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Great Tang Idyll - Chapter 41

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The sky was black and the clouds dark as the flying snow flooded the air with the blowing wind tinting their appearance.

Kaiyuan year 2, the 26th of the 12th lunar month,1 three days after the Little New Year2 had passed, winter's fourth snowfall floated downward. This snowfall was a bit heavier than the several ones prior as sheet after sheet fell down like scraps of paper.

Magistrate Cheng Lingxiang was the busiest these days as not only did the affairs of the yamen [govt. offices] have to be arranged for, he also had to help sell the cucumbers as the over 5,000 catties of cucumbers that had been accumulated had to be sold off over these next few days. These had all been transported over here by Song Jing-gong successively for these past few days.

Other than these cucumbers that had to be sold off, there were also 200catties that had been left solely to Magistrate Cheng. As for who he gave them to, that wasn't anything anyone else should control.

When it had reached noon, Cheng Lingxiang donned his official robes3and led a group of his subordinates to the site of a warehouse in the county. These people from the yamen [govt. offices] up to now still didn't know what the Lord Magistrate wanted to do. They had all gone on holiday here but they had still been called out here.

Following the warehouse door opening with a squeaking ’’zhi-ya-ya’’ sound, countless baskets that had been woven out of bamboo appeared in front of their eyes. Cheng Lingxiang knew that there were cucumbers that had been processed using some preservation methods and the older ones were all over a dozen days old with the fresh ones having just been shipped over here this morning.

’’Milord, you [honorific] called us over here just for the sake of looking at these baskets?’’ Sanshui County Deputy Magistrate4 Zhang Mingsheng5asked what everyone else was thinking in their hearts.

Cheng Lingxiang enigmatically shook his head and used one of his hands to point at one of the baskets: ’’Someone come and open up the basket.’’

Over there, person naturally came forward to carefully open up one of the baskets in front of them. What appeared in front of their eyes was a layer of silk. Turning their head to look at the Lord Magistrate, they with his encouragement lifted away this layer of silk only to suddenly cry out uncontrollably in astonishment.

Only to see that under this silk were cucumbers bearing flowers and thorns on top that had been neatly stacked in place one after another. They turned their head around to look at the snow that was still drifting about outside. This person felt like they themselves hadn't gotten the season wrong as it really was winter. But the cucumbers in front of their eyes were also not fake.

’’Mi-Milord, cucumbers, this, these are all cucumbers?’’ This person turned his head to look at the Lord Magistrate, stammering a bit as he spoke yet still seeming to wish to receive confirmation from the county magistrate's mouth.

’’Unh, they are cucumbers. These are all cucumbers with a total of over 5,000 catties. The Heavens sent down an auspicious favor, ~ah. There is a manor that actually had those cucumbers vines that originally should have died bear new cucumbers. Yesterday night, this official, I already wrote the imperial report.6 After a while, I will have someone send it out.’’

What Cheng Lingxiang wanted was this kind of result. Back when he first saw the cucumbers and was clear on which season it was, he was also like this. Seeing this, his own surprise back then wasn't so excessive;other people were also the same way.

The other people from the yamen [govt. offices] also stepped forward in succession to look as each and every one wanted to use their hands to touch them but feared that they'd knock off the thorns and flowers on top of the cucumbers. So they all deeply inhaled there to enjoy the aroma that the cucumbers brought along with them.

Deputy Magistrate carefully used his hand to pinch the bottom part of a cucumber to raise in front of his face to take a closer look. Then, sticking his nose closer to smell it, he nodded: ’’An auspicious favor, it really is an auspicious favor. Just don't know which manor has had an auspicious favor appear?’’

’’Which manor is not urgent at this time. By then, everyone will naturally know. Right now, help this official, I carry the cucumbers out;we'll take to the streets to sell them at 1 catty for 30 wen [cash]. At most, 5 cattiescan be bought at one time. If they wish to buy more, they will have to line up in the back.’’

Magistrate Cheng didn't wish to let other people know of Zhang Manor's location right now. There, some cucumbers could still be produced, ~ne. If there were to be people who went investigating right now, that side would immediately make all of the cucumbers vines die off. It'd be a pity.

At this moment, what needed to be done was to help with selling them off. 30 wen [cash] for 1 catty was the price that the adept over there had set. They'd initially agreed that people with no money wouldn't enjoy this stuff even if you were to sell them at 10 wen [cash] for 1 catty, there'd still be no one who'd be willing to buy them. People with money didn't care if it was 10 wen [cash] or 30 wen [cash].

