Great Tang Idyll - Chapter 21
In Sanshui County's county seat, on the north side of the street by the east gate of the city walls was a store bearing a sign with two words, 'Noteworthy House.'1 This place was somewhat remote as there weren't many people passing by back and forth in front of the door.
It wasn't known where the shopkeeper on duty had gone to rest, leaving behind a single lowly sales clerk to stand guard by the counter as they gazed at the pedestrian occasionally passing by the door in boredom.
It was noon and the sales clerk had already heard his own stomach growling but with no one coming to replace him, he could only continue soldiering on here while frequently thinking of the food and wine in the restaurants. He felt more and more hunger until even the movement of that tree shadow outside seemed to slow down.
Placing both arms on top of the counter to cushion his chin, both of his eyes dully gazed at that small soup cake2 shop as he muttered: ’’Having a bowl of soup cake is good, too, ~ah. This broken-down store one day won't even see two people coming in.’’
Just as he was muttering, ~ne, two people actually entered the doorway. The sales clerk immediately removed his arms and with a sweeping glance, he could conclude that these two were people with money, clad in long silk robes and the string falling from the waist had a jade piece hanging from it. Going along with the motion, it never stopped bouncing.
’’What do these two respected customers wish to find? This little one will point it out for you [honorific].’’ Based on his own judgment, the sales clerk changed his expression into a face full of smiles as he respectfully inquired.
’’Go busy yourself, we two will casually browse.’’ One of the people said, throwing over a small piece of silver with a wave of their hand.
The sales clerk hurriedly caught it, weighing it for a bit so he could estimate the approximate weight. It definitely was 3 qian [mace].3Honored guest, ~ah! He felt his own body grow spirited and his stomach wasn't even hungry anymore. With 3 qian [mace] of silver, when he got off work at night, he could go to that Apricot Spring House4 to eat a good meal and find a pretty little sister. Coming back here directly tomorrow would be fine.
Those two people only looked and didn't speak, either. After going around in a circle, they suddenly locked onto a painting. Exchanging a glance before nodding at the same time, the person who had just given the money spoke up and said: ’’Sales Clerk, what painting is this?’’
’’Aiya~! Respected customer, your [honorific] eyes are real poisonous,5~ah! One look and you singled out the good in this painting. This painting was painted by a predecessor, an image of early spring's water lilies.6You [honorific] look at this brush stroke hard but not broken, soft but not bewitching. Just a few strokes and it has already...’’
’’Fine, fine. How much is this painting?’’ Not waiting for the sales clerk to finish speaking that continuous line of praises, this person was already impatiently waving his hands to interrupt the presentation and directly ask for the price.
The sales clerk was rather sensible. If the other person didn't wish for him to speak, then he wouldn't speak. Gazing at that painting, he calculated how much money he should ask for. If that painting had not a bit of damage, then asking for 20 silver taels would really be feasible. The problem was that painting obviously had a spot that had received burn damage from a fire.
In the upper right-hand corner of the painting, there was a fingernail-sized hole. It had already been filled in by the craftsmen using a special technique but it could still be seen. He temporarily didn't know how to ask for money too much, he was afraid the other party would directly leave;too little, he would then feel that the reward money he himself gained was too few as the more he sold, the more he got.
Just as he was wavering in his indecision, a voice rang out from behind him.
’’Liu Wang,7 are you lazing about again? Don't you see that an honored guest has visited and you're not serving them well?’’
Upon hearing this voice, the sales clerk Liu Wang was relieved at the shopkeeper's appearance. Swiftly half-turning his body, he said to the shopkeeper: ’’Uncle Zhao,8 these two have taken a liking to that painting on the wall and asked after the price but I've forgotten it.’’
As the sales clerk spoke, he blinked his eyes.
Shopkeeper Zhao actually didn't even need the sales clerk's hint as he had already deduced from the attire of these two people that their net worth was not low. Glancing at the painting once, he smiled as he said: ’’Wonder how this honored guest is called?’’
’’Li.’’ That person who had first spoken replied one word and then didn't speak anymore.
’’So it's Mister Li. For Mister to have taken a fancy to this painting, then you really have a discerning eye. According to this...’’
’’How much money?’’ Mister Li didn't wait for Shopkeeper Zhao to finish speaking and directly asked for the price.
’’200 taels this painting is one painted by a Western Jin9 master. As time passed, the preservation wasn't complete and there is a slight blemish on the painting. Therefore, this respected customer only needs 150 silvertaels to take it away.’’
