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Held in the Lonely Castle (Chp 1 Part 3)

Chapter 1: Autumn Riverside, Esteemed Guests, A Pair of Geese Fly Overhead

Part 3 – Cui Bai (崔白)

Translator: Nyamachi
English proofreader: JimmyfromIT

When I was twelve years old, I was transferred to Hanlin Academy’s Fine Arts Institute. My rank didn’t change but my main duties changed to serving Scholars Awaiting Imperial Appointment [1]待诏 (dài zhào) Scholars waiting for appointment by the Emperor who have just passed the imperial examination. Once appointed they’ll enter a probationary period as junior officials. This could also be translated as ‘editorial assistant’ and seemed to be a position universal to all Hanlin Institutes. Sources: Chinasage, this encyclopedia, and this journal article. from the Fine Arts Institute while they painted or waiting for orders from Fine Arts Institute’s Supervisor Official. [2]勾当官 (gòudang guān) See author’s note. But the eunuchs from the Classical Institute sympathized with me, saying that this was actually a demotion. The Fine Arts Institute was originally one rank below the Classical Institute.

I was also aware that the officials’ ranks in both the Classical and Fine Arts Institutes weren’t high. Although the Institutes’ fourth- and fifth-rank officials could also serve as ordinary civil servants, [3]服绯服紫 refers to wearing red and purple uniforms that the court officials (civil – red and military – purple) used to wear. they weren’t allowed to wear the hanging fish talisman. [4]佩鱼 is the phrase used here, similar to 佩玉 or ‘wearing a hanging jade ornament.’ See author’s note for an explanation. In the eyes of the world, Scholars Awaiting Appointment in the Classical and Fine Arts Institutes were considered ‘artists’ and so the respect they could earn was limited. [5]As I explained in my Ancient Ranks and Titles post, the ‘artisan’ class was beneath the ‘scholar’ class in ancient Chinese society. Moreover, those in the Fine Arts Institute were inferior to those in the Classical Institute. Each time the Scholars Awaiting Appointment held a class, it would always be led by the Classical Institute followed by the Fine Arts Institute which was only slightly better than the Zither Institute, Chess, Jade, or other Hundred Disciplines.

Given that the Scholars Awaiting Appointment were treated like this, the eunuchs who served them would naturally be regarded in a new light by others. Even though they were all Junior Eunuchs, those from the Zither Institute were inferior to those in the Fine Arts Institute; those in the Fine Arts Institute were also not as highly regarded compared to those from the Classical Institute.

The present Hanlin Classical and Fine Arts Institutes’ Chief Official [6]It could refer to one official responsible for both institutes or multiple officials. was loyal to the Assistant Omniscient Chamberlain. Zhang Chengzhao suggested to me: “You should go beg Teacher Zhang and ask him to speak to Her Majesty the Empress. Her Majesty can order the Omniscient Chamberlain to let you stay in the Classical Institute.”

I didn’t comment. He tried again, winking at me and said smiling: “Go ask. It’s fine, Teacher Zhang is highly favoured by the Empress. One word from him and you won’t have to go to the Fine Arts Institute anymore.”

I looked at him and shook my head, refusing his suggestion. I didn’t doubt the fact that Teacher Zhang received Her Majesty’s approval and trust, but I clearly understood that it wasn’t his style to use the Empress’ regard for him to make extra demands. The last time when he spoke up to save me was a rare occurrence and I didn’t want him to make an exception for me again. I never dared to hope nor did I want to see that someone would plead with others for my sake.

The Fine Arts Institute’s artists were divided into five ranks, [7]In Chinese: 画学正、待诏、艺学、祗侯、供奉. I’ve added these to the list of characters and placenames for Held in the Lonely Castle. namely Established Painters, Scholars Awaiting Imperial Appointment, Apprentice Artisans, Master Artisans, and Imperial Servitors. Those without a rank were Apprentice Painters. Their paintings were offered to the court officials or they were assigned to Buddhist monasteries or Taoist temples to paint specifically commissioned work. This was an even quieter place. Every ten days, I had to fetch Tibetan paintings from the Imperial Bureau of Information [8]秘阁 (mìgé) From my research, this seems to be a repository for books or pieces of art — possibly only on the surface. The Chinese drama 大宋少年志 [Young Blood] portrayed it as a secret intelligence organization. for the artists to appraise and copy. Today was somewhat tiring, but most days there wasn’t a lot of work to do. Most of the time I just attended on the side and listened to the Fine Arts Institute’s officials give lectures or watched the artists paint.