This was still the price for a single day today in order to allow some of the people buying them to take them back to try first. Only the earliest 2,000 catties had been brought out to sell today. If they weren't completely sold off, then tomorrow it'd be for 50 wen [cash];the day after would be 80 wen [cash];the next day after that would be 100 wen [cash]. The closer it got to the New Year, the higher the price would get.

’’Milord, to do this doesn't seem to be good. We're all government officials of the Imperial Court;if we go selling vegetables, this will get us impeached7 by others.’’ Deputy Magistrate, upon hearing that he himself and these people would need to personally sell cucumbers, felt that it was a bit difficult on his face so tried persuasion beside him.

’’How is it selling vegetables, ~ne? What we're selling are auspicious favors. Quickly go get the scale.8 That kind that can measure up to 1 qian [mace] in weight is needed. Carry out 2,000 catties for this official, I and move them to the yamen [govt. offices] entrance. This official, I want to promote the auspicious favors there for the sake of the Imperial Court.’’

Cheng Lingxiang had already considered this point well in advance so he simply didn't even mention the matter of selling the vegetables.

’’But Milord, this price is also a bit too expensive.’’ Deputy Magistrate was still a bit hesitant.

Cheng Lingxiang glared at him: ’’What's to say it's selling? Speaking to you guys, it's selling but to the outside, it's not selling. It's giving giving auspicious favors. Those people spending money are requesting auspicious favors and at 30 wen [cash] for 1 catty, they can receive them.’’

Understood. The other people all understood. The Lord Magistrate here was playing a pretty hand he'd have the reputation as well as the fortune. The Deputy Magistrate also couldn't deny it that this truly was a good excuse. So he focused his attention on the sale oh, no the matter of the gifted money.

’’Milord, don't know the money gained after they're all given away, will it...? Will it be fine to just give that manor a little bit?’’

When Cheng Lingxiang heard the Deputy Magistrate's words, he instinctively retreated a step as if afraid of being implicated by the Deputy Magistrate. How could he dare touch that sum of money? He didn't fear that manor;he feared that adept. This money added up was several hundred taels. They were waiting for the New Year, ~ne. If it really got embezzled, those consequences...

Upon thinking of this, he glared at the Deputy Magistrate and said: ’’This money all has to be given to that manor. We are government officials who are promoting the benevolence of the Imperial Court a little and only have auspicious favor. Wait until the day of the 30th;everyone will still have to go out with me. That manor is virtuous and took out on their own 1,000 dan [stone] of food and 100 piculs [hundredweight]9 of vegetable oil to let us all show kindness to the impoverished families of the county.’’

’’Milord, we understand.’’ Deputy Magistrate had finally cleared it up here now. The Lord Magistrate had already talked it over with that manor;by then, they'd help the county come out with an auspicious favor and even gave a chance to net political achievements.

Once the matter was decided, the people of the yamen [govt. offices] began to act as they moved basket after basket of cucumbers to place into the horse carriage outside that had followed them here. A basket was around 50 catties and they moved a total of 40 baskets. They didn't need other people to remind them and were consciously careful. 30 wen [cash], ~ah! A single cucumber could be exchanged for several dou[gallon] [gallon]10 of rice.

The snow outside didn't show any signs of stopping though it did allow the weather to not be so cold. Four large carriages hauling the cucumbers returned to the front of the county seat where someone had already taken out the scale and prepared to start selling.

Everyone was rather not concerned about them not selling. Don't just look at how scarily expensive they were. To eat cucumbers in the heavy winter, that was a rather unique thing. People with money were plentiful;what fear was there that they wouldn't spend the money to buy them?

It was only that these people were all thinking that since the cucumbers were so expensive, if their own families were to buy 2 catties, whether they'd be willing or not. Really wanted to eat them, ~ah!

’’Unh, the person from that manor said that everyone here and this official, I have managed the people in the county with hard effort and high merit so wait until the selling is finished on the 29th of the 12th lunar month and every person will be able to bring 5 catties of cucumbers home. It's New Year's so try something fresh.’’

Cheng Lingxiang seemed to understand his subordinates' thinking and began to leisurely speak there while at the same time, he sighed over Zhang Manor knowing how to act.11 Last time when giving him silver, they were like this. This time, they were also like so.