Shopkeeper Zhao didn't know how much he himself should ask for so he thought to first ask for a stratospheric asking price and wait for the other party's counter. He was rather unafraid of them not buying it if expensively priced but feared selling it cheaply and having them look down on it there were always such types of people.
’’150 taels? Fine, buy it.’’ Mister Li basically didn't counter with any other price and directly agreed.
Shopkeeper Zhao started, even feeling some regret in his heart. If he knew that these two would be so easily dealt with, then he'd have asked for a bit more. At this moment though, there was no way to take it back. Just when he was about to walk over to take down the painting to wrap it up, that Mister Li spoke again.
’’First, no hurry. We haven't brought enough money today. Only have 50taels. Count it as a deposit first. Coming back to get it after a few days. That good?’’
Hearing this, Shopkeeper Zhao hastily nodded and agreed, thinking that was so. Who had nothing better to do than to go out carrying so much? It'd be too heavy. No fear with getting the 50 taels.
’’I've heard that after others have given the deposit, a few stores will secretly switch out the items, substituting good for shoddy quality. Don't know...?’’ Mister Li asked again.
Shopkeeper Zhao knew that he was uneasy here and immediately said: ’’Mister Li, rest assured. This store definitely wouldn't do such a thing as that. If you still can't set your mind at ease, you can find people from the brokerage to come here for a guarantee. However... Seeking people for a guarantee will need a bit more in fees.’’
’’No problem. Go find them.’’ Mister Li made the call.
With this, Shopkeeper Zhao was even more reassured. He had been real worried that after a few days, the two people would seek out someone who knew the business to come here and ask for that money back. Even if they didn't get it back, there would be some argument. Urging Liu Wang to go find people from the broker to come over, he prepared the tea drinks and refreshments on this side.
After a short while, Liu Wang brought the brokerage's guarantor back here. The guarantor inquired about the price and requested 150 wen [cash] as a guarantee fee. Mister Li gave it without saying a second word.
Taking down the painting, they recorded some of the unique points on there to better serve as proof.
Mister Li especially used thin paper to trace that burn damaged area on the painting and even added a description of the surrounding scorch marks. He proposed coming back to fetch it half a month later. If by that time, it wasn't this painting, the store would pay compensation in tenfold the amount of silver taels. After half a month, if he hadn't arrived to get it, then for each late day, Mister Li would pay an extra 100 wen [cash] in money. If an entire month passed without it being taken, the deposit money would be given to the store.
Shopkeeper Zhao thought on it and seeing that there were even people from the brokers guaranteeing it, nodded and agreed. With both sides sealing it with their handprints and initialing it, a transaction deal was completed. Watching those two people walk into the distance, not only was Shopkeeper Zhao happy, Liu Wang had also received 5 qian [mace] in reward silver.
The sun gradually tilted;red clouds filled the sky, slightly curling, as birds flew overhead, the white feathers dancing.
Zhang Xiaobao and Wang Juan both walked hand in hand to the banks of the river in front of the gates, the sun's reflection causing their two shadows to elongate.
Xiaohong nervously watched, afraid that the two little ancestors would, in a fit of joy, jump down. This type of thing could all possibly happen. Who made it so that her own Little Mister wasn't the same as other people, ~ne?
’’Zhang Xiaobao, what do you say about funneling this water into a pond that's been dug out, can some ducks and geese be raised? Salted goose eggs and salted duck eggs10 are tastier than salted chicken eggs.’’ Wang Juan stood by the riverside, gazing at that crystalline water flow as well as the occasional flashes of fish silhouettes under the water's surface while she yearningly asked.
’’Unh, I was also thinking on this. But right now, there's a shortage of staff. Most importantly is that my money isn't enough. Bear with it until the most recent affairs are up and running. If you want to eat, first trade for it in the manor. Several days after Swindler Song has been put away, I'll have money.’’
Zhang Xiaobao had this type of calculation several days earlier. He had thought to ask his mother for money but after a moment of indecision, decided to earn it himself. These few days didn't make a difference.
’’Little Mister, Little Miss, let's go to the back a bit. Absolutely mustn't fall down there.’’ Xiaohong, feeling like this place was dangerous, spoke urgently from the side. The water wasn't deep but submerging two little children was easy.
