As the "forest of ten directions", Taiqing Palace always welcomed its fellow Taoists from every corner of the world and it was only natural that they should have female dormitory available. Only that Taoist priestesses were growing fewer in number nowadays and they might not have a female visitor for years on end. Consequently, the size of the female dormitory kept shrinking until there were only two rooms left.
Since the introduction of the new policies, the female dormitory was expanded again, now matching the size of the male one.
The room He He was allocated to had four single beds arranged into two opposite pairs and a bathroom, and looked a little crowded. The other three roommates were already there, who were straightening their beds under the supervision of their family members.
The girls exchanged their names. They were the 12-year-old Xu Ziying, 10-year-old Hu Chun, another 10-year-old Wang Yao, and the 8-year-old He He, who was the youngest.
With the four girls together, the room was immediately filled with their twittering chatter, which was not unlike the enrollment day of any ordinary boarding school. Xu Lei stole a few glances at Xu Ziying and her mother while making the bed for He He. Mother Xu was a celebrity in the province, being among the top three female enterprises and all, while Father Xu was a high-ranking government official.
Word had it that Xu Ziying was the only child of the the family. One would never expect her parents to be so resolute (or, remarkable) to send her into a Taoist temple.
They all finished tidying up in about half an hour, which was when a middle-aged priestess entered the room. She had a peaceful aura about her and although one would not consider her pretty, her features were quite delicate and her skin rather fair and smooth.
"Now, if the family members would be very kind to leave now? You have entrusted your daughters to this Taoist establishment and it is time to say your farewells."
She was tactfully telling the adults, who were all still reluctant to part from the girls and bade the latter to take care repeatedly, to go. Xu Lei felt the same way. "Xiao He, be a good girl here. I'll come visit you in seven days."
He He nodded, then added, "Thank you, Auntie!"
The parents then left one after another and the dormitory grew cheerless. The new environment made the girls uneasy. Among them, Xu Ziying adjusted herself the best. With her family background, she must have obtained certain inside story and was told how to behave before coming here.
She was the first to spoke. "Pardon me, Priestess, but what shall we do next?"
The priestess looked at her and answered in a kind voice, "My secular surname is Liu and I go by the alternative name Idle Woman Qinghui. You may call me Priestess Liu, or Priestess Qinghui. Since you all have yet to formally acknowledge your masters, addressing others as 'Master' would be presumptuous."
"Yes, we will follow your instruction," Xu Ziying replied obediently. Intentionally or not, she was taking the role of the most senior sister.
"Take out your winter garments, please. I will teach you how to put them on properly. You will all be wearing your Taoist robes for the next seven days. You must keep them tidy and clean. Do not have it tainted by any filth."
At that, the four girls found their winter garments and the socks and shoes, then looked up anxiously ahead like kindergarteners.
There were six types of Taoist robes: the long gown, the great gown, the cassock, the Deluo gown, the embroidered gown, and the outdoor robe. They were of a straight-line cut, had a standup collar, and the lapel opens on the right. Some styles had wide sleeves, while others had narrow ones. Most of the time a white or plain-colored detachable collar was attached. The robe was all wide and flappy.
The girls were mere interns at the moment and the long gown was their only option out of the six.
The long gown consisted of three colors, each belonging to one piece of garment of the set, which was light-blue, dark-blue, and a near-black navy color. The fabric was thick and soft cotton, which was excellent to keep one warm. The gown also came with white under garments.
The three pairs of shoes were round-throat-line shoes, double-vamp shoes, and the shoes of ten directions. The last ones were the most special pair. Ten holes representing ten directions lined around the upper of the shoes, rendering them suitable for summertime. One had to pair these shoes with the socks of clouds (above-knee white socks) and together, they were known as "travelling wide and far and offering the ultimate service of pointing people to the right direction".
All four were smart girls and knew how to put on the clothes properly after a couple of demonstrations. They were then neatly in their new gowns, only that the hair styles remained quite modern.
"Come closer. Let me arrange your hair into buns."
