1636 The China Venture – Snippet 08
Year of the Rooster, Tenth Month (November 2-30, 1633)
“Master Fang, we should go back home to Tongcheng,” said Xudong. “Seeing your wife and child will cheer you up, won’t it?”
“It would, for a few days. But while my boy is too young to know better, my wife, my aunt, my father, and all my friends and relations would know that I failed my family. I need to wait until my failure is not as bright in my memory before I can bear to see them.”
They left the examination compound, but this time Yizhi paused in front of the Old Court, Nanjing’s most famous brothel. “Xudong, you head back to our lodging. I need to unwind.”
When Yizhi left the Old Court, it was already daybreak.
He went back to his lodgings to find Xudong. Despite the noise of passing carts, Xudong was still asleep.
“Wake up, Xudong. Rise and shine.”
“You were inaptly named, Xudong,” he said as Xudong finally stirred. “Your mother should have named you after the setting sun.” The name Xudong meant rising sun, that having been the time of day that the servant had been born.
“I think the sun rises earlier here than it does back in Tongcheng,” Xudong grumbled.
“I need you to go to the apothecary for a hangover cure,” said Yizhi. “Consider it a matter of life or death.”
“Right away, sir! And welcome home!”
“Not home yet, but soon.”
When Xudong returned with the medicine, Yizhi poured the concoction into his tea, and sipped. And sipped again.
Some minutes later, he announced, “that apothecary should have his name inscribed in the Veritable Records as a Benefactor of All Mankind. The stuff tasted vile, but it works.”
“Glad to hear it, young master.”
“Now, I am going to sleep for a million years,” said Yizhi. “Do not wake me up even if the city is on fire.”
Yizhi visited the examination compound once more. As he crossed the courtyard before the Great Gate, he felt insubstantial, like a ghost. It was a sunny day, but the sun did not appear to have power to warm him.
Still, he had a better reason to be here than just to suffer regrets. Here, he could show his entry certificate and pay a small fee for the privilege of having his marked-up exam papers returned to him. He would go home to Tongcheng, read the examiner’s comments and meditate upon them, and, three years from now, he would pass.
That night, he did not return to the Old Court, but he played for several hours on his zither. And the following day, he had Xudong pack up their belongings, and they headed for the docks. It was time to return to Tongcheng.
“I am glad that I saw the Southern Capital before I died, Young Master, but I am even gladder to be heading home,” said Xudong.
Yizhi didn’t respond immediately; he had been watching the boatman propel their boat upriver with powerful strokes of the yuloh, a large oar. Normally, the boat would rely on its sail to overcome the current, but for now, the wind was not cooperating.
“I am looking forward to seeing my family, too, Xudong, although I dread seeing their disappointment in me. I will enjoy seeing old friends and revisiting old haunts. But I think I will stay in Tongcheng only for a few months, perhaps a year.
“The problem, Xudong, is that I have been too confident of my own natural abilities. I must find a teacher who can inspire me to greater heights. And I doubt I can find that teacher in Tongcheng.”
As the crow flies, it was about one hundred and thirty miles from Nanjing to the town of Tongcheng. However, not being equipped with wings, Fang Yizhi and his servant had taken a river boat up to Zongyang, the nearest Yangtze port. From there, a road ran first northeast and then northwest, weaving between the lakes, to the town of Tongcheng. Yizhi knew the lakes well; he and his friends had sometimes abandoned their studies for the pleasures of fishing.
The county of Tongcheng was home to about sixty thousand souls, most of whom were farmers of rice, wheat and barley. In the north and west, tung trees were cultivated; a valuable oil could be squeezed from the seeds inside the shells of the tree nuts. Indeed, “Tongcheng” meant “Tung Oil Tree Town.”
Even though Tongcheng County itself was an agrarian backwater, when it came to producing officeholders, its performance was quite respectable. And of the Tongcheng gentry families, none were more renowned than the Fangs. Over the last two centuries, the surname Fang had appeared more often on the rolls of those who had passed the provincial or even the national examinations, than had the Chang, Tso, Ma, Wu, Ch’i, Tai, Ho or even the Yao.
Of course, that had made it all the harder for Fang Yizhi to return home. But home he now was. He threw himself into the day-to-day chores of managing his family’s land. And when he wasn’t too tired, he wrote to his friends in other cities, asking whether they had heard of any teachers who promised more than merely preparing a candidate for the examinations.
“Yizhi, we need to talk.”
“Yes, of course, Auntie.”
“While your father and I appreciate your help at home, you have been neglecting your studies. I was sorry, but not surprised, to hear you didn’t pass the provincial examination. I must remind you that only one man in a thousand makes it as far as you have already, and you are still very young. “
She paused. “There are some who would have wanted to take it, and never had the opportunity.”
Suddenly, Yizhi realized that she was speaking of herself. She was an expert poet, calligrapher, painter and historian, and she had tutored Yizhi in the classics from 1625 to 1630. The woman who disguises herself as a man, takes and passes the exam, and ends up revealing her true sex and marrying the optimus, the first-ranked candidate, was the stuff of several novels, but as far as Yizhi knew, it had never happened in real life.
“At the provincial examination, were there not graybeards in the compound? Do we not hear of men sixty years old who have only just passed?”
Yizhi conceded that this was true.
“And I know from correspondence with others that you are well regarded in scholarly circles in Nanjing. Did you not win the poetry contest on the Marquis’ thirtieth birthday?”
Again Yizhi nodded.
“So I am confident that in a few years you will earn the highest degree and ascend the ladder of success. If you are not yet ready to return to study of the classics, then at least do something with that marvelous mind of yours.”
“I will not disappoint you, Auntie. I will study the classics again, but I think I need to seek out a fresh viewpoint. A new teacher, perhaps. If there is no one in Tongcheng, I will write to my friends in other cities, and see if there is anyone they would recommend.”
“I want only the best for you, Yizhi.”
“I know, Auntie.”