Held in the Lonely Castle (Chp 1 Part 4)
Chapter 1: Autumn Riverside, Esteemed Guests, A Pair of Geese Fly Overhead
Part 4 – The Empress’ Palace (中宫)中宫 (zhōnggōng) refers to the Empress as well as her living quarters.
English proofreader: JimmyfromIT
About a month later, the Fine Arts Institute suddenly received the Empress’ order. It was to select and send a group of officials’ and Apprentice Painters’ character portraits from the Fine Arts Institute to the Hall of Gentle Countenance to present to the Empress. It was almost dusk but the Scholars Awaiting Appointment, Established Painters and the rest did not dare to neglect the order. They hurriedly selected the paintings they were the most satisfied with to send to the Empress’ palace.
There was originally nothing planned for that day. All the other eunuchs in the Fine Arts Institute had already returned to their rooms to rest, except for me who had stayed behind on duty. The order had arrived abruptly. Therefore, after spending more than a year in the Fine Arts Institute, it was my first time being assigned to deliver painted scrolls to the Imperial Harem. If it was a regular day, this task wouldn’t fall to me.
This was also the first time I was given the opportunity to enter the Inner Palace where the Empress and concubines resided since entering service and serving in the Imperial City 皇城 (huángchéng) The inner part of Beijing with the Imperial Palace at its centre. This area mainly consists of institutions and facilities serving the court and the offices of the court such as the Hanlin Academy. for several years. The Hanlin Fine Arts Institute was located outside the Right Side Gate 掖门 (yèmén) A small side door of a palace. in the southwest end of the Imperial City. Following the Interior Department eunuch from the Empress’ palace who brought the imperial edict, I carried the painted scrolls. Starting from here, I passed through the Right Side Gate, the Right Gate of Eternal Celebration, the Right Gate of Fine Reverence, and the Right Silver Terrace Gate successively. We passed the Chancellery, One of the Three Departments within the Three Departments and Six Ministries System. See my post describing the organizational structure of the government. the Privy Council, the Inner Chancellery, and the Institute of National History, in turn, before passing through the Gate of Imperial Rites and the Gate of Imparting Respect to enter the Inner Palace. We passed by the Hall of Imparting Respect and the Hall of Tranquil Blessings before arriving at the Hall of Gentle Countenance where the Empress lived.
By that time, it was already dusk and the Empress was not present. According to a maid in the Hall of Gentle Countenance, the Empress had gone to the Hall of Tranquil Blessings to see the Emperor and she did not know when the Empress would return. I asked the eunuch from the Interior Department if I could bring the painted scrolls inside. However, since we had to report to the Empress in person, we didn’t dare to leave without authorization so we stood outside the hall and waited.
We waited for four hours. Finally, the Empress returned. I knelt down to pay my respects. Seeing my unfamiliar face, she paused. Once a maid explained the situation, she remembered, nodded her head and shortly after entering the hall, she sent word to allow me inside.
Empress Cao wore crimson, wide-sleeved robes befitting a nation’s Empress. In the hall, she sat up straight as she adjusted her clothing. The cuffs and solid-coloured collar slightly revealed the edges of a yellow-red silk underlayer. The contour of her red silk skirt was smooth and supple, without any unnecessary folds or wrinkles. The white-hemmed, yellow-patterned silk material wrapped around her, making her figure appear more refined and serene.
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After saluting to her once more, I took advantage of the instant when I was standing to peek a glance at her face. This impertinent action stemmed from my curiosity about the real appearance of the Nation’s Mother. 国母 (guómǔ) Another way to refer to the Empress. The phrase 母仪天下 (mǔyítiánxià) or Mother of the World/Rolemodel for all Women, is also used to describe her. At the same time, I was careful to make sure that the time was very brief so that no one would notice.
She had a jade complexion with light-coloured eyebrows and she had an elegant bearing. At this moment with her eyelashes half-closed, she seemed lost in thought. Her forehead showed signs of worry.