Qinghui sat on a bed and combed and set the girls' hair into Taoist buns, with a plain wooden hairpin going through each little bun. In a moment, there were four fresh and lovely little Taoist kids in the room.
Probably because of Qinghui's mild manner, the girls had dropped their guard without realizing it. They were much relaxed. However, the next moment, they puckered up their little faces again.
"Although it is only the adaptation period, but you should behave, work, and rest as commanded by the precepts of Quanzhen. Now, please hand out all your mobile phones, laptops, snacks, toys, irrelevant books, etc. I will be taking care of them and give them back seven days later."
"What? How am I going to survive without my phone?"
"Priestess, can I keep one bag of spicy strip snack?"
"Priestess, this doll has been with me since I was a baby. I can't sleep without it."
The girls wailed and nagged. Young as they might be, they were all well-versed in empty promises and stalling techniques. Qinghui, on the other hand, cleared away the smile on her face and commanded in a harsh tone, "No more nonsense. You are welcome to return home tomorrow if you find it impossible to part from your belongings."
Well, that was that. The room was quiet again.
All the other three girls were from nice families and had been properly disciplined by their parents growing up. No one dared to throw a tantrum under such a circumstance. He He was the odd one among the four. She hardly had anything of her own and only went up to Qinghui holding her schoolbag. "Priestess, may I keep my books?"
Qinghui looked through the stack and saw that they were all primary school textbooks. There was even a "Teaching Manual of the First National Fitness Program for Primary and Secondary School Students". That was a familiar face!
After the calamity in Huo Zhou last year, the state had drawn ideas from various temples and palaces with a series of undisclosed meetings and came up with this set of initiating fitness program suitable for children. She was lucky enough to participate and had even offered some valuable ideas.
With such connection, she found the little girl much more agreeable. "These are all very good textbooks. You may keep them."
"Thank you, Priestess," replied He He.
Stop acting like an innocent white flower already! Mademoiselle Xu Ziying, the ultimate survivor of squabbles and catfights, fought back her impulsion to lash out her tongue and only twisted her mouth when no one was looking.
At the sound of the bronze bell of the temple, Qinghui led the four out of the dormitory and headed straight for the scripture hall. Other priestesses were also leading children out of other rooms.
They ran into a few groups of boys in robes on their way. The kids all found the appearance of one another funny, so they pointed it out and joked about. Inevitably, they were scolded by the priests.
They all entered the scripture hall, which was incredibly spacious. On the ground were twenty-four praying mats with another thirteen on the opposite side, which had been set in a row.
Twelve priests went up to the praying mats; each took one and sat down without uttering a word. The kids looked at one another in confusion. The smarter ones then grabbed a praying mat and sat down first.
The rest then realized what they were supposed to do and followed suit.
"Come, let's sit here!"
Xu Ziying quickly drew out her territory as the alpha female of her dorm. Knowing her background, Hu Chun and Wang Yao were playing up to her. He He cared little about this and remained silent.
As soon as they all took their seat, a man walked out from the inner room of the scripture hall. He was in his forties, had a long beard, and was majestic and amiable at the same time.
The priests bowed in unison.
"Thank you, my fellow priests!"
The man returned the greeting with a bow and sat down on the praying mat in the middle of the thirteen, with nine males and four females arranged evenly on either side.
He scanned the room with his eyes and the murmuring kids stopped talking right away. Those eyes seemed to have some imposing power and they dared not even move a little finger.
"My secular surname is Qin and I go by my alternative name Priest Huayang. I am the abbot of Taiqing Palace." After this brief introduction, he motioned sideways and said, "This is Priest Mingzhen, the Temple Supervisor.
This is Priest Cuixuan, the Kitchen Governor. He is in charge of kitchen affairs and the three meals of the day.
This is Priest Yuzhenzi, the Hall Director. He has to make sure that the halls are swept regularly and diligently, the lamps are properly lit, and the worship apparatus properly cleaned. He is also there to supervise the scripture master.
