Chapter 3 - The Road One Must Follow

Book One

Chapter 3 - The Road One Must Follow

Note : If you're a visual person, here's a useful map for this chapter. The Capital is situated in the pink region called Pei-Chih-Li (Beijing). If you have difficulty reading the other map, here's a simplified and colorful one.

Yang Lin’s heart palpitated with fear for a good while. He released Ye Xiaotian’s ankle before slowly speaking, “When I was still in power, at the peak of my glory, I was like Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, who acceded to every plea. As long as someone beseeched me, I just give an order and he would go back satisfied. As for myself, I beseeched the Heavens, but no son was given to me.”

“Perhaps, I committed too many misdeeds. So, in my later years, I built bridges and repaired roads; contributed to education and helped the poor; and donated great amount of incense money to temples. I incessantly amassed good karma, but still, no son was born. With no other choice, I was forced to adopt a relative’s son.”

A melancholy sigh escaped Yang Lin before he continued, “In the end, he’s not my own flesh and blood. Throughout my life, I only have a daughter. Her mother is my concubine, and doesn’t usually received any kindness from my main wife. This old man is afraid that after I die, my wife will no longer have any scruples and will make life harder for mother and daughter.”

Ye Xiaotian asked suspiciously, “Lord Yang, what do you mean by that?”

Yang Lin sobbed as he spoke, “My daughter is charming, cute, witty and intelligent. How I hate in those days, I was only preoccupied by power and position. I didn’t give her much happiness as a child. Now, it is too late for regrets. This old man has violated the law and order of the country, and I admit that even death could not erase my sins. What I’m only worried about is my only daughter.”

His sight slowly fixed itself on Ye Xiaotian as he continued speaking, “I want to write a letter. Please deliver it to my house and let them divide the family properties according to my wishes. I want a part of it to become my daughter’s dowry and ensure that she will not have to worry about food and clothes through her life. Do you agree to this request?”

Ye Xiaotian spoke with astonishment, “This is the big matter milord mentioned?”

Yang Lin solemnly nodded. He replied, “You’re correct! I held power in my hand and coveted money all my life. Finally, when it is clear that death is near at hand, in the end, the most important thing buried in the depths of my heart is this matter!”

Ye Xiaotian sighed. “It’s feasible! I just can’t go against 52 taels of silver, so this dearly benevolent me must help you. Without a doubt, being wealthy is good. Hahaha! But… Since it involves dividing the family properties, I’m afraid the words out of the mouth of a youngster like me would hardly be believed. I’ll need your lordship to leave another letter indicating that I’m acting on your behalf. Please wait for me, I’ll be back with brush, paper and ink-stone.”

Yang Lin spoke, his voice betraying his gratitude, “Good! My home is in the Jingzhou prefecture[1] of Huguang province[2]. If you help me deliver this letter on my behalf, the reward of 52 taels of silver is certainly not much!”

Suddenly, Ye Xiaotian’s eyes widened as surprise colored his tone, “Jingzhou prefecture of Huguang province? Is that a region outside of the capital?”

Yang Lin glanced at him strangely before replying, “What do you mean? Jingzhou prefecture is in Jingzhou prefecture, of course it’s outside of the capital.”

‘I know it’s outside of Peking city, but where is it outside?’ Ever since he was born, the farthest place he could remember, when he recalled the desolate and luxuriant world scenery inside the “Classic of Mountains and Seas”[3], was Tongzhou district[4], which bordered Peking to the southeast. Ye Xiaotian frantically shook his head like a rattle-drum. “No, no, no! No way! I can’t do it! I won’t even be able to find North if I were to leave the surroundings of the Capital.”

Yang Lin interrupted him. “Five hundreds taels! I’ll give you 500 taels as a reward. How about it? With this amount of money, you won’t need to work for a lifetime!”

