Chapter 1 - Prison District One, Black Word

Book One

Chapter 1 - Prison District One, Black Word

Note : Terms with English equivalent will be translated in English. Terms with no English equivalent or too much of a mouthful when translated (i.e. son of wife's cousin on the mother side...) will be keep in pinyin. The explanations will be put in footnotes and, later, add in glossary.


“Some people say that this place is like the netherworld, that we’re akin to those demon servants working in King of Hell’s Palace. Such nonsense! This is clearly a load of nonsense! This is irresponsible slander from people who do not understand us! These kind of prejudices and misunderstandings, these unfounded criticisms, are the ones that force us to undertake our tasks in grief! This is what makes the most loyal and dutiful of us lament in despair!”

The person who had just spoken was dressed in the light blue uniform worn by yamen runners[1][2]. He was wearing a conspicuous hat made of varnished cloth that was somewhat bigger than his head. His waist was wrapped with an old-fashioned red woven girdle. As for footwear, he was wearing ill-fitting white socks with black long boots. That way of dressing clearly indicated that he was just a jailer.

However, he was standing inside Peking’s Ministry of Justice Prison District One, Black Word, where daylight never reached the ground. He had just closed a prison cell door after some criminal officials. His tone and appearance as humble as one of those associates trying to rope in more business for the “Flushed with Success” restaurant, he only missed a towel around his shoulders meant to wipe off sweat to complete the image.

He was very young, barely at the age where a youth becomes a young man. He was neither tall nor short, with an average figure and appearance. Yet, arched eyebrows highlighted a pair of exceptionally clever eyes. Most of all, he had well defined lips that shaped his mouth in a manner similar to a water caltrop, causing a canine to slightly poke out from between his red lips.

His laugh was limpid like flowing water, warm and kind like a maiden. “My surname is Ye, called Ye Xiaotian. I’ve been hanging out in this prison since I was three. I was 16 years old the year I officially took my dad’s place and became a guard at this Prison District One, Black Word. Today, it’s already the 8th year of Wanli Reign.[3] Taking everything into account, I’ve been working for the emperor for three years now. Thanks to the acknowledgement of the lord managing the prison, I stand here as the acting chief of this maximum security prison nowadays. I, Xiaotian, have a pure and good character…”

Ye Xiaotian was just about to blow his own trumpet when a jailer in his thirties quickly walked next to him and reported something in a low voice next to his ear. “Chief, someone is causing trouble, saying things like our meals are coarse, the bedding too damp, you see…”

Ye Xiaotian slightly bent his head and asked in a low voice, “Which blind bastard is this? What kind of place does he think this is for him to still act unbridled?”

The jailer replied in a low voice, “It’s the former Supreme Court Junior Government Office Deputy, Guan Yun.”

Once again, Ye Xiaotian inquired, “Did you check his background?”

The old jailer replied, “He’s guilty of corruption and pilfered 50,000 taels of silvers. The Grand Secretary personally agreed to his arrest. Those behind him have also been arrested with no hope of being released.”

Ye Xiaotian nodded and glanced surreptitiously at the two criminals who had just been imprisoned out of the corner of his eye. He still wore a smiling expression, a smile that could be considered even more elegant than those of many young girls. From his mouth, well-framed by thin lips, came a low voice that was only heard by the jailer standing besides him.

“This group of corrupted officials born with no assholes! During old man Hongwu’s reign[4], 60 taels of silver was enough reason to peel off a criminal’s skin. He thinks he can make demands nowadays after embezzling 50,000 taels of silver? Is this prison a place where he can enjoy his retirement? This is really giving him face. Since he dislikes sleeping on an uncomfortable bed, then send him to that empty cell in the farthest corner of the prison and give him a bundle of straw that pigs sleep on. Give him only a bowl of fresh water per day. It’s alright as long as he’s hungry but doesn’t die.”

The jailer anxiously replied, “Chief, what should we do if he can’t take it and tries to commit suicide?”

Ye Xiaotian sneered, “Someone who is fussy even in a place like this would never be willing to die. You don’t need to beat or verbally abuse him. It’ll be enough if you just ignore him. When he submits, make him clean the chamber pots for a month as punishment. I don’t believe I won’t be able to curb him after this!”

