Held in the Lonely Castle (Chp 2 Part 6)
Chapter 2: Noticing You Since That Time We Met
Part 6 – Poetry Cards (诗帖)
Translation assistant: Petrified
English proofreaders: JimmyfromIT & Nyamachi
Each year, around the time of the Dragon Boat Festival, all the Court Officials would offer a newly composed poem as tribute for the servants to paste outside the Emperor and Empress’ bedrooms, and above all the doors of the concubines’ pavilions. The spring poems were called Imperial Spring Cards, or Spring Cards, and the Dragon Boat Festival poems were called Dragon Boat Cards.
Three days before the Dragon Boat Festival, Empress Cao arranged all the ministers’ poetry cards in the Hall of Gentle Countenance. She invited all of the imperial concubines and princesses in the Inner Palace inside to judge them and even bestowed rewards upon everyone.
The Princess took a look. After that she smiled and asked the Empress: “Which card does Mother like?”
The Empress’ eyelashes slightly lowered as if her eyes were sighing in admiration: “This year, even though Chancellor Fan and Viscount Su’s beautiful poems are missing, Ouyang Xiu’s is naturally in another league of his own.”
She implied that the absent Fan Zhongyan, who was formally involved in political affairs, and the former supervisor of the Memorials Office, Case Reviewer in the Court of Judicial Review, and Subeditor of the Academy of Scholarly Worthies, Su Shunqin, were both brilliant talents blessed with literary excellence.
In previous years, Fan Zhongyan had proactively carried out several new policies and intensified the faction wars in court. He always celebrated [the festival] with Du Yan, Han Qi, and Fu Bi along with other officials who had supported the implementation of the new policies.
Su Shunqin was originally recommended [for office] by Fan Zhongyan. Even though he was not a major figure in court, he was able to compose world-famous essays and poems in his youth, took charge of the Memorials Office, and somewhat critique those who threw their weight around and abused their power.
Last autumn, the Memorials Office held a competition to see who would be crowned the poetry god. Su Shunqin abided by precedent and used the money from selling old documents from the Memorials Office to hold a banquet for all the guests. As a result, he was impeached for the charge of embezzlement by the Vice Censor-in-Chief, Wang Gongchen. In the end, he was expelled and forced to stop his actions.
There was naturally no lack of beautifully crafted and elaborate Dragon Boat Cards right now, but their contents were largely ingratiating writings that were full of flattering words. Their beauty was a far cry from Chancellor Fan and Viscount Su’s poems.
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Cards with substance that hid a warning within their poems were also few and far between. Going through them one by one, [the composers] were indeed auxiliary scholars of the Dragon Diagram Hall. All praised Ouyang Xiu’s poem as the most outstanding. Between him, Cai Xiang, Yu Jing, and Wang Su, he was without a doubt the top figure among the Emperor’s Four Great Remonstrance Officials.
“Ouyang Xiu? I remember him.” The Princess pointed at one of the cards and said: “I also recognize his calligraphy. At the beginning of spring last year, Daddy held up an Imperial Spring Card and read it over and over. He really liked it so he asked the people by his side who wrote it. I heard that the composer was Ouyang Xiu. Daddy then ordered people to collect all of his cards that were scattered about the palace and bring them to him. He examined them one by one and even made me memorise them, saying that they were full of ideas without forgetting to include a prudent warning. He praised Ouyang Xiu for being a truly worthy subject.”
The Empress nodded and smiled. She fixed her attention on the cards that the Princess had pointed out. She picked up a few to carefully examine again and sighed, feeling deeply moved.
I peered over at the card from my spot behind her, but then I saw that the card was written for the Emperor’s Pavilion.
