e more.
The crowd, however, was far too tightly-packed for me to make much headway.
Within moments, I felt my persistent admirer’s grip on my arm once again.
He was holding my torn-off cuff aloft in his other hand, and his expression had gone from abject misery to pure exultation.
‘This cut sleeve lays bare your heart, young master.
Finally you understand my feelings!’

I had absolutely no idea how to respond.
By now it was clear that he wasn’t going to listen to sweet reason, and so I was forced to resort to my martial abilities.
I took advantage of a moment of inattention on his part to push him away, then used qinggong[7] to leap onto the nearest dragon boat.

The drummer on the boat glanced at me when I landed, then resumed his work with renewed vigour.
The boat surged forward, cutting through the water as easily as a sharp knife splits bamboo.[8] I took a moment to compose myself, pleased with this turn of events.
Not only did this allow me to avoid my troublesome admirer’s advances, I would also be able to reach the platform all the sooner.
As the boat moved further along the river, I could make out the platform more clearly: a bevy of graceful figures was clustered atop it, and even from a distance I fancied I could hear their soft cries of excitement.

My persistent admirer, however, turned out to have some martial prowess himself.
Following hot on my heels, he leaped onto the same boat.
He then fished something out of his pocket and thrust it at me.
Seeing no other escape route, I took a deep breath and jumped onto the next boat.

With unrelenting persistence, my admirer followed suit.

I sighed, took another deep breath, then leaped onto the next boat, and the next.
Where I went, he followed.
The spectators cheered, clearly believing we were here to make the dragon boat race even livelier.
Amid their thunderous applause, we made several complete circuits of all the boats in the race.

And then a gong rang out, declaring a winner in the race.

I looked down and saw that the boat I happened to be on had crossed the row of buoys marking the finish line.
The paddlers whooped with joy, raising their arms in triumph — victory was theirs!

When I looked up again, the princess’ smiling eyes were the first thing I saw — as beautiful and unattainable as the moon reflected in a pool of water, or a bamboo grove glimpsed through a drift of clouds.
She returned my gaze briefly with a single bewitching glance; the sight of that was enough to put all the other women on the platform in the shade.

I gaped at her, grinning foolishly.
All thoughts of calling the princess to account for her many crimes against me had completely left my head.

The winning boat docked beside the platform.
Women came rushing up, each seeking out the young man on whom she wished to bestow her favour.
The princess took a step towards me.

At that very moment, a blushing maiden ran up to me and thrust a sachet into my hand.
A powerful fragrance rose from it, strong enough to make me sneeze.
When I looked up again, the princess’ eyes had gone completely cold for some reason.

I stood there awkwardly, clutching the sachet and wondering how best to gently let down the red-faced young woman in front of me.
Suddenly, the sachet was snatched away from me and replaced with something that looked like a coarse sack.

My persistent admirer loomed over the young woman, his face like thunder.
‘This gentleman and I have already declared our love for each other, you shameless hussy!’

The poor girl gave me a reproachful look and ran off, burying her face in her hands.
My admirer turned to me delightedly, twirling a strand of his beard around one finger.
‘Dearest master of my heart, may I ask your name? From where do you hail?’

His eyes glowed with unmistakable sincerity.

I desperately flung the princess my most pathetic look, but to no avail.
She simply stood by with her arms folded across her chest, utterly unconcerned.
Her eyes glanced from my torn sleeve to the sack-like object I was holding and back again.
That enigmatic smile was once again hovering about her face.

I threw all caution to the wind.
‘I understand how you feel,’ I told my persistent admirer.
‘But I’m unable to return those feelings.
You see, I’m already betrothed.’

He started violently, disbelief written all over his face.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that the princess had allowed the smile to slip away; she was now looking a little pensive.

‘You must be shy, young master,’ said my persistent admirer — who was turning out to be rather good at making excuses for me.
‘But really, there’s nothing to worry about.
The Duanyang Festival is an occasion for challenging society’s deep-seated prejudices after all, and whatever some people may think, there’s nothing unusual about two men finding love with one another.’

There was nothing for it. Fine.
If I die, I die.
Clearing my throat, I said as loudly as I could, ‘I’m not trying to go back on any promises you think I might have made, young master.
The truth is, I really am betrothed.
Although we’re not yet formally married our hearts already beat as one, and we’ve promised to be true to each other for as long as we live.’

‘I don’t believe you.’ His lip trembled visibly.
‘Who is she? Who is this future wife of yours?’

I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and pointed straight at the princess.
When I dared to re-open my eyes, I saw that my admirer’s face had gone positively ashen.
The princess, on the other hand, was utterly self-possessed.
There she stood, looking like a completely disinterested spectator, with her robes fluttering in the breeze.

Suddenly, my suitor took a menacing step towards her.
‘Since you’re not yet married to my sweetheart,’ he began in an unsteady voice, ‘then let us compete fairly for his affections!’