This is Priest Huihe, the scripture master. He chants the supreme classics, takes care of honoring the heavenly masters, and holds the blessing and soul-releasing ceremonies.
This is Priest Fangchengzi, the Inspector. He is the head of the dormitories and the in-house moderator. Errand-persons of all levels are under his command…"
Huayang introduced all chief officials of the temple, which the children understood almost not a word of. Xu Ziying was as baffled as everyone else, but she did know what an Inspector was. That would be the Taoist equivalent of a dean—one man she would make sure not to cross!
It was apparent that the positions in Taiqing Palace were set in in accordance to the "three governors, five registrars, and eighteen chieftains" system. Certain positions had obviously been omitted, though, such as the chieftain of water who was in charge of sending water around the temple in buckets for cooking, worshipping, and like in the ancient times. Such a position was obviously redundant with the modern water supply system.
"Quanzhen disciples are followers of the Elderly Lord's teaching. Donghua let the world know about his Lord's teaching and Lü Dongbin preached. Our sect was established by Wang Chongyang, the Assistant Supreme Emperor, who believed in the true words of Laozi and Zhuangzi and benefited the others at the cost of his own suffering. For thousands of years, we honored our status as holding the throne of Taoist orthodox…"
Huayang then went on to briefly introduce the history of Quanzhen. He knew the little ones would not comprehend much of what he was saying anyway, so he simply chose the big words, which, to the kids, sounded like the most profound speech (despite the fact that they could hardly understand anything).
Fused by his ample inner Qi, his every single word resonated in the hall, so much so that they might open the ears of the deaf and open the eyes of the blind. The effect was remarkable. The students followed the speech and before they realized it, they had straightened their backs and their faces turned solemn, matching the atmosphere of such occasion.
His tone only changed at the end of the speech when he said, "Among you, some will be here for three years, while others may only stay with us for seven days. Whichever it is, fate has brought you here and that is a heavenly opportunity you must cherish and make good use of. Now, this is our first meeting ever and I presume you do not yet know much about Taoism. You may each ask a question, which my fellow priests and I will answer."
The kids blinked back at him. It was kind of awkward.
The silence dragged on. In the end, Xu Ziying was the one to save the day. "Abbot, my name is Xu Ziying. I have a question. Are spells real? I mean like those in the television. Those that make people fly around with all the magical sounds?"
Her tone was naive and adorable, which made Huayang smile. He did not answer the question, but said instead, "See for yourself!"
He flipped his wide sleeve, sending a gust of wind into the air. One of the children sat at the front felt an intangible force coming at him and fell back crying in surprise.
Kids would always fall for such performance and the air was immediately filled with amazed cries.
"Spells have always been there between heaven and earth, only that Taoist skills have declined and will need to be reclaimed and developed. We are the torchbearers at most. The future of Taoism lies in you all."
The last few words came out full-heartedly, which also inspired Xu Ziying. She bowed, her posture very presentable.
With one breaking the ice, the others followed suit without further hesitation. Momentarily, the hall grew boisterous and there were questions of every kind.
"How long will it take us to succeed?"
"Everything was derived from the Great Dao, then everything pursued the Great Dao. How long do you think it will take?"
"Will I be able to fly?"
"The Great Dao is full of possibilities. Of course you will."
"Well, if I stay, do I have to stay in the temple all the time? Will we have holidays?"
"We will not stop you from taking breaks. But you are all very young and to go out, you will need an adult's company."
"I heard you don't let people eat meat, but meat is my favorite. What should I do?"
The thirteen priests did not know whether they should cry or laugh. That was the way with recruiting children. They simply had to play the role of kindergarten teachers from time to time.
The hubbub continued for a while and almost everyone asked what they wanted to ask. Qinghui noticed He He at that moment and encouraged her, "Xiao He, what about you? Don't you have any questions?"
He He kept her head lowered and suddenly plunged forward, almost landing flat on her belly. This confusing attempt to mimic a kowtow of the highest respect took everyone by surprise. Right after that came the silvery voice of a child.
"I want to bring back the dead and become immortal. Is that possible?"