“Fi-five hundreds taels….” Ye Xiaotian palpitated with excitement and was eager to go right away. But he shook his head with determination. This kind of internal struggle would only be temporary. But he wanted to go to Huguang province to deliver a letter. ‘Huguang, eh? Transportation to there is inconvenient and communications are a decade out of date. From the sound of it, it seems such a faraway place…’

As Ye Xiaotian mentioned, he’d never left the Capital even once. The thought of such a perilous journey left him feeling irresolute even in the face of such profit. He hesitated for a while, then declined in the end. “That place is very faraway. It would be better to wait for your family to come to the capital. At that time, I’ll pass them…”

Yang Lin smiled in distress before urging, “This old man has been imprisoned for three years. Ever since they knew it was impossible for me to be released, no one came to visit me. My relation with my main wife has always been apathetic. If you were to wait for her to arrange people to transport my coffin from afar, who knows until what year and what month you’ll end up waiting for them to come.”

When Ye Xiaotian heard the word “afar”, he just didn’t want to agree. He repeatedly shook his head. “I am unable to accomplish this. Lord Yang, please find someone more qualified than me.”

Yang Lin argued, “Who can I ask? There’s roughly one day left, what better person can be found?”

Immediately, Ye Xiaotian’s expression stiffened.

Yang Lin sighed, “The criminal officials in here often used silver to make you, jailers, go buy food. From my point of view, the other jailers didn’t have any scruples to embezzle, so some will substitute the requested goods while many simply collect all the money. Only you attach the utmost importance in fulfilling the requests. Although you’re greedy for profit, you never break your promises. Therefore, you’re the only one I can believe in.”

Ye Xiaotian shook his head and said, “You speak too highly of me. This journey is really too far. I, Xiaotian, am just a tiny loach in a house pond. I have yet to see any stormy seas. Your request, this youngster is unable to accomplish it. I’m taking my leave!”

Ye Xiaotian cupped his hands and turned around to leave. Yang Lin loudly shouted, “Five hundred taels, five hundred taels! This is enough for you to live your whole life with riches and honor. Don’t tell me that you’re willing to be an insignificant little chief jailer your whole life?”

Ye Xiaotian didn’t turn back, rather he walked faster. In the distance, echoed his voice singing a very articulated and vocalized version of Kunqu Opera’s lyrics, “I am just~ a little sparrow in the imperial city, without desire to soar to the Nine Heavens to be a Kun turning into a Peng[5]. Because the Peng knows not of the brambling’s way~”

Ye Xiaotian’s voice faded away in the distance. Yang Lin stupidly stood at the same place, supporting himself on the fences as he listened to Xiaotian’s voice. His head slowly rose after a long, long time. Gazing into the darkness, his muttering was like a deep sigh, “The Peng, perhaps, is really not as good as a brambling…”


Ye Xiaotian’s house was on Wujie street, west of Quzi lane. His left neighbor was an executioner by inheritance and his family still ran a groceries store. His right neighbor inherited the position of coroner while the rest of his family operated a meat shop. The Ye family was situated between them and had the lowest social status.

After entering the tiny courtyard house and passing through the doors, he caught sight of his old mother, Ye Dou-shi, carrying a bamboo basket to feed the chickens. Only several old hens were clucking while chasing lively after the feed that was thrown around. At that moment, a big rooster that was basking under the sun at the foot of a wall could be heard rushing over with its head high, its chest out and back held in a very domineering way. Like palace servants, the crowd of chicken was forced to part to the side.

Ye Xiaotian called out to his old mother, “Mother, I’m back.”

Ye Dou-shi[6] was silent with a gloomy expression. Slightly surprised, Ye Xiaotian was about to inquire when he heard a sudden burst of curses coming from inside the west room. The loud voice was naturally his father’s voice, “You! You muddled-head boy! You damn indecisive and timid little fart! Having such rotten ideas.”

Ye Xiaotian asked with astonishment, “Mother, who is dad scolding? Did Big Brother come back?”