’’Don't be afraid. Juan-Juan and I can both swim. We're just looking at the water flow. A good mood how beautiful is this day? When the matters on this side are done with, you'll be in charge of raising the ducks and geese and you can even grow lotuses.11 Several more dishes are costly if constantly bought. If we can take care of it ourselves, then let's take care of it ourselves. A meal of rice is hard to come by, ~ah.’’
Zhang Xiaobao spoke while still retreating one step backward so he wouldn't make Xiaohong worry.
Xiaohong nodded her head in a daze, feeling that if these words of Little Mister's had come out of Mistress' mouth, then it would be a little easier for people to accept.
Just when the three of them were appreciating the scenery of the setting sun, the rosy evening clouds,12 the flying birds, and the flowing water, a person hurriedly ran over and upon seeing them, said to Wang Juan:
’’Little Miss, this little one already knows where this object is being stored. According to that Swindler Song's description, we discovered several boats in the Luo River and from the places where it occasionally peeped out, we saw that red and green object.’’
As they spoke, this person took out a sheet of paper from within his chest. There was an object drawn on it. He had to find a person to draw it so had been delayed.
Zhang Xiaobao and Wang Juan looked over at the drawing and simultaneously said out loud: ’’Carrot.’’13
’’Good stuff. This time, there's a new dish. Haven't gotten to see this plaything over here before.’’ Zhang Xiaobao was happy.
Over there, Wang Juan was also vigorously nodding her head: ’’Unh, yeah, ~ya. This stuff shouldn't be produced locally. Looks like it really was taken from the barbarians. I don't even know what that Swindler Song is thinking? Looking at the situation, it seems that it's (taking up) all of the boat. Then, could some in the middle that don't lack moisture continue to be planted and live? Once we have the seeds, we can plant it ourselves. I like eating stir-fried carrot slices. You, ~ne?’’
’’I like eating it raw. There are also cucumbers, eggplants, and nappa cabbages.14 I like eating them all, eating it raw, treating them like fruit.’’ Zhang Xiaobao replied.
’’Who would treat these things like fruit? Eating carrots raw isn't good.’’ Wang Juan smiled as she spoke.
’’Then, what to do? Who would have nothing to do and give orphanages fruit to eat? That group of people had barely managed to send over a little bit they'd clearly spent CN¥10015 to buy it but insisted on saying that it was CN¥1,000. They did bring quite a few reporters from all over, terrified that other people wouldn't know that they had donated stuff.’’
Zhang Xiaobao said, curling his lips.
’’So, it's this way, ~ah. Then, you had a lot of hardship when you were small. People, ~ah, all wish to have a good reputation.’’ Wang Juan sighed once, feeling that Zhang Xiaobao's childhood really was too pitiable.
But Zhang Xiaobao shook his head indifferently: ’’Actually, I'm very grateful to those people. No matter for what purpose they were acting, it was fine as long as the stuff was brought over. If there were people donating every day, I'd rather provide proof for them even saying CN¥100 into 10,000 would be fine. It'd be better than not having anything at all.
The thing I'm happiest about is having fulfilled Director Grandpa's dying wish. I even saved a child just before my death. It was worth it. Now, it's good. There are carrots to eat from now on.’’
’’Zhang Xiaobao, please allow me to use solemn words to evaluate you. You are a good swindler.’’ Wang Juan said while blinking those big eyes of hers.
The store's name is ’’Liu Yi Ju’’ (留意居), which has a bit of wordplay since ’’liu yi’’ (留意) can mean to keep someone's notice but it can also mean to beware. It is also a rather literary name so translating it word for word would have resulted in a rather ridiculous sounding name (at least in my opinion), which is why I compromised and chose to translate it as ’’Noteworthy House’’ instead of ’’Attention-Keeping House.’’ The original Chinese describes the sign as having 3 characters but with the translation, this is no longer applicable.
Qian/錢 is a traditional Chinese measurement unit for mass that was also used to weigh silver or gold currency, being one-tenth of a tael, which is around ~3.7 grams depending on the region and time period. It is transcribed as mace based on its Malay pronunciation but since mace can mean something completely different in English, I decided to use a combination of the pinyin with mace noted as an aside in text. Outside of this context, qian/錢 is the generic Chinese word for ’’money.’’