The hall’s chamberlain hung up the portrait scrolls one by one. The Empress calmly stood up and slowly paced, examining each one carefully. After a long time, she finished looking at all the portrait scrolls. She didn’t comment at all but turned around and asked me: “Have all of the Fine Arts Institute’s recent top portraits been included?”
I answered in the affirmative. She continued looking and all of a sudden, she seemed to recall something and asked again: “Is Painter Apprentice Cui Bai’s work included in these?”
I replied no and she smiled slightly: “I also thought that it would not be here. It is said that his painting skill is inferior and unlikely to improve yet he is arrogant and full of himself, going so far as to disrespect the officials in the Fine Arts Institute…… but this is still somewhat strange. How was such a person so devoid of merit granted admission to the Hanlin Fine Arts Institute?”
I hesitated a slightly but still told her about the true state of affairs: “Since our dynasty established the Fine Arts Institute, there is no one who doesn’t hold the father and son, Huan Quan and Huan Jucai’s style of painting in high esteem. When comparing skills, all regard the Huang clan’s style as the standard. Cui Bai has an excellent foundation in basic skills. If one considers his skill in outlining, 双钩工 (shuānggōu gōng) A technique in Chinese painting and calligraphy where one writes a character by lining the edge of its strokes on both sides. It’s also called the “double hook technique” because of the finger placement on the brush and is mostly used for meticulous work such as paintings of flowers and birds or writing ‘hollow characters.’ detailed work is not a problem for him. Hence, he smoothly passed the entrance examination to the Fine Arts Institute. However, he has an aloof personality and doesn’t seem to hold the Huang family in high esteem, but he has high praise for Xu Xi’s unrestrained style. Normally he loves to do still life paintings. Whenever he sees a scene, he always stops [to paint]. He can bring out the spirit of the scene with Xu Xi’s style. 徐熙 (Xú Xī) was an actual historical figure. He was a painter in the Southern Tang dynasty during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period. He was Master Huang Quan’s rival. While Huang Quan used the Mogu painting technique described in chapter 1, part 3, Xu Xi was known for his bold, free manner of painting similar to impressionism. After entering the Fine Arts Institute, his paintings of flowers, bamboo, and birds 翎毛 (língmáo) A genre of classical Chinese painting featuring birds. may not necessarily always be outlined and filled completely with colour and he often uses Xu Xi’s ink drop method 落墨法 (luòmò fǎ) A painting technique that created a much richer, more vivid painting. Xu Xi’s painting of ‘Snowy Bamboo (雪竹)’ is his only surviving work and is said to be the origin of the ink drop painting method. or the Mogu painting style passed down by Xu Chong as reference. His paintings often balance meticulous workmanship and extensive brushwork, the colours are elegant, and the solitary elements unsure…孤标高致 are delicate giving them a rustic charm. However, when comparing skills, this style of painting isn’t recognized by the Fine Arts Institute officials so Sir Cui’s works are often overlooked and it is extremely difficult for him to receive praise.”
The Empress nodded and said: “He is fully aware that this style of painting isn’t appreciated by others yet still insists on painting this way?”
I replied: “Yes. For matters that he firmly believes in, he won’t easily change due to the influence of others.”
The Empress gave a thin smile and said: “He’s also a stubborn one. However, it wasn’t easy for him to gain admission into the Fine Arts Institute. If he behaves so insolently, does he not fear being expelled?”
I realized that someone had surely talked up Cui Bai’s faults in front of the Empress. I hesitated on whether or not to tell the Empress about Cui Bai’s mindset. Yet the Empress’ gentle manner of speaking gave me a good impression of her. Moreover, she continued to look at me with a kindly expression and waited for a response. This gave me the courage to speak plainly: “Gaining admission into the Fine Arts Institute was Cui Bai’s Father’s last wish so he carried it out but being confined in the Fine Arts Institute to only learn the Huang clan’s style of painting runs against his ambitions…… His temperament is also incompatible with the Fine Arts Institute’s way of doing things. Being expelled from the Arts Institute is not something he fears.”
The Empress waivered a moment before ordering: “Two days from now, deliver a few of Cui Bai’s works over here.”