The poem read: “Since the State of Chu slandered Qu Yuan 屈原 (Qū Yuán) Qu Yuan was a famous Warring States statesman and poet. He was the author of the poem [Sorrow of Parting] (离骚 Lí Sāo) in the book [Songs of Chu] (楚辞 Chǔ cí). The Dragon Boat Festival originates from commemorating Qu Yuan’s death. Here is an article that describes the story. to chase him away, he was unable to return to serve his liege in his lifetime. Although the reason was as absurd as asking about glutinous millet, this was an example of how past rulers confused the masses with skillful words.” This is my own translation of the poem. I wasn’t able to find any official English sources. Please correct me if my translation has any mistakes. Original poem: 楚国因谗逐屈原，终身无复入君门。愿因角黍询遗俗，可鉴前王惑巧言。
The Princess noticed that the Empress seemed very interested in this card and couldn’t help but become curious. She asked her: “Mother, does this poem have any special meaning?”
“Oh, not really. The characters written on this card are very beautiful, so I stared at it a bit longer.” The Empress didn’t give the Princess a detailed explanation and softly laid down the card. She then amicably asked the Princess: “Huirou, which poem do you like?”
“Daddy will definitely ask me this when he returns as well, so I’ll choose a few short ones that are easy to memorize first.”
The Princess smiled and pointed a finger at one of Ouyang Xiu’s poems meant for the Empress’ pavilion and read it out loud: “Applying pepper is called soaking in luxury; Dried red peppers were used to extract capsanthin, a natural red pigment widely used in food, medicine, and cosmetics, especially lipstick. Here is a video which talks about pepper in Chinese cosmetics. The Hall of Gentle Countenance is the model for the imperial concubines’ quarters. Similar to spinning a silkworm cocoon, blood ties will continue the thread of life.” This is my own translation of the poem. I wasn’t able to find any official English sources. Please correct me if my translation has any mistakes. Original poem: 椒涂承茂渥，嫔壸范柔仪。更以亲蚕茧，纫为续命丝。
After she finished reading, she picked up another and handed it to Zhao’rong Miao saying: “Elder Sister, how about this one?”
That poem was written for the concubines’ pavilions: “The immortal realm is suffused with cold dew from the Milky Way. White silk fans sway to and fro, spreading the scent of a fragrant green orchid. While enduring and hiding one’s reaction to the summer heat, all eyes rest on the Water Spirit Palace’s mother of pearl stage in the Heavenly Imperial Palace.” This is my own translation of the poem. I wasn’t able to find any official English sources. Please correct me if my translation has any mistakes. Original poem: 仙盘冷泛银河露，纨扇香摇绿蕙风。禁掖自应无暑气，瑶台金阙水精宫。
Zhao’rong Miao also agreed it was good and joked: “After reading this poem, one truly feels refreshed with no need to drink ice-cold water anymore.”
The Empress conveniently bestowed the card to her and continued to distribute the rest of the cards between the imperial concubines.
For the last several days, Beautiful Lady Zhang had been depressed and hadn’t personally visited. The Empress didn’t inquire further into it. She personally chose a few poems and ordered the servants to deliver them to her.
The last ones to receive cards were two Beautiful Ladies I had not seen before. Zhao’rong Miao didn’t recognize them and proceeded to ask the Empress: “Are these two ladies newcomers to the palace?”
The Empress replied: “That’s right. They were offered as tribute by Imperial Duke Qi, Wang De. Hopefully they can serve His Majesty for a long time and continue the imperial bloodline. The Emperor has already accepted them, but only their rank and title haven’t been decided on yet.”
Zhao’rong Miao stepped forward, and pulling on the two ladies’ hands, she brought them closer and examined them carefully. She praised them repeatedly and asked them for their names again. She even removed two multicoloured harmony knot bracelets 合欢索 (hé huān suǒ) “mutual happiness lock” refers to 合欢结 (héhuān jié) “harmony knots”. These were double knots made with multicoloured embroidered silk ribbons worn around the wrists/arms during the Dragon Boat Festival to symbolize the love and harmony of a couple. for the Dragon Boat Festival from her wrists and gave them to the ladies to put on.
