Chapter 1 - Opening the Coffin to Paint Out Bones

Original and most updated translations are from volare. If read elsewhere, this chapter has been stolen. Please stop supporting theft.

Qizhen Year 20th, Beiliang country, Jinjiang city.

The weather in January was always fickle; the once clear sky was replaced by a thundering rainstorm in the blink of an eye. Flashes of lightning occasionally lit the grey skies as deep rolls of thunder echoed through the air, and a shimmering layer of water was quick to form over the slippery, narrow road.

Ji Yunshu held an umbrella in one hand while carrying a delicately crafted sandalwood box in her other. Armed with these in hand, she walked the entire way in the storm from the Ji family home to Zhou Mansion.

The first month of the Lunar Year was a joyous occasion for any household. However, only white satins and several white lanterns hung in front of the entrance of Zhou Mansion.

It had just happened yesterday - the Zhou family’s young miss had gotten into an accident and died!

Ji Yunshu readjusted her umbrella and brushed the rainwater off her shoulder before carefully examining the sandalwood box she held under her arm. This box was her precious tool, her livelihood! She absolutely could not let it get even slightly wet!

If it wasn’t for the county magistrate requesting her services, she had really wanted to avoid this trip. How inauspicious to have to work at the start of the new year.

“Teacher, please come in.” The mansion’s pageboy ran towards her anxiously. He skidded to a halt in front of her, holding his sides as he panted.

It was no surprise that he called her “Teacher” instead of “Miss”. After all, she was dressed like a man in very simple yet elegant clothes.

Ji Yunshu nodded. She followed the pageboy to the mourning hall situated in the rear court. All the servants in the mansion were kneeling on the ground with their heads lowered, crying and wiping away their tears.

Inside the mourning hall, Lord Zhou wore a purple and black satin robe, his hair rolled into a high topknot. His expression was grave, which was only accentuated by his lips, pressed together into a thin line. Only his bloodshot eyes betrayed any signs of fatigue.

Beside him, Madame Zhou was crying fitfully. She was in so much pain and grief that death would be deliverance to her. When she had learned of her daughter’s sudden death yesterday, she had fainted right on the scene. Even now, she still had not gotten over her initial shock -  she had to be supported by a few servant girls to prevent her falling to the ground once more. 

Such scenes were not unfamiliar to Ji Yunshu - she had seen too many in her earlier days.

Lord Zhou noticed Ji Yunshu’s arrival. He glanced over at his wife before pulling Ji Yunshu aside, “I’ll have to trouble you, Teacher Ji. When my daughter was alive, she loved wearing pink and grooming and dressing herself well. When she was free, she would often go to the garden to admire the plum blossoms. Due to her weak constitution, she didn’t go out too often, but yesterday … She fell from the attic and smashed her head on the fake mountain. Her face …”

“Rest assured, Lord Zhou. This humble one understands.” Ji Yunshu responded. 

She put down her sandalwood box and opened it carefully. Inside the box lay many handcrafted and elaborate painting tools. The box had three layers: the first layer contained seven to eight small brushes with silver ridges engraved with a luan bird [1] and clouds; the second layer was indented and served to mix paints with water; the third and final layer of the box held 48 different paints across the spectrum. The sandalwood box was unassuming from the outside, but its contents were more than fully-equipped for the task at hand.

Several maidservants kept peeking curiously into the box. They had never seen these kinds of painting supplies before.

A pageboy returned with a silk brocade which he spread out on the table for Ji Yunshu to draw next to the coffin. 

Within the coffin, one could see the Zhou Family’s young miss’ face festering from the numerous places where her flesh had split due to the fall. Stark white bones protruded from her cheeks. Her eyes had popped out of their sockets, one pushed upwards into the superior orbits, while the other dangled just outside. Her nose bridge was also completely fractured. The horrific fall only spared her lips and teeth.

Who could look at her corpse without feeling nauseous? However, this list of injuries did indeed concur with injuries that would be sustained by someone who fell from significant height.

Ji Yunshu next examined the body's hair and clothing. The young miss was dressed in a beautifully embroidered pink outfit, neatly and tidily arranged around her frame. Gold and silver head ornaments adorned her raven black hair purposefully. 

The Zhou family definitely deserved to be called rich. No wonder the county magistrate begged her to come over.

After Ji Yunshu carefully observed the corpse, she turned to the table and took out several paints, then picked out the third brush. She traced a few lines in black ink onto the brocade. It did not take long for a shape to take form with her brushstrokes. She then slowly filled in the details, and coloured in her painting, repeating this process as she made adjustments along the way ... 

The surrounding people grew silent, stupefied at the sight of the image she painted.

There was a rumour about a great artist from Jinjiang city that worked for the yamen [2] as a yamen runner  [3]. That person was rumoured to specialise in recreating the portraits of dead people, regardless of how badly the corpse was mangled, burned or decomposed beyond recognition. It was said that he could draw a portrait from even a pile of bones.

With a pair of skillful hands and a sandalwood box, that person could bring miracles to life.

After ninety minutes, Ji Yunshu finally put away her brush and dusted some dirt from her sleeves.

Editor's notes:

[1] A Luan Bird is like a blue and male version of a phoenix. For more information click here; for the image, click here.

[2] A yamen is a governmental office in Ancient China. Click here for more information

[3] A yamen runner is the lowest position for menial labour/servant in a yamen. They are separated into different ranks and perform different tasks, differentiated by the colour of their uniform. They are usually employed by the government for various odd-jobs from sedan bearers, door guards, secretary to policemen and jailers - i.e. they are the government’s servants. Of course, as Ji Yunshu helped the county magistrate solve many cases and identified many unidentified corpses, she received special treatment and is not considered a regular yamen runner.

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