The jailer gave a shady smile. He accepted the order and left right after.

Ye Xiaotian quietly sighed. As he faced all those criminal officials who had just arrived, he showed a smile that felt like a gentle spring breeze, and spoke in a compassionate and amiable voice, “Everyone, you’re all high ranking dignified officials, wearing jade and brocade clothes and eating fine food. Although you have fallen, you are still great nobles. I, Xiaotian, will do my utmost to take care of you and make all of you feel at home inside my prison district, Black Word.”

When he was done speaking, he greeted them with his clasped hands and a smiling face. From his expression to his posture, at a glance, it looked like he was striking a pose on stage, as if he was taking into consideration every single one of his “spectators”. When he was done, he marched out, his appearance and bearing similar to a dignified patriarch patrolling his family compound.

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The Ministry of Justice prison, commonly called the Celestial Prison, was divided into four prison districts: Heaven, Earth, Black and Yellow. Black Word was a prison district that looked after those officials sent to prison by Brother “Ka-ching!”. The great majority of them were fat, greasy and rubbish masters. Therefore, the Black Word sector in the Celestial Prison was a place for those whose crimes were just ill-gotten gains.

However, this place for imprisoning officials had a distinctly different flavor than a normal prison. One could be held prisoner today, but tomorrow could be restored to their official post. As such, even if they were sent to prison, as someone who were once officials, their treatment were not the same as ordinary convicts. If any one of them wanted to commit suicide or mutilate themselves, the jailers would have bad luck as well.

However, if the jailers blindly indulged the prisoners, endured their tyrannical abuse, or even colluded with them and gave them information, the jailers would still suffer. What was difficult for the jailers was also a problem to the Celestial Prison Head Jailer who needed every trick in the book as well as the requisite ability to deal with such a group of people.

Ye Xiaotian was sixteen when he’d taken up his old man’s post. Thus, he became a jailer in Prison District One, Black Word. After barely three years of effort, he was promoted to Prison Chief. His methods were clearly uncommon.

Ordinarily, when new guilty officials came in, other jailers would report the situation to Ye Xiaotian. There was no need for Ye Xiaotian to appear personally. However, two months prior, the Censor-in-chief,[5] Liu Fenghui, had petitioned the Emperor, censuring the Head of the Ministry of Revenue for misconduct and embezzlement of the treasury, which then had caused two calamities. The first calamity was the imposition of forced labor on the commoners by the county head magistrates. The second calamity was the subsequent thievery by the nobles. Robbing the commoners and taking advantage of them causing the disparity between the poor and the wealthy to widen further. Under such tyranny, the common people could only bitterly endure without a word.

Wanli Emperor took the contents of the petition very seriously. He immediately handed down an imperial edict ordering a strict and secretive investigation inside the Ministry of Revenue’s office and the treasury in preparation for a clean-up operation. He also sealed off any rumors from spreading as to lessen the burden on the common people. At the same time, he also ordered the three judicial chief ministries[6] to strictly investigate any officials, nobles and their relatives who were harming the common people and doing illegal activities. As a result, the Celestial Prison had suddenly became crowded when more than ten offending officials were sent behind bars. Ye Xiaotian took the situation very seriously. This was why he’d put in a personal appearance and had come to take care of the situation.

“Little Brother, that book of western astrology you brought last time, this old man has earnestly studied it. It gave me great insights. Come here, come here! Let this old man read your fortune.”

Ye Xiaotian was about to leave when he suddenly heard a voice greeting him from the next prison cell. At the same time, an arm that resembled a dried up branch stretched out from between the wooden fences that made up the prison door and walls and waved at him enthusiastically.

The prison’s wooden fences were made of thick, circular logs. The new paint on it was peeling off at some places, revealing layers upon layers of chapped old paint. This sight was a silent testament of how long these aged wooden fences stood. The fence posts were driven into the ground a hand's width apart, allowing any offending official with a thin face to pass their head through without effort.