The two Beautiful Ladies declined but Zhao’rong Miao smiled and said: “According to custom, upon meeting you two younger sisters for the first time, it’s only right that I ought to prepare a generous gift for you two. However, today was a chance encounter, so I hadn’t specially prepared anything and had no alternative but to give these harmony knot bracelets to both of you to invite good fortune. If younger sisters don’t accept it, surely it’s because you don’t care for my meagre gift.”
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The two Beautiful Ladies thereupon accepted the harmony knot bracelets. Seeing this scene, the rest of the concubines also came over one after another to present them with a meeting gift. 见面礼 (jiànmiànlǐ) A gift you give someone you’re meeting for the first time as a courtesy to convey the intention to establish good relations.
Those two concubines were somewhat overwhelmed by the favour shown to them by their seniors but while they were being cared for, they seemed to regain their high spirits and were considerably more cheerful.
Unexpectedly, while the elder sisters and younger sisters were chatting, Wang Zhaoming, who closely served the Emperor, rushed over from the Hall of Venerating Governance and reported:
“Just now His Majesty gave the order: ‘Since Wang De used the three hundred strings of coins that had been set aside for the new concubines who entered the palace, they are to immediately leave through the Inner Eastern Gate without delay.’”
Everyone in the hall was astonished. The Empress also felt that it was rather unexpected and asked: “Why did His Majesty issue this edict?”
Wang Zhaoming replied: “Wang Su from the Remonstrance Bureau knew about the matter with Wang De using the money allotted to the concubines. Today, he brought forward his objections to His Majesty and called for His Majesty to return the concubines from the Wang family.
“His Majesty replied saying that these women had served by his side and were already quite close to him. He probed Wang Su once more, asking whether it was possible for him to have them stay.
“Yet, Wang Su resolutely replied: ‘This subject is precisely afraid that Your Majesty becomes close with them and therefore wanted to discuss this issue.’
“After that His Majesty didn’t say anything else. He called over this subject and ordered this subject to quickly pass on the edict to have the two concubines immediately leave the palace. The minute he finished speaking, tears fell down the Emperor’s cheeks.”
All of the concubines heard this and conversed with their eyes, more or less delighting in schadenfreude. 幸灾乐祸 (xìngzāilèhuò) Rejoicing in other people’s misfortune or misery.
The Empress’ expression remained the same as always, and when she was silent, no one could make out how she was feeling.
A moment later, she said: “The Emperor believes that the Imperial Censor’s words are reasonable, but he needn’t issue such an order so quickly, right? Why not first enter the Inner Palace and slowly send them out?”
Wang Zhaoming answered: “Wang Su also gave this response to His Majesty, however His Majesty refuted that even though he was the Emperor, he was affected by his emotions just like ordinary citizens. If he entered the palace first and saw the two concubines in tears, unwilling to leave, it was likely that he would be unable to steel his heart to send them away.”
The Empress gave a slight smile and said: “Alright, I understand.”
The two Beautiful Ladies heard these words and knew that they had no way out. As they were about to be kicked out of the palace, they immediately began to cry loudly and repeatedly kowtow, asking the Empress to show mercy and let them stay.
In response, Wang Zhaoming urged: “May Your Majesty the Empress send them out of the palace as soon as possible. The Emperor made Wang Su stay behind in the Hall of Venerating Governance and is waiting to receive confirmation. This subject can only return to make my report after seeing them out.”
The Empress nodded and summoned Ren Shouzhong. There was no need for the Empress to say any more. Since the order had long been issued, she ordered for the two Beautiful Ladies to be dragged away.
After a short while, Teacher Zhang from the Office of the Inner Eastern Gate dispatched a eunuch to report that the two women had already left the palace. Wang Zhaoming was satisfied and returned to the Hall of Venerating Governance to give his report.
Everyone waited a while more until they saw the Emperor return with slow steps. He wore a mournful expression and it seemed as though there were tear stains on his face.
TL Team Thoughts:
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