A crow flew past, crying out, ‘Caw! Caw!’[9] Sweat broke out all over my body.

The princess reached up and adjusted her brilliant green jade hairpin.
Another smile blossomed slowly across her face.
She was heart-stopping in her loveliness: unparalleled and without rival.

‘Compete fairly?’ She tilted her head to one side, as if puzzled.
‘Do you think you’re in a position to “compete fairly” with me?’

She descended unhurriedly from the platform.
Smiling, she held out a hand to me.
‘Zisong.’

‘Yes?’ I took her outstretched hand eagerly, and it was only through a tremendous effort of will that I managed to stop myself from drawing her into my arms.

She reached out with her other hand and pinched my waist in a mild rebuke.
‘You attract lovestruck followers so easily,’ she said with a fretful little frown.
‘Whatever shall we do?’

Still gawking at her, I let my heart overtake my head and reached down to caress the hand that still lingered at my waist.
My questing fingers encountered something hard.
When I looked down, I saw that she’d slipped a jade pendant into my palm.
It was faintly warm to the touch, and I could feel some slight depressions on its surface, as though some design had been carved into it.

I held the pendant up for a closer look.
Sure enough, two characters had been engraved on its surface.
They read simply: Feichen. 

The princess’ given name.[10] My heart melted at the sight. 

‘I don’t have a sachet with me, alas,’ the princess said.
‘But perhaps this jade pendant will suffice to bind you to me?’

***

Translator’s note: Taken in conjunction with Chapter 11, the parts of this chapter dealing with Zisong’s unwelcome suitor are susceptible to an uncomfortable trans reading, which was almost certainly not intended by the author or received as such by its original audience.
I have tried to de-emphasise this through my translation choices, but I acknowledge that the reading is present nevertheless.
The only consolation I can offer is that it is not a major feature of the novel, and the character in question makes his exit at the start of the next chapter.

 

Footnotes:

On Duanyang, see footnote 2 to Chapter 11. In Chinese, 人至贱则无敌.
This is a riff on the saying 水至清则无鱼, 人至察则无徒, which means ‘water that is too clear has no fish; one who is too critical has no friends’.
The latter saying originates from Ritual Records of Dai the Elder (大戴礼记), the Western Han scholar Dai De’s (戴德) reworking of the Book of Rites (礼记).
The Book of Rites is one of the Five Classics (五经) that lie at the core of the Confucian canon. In Chinese, 端阳节, 又名女儿节, 俗以五月初五日为期, 饰小闺女, 尽态极妍.
This is a quotation from Miscellaneous Notes from the Wanping County Office (宛署杂记) by the Ming Dynasty official Shen Bang (沈榜), a record of local politics, economics, culture and customs compiled by the author during his time as magistrate of Wanping County. In Chinese, 彩线轻缠红玉臂, 小符斜挂绿云鬓.
佳人相见一千年.
This is the second half of a ci poem by the Song Dynasty poet Su Shi (苏轼), set to the tune of ‘Silk-Washing Stream’ (浣溪沙).
The poem describes the festivities during Duanyang: the ‘string bracelets’ and ‘amulets’ are talismans for warding off misfortune and ill-health.
The final line is said to be addressed to his concubine Wang Zhaoyun (王朝云), who followed him into political exile. In Chinese, 一朵鲜花插在牛粪上.
A saying used to denote something good or beautiful being paired with something bad or ugly, usually in the context of a talented or beautiful woman being paired with an untalented or ugly suitor. In Chinese, 妇德.
This is not a real book, but its title evokes Four Books for Women (女四书), a collection of texts intended for the education of young upper-class Chinese women in the late Ming and Qing Dynasties.
The four books are: Lessons for Women (女诫, also translated as Admonitions for Women, Women’s Precepts or Warnings for Women) by the female Han Dynasty scholar Ban Zhao (班昭); Women’s Analects (女论语) by Song Ruoshen (宋若莘) and Song Ruozhao (宋若昭), two sisters who were employed as court poets during the Tang Dynasty; Domestic Lessons (内训) by Empress Xu (徐皇后), consort to the Yongle Emperor (永乐帝), who was the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty; and Sketch of a Model for Women (女范捷录) by Madam Wang née Liu (刘氏), mother of the Ming Dynasty scholar Wang Xiang (王相). In Chinese, 轻功, literally ‘lightness skill’.
A martial arts technique which gives practitioners the ability to move with great swiftness and agility. In Chinese, 势如破竹, literally ‘force of breaking bamboo’.
Bamboo is said to be easy to split as its stem is hollow. A trope often seen in Japanese animation.
When a character says or does something foolish or embarrassing, one or more crows are shown flying past, crying ‘aho! aho!’ ‘Aho’ is Japanese onomatopoeia for a crow’s call and also means ‘fool’ or ‘stupid’. Traditionally, a Chinese woman’s given name — particularly if she was of high rank — was considered a very intimate fact about her, and would be known only to her immediate family members, her husband and possibly her close female friends.

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