mother, to express filial piety.
Here lay the contradiction. The lady Yue had been demoted to concubine, but she was also the Crown Prince’s birth mother; on the one hand, her rank was very low, but on the other hand, it was also very honourable, and this dilemma was making the Ministry of Rites’ job very difficult.
Xie Yu secretly suggested for the Crown Prince to take advantage of this opportunity to weep and repent before the Emperor and beg him to restore his mother’s rank, so that even if she couldn’t be restored to Noble Consort all at once, at least she could resume a prominent position in the palace, and regain the right to her own residence as well as the honour of keeping the Emperor company through the night, and then she could slowly begin to regain the Emperor’s favour.
The Crown Prince was delighted with this idea and, after some careful preparation, ran to kneel before the Emperor and wept for two whole hours, trying his best to show himself as obedient and pious.
The Emperor was finding the situation difficult. Lady Yue had always been his favourite in the Inner Palace, and it was not that he did not want to take this chance to pardon her. But she had only been punished a few months ago, and if he pardoned her so soon, he was afraid Princess Nihuang would be bitterly disappointed.
“Father, I will apologize to the Princess personally, and compensate her well.” The Crown Prince had been carefully instructed and so knew why the Emperor was hesitating, and immediately wrapped his arms around his leg, saying, “The Princess is dutiful and principled, she will definitely understand that this is all for the year end’s ceremonies. I am willing to be punished before the Princess, to atone for my mother’s sins.”
The Emperor’s heart was stirred by his weeping, and he sent a summons to the Minister of Rites, Chen Yuancheng. This Old Minister Chen had been in the court since the reign of the previous Emperor, and was known for never listening to or relying on anyone else, only trusting in the rites, and even the greatest of quarrels between the Crown Prince and Prince Yu could not shake his resolve by an inch. It was because the Ministry of Rites was under the iron thumb of this old minister that it had succeeded in becoming the only one of the six departments that had not succumbed to either camp, and still maintained a strictly neutral position.
Old Minister Chen did not know why Consort Yue had been dismissed, and from the edict, he had believed it related to some internal conflicts of the Inner Palace. He had just been troubling over how to arrange the sacrificial rites, and so when the Emperor inquired as to whether he thought Lady Yue’s rank ought to be restored, he of course did not object.
But although the Ministry of Rites had not objected and had actually agreed enthusiastically, the Emperor still hesitated. At this moment, Xie Yu coincidentally arrived to request an audience, in order to submit a report on the troops in the north-west. The Emperor did not know about the relationship between Xie Yu and the Crown Prince, and thinking that he was a neutral military official, he summoned him into the hall and asked his opinion on whether Lady Yue ought to be restored to her original rank.
Xie Yu thought it over for a moment, then answered, “Your servant believes the Crown Prince is virtuous, and the lady Yue diligent in her service to the palace, serving Your Majesty loyally in the Inner Palace for these many years without ever neglecting her duty, and so demoting her from a first-ranked noble consort to concubine for the reason of “giving disrespectful service” was too harsh of a punishment. I had some reservations at the time, but as this was a matter of Your Majesty’s imperial household, no one dared to comment. Now, since Your Majesty’s honoured heart has changed and is inclined to show mercy, then it is simply a matter of issuing the imperial decree, what difficulty remains?”
“Ai, you do not know.” The Emperor seemed slightly embarrassed. “The lady Yue’s punishment was for another reason….for the sake of the Crown Prince, she behaved immorally towards Nihuang in the palace itself, and we fear that if she is so lightly pardoned, it would offend the hearts of the soldiers of the Southern border…”
Xie Yu lowered his head and looked to be in deep thought, then slowly walked forward and said in a low voice, “If this is the reason, then your servant believes…there is even more reason to issue the pardon….”
The Emperor was taken aback. “What do you mean?”
“Pray the Emperor consider carefully, the lady Yue was an imperial Noble Consort, and the birth mother of the Crown Prince, so she is the lord; Princess Nihuang is the daughter of a lord and a military official of the court, so she is the servant³. If the servant harbours anger in her heart over the momentary confusion of her betters, then she has violated the morality and principles4 due to her position as servant. Although the Princess is a skilled fighter and has received heavy imperial favour, Your Majesty has already openly demoted an imperial consort and punished the Crown Prince for her sake, and this already counts as an act of exceedingly great mercy. If the Princess were an earnest servant, she should have pleaded for mercy on behalf of the lady Yue at that time. Of course…young ladies have this kind of temper, and are sometimes thoughtless and inconsiderate, so we will not say any more. But the year end’s rituals are important ceremonies with national implications, and restoring the lady Yue’s rank is an act of maintaining the tranquility of the kingdom and the happiness of the common people, so the balance between the two sides of consideration is very clear. We have only to dispatch a messenger to the imperial Mu residence to give a simple explanation. Besides, too much imperial favour may encourage arrogance.” Xie Yu gave a meaningful smile. “Your servant is a military man, and so naturally knows that, when dealing with those among the military who rely on the glory of their achievements to defy their lord, it is best for Your Majesty to purposefully suppress them a little from time to time.”