Ye Dou-shi wanted to say something but hesitated. In the end, she only sighed heavily.

Ye Xiaotian hurriedly said, “I’ll go see!”

He hurriedly went over to the west room, and lifted the door curtain to take a look. He was just in time to see his father, Old Man Ye, in a frenzy, busy hitting his big brother, Ye Xiaoan, with a broom. Ye Xiaoan was protecting his head while curled up in a ball on the kang[7], a heatable brick bed, with his butt sticking out. He couldn’t avoid the hit, and neither could he yell out. He could only let his father thrash him with the broom.

Ye Xiaotian quickly stepped forward to stop his father and tried to persuade him, “What’s going on? Dad, you’re old, you shouldn’t be angry. As a family, what problem can’t be properly discussed? Big Brother is after all a member of the family. As the older generation, lecturing him with a few sentences should be enough, why the need to exert yourself?”

While trying to persuade his father, Ye Xiaotian was sending meaningful glances to his Big Brother. Ye Xiaoan and Ye Xiaotian were twins. Appearance wise, they were a carbon copy of each other. As for their expression and temperament, they were poles apart. While Xiaotian was frighteningly smart, Xiaoan could be seen as simple and honest person. With one glance from his little brother, he knew it was time to hurriedly sneak away.

Xiaotian pulled his father, who was gasping for breath due to his anger, to sit on the heatable brick bed. He sat down and kept his father company. Then, he wrapped an arm around his father’s shoulders before affectionately saying, “Dad, Big Brother is such an honest man. What did he do to be able to make you this furious?”

Old Ye was once again filled with anger when he heard the question. He spoke with fury, “This bastard is infuriating me to death! You ask me what he did? All you’re asking is what he’s capable of doing?!”

Ye Xiaotian obediently listened and could vaguely understand a few things. He probed his father by asking, “What? Big Brother’s rice workshop… is business not doing well?”

Old Ye slapped his thigh before continuing, “Not doing well? If it was only that, your father would burn incense to the Ancestors! This stupid bastard! His rice workshop business is failing with a bundle of debts. The shop had barely opened, it was run on a bank by the people and was taken as payment.”

“Your sister-in-law returned to her parents’ home in a fit of anger. Now, you tell me if your big brother didn’t deserve to be scolded. A perfectly all right business can’t go on like this. Even more exasperating, from start to finish, he didn’t listen to my advice and decided everything by himself. Does he still put his father in his eyes?”

Ye Xiaotian quickly comforted him, “Dad, what’s done is already done. There’s no use in getting angry. In any case, getting more angry will sadden Big Brother. Besides, loss and profits are both part of doing business. If there were no such things, won’t everyone started doing business? You’re not young anymore, you should not get angry.”

Old Ye was silent for a moment. He heavily sighed, and then slowly spoke, “It’s not important if Dad is getting angry or not. What’s important now is that your sister-in-law is angry at your brother. To start with, her family is stronger than us. We are the one who benefits from this marriage. However, your brother failed to live up to expectations…”

Glistening teardrops could be faintly seen pooling inside Old Ye’s eyes as he ranted and confided in his son, feeling broken-hearted. “It’s dad’s fault for not having any ability! Our ancestors’ inheritance is only that bowl of rice. But, I have two sons, who should I give it to? Dad has pondered and taken lots of things into account. Since you were a bit clever, you won’t eat any losses inside the prison, that’s why I handed over my position to you.”

“Because of that, I felt like I was unfair to your big brother. Therefore, I took out all the savings I had from scrimping and saving my whole life. I gave it to him so he could buy a workshop. Then, I helped him marry a wife. Dad… Dad had used everything in his power to help him!”