The Chinese name is ’’Xing Chun Lou’’ (杏春樓), which I have translated as ’’Apricot Spring House.’’ Lou/樓 normally means ’’floor’’ but in this case, it's short for ’’lou fang’’ (樓房) or ’’storied house.’’ The way you can tell this name is for an establishment related to the red-district is because the name mentions spring and uses fruit or flowers that are commonly used metaphors for feminine beauty to symbolize the euphemistic goods available for sale. Spring is a strong indicator of the nature of the business because aphrodisiacs are called ’’chun yao’’ (春藥) or ’’spring drugs’’ in Chinese and the season of spring is also the customary mating season for animals leading to a lot of spring-related word play in the various love or se*-related Chinese expressions. To the Chinese ear, the naming sense comes off as similar in tone to the way the titles of p***** films sound.
Though saying someone's eyes are poisonous can sometimes have the connotation of having a poisonous glare, it usually is a compliment stating that they have a discerning eye. I was unable to confirm how this idiom came about but my conjecture is that the Chinese word for poison (du/毒) is a homophone for the word for unique (du/獨) so someone with poisonous eyes not only has sharp eyes but can also spot the special unique qualities that might escape ordinary notice. By the way, sharp eyes is called ’’yan jian’’ (眼尖), which means ’’pointy eyes.’’
Liu Wang is surnamed Liu/劉 and his name of Wang/旺 means prosperous.
Liu Wang calling the shopkeeper ’’Uncle Zhao’’ is likely out of respect for his older age though it is possible that they do have some blood relation. Since there is no generic word for uncle in Chinese, you can still discern some facts from the chosen terminology. Here, Liu Wang is using shu/叔, which means father's younger brother. When applied to non-relatives, that means the person being so addressed is younger than the speaker's father but too old to be in the same generation as the speaker like a brother. Shu/叔 is also another way for married women to address their husband's younger brother though it is usually modified into ’’xiao shu zi’’ (小叔子) to differentiate. In addition, shu/叔 was historically used as the name for the 3rd son in a noble family before the Chinese naming conventions loosened up.
’’Xi Jin’’ (西晋) or Western Jin is the earlier half of the Jin dynasty, which was founded by theSima (司馬) clan, with the later half called Eastern Jin or ’’Dong Jin’’ (東晉). When referencing the entire Jin dynasty, it is referred to as the ’’Two Jins’’ (Liang Jin/兩晉), which also differentiates it from a later dynasty that used the same character in its name, the Later Jin dynasty (Hou Jin/後晉).
Salted duck eggs (xian ya dan/鹹鴨蛋) are a Chinese delicacy made by soaking duck eggs in brine. They are usually eaten with congee (rice porridge). The orange-red yolks can be used as an ingredient in mooncakes as well. Other eggs like chicken eggs can be prepared using the same method but the flavor is usually not as rich.
Whenever lotuses (lian hua/蓮花) are mentioned in Chinese, it is specifically the Nelumbo nucifera that is being referenced. Outside of its symbolic nature as derived from Buddhism and the role it plays in Chinese folklore, it is also greatly valued for its nutritional uses since every part of this flower is edible, making it a popular delicacy. I wanted to note that this part as a bit difficult for me to efficiently translate as the original Chinese uses just two characters, ’’wan xia’’ (晚霞). Roughly speaking, if translating as a word for word match, it would translate to ’’evening clouds.’’ However, the Chinese had various characters to represent the different types of observed clouds and xia/霞 is the character specifically used for rosy clouds or the glow emanating from the sunset or sunrise.
’’Hu Luo Bo’’ (胡蘿蔔) means ’’carrot’’ in Chinese. This particular name is the same principle as the ’’hu deng’’ (胡凳) that I previously translated as a ’’Turkic stool’’ as ’’hu luo bo’’ (胡蘿蔔) literally translates to ’’Hu radish.’’ Another name for carrot in Chinese is ’’hong luo bo’’ (紅蘿蔔), which means ’’red radish.’’
’’Bai Cai’’ (白菜) is usually transcribed in English as Chinese cabbage, which itself is the general label for 2 kinds of vegetables: Brassica rapa pekinensis more commonly known as nappa cabbage and Brassica rapa chinensis or bok choy. The reason for the confusion is because bok choy's name in Cantonese is ’’bai cai’’ (白菜) but it is called ’’qing cai’’ (青菜) or ’’green vegetables’’ in Mandarin. Most often or not, ’’bai cai’’ (白菜) or ’’white vegetables’’ will be referring to nappa cabbages. Sometimes, it is referred to as ’’da bai cai’’ (大白菜) or ’’great white vegetables’’ to remove any confusion.