I promptly accepted the decree. She looked me up and down and asked again: “How old are you? Have you also studied painting?”
I bowed slightly and replied: “This subject is thirteen this year. This one has not studied painting and has only doodled several times under Sir Cui’s guidance.”
“You…… What is your name?” She continued.
“Liang Huaiji.” I replied. This time I didn’t add any explanation after my name.
“Oh, I remember you.” The Empress revealed a thin smile: “Wasn’t your name originally Liang Yuanheng? Your current name was given to you by Pingfu.”
Pingfu was the Supervisor Official of the Inner East Gate, Teacher Zhang Maoze’s courtesy name. I was surprised that the Empress called him by this name. Soon after that, I felt a tinge of indescribable joy. I regarded Teacher Zhang as a teacher and father. Even though these last few years we had not had many opportunities to see each other but from start to finish I still felt infinite gratitude and respect towards him. For the Empress to bring up the matter of changing names caused me to immediately recall the grace she had once bestowed on me. As a result, I solemnly knelt down and kowtowed in thanks for her kindness in saving my life that year.
She told me to rise in a gentle voice. In addition, she rewarded me with some rat whisker chestnut tail brushes Writing brushes made of rat whiskers and tail hairs whose manufacturing methods have been lost to time. and fragrant ink from Xi’an Xi’an county in Luoyang, Henan Province. See map..
I was close to feeling overwhelmed by her unexpected favour because the rewards she had bestowed upon me were not the usual silk and cotton blankets granted to eunuchs, but rather top-tier brushes and ink used for painting and calligraphy.
She re-examined the portrait scrolls closely. She pointed out a few of them and asked me who the artists were. After ordering someone to note down all the names, she let me carry the rest back. I acknowledged the order and withdrew. Under the guidance of the eunuch from the Interior Department, I was led out of the Hall of Gentle Countenance. The Interior Department Eunuch pointed the way back to my living quarters before shutting the gate.
He and I had both overestimated my sense of direction. My thoughts were focused on what had happened just now and I absentmindedly walked for a long time before suddenly realizing that my surroundings were completely unfamiliar. I had already lost my way in this deep palace in the middle of the night.
I halted my steps and looked all around. My surroundings were still and there was no sign of any people. Only the pond in front of me reflected the moonlight. The shadow of the willow tree on the bank of the pond danced, waving in the wind like strands of hair. Watching it gradually caused my heart to feel chilled. I vaguely recalled that this should be the back garden in the northwest end of the Imperial City. I raised my head toward the sky and used the constellations to orient myself. I found the gate heading south and hurriedly walked in that direction.
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Just as I arrived at the southern portico, I suddenly felt that a shadow had flashed past my side. I was startled with fright and turned around to look but discovered that that shadow had a delicate and slender silhouette. It seemed like it was a young girl who had run to the bank of the garden’s jade ford pond in the chilly windy night. Her body was clad only in a plain white underlayer with a matching long skirt. Her long hair hung down loosely to her waist. In the moonlight, it gave off a slight blue sheen.
She held her long skirt as she ran. Between her fluttering sleeves, one could see that she was not wearing socks or shoes and was running barefoot. This detail made me aware that she was a human and not a ghost hence my initial fear lessened. I quietly returned to hide in trees beside the pond to watch what she intended to do.
On the bank of the pond beside a large stone, she knelt down and gave the moon three salutes and nine kowtows. From my angle, I could only see her profile but she was about seven or eight years old and had a beautiful face with delicate features.
After kneeling and praying, she raised her head to the sky as she frowned and wept. The tears on her face were as clear as morning dew: “Daddy is sick. Huirou has no idea how to lessen Daddy’s pain a little but she begs the Heavens to take pity on him and let Huirou take Daddy’s place in suffering from Daddy’s illness. Huirou will take on double the burden of Daddy’s ailments so she begs the Gods to make her wish come true. If Daddy can be healthy and well again, Huirou is willing to give anything in return, even at the cost of her life……”
She continued to weep and beg, repeatedly beseeching the Heavens to accept her determination to take her father’s place. I silently watched from the side and gradually felt sorrowful. This scene made me remember some things from the past.