Old Ye’s voice was choked with emotions. Finally, his tears silently streamed down. “Your brother had no ability with his hands and couldn’t shoulder the burden. He’s just plainly honest, but what the damn use does that have?! It’s just a detriment when he has a family to feed. These days, if you don’t scrape to make a living, how would you be able to go on in the future? Just blame your dad for not having any ability…”

Old Ye covered his grief-stricken face with his hand. His tears flowed along his hand before dripping down. Ye Xiaoan hadn’t run out far, he was crouching just on the other side of the room’s curtain and heard all of his father’s words. His heart was gripped with misery. He couldn’t stop himself from wailing loudly, “Dad! You’re old, don’t blame yourself. The truth is, it’s my fault. It’s your son who’s useless…”

When Ye Xiaotian saw his father weeping, his nose also felt sour. He hurriedly forced himself to not cry. He pretended to be relaxed as he spoke, “Dad, what are you doing? Letting the neighbors hear, won’t they take our Ye Family as a joke? Big Brother’s matters are easy to handle. Isn’t it better if you let Big Brother take over the position of jailer?”

Startled, Old Ye took a moment to recover, then shook his head, “That won’t do! Xiaoan will rush headlong into disaster. How can he take over your position?”

Ye Xiaoan spoke hesitantly from behind the curtain, “Little Brother, this matter won’t do. Even if your Big Brother starved to death, I won’t fight with you over your bowl of rice. Your sister-in-law really doesn’t want to be with me, so let her be! I might be useless, but I’m not without a conscience!”

Father Ye hit the kang with his fist then roared towards the exterior of the room, “Shut up! What ability, do you have any ability now? If you have any, the first thing to do with it is to bring back my daughter-in-law! You muddle-headed idiot!”

Ye Xiaoan’s courage was small, so when his father raged at him, he ran out of the house in fright. Father Ye cursed at his eldest son, then shook his head at Ye Xiaotian. His state of mind was a bit more calm now. “It can’t be done. You take care of your own things. Heaven never bars one’s way. For your brother’s matters, dad has his own methods.”

Ye Xiaotian smiled carefreely as he said, “Dad, no need to think about it. Let’s do things according to your son! The truth is I originally returned home today is to discuss this matter of the prison’s employment. Even if Big Brother’s workshop was operating without a hitch, I still wanted to ask Dad to find someone to substitute for me because I wanted to take a trip to a faraway place.”

Old Ye spoke with shock, “A faraway place? You want to go?”

“Something like that…”

Ye Xiaotian retold the whole story to his dad. “Dad, I want to go. But it’s only to deliver a letter and there’s a reward of 500 taels of silver. With 500 taels, do I still need to rely on that bowl of rice? Do I even need to earn a living?”

When Old Ye heard Ye Xiaotian’s words, his desires was greatly stirred. That was 500 hundred taels of silver! Such a huge sum of money, it was something one couldn’t possibly dare to dream about. ‘Can Xiaotian succeed by climbing high mountains and traversing distant waters?’

At present, transportation was inconvenient with barely any workers traveling from one place to another. What more, the public security of various regions in the country were hardly the same. Thus, traveling to distant places was a very challenging matter and it could take a very long time for one to reach his destination. To go on such a journey, there might be no opportunity to see each other again in this life. Out there, life and death were two sides of the same coin.

Apart from refugees who couldn’t make a living, only peddlers who benefited from trading, people who took on an official post and scholars studying abroad would leave their hometown. But those 500 taels of silver were quite tempting, especially right now, when such a big matter happened and they were in urgent need of money to repay those debts. If it was before, Old Ye wouldn’t need to think too much before replying, but at present...

He hesitated for a long time before he spoke, voice laced with concern, “Son, you have never traveled to a distant place. Such a long journey, do you think you can accomplish it?”

Ye Xiaotian’s heart was in great distress. Not only was he apprehensive of the long journey, he was also extremely reluctant to let go of his treasured rice bowl. However, when he saw the numerous wrinkles on his father’s face, he asked himself if he could let his father, who had worked hard all his life for them, continue doing so? Or could he sit indifferently on the side and watch as his blood-related brother’s marriage fell apart?