The prisoner appeared to be an old man with sunken cheeks, attired in a very dirty and completely wrinkled prisoner uniform whose original color could no longer be determined. He would have been completely bald if it wasn’t for the few sparse white and gray hairs that were still tenaciously standing, rooted on his red scalp like wild grass rising from the earth.

The bald old man was Yang Lin, once the Ministry of Appointments’ Minister of Foreign Affairs whose responsibility was to manage officials. At the time, it could even be said that if he wanted wind, he would have wind. If he wanted rain, he would receive rain. Unfortunately, even after three years, there was still no verdict for his crimes, since he implicated some important people behind the scene.

This Yang Lin was always obsessed with mystical arts. When he was a official, he didn’t have much time to research the subject, but during these three years in the prison, he was quite idle and passed his days researching the Book of Changes[7] and Guiguzi[8]. As he kept studying these mysterious things, he became more and more engrossed to the point where his mental state grew deranged, earning himself the nickname “The Illuminated One”.

Yang, the Illuminated One, always put into practice what he learned, so he was always in search of someone to test out his skill. No jailers nor offending officials were interested in coping with his babbling nonsense. Therefore, his sole testing volunteer was Ye Xiaotian. At this point, he had tried bone reading, trigram divining, face reading, fortune telling based on Ye Xiaotian’s date and time of birth, and many more… In fact, Ye Xiaotian’s whole body was subjected to his tests.

Ye Xiaotian was also not very convinced by Yang’s babbling nonsense, but he still made an expression full of interest as he squatted in front of Yang Lin.

In the case something was to happen to the offending officials, especially those who had yet to be sentenced, as the prison chief, he would inevitably have to bear the consequences since they were his responsibility. Therefore, Ye Xiaotian was always racking his brain to give the prisoners a reason to live.

Yang Lin was already doomed, he would never escape from this prison. His death was preordained, and at this point, only a question of when. His fate depended on the outcome of the battles between the top brass in the imperial court. Ever since it was certain that he would not escape the charges placed on him, his family no longer came to visit him, as if there were no more feelings of love.

For those kind of people, to be mistreated in such a way by their closed ones would only hasten their early demise. Good wine and good tea alone wouldn’t urge him to keep on living. Fortunately, Yang, the Illuminated One, loved to research the occult. Thus, Ye Xiaotian simply followed Yang’s desires and gathered many specialised books on the subject for him. Nowadays, Yang Lin was completely obsessed with the occult, in large part thanks to Ye Xiaotian’s efforts.

Ye Xiaotian squatted in front of the prison door acting as if he was in high spirits. He asked, “Lord Yang, did you gain something through your research? Haha! As expected, you’re a very able person. I heard the western missionaries said that their astrology is based on the movements of the Sun, which is something very difficult for us Easterners to clearly comprehend and learn.”

Yang Lin smoothed out his sparse beard and proudly declared, “My knowledge is extremely profound. That insignificant astrology theory from the West is far lacking compared to the methods in my country’s Book of Changes. What could not be understood! Come here, come here! Quickly tell me your date, month, hour and year of birth.”

Ye Xiaotian cooperated with the man and told him the information he wanted. Yang, the Illuminated One, immediately sank into contemplation before saying, “Oh! So let me convert this to the western calendar…”

Yang Lin started to calculate something using his fingers and mumble for a long time. Suddenly his expression shook as he exclaimed, “I’ve got it! You! According to your birth time, your astrological sign should be a Gemini. People born under the signs of Gemini are all very clever and quick-witted. They have a dual nature similar to the two opposites in Yin and Yang, mutually in constant ebb and rise. Kindhearted as well as wicked; happy but also melancholic; gentle not without ruthlessness, everything combined into a whole. Ah… such intricacy, and true complexity…”

Yang Lin ended his speech on those words while constantly shaking his bald head. Acting like a good listener, Ye Xiaotian seized the opportune moment to ask a question, “In that case, may I ask what my fate will be?”

Right at that moment, an extremely courteous and sonorous voice was heard from the next prison cell, “Little Ye…” Ye Xiaotian hurriedly waved his hand to interrupt Yang Lin and like a door to door salesman, he put the eager attitude he previously had and beamed a smile as he spoke, “Assistant Minister Huang, I don’t know what instructions you have for me?”