When everyone heard this, they all grew happy while being simultaneously surprised at the generosity of that manor. The entire yamen [govt. offices] added up was a hundred or more people, ~ah! And they directly gave away so much. They'd wait until after they found out which family's manor it was;when there were problems, whatever help was needed, they'd have to help out with.

Cheng Lingxiang observed his subordinates' expressions with satisfaction as he continued to speak: ’’That manor also said that to just have vegetables isn't enough. Every person will also bring home 3 cattiesof vegetable oil and 5 catties of carrots. After returning, those carrots will need to be fried using oil as they said that they are good for the body. Don't eat them together with other radishes and they also shouldn't be eaten when drinking wine.’’

Everybody nodded their heads in succession. Of course, they knew of those carrots and vegetable oil, especially how the carrots were to be eaten. Earlier, the people selling them had already advised that eating them when drinking wine, it actually was nothing. It was just that there was a possibility of getting sick.

At the same time, the prices of these two types of things were all not cheap especially those carrots at 20 wen [cash] for 1 catty. Only a little was sold to the restaurants each day. Looking at it here, this vegetable oil, cucumbers, spicy sauce, and carrots all should have originated from one family, Zhang Manor.

This time, they had all guessed it but when they looked at the Lord Magistrate's eyes and the good stuff that they got from this time, each and every one of them all chose to be oblivious. They weren't foolish, either. They knew that once this matter was spread, then Zhang Manor wouldn't do well. If the manor wasn't doing well, then did they still want to get any stuff in the future?

Magistrate Cheng regretted it after he finished speaking. They'd already told him in advance to speak of the matter of the carrots and vegetable oil on the final day. In the end, he hadn't been able to hold himself back at the moment. So seeing that each and every one of his subordinates all seemed to understand, he could only add:

’’The people of that manor also don't have it easy. Wait until the 29th, the items will be given to you all together. When you go home, take them out to let your family members taste. If you have close relatives and good friends, you can also have another dish when eating a meal.’’

These words were spoken extremely clearly. When you go home, you can show off but even to friends and relatives, you can't speak of the manor. Everybody naturally nodded and agreed.

Finished with these dealings, a basket full of cucumbers was opened. The constables12 of the yamen [govt. offices] didn't require instructions and straight away began to call out: ’’Auspicious favors! Our dynasty's auspicious favors! Winter cucumbers! Fellow villagers should all come and see! Just 30 wen [cash] for 1 catty and you can invite it into your homes.’’

Selling cucumbers in heavy winter by the entrance of the yamen [govt. offices] this was something new. Just after a voice yelled out, quite a few people suddenly gathered around with a ’’hua-la’’ sound to watch.


’’Xiaobao, add a bit less gunpowder the strength is too much. Come over and help me make the wicks.’’ Within Zhang Manor, Wang Juan and Zhang Xiaobao both found an extremely isolated room and were currently inside making firecrackers with Shiliu.

It was snowing outside and the sky was overcast so it was a bit dark inside the room but they all didn't dare to light even a single lamp. All of the tables, stools, and other things inside the room had been moved out so that it was empty with only four walls and a flat ground.

On the ground, paper that had already been cut was placed. There was also some powdery stuff evenly mixed out of the three items of sulfur, saltpeter, and charcoal. Shiliu wrapped a bit more powder inside the larger papers while on that side, Zhang Xiaobao and Wang Juan packed these powders into some narrow papers. Once one was packed, some more powder was rolled onto the exterior.

Zhang Xiaobao helped Wang Juan make several pieces before going over there again to roll firecrackers. Inside one, quite a few had already been rolled up and more was still being placed. When he was pulled back over again by Wang Juan, he continued to make wicks.


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  1. ’’La yue’’ (臘月) means ’’sacrificial month’’ and refers to the yearly ritual in which sacrifices are made to the ancestors that occurred around this time period. ’’La yue’’ (臘月) is the name for the 12th lunar month within the traditional Chinese calendar, which is also known as the ’’farming calendar’’ or ’’nong li’’ (農曆). This is also the month that the Laba Festival (臘八) is celebrated, which is on the 8th of the month and explains the Chinese name since it means ’’sacrificial 8.’’ Laba congee (臘八粥) is traditionally prepared (with recipes that varied depending on the family and region), shared, and eaten during this festival.