Among all the artists, I loved to watch Apprentice Painter Cui Bai paint. He was a person from Haoliang who was around twenty years old at the time. He was talented with a carefree disposition and conducted himself in an easygoing, unrestrained manner. He often kept to himself, which garnered indignant stares from the Fine Arts Institute’s officials, but his paintings carried a unique charm rarely seen in other imperial court paintings within the Institute. Nevertheless, I greatly admired him.

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One day in late autumn, the sound of pitter-pattering could be heard from the trees within Fine Arts Institute’s front courtyard. There, he sat by himself and did a still-life painting of the two jackdaws [9]寒鸦 (hányā) Eurasian jackdaw (Coloeus monedula). See image. in the tree above. I stood behind him and watched quietly. He put down his brush to take a short rest. He inadvertently turned his head and discovered me. Then he smiled and asked: “Half-eminence, [10]See author’s note. do you also like to paint?”

I took a step back and bowed, saying: “Huaiji behaved rudely and spoiled Sir Cui’s aesthetic mood.”

“You haven’t.” Cui Bai said smiling, “I was merely curious as to why your half-eminence doesn’t watch the other Scholars Awaiting Appointment paint but often pays close attention to my poor paintings. [11]This is said in a self-deprecating way to show humility.

I thought about it and replied: “Huaiji remembers that on the day he arrived at the Fine Arts Institute, he saw that all the Apprentice Painters were following the Established Painter in copying Huang Jucai’s painting of flowers and birds, [12]Huang Jucai was a real historical figure. This might be the painting that they were copying. with the exception of Sir, whose head was tilted as he looked outside the window and drew the birds on a branch in the courtyard.”

Cui Bai waved his hand and smiled: “Master Huang’s painting of flowers and birds is exquisite and beautiful. I won’t be able to learn it in my entire lifetime so I might as well paint doodles as I wish.”

I also smiled and said: “Sir Cui is decisive in his strokes. They are very even, even without any guides. With straight strokes and rounded corners, your brush strokes exude dignity. Huaiji has long admired your talent.”

“Your half-eminence has exaggerated.” Saying thus, Cui Bai slowly took up his brush again. Before he put brush to paper, he suddenly asked me, “Don’t tell me that there are other people in this Fine Arts Institute whose straight strokes and rounded corners are outside the norm?”

Of course there was. However, I only smiled lightly and didn’t reply.

Perhaps he came to an answer on his own as Cui Bai didn’t press for an answer. Clearly bearing a proud smile, he turned around and continued painting. His forehead had a few strands of hair that could never be combed properly and still hung down. As he moved his brush, they would frequently flutter into his face. However, his eyes were completely focused on his work and he didn’t notice at all.

From then on, we gradually became familiar with one another. We would often discuss topics related to painting and calligraphy whenever we met. He saw that I was interested in painting and offered to teach me. I happily agreed and whenever we both had free time, I would learn to paint from him.

One day while he was teaching me to paint spring forests and mountain partridges using the Mogu brushwork technique, [13]没骨法 (mògǔfǎ) a.k.a the ‘boneless painting technique,’ is a style of Chinese painting where ink and colour are integrated organically. There are no outlines and the painter is required to be confident and complete their work in one go. Read more. the Fine Arts Institute’s Established Painter passed by the room where we were painting. Seeing that I was the one wielding the brush painting, he was surprised and came inside to take a look. I put down the brush at once and saluted him as usual. He didn’t reply and walked straight over to my side. His eyes were fixed on my painting as he closely examined it.

Since the time of our forefathers, our dynasty’s National Hanlin Fine Arts Institute has always solely revered the Huang clan’s style of imperial court paintings created by the father and son, Huang Quan and Huang Jucai. When painting birds with flowers and bamboo stalks, one first uses a charcoal pencil to make a draft and then outlines it finely with ink. Afterwards, one repeatedly fills in the painting with layers of colour resulting in an exquisitely rich and beautiful painting. Yet now the Established Painter was viewing my painting which was filled in elegantly with colour. The mountain partridges were not completely outlined with fine ink lines and the feather details were mostly filled with different shades of ink and ochre. It was very different compared to the Huang style of painting which is deemed the standard of the Fine Art Institute’s imperial court paintings. His expression immediately turned grave. Turning to Cui Bai, he coldly asked: “Did you teach him to paint like this?”