Assistant Minister Huang took out some silvers and passed it through the fences of the prison cell. He calmly spoke, “I would inconvenience Leader Ye to buy one soy-braised pork shoulder from Tian Fu Hao in my stead. Tell the butcher I want them to be cut in thin slices. Also buy me one roast chicken soaked in spices. It has to be fresh out of the oven. As for the wine… It has to be Shaoxing Yellow Wine, five years or older.”

“Good! Wait for just a moment, I’ll return right away.”

Ye Xiaotian took the pieces of silver and estimated their weight with his hand. After he let someone go buy the meat and wine for Assistant Minister Huang, there was still quite a lot of money left. He didn’t expected that at the end of his shift today he would be able to make some profit. As he left, his footsteps were lighthearted.

Keeping watch of Black Word, Prison District One, a courtyard house surrounded by tall walls; dealing with fallen officials one after another, keeping watch on them, intimidating them, coaxing them, deceiving them, and even earning a bit of money on the side, this was Ye Xiaotian’s happy everyday life. He believed that this kind of “good day” would always continue, but he never expected that this would be his last day at the Celestial Prison.


[1] A yamen is a governmental office. Click here for more information

[2] In the raws, it's written 皂隶 (zào lì) which is the lowest position for menial labor/servant in a yamen. They are separates into different tasks and ranks. The color of their uniform differ following their tasks. Only in the Ming Dynasty, there are zaoli with blue uniform as described in the chapter. Other names that could be used for zaoli are yayi (衙役), chaiyi (差役) or yamen runner. They are usually employed for various odd-jobs from sedan bearers, door guards, secretary to policemen and jailers. The common point is they work in a yamen. In other words, they are the government's servants. Here's the MC uniform. Click here and here(It's optional, but this link will be useful to understand better the next chapter) for more informations.

[3] What is "The 8th year of Wanli Reign"? It's the 8th year since Wanli Emperor suceeded to Longqing Emperor. This is the simple explanation. If you want the more detailed explanations, keep reading.

In Ancient China, they use the Chinese era name to number the years following the regnal year, regnal period or regnal title of the reigning emperor, which is completely independent from the calendar systems (yes, it's in plural and I'm not getting into this for now.). It also mean that you could have different Chinese era name at the same time and, during an emperor's reign, he could also change the era name as he deemed fit. The good thing is during the Ming and Qing Dynasty, most emperors will only use one era name. For more infos, click here.

Now, where in the timeline this story is situated. To start with, Wanli Reign meant, it's during the reign era of Emperor Shenzong, more known as Wanli Emperor, who is a descendant of Hongwu Emperor which is the founder of the Great Ming Dynasty. In other words, we're at the beginning of the Ming Dynasty's declined. If you converted that into gregorian calendar, the story is taking place in 1580 which is like around 200 years after the fall of the Yuan Dynasty (Mongol Dynasty). The retreat of the Mongols to the North caused the decline and disintegration of the Silk Road around that time, forcing the Europeans into the Age of Discovery. Years later, 1523, the first Europeans set foot on the coast of China again through maritime routes and, in 1557, the Portuguese settlement in Macau created the first European maritime trade post. (I like it when History is put together into a single piece of World History.)

[4] Between 1368-1398

[5] The Censorate are high ranking officials who inspected other officials and impeached to the Emperor if there is fault or if the officials act without morals or virtues. They are the eyes and ears of the Emperor. For more informations, click here and here.

[6] The three judicial ministries is called like this because it's a team composed of the Grand Court of Revision, the Censorate and the Ministry of Justice. The Emperor would usually summoned the three judicial ministries for a joint investigation when there is a very big case that needs to be resolved. Reference here.

[7] The Book of Changes or the Yijing is a book of divination lore. It's also the oldest book of the Chinese Classics. I won't go too much in details because it's super complicate and besides, we're going to have more footnotes on divination next chapter. You can check out the brief overview of it, here.

[8] Guiguzi is a book, or to be precise, a treatise on the art of persuasion based on Daoist thinking. For more information here (the book summary gives a better idea) and here.


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