Ye Xiaotian relaxed his face as he said to his Old Man, “Dad, don’t look down on your own son! It’s just a letter delivery. Such a trivial thing, how can I not be able to do it? I want to go! The truth is I don’t really like dull places like the Celestial Prison. This delivery is an opportunity for me.”

As he looked as the greying hair on his father’s temples, Ye Xiaotian gently gripped his father’s big calloused hands before softly continuing, “Dad, I always felt that no matter how much money there is, it will always be spent. No matter how much power we have, there will inevitably be a day it will slip through our hands. Even if we have an enormous family property, everything in this world collapses in the face of natural calamities and man-made disasters.”

“A man must have some real ability to walk through life. As long as he has skills, even if he is empty-handed and penniless, even if everything has collapsed, he can rebuild it once again. Allow me to go out to temper myself and grow through experience. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll have a big future.”

When Old Ye heard his son, his old heart was greatly comforted. He looked at the obviously still young and immature face decorated with a light fuzz above the lips. Suddenly, he felt that his son had already grown up. Unfortunately, Xiaoan, that child, was very naive. Otherwise, that letter delivery would have fallen on him as the oldest one. Now, he could only rely on his second son to make the delivery.

When Ye Xiaotian saw his father appeased in front of his eyes, his heart couldn’t help but fill with relief. But when he remembered the address Yang, the Illuminated One, had given him, his heart once again tensed, “Jingzhou prefecture, this sounds like a faraway place on the other side of the world. Sigh…”

[1] Jingzhou prefecture (靖州府) is a city in the Hunan side of the once Huguang province which has now become Jingzhou Miao and Dong Autonomous County. For more informations, click here.

[2] Huguang province (湖广) encompassed what was once Jingzhou (荊州府)[different Chinese characters from above]. After the fall of the Ming dynasty, the Qing split it into two administrative provinces : Hunan and Hubei.

The city of Jingzhou(靖州府) in this story is situated in Hunan while the now reduced to a prefecture-level city, Jingzhou (荊州府), is situated in the southern side of Hubei, just north to city Jingzhou(靖州府). For more informations, click here. For the visual map, google maps.

[3] The Classic of Mountains and Seas (山海经) is a classic from ancient China which describes the geography of various regions of China, including the culture and myths. For more informations, click here.

[4] Tongzhou (通州) can be translate as "the place for passing through" as you need pass through there be it from land or sea before you can reach the capital Beijing. For more informations, click here. If you want to know where's it's situated look at the map here.

[5] The Kun and Peng is a myth about a giant fish called Kun (鲲) which transformed into a giant bird named Peng (鹏). As a bird, it was able to soar into the sky and journey to the southern darkness which is the Lake of Heaven. With one beat of its wings, the sea roiled and boats are capsized. For more informations about it and to read the complete myth, click here. (Random rants from TL : The personification of animals reminds me of La Fontaine's Fables.)

[6] shi (氏) is a suffix word which is used for married women. It's always associated with the woman's maiden family name. A concrete example, instead of saying Mrs Smith like westerners do, Chinese would say something like Wife of the Smith family, from the Baker family. So, Ye Dou-shi meant Ye family wife, from the Dou family.

(Random rant from TL: Chinese and their complex social hierarchy. -_-lll )

[7] It's a type of bed used a lot in Northern China and Korea. It's literally a stove made into a bed to keep people warm during cold winter nights because resources is quite lacking to heat a whole house for the common people and they don't want to freeze to death while sleeping. Click here for the picture and click here for more informations. (TL : I have never sleep on such things, so I thought it would be comfortable with all the heat coming from under the bed, but my Chinese teacher told me that it's the most horrible bed he slept on. Why? Because the heat made his back sweat but since it's very cold, his front was freezing. So he would spend the night in a state of half hot and half cold, like Tang San in the Ying Yang Well.)

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