Cui Bai nodded and unhurriedly replied: “When painting birds, one doesn’t always have to outline them first before adding colour. Mixing in Mogu style once in a while to add details to the painting with light ink strokes gives it a rustic charm.”

The Established Painter slammed the table in anger and yelled: “What you’re doing is leading the student astray!”

Cui Bai was not afraid or upset. He only stared at him solemnly and stood with his eyes lowered.

The Established Painter suppressed his anger. He turned towards me and said: “If your half-eminence wants to learn to paint, the Institute naturally has Scholars Awaiting Appointment and Apprentice Artisans who you can ask for guidance. When beginning your studies, you must be careful to select a good teacher. You must not let those without learning nor skill lead you down the wrong path.”

I also bowed and acted respectfully like I received his teachings. The Established Painter glared hatefully at Cui Bai once more before flicking his sleeves and walking out the door.

Once he was far enough away, Cui Bai turned his head to me and purposely said sternly: “Half-eminence, please select another good teacher. Don’t follow this ignorant and incompetent one down the wrong path.”

My reply was: “If Sir Cui is leading me down is the wrong path, then I don’t wish to follow the right path for the rest of my life.”

We looked at each other and laughed. Afterwards, we became even closer. On his suggestion, we didn’t address each other so formally. He called me by my name while I called him by his courtesy name, [14]字 (zì) A courtesy name or style name was traditionally given to Chinese men at age 20, marking their coming of age. ‘Zixi’.

The Established Painter hated Cui Bai more and more. He would repeatedly discuss his artistic skill and conduct with his colleagues and say many derogatory things. Cui Bai also suffered harassment many times within the Fine Arts Institute. Whenever they would compare their skills, his work would always be considered the most inferior. He never had a chance for his work to be submitted for the Emperor’s inspection.

Unexpectedly, Cui Bai paid it no mind. Like before, he stuck to his ways and painted still-lifes in his own style. He didn’t care one bit about the Fine Arts Institute official’s teachings. Whenever there was a lecture, he would either be absent or arrive late. Although he sat in the middle of the class, he wouldn’t listen attentively. He would often look out the window, enjoying the scenery in a daze or simply be bent over his desk asleep. When the official finished speaking, he would stretch his arms and give a big yawn before leisurely getting up and swaggering out the door under the official’s angry glare.

One time it happened to be the Established Painter who was giving lectures. The topic was the ink wash painting technique. [15]水墨画 (shuǐmòhuà) A style of East Asian brush painting that uses black ink in different concentrations. Read more and see an example. After the theoretical lecture concluded, the Established Painter took out an outlined copy that he had prepared beforehand and used his brush to fill in colour on the spot, creating an ink wash painting of an autumn lotus. After the painting somewhat dried, he hung it up on the wall for the Apprentice Painters to appraise.

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It was indeed an excellent piece of work. The painted mid-autumn lotus was graceful and refined. Even though it was made out of ink, the lotus bed and leaves seemed as though they were glistening against the tide and the clouds looked as if they were moving through the sky, bringing rain. Naturally, the Apprentice Painters were full of praise and one after another, they took up their brushes and began to copy it.

The Established Painter smoothed his beard with one hand as his eyes swept the room, feeling extremely pleased with himself. Suddenly he turned his eyes and spotted Cui Bai sitting in the last row in the corner looking as though he hadn’t paid the least bit of attention. Once again he was bent over his desk sound asleep.

The Established Painter immediately smiled, hiding his dark expression, and called out: “Cui Bai!”

Cui Bai was deeply asleep and looked as though he had no intention of waking up. The Established Painter called him again in a stern voice but he still had no reaction. I saw that the scene was becoming more and more awkward so I walked over to his side and softly called out: “Zixi.” Only then did he knit his eyebrows, frown and slowly open his eyes. His half-open eyes first glanced at me and turned to stare confusedly at the Established Painter for a long while before he smiled and said: “Has Sir finished giving the lecture?”

“Yes, I’m finished,” the Established Painter was angry and coldly continued, “but the lecture was presumably boring and difficult to enter your honourable ears since you fell asleep.”

Cui Bai smiled and replied: “Of course not. When Sir was lecturing I was always listening. It’s just that afterwards, Sir was painting and all the students hastened to watch. I’m sitting far away so it was difficult to get through the crowd. That’s why I decided to take a nap and wait for Sir to finish painting first so I could appreciate it in detail.”

“Really?” The Established Painter shot another glance at him before turning away. He stood with his hands folded behind his back and looked out at the blue sky outside the window and said: “Then in your opinion, how is this humble one’s painting?”