My father always had a weak constitution and later suffered from a serious illness. He often coughed all day and night. Every night when it was time to sleep, I could always hear the sound of his coughing from the room next door. At the time I was young and ignorant. I always thought the sound was very annoying. Every time I was disturbed from my sleep because of the coughs and wasn’t able to sleep peacefully, I vaguely thought that it would be nice if one day he was quiet for once.
And then such a night came. I finally didn’t hear him coughing again. That night I had the best sleep of my life. When I woke up the next day, I opened my eyes to see my mother’s pale and lifeless face. She stared at me and calmly told me: “Little Yuan, your daddy is gone.”
So this was the feeling of the sky coming down. Everything changed in an instant.
Since then, I have often deeply regretted my ignorance of my father’s illness at the time. If I could go back in time, I would have definitely appealed to the Heavens barefooted like the little girl in front of me and earnestly prayed to take my father’s place.
I was lost in thought. The leaves from the trees overhead blew down with the wind and tickled my face. I was startled; my hands trembled slightly in fright causing one of the painted scrolls I was carrying to tumble to the ground.
Hearing the noise, the little girl turned her head alertly. I picked up the scroll and appeared before her under her attentive gaze. We looked at each other’s faces and for a while, neither of us spoke.
I didn’t know who she was. It was customary for imperial concubines in the palace to adopt a child from a respectable family as their adopted daughter. They would also ask Interior Department servants to find a middleman to buy a young girl from a poor family and bring her into the palace to become a personal servant. In addition, there were palace maids who were raised from a young age in the Department of Internal Affairs. 尚书内省 (shàngshū nèishèng) To my knowledge, this was a department composed entirely of female officials who were charged with ensuring the day to day administrative aspects of running the harem ran smoothly. They were essentially secretaries and in a different category from 秀女 or females drafted to be concubines for the Emperor. They wore uniforms like their male official counterparts but they could also become concubines in the Imperial Harem if he took a fancy to them. Naturally, their status would change to being an imperial concubine instead of a Female Official. The Chinese drama 陆贞传奇 [Legend of Lu Zhen] shows an example of what life as a female official was like. I’ve added them to my glossary of Ancient Ranks and Titles! There were countless little girls about her age in the palace. Except for hearing that her name was Huirou, I didn’t know her identity. I only felt that I had no way to talk to her, though I really wanted to tell her that I sincerely wished that her father recovered soon.
“Who are you?” she asked.
I was about to reply when I noticed that there was someone holding a lantern entering from the south gate of the garden. Upon seeing them, Huirou immediately turned around and ran towards a different gate. She probably didn’t want the person who had arrived to discover her.
Her running alerted that person. A young woman who appeared to be dressed like a servant soon chased after her carrying her lantern. She called out in a loud voice: “Who is it? Stop!”
The shadow of the tree hid me from view hence she hadn’t noticed me. I saw the two people’s silhouettes vanish near the eastern side of the garden before orienting myself using the constellations once more and setting off down the path to return to my quarters.
Hello everyone~ Sorry for the slight delay in releasing this chapter. I hope you enjoyed it.
Please let me know if I should keep the place names in pinyin or keep them translated as I have in this chapter. E.g. Rouyi Hall or Hall of Gentle Countenance. I’ve mostly translated the other departments so I figured I’d keep the trend with palaces too.
- School has started up for me again! Please refer to the [Translation Goals] section of the sidebar for the new monthly goal or my September TL goals post. I generally struggle with consistency and sticking to a schedule bc of rl things so I’m hoping to work on this through translating. I immensely appreciate everyone’s reactions, comments and encouragement! Thank you for your support <3
- Just so you are aware, releases of Held in the Lonely Castle will likely be monthly or bi-monthly (every two months) at the moment because of irl time constraints.
- I’ve added a font resizer so you can enlarge the text. It’s the first item on the right sidebar (laptop view). Please let me know if it’s too big or too small. Right now I have it set to 100% (12 pt), 120% (14pt) and 130% (16pt).
Until next time,