The Emperor’s brow wrinkled, but he did not seem to catch the hint, and only scoffed, “Nihuang is not this kind of person, you have thought too much.”
Xie Yu hurriedly and fearfully apologized, saying, “Your servant is of course not referring to Princess Nihuang. I only meant to remind Your Majesty – back then, when the Chiyan Army grew to such a degree of arrogance and defiance, was it not because they were not controlled earlier?”
A muscle on the Emperor’s face twitched and his hand clenched involuntarily on the arm of his throne, and after a moment of silence, he said coldly, “Summon the imperial announcer.”
Summoning the imperial announcer naturally meant he had decided to issue an imperial decree. An ecstatic smile spread across the Crown Prince’s face, but Xie Yu glared at him and he hurriedly composed himself.
“The items your servant has come to report today are not urgent,” Xie Yu bowed. “Since Your Majesty has internal matters to handle, your servant will take his leave.”
“Ng,” the Emperor raised a hand and dismissed him, and then reclined back tiredly, one hand under his head. The Crown Prince hurriedly ordered for soft pillows and silk blankets to be brought and personally laid them over the Emperor.
“You do not need to stay here. We will issue the imperial edict today…go set your mother’s mind at rest….” The Emperor let out a sigh.
“Your son thanks my father for his great mercy.” The Crown Prince knelt and bowed three times, his forehead to the ground, then continued, “Do not worry Father, I will go to the imperial Mu residence tonight….”
“No,” The Emperor raised a hand to stop him, his expression thunderous. “How can you still not remember, you are the Crown Prince, the Eastern Palace’s heir to the throne! You do not need to go to the imperial Mu residence, we will send someone.”
“Yes, Father.” The Crown Prince did not dare object, and hurriedly bowed once more before getting up and leaving quietly.
The cold wind was blowing harshly outside the hall, and the Crown Prince walked towards the outer part of the palace, wrapped tightly in the fur coat the eunuch had passed to him. In fact, as the lord of the Eastern Palace, he had the unique priviledge of riding a carriage inside the palace, but as a show of respect, the carriages of the Eastern Palace usually stopped at the doors of the outer gates, and the servants, waiting there amidst the wind and snow, hurried forward when they saw their master walking out.
“To the inner palace!” With this simple command, the Crown Prince jumped into his yellow-roofed carriage, his actions hurried, as if he was afraid of the cold.
However, when the gold-silk curtains of of the carriage drew shut, shutting out the outside world, the calm expression of the Crown Prince of the Eastern Palace abruptly shifted, his teeth gritting and a look of hatred passing over his face, as if he was finally letting the poorly-contained fury in his heart show.
The heir to the throne? Am I the heir to the throne? Father, if you really think of me as the heir, then why did you favour Prince Yu so much that you have raised him to become my competition?
¹there is a Chinese term / tradition known as bai nian (拜年), for which I can think of no equivalent Western or English translation. Basically, it’s something we do during the new year which involves going to the home of the person you want to bring good wishes to and giving them gifts and wishing them well for the new year. It’s not exactly as simple as going to someone’s house for Christmas, because it’s more ceremonial for one thing (there’s a lot of bowing and politeness and well-wishing*), and also because you may go to several houses in a day to bai nian. It’s especially important for family and relatives, and there’s a general practice of the younger / more junior-in-rank acting as the visitors and bringing good wishes to the homes of the older / more senior-in-rank. (And this is also something definitely still done to this day.)
*the “well-wishing” part of this is a whole other kettle of fish. There are a million and one phrases of “new year’s wishes” (or good wishes in general, though they are traditionally spoken at new year), all made of four-character phrases. The most common ones are: 新年快樂 xin nian kuai le (happy new year), 身體健康 shen ti jian kang (good health), 恭喜發財 gong xi fa cai (I wish you prosperity) [you may know this one from the Cantonese: “gung hey fat choi”] and etc.
²it’s a little confusing, but from the words used in the text, this is what I understand from the ranks of the Inner Palace (someone please correct me if I’m wrong): Noble Consort [貴妃] > Consort [妃] > Concubine [嬪]
(There are probably a bunch of titles below ‘concubine’ as well, but they haven’t been mentioned yet.)
³the relationship of royalty to those who serve them is often described as “___ is lord and ___ is servant” [ ___是君，___是臣] –> where the word ‘lord’ is not masculine but simply refers to royalty. The phrase carries a slightly similar feeling to MCS’s famous line: “He [Prince Jing]’s the lord, you [Meng Zhi] are his general, and I am his strategist.”
4literally, the dao of the servant (referring to Confucian beliefs)
Chapter 53: Translator’s Notes
FINALLY DONE. This chapter took me foreverrrrrr to finish just because it was so dull…. I mean, I love this story, but exposition chapters (especially exposition chapters full of characters I don’t like) are really not as fun. If I were simply reading the novel, I would have skimmed this chapter 😛 And Xie Yu kind of makes ME want to throw up.
(Also my regular online Chinese-English dictionary site was “under maintenance” today, so that didn’t help. These translations are at least 70% brought to you by my )