Cui Bai remained seated and lazily leaned against the back of his chair. He tilted his head to scrutinize the painting of the autumn lotus on the opposite wall for a moment and then nodded, saying: “It’s great, it’s great…… It’s just that it’s missing a stroke somewhere.”

The Established Painter was inevitably curious and asked right away: “Where?”

Cui Bai’s lips curved upwards as he rose, “Here.” At the same time, he picked up the brush dipped in ink from his desk and suddenly threw it at the painting. By the time he finished speaking, the brush had already touched the painting, making a slanted brush stroke under one of the lotus flowers.

This action was too sudden and the crowd of Apprentice Painters cried out in alarm. They looked back at Cui Bai and immediately turned to look at the Established Painter again, closely examining his expression.

The Established Painter was so angry that he could hardly speak. He pointed a finger at Cui Bai sputtered: “You…. You……..!”

“Ah! This student was careless and accidentally picked up a brush that was dipped in ink. Please forgive me, Sir.” While he apologized, he straightened his sleeves, stood up, and walked to stand in front of the Established Painter and gracefully bowed slightly in apology once more.

The Established Painter’s expression paled. He angrily turned around and raised his hand as if he was going to tear the painting on the wall to shreds to vent his pent-up anger.

However, Cui Bai made a move to stop him. He smiled and said: “Sir, please calm your anger. This painting is a fine piece of work so it would be a pity if you were to tear it to shreds. This student made a mistake, so this one will think of a way to salvage it.”

Then another apprentice cut in and asked: “The painting has already been tarnished with ink marks. How will you salvage it?”

Cui Bai made sure that the painting was hung securely and examined it carefully. He replied: “Since the painting has been tarnished with ink, Sir doesn’t want it anymore. He probably won’t mind if I added a few more strokes?”

Without waiting for the Established Painter’s permission, he calmly selected a brush on his desk, dipped it in ink, folded his left hand behind him and wielded the brush with his right hand. Starting from that ink mark, he lightly dotted, dragged, emphasized, flicked, slightly turned, slanted, and dragged [his brush], adjusting the ink. After a few moments, a white goose vividly came to life under the lotus leaf with a straight neck and a lowered head as it combed its feathers. The extra mark was shaped into a beak. The brushwork was natural and there was no trace of deliberate embellishment.

After he finished painting, Cui Bai stilled his brush and stepped back. Smiling, he invited the Established Painter to comment on his work. Everyone examined it closely. However, they saw that even though he only painted a goose, it contained a combination of dry, thick, heavy, light, and clear multicoloured ink strokes. They were blended harmoniously, lively but not chaotic. His brush technique seemed to surpass the Established Painter’s. The goose’s bearing looked elegant and agile. It felt like it could emerge from the scroll and come to life. Compared to it, the autumn lotus that the Established Painter drew just now suddenly seemed to lose its brilliance, appearing dull and drab.

What’s more, he hadn’t prepared a master copy beforehand and it was truly drawn from scratch. Naturally, this was another aspect where he was better than the Established Painter. Some couldn’t help but open their mouths to offer praise, shouting “Bravo!” and “Well done!” Only after they called out did they consider the Established Painter and quickly shut their mouths, but their eyes still gleamed with admiration.

The Established Painter also walked forward to carefully examine the painting. He silently stroked his beard for a long time before turning his eyes towards Cui Bai and commenting: “Your use of ink isn’t bad, but adding a goose to this spot makes the painting appear overly dull and crowded. There is too much white space at the bottom as well, diminishing its presentation.”

“You’re correct, indeed.” Cui Bai immediately agreed and took a long look at the Established Painter. He smiled and said: “I also feel that this dull goose’s position is too high. It would have been better if it was lower.”

Seeing his expression like this, everyone knew that his words were meant to ridicule the Established Painter. It was as if he could hardly hold back his smile. The Established Painter’s chest repeatedly rose and fell as if he was about to faint at any time. Maybe it was because it wouldn’t be good to willfully display his anger in front of all the Apprentice Painters that in the end, he only pointed a trembling finger at the door and said to Cui Bai: “Get out!”

Without skimping on etiquette, he faced the Established Painter and bowed again in a brief salute before Cui Bai stepped out the door. The light smile between his lips didn’t fade and he walked away in an easy and unrestrained manner.

I shifted slightly and followed him into the distance with my eyes. The carefree joy brought about by his unbridled behaviour couldn’t offset the regret in my heart. I had a vague feeling that the day he would leave the Fine Arts Institute would soon arrive.


Author’s Notes:

佩鱼 (pèi yǘ) Fish Talisman: The fish talisman was used as a symbol of trust for fifth-rank officials or higher to enter and exit the imperial city. They were made of gold, silver, or copper in the shape of a carp according to the official’s rank. They were called fish tallies [16]鱼符 (yǘ fǔ) fish tally, like the ones Eunuchs have for the imperial palace gates. and had the official’s name, post, and other basic information carved on it. Worn on their belt, it was a mark of the official’s status. 

宦官的称谓 Forms of Address for Eunuchs: Eunuchs in the Song dynasty weren’t called ‘Eunuchs (太监 (tàijiàn) lit. highest imperial office)’ but were known as ‘Eunuchs (内侍 (nèishì) lit. inner attendant)’, ‘Chamberlains (内臣 (nèichén) lit. inner subject)’, ‘Eunuch-Officials (宦者 (huànzhě) lit. those that filled an office)’ or ‘Half-Officials (中官 (zhōngguān))’. People of the Song dynasty didn’t address them as ‘公公 (gōnggong)’. They were generally addressed by their official positions and were called ‘Half-Eminence’ or ‘中贵人 (zhōng guìrén)’ by palace outsiders. 

勾当官 (gòudang guān) Supervisor Official [17]Lit. shady official or business official: They were the supervisor of the department responsible for promotion. In the Southern Song dynasty, to avoid taboo by saying Emperor Gaozong’s given name (赵构 Zhào Gòu), the title was changed to ‘serving official (干当官 (gàndāng guān))’ or ‘managing official (干管官 (gànguǎn guān)).’


TL Thoughts:


Please give a belated welcome to JimmyfromIT who has helped me proofread several chapters now. He finally agreed to let me give him credit in the chapters~ He’s shy, so please be nice <3 (but you’re all lovely people anyways ^ ^) Check out his bio on the about us page~


Thank you so much for reading! Once again, we end with an ominous, foreboding feeling… I wonder what’ll come next :3

As always, I would appreciate feedback on my translation, especially from those who have read the raws. Sometimes I worry that I’m not capturing the full meaning of the more literary/artistic elements. I’m still a fairly new translator (<1 year), after all. (^^);; On that note:


Thank you knowledgeable Nuffians, Emiliers and Shibb, for helping me make sense of Huaiji’s compliment <3 


Until next time,


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List of Characters, Place Names and Ranks


  • I just cannot praise the translation team enough. The care put into finding the right terms for the very difficult, very specific and rigid hierarchy that existed in Ancient China. The commitment to teaching readers through the translators’ notes and to underline the switch in overall culture that occurred during the Song Dynasty (I mean, Song virtually turned all spheres of society upside down – at least, according to me!)! I am just amazed, humbled … I don’t have words.

    This story is in itself difficult to translate. Difficult emotionally. Difficult technically. Just plain difficult. I would not have had the strength and knowledge to do it. Without understanding the rigid hierarchy, without understanding the social organisation during the Song Dynasty, the reader can never grasp what the author is trying to achieve with this novel. That makes the work the translation team all the more precious.

    Every time I read a chapter, I can just hear the tragedy announcing itself. I feel that Huaiji’s interpersonal relationships go a long way to explain how the story develops eventually. He was, by nature, attracted to novelty, to whatever led him away from the established path. And the Song Dynasty was maybe the most digression-adverse of all the Chinese dynasties (besides Yuan, which continued to apply neo-Confucian laws to Han ethnics)

    • Xia Yu, thank you so much for your heartfelt praise. It really means a lot! You made me smile reading your comment and I’m delighted that the chapter brought you so much joy!! ^ ^ Thanks for your feedback about the TL notes as well. I was worried that there were too many of them ^^; I’m translating to improve my Chinese so it only made sense that I would share what I found with others or clarify things for readers who might not be as familiar with the ancient setting. You seem very knowledgeable about Chinese history, yourself! Don’t sell yourself short <3 I hope you continue to enjoy Held in the Lonely Castle <3

  • I’m really enjoying this novel! Though I don’t know much about Chinese history, this novel is like a breath of fresh air for me. All to often in novels depicting another era different than our own, they just show the good aspects and never the bad ones that came with it. And I’m getting very strong “realistic” vibes from this story. So, Thank you very much translater!

    • My pleasure, Yvonne! The realism is one of the things that drew me to this novel as well! Happy you’re enjoying it ^ ^

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