  2. ’’Xiao nian’’ (小年) means ’’little year’’ as in ’’Little New Year’’ because it is a celebration that is only surpassed by the one for New Year's and usually refers to a traditional Chinese holiday that marks the beginning of the festivities for the upcoming New Year, which is similar in nature to the Advent of Christmas in the West. It can be translated as ’’Preliminary Eve’’ for this reason. In northern China, the date of this holiday is set to be the 23rd of the 12th lunar month while in southern China, it is the 24th. This is also when the Kitchen God(Zao Shen/灶神) or Kitchen Lord (Zao Jun/灶君) is worshipped as he is believed to protect the household and family. Most importantly though, this is when he is known to leave for the Celestial Court in order to make his annual report on the family's deeds to the Jade Emperor(with the help of his wife's notes) so a part of the celebrations for the Preliminary Eve or Little New Year usually entailed offering food and incense to him as well as smearing honey on the lips of his paper effigy in a ritualistic act of bribery. This holiday is thus also known as ’’Ji Zao Jie’’ (祭灶節) or ’’Kitchen Offering Festival.’’

  3. ’’Guan Fu’’ (官服) or ’’official clothes’’ are the robes that served as uniforms for the government officials and made them easy to tell apart from the populace. The mandarin squares or rank badges signifying the official's level would not be on Magistrate Cheng's robes though as they only started appearing during the Yuan dynasty as decorations before being formalized as official insignia in the Ming Dynasty. Gwanbok (관복/官服) are the Korean adaptation of this kind of attire. For some pictures of what the official robes might have looked like over the ages.

  4. ’’Xian Cheng’’ (縣丞) literally means ’’county assistant/deputy’’ and is the position that is second in command to the county magistrate. They were normally in charge of clerical work and supervising the county warehouses. Hence, I have translated this term as ’’deputy magistrate.’’

  5. Zhang Mingsheng (張明升) is surnamed Zhang/張 (the same of Xiaobao) and his given name of Mingsheng (明升) means ’’brightness rising.’’

  6. ’’Zou zhe’’ (奏折) were formal reports sent by the official to the Emperor. The name literally means ’’imperial memorial/report, folded/bent’’ because these papers were usually folded for the sake of the Emperor's reading convenience. Other names in Chinese that they could be called by were ’’zhezi’’ (折子), ’’zou zhang’’ (奏章) and ’’zou tie’’ (奏帖). Technically, this was a Qing dynasty improvement on the existing historical system of ’’zhang biao’’ (章表) or ’’essay report,’’ which were a way for feudal vassals to either thank their lord for their benevolence in essay compositions (zhang/章) and/or to inform their lord of something in reports (biao/表). The Han dynasty implemented them as formal essays that were written inclassical Chinese to be submitted to superiors that was ostensibly a right available to anyone since it was meant to serve as an alternative way of providing oversight and reporting grievances against corrupt officials. However, more often than not, these reports were controlled or monitored by a corresponding bureaucratic office and prevented this petition system from being open to the public. The Qing dynasty implementation provided the Emperor with an alternative source of information that came directly from all levels of the government to combat the excessive filtering of information that occurred with normal official reports that traveled up the bureaucratic chain. These reports are typically translated as ’’memorial to the throne/Emperor’’ but for the sake of brevity, I will translate them as ’’imperial reports.’’ I will just assume that the author is referring to the pre-Qing version and is only using the term that modern Chinese people would be more familiar with...

  7. ’’Tan he’’ (彈劾) is the process through which officials of ancient China could be accused of wrongdoing by their peers, which could not only include currently serving officials but also those who had retired from political life in good standing and thus still retained the ability to petition the Emperor or Imperial Court. There were also scholar-gentry members and nobles who received high enough honorary titles to gain the ability to submit imperial reports or petitions though they might not have ever served within the government. The crimes that an official could be accused of or impeached for could range in severity since they could be for petty mistakes or crimes that were outright treason so the level of punishments given if the official was found guilty could vary as well. The least severe punishment might be a salary fine but the worst sentence might result in not only the official's execution for a capital offense but also the death or exile of their extended family and/or clan. Because it is more of a judicial and legal process within the system that serves police government officials and thus separate and different from the process through which court cases were opened due to a petition by a commoner, I will be translating this term as ’’impeachment.’’ Note that because of how the process is reliant on a peer starting it, situations where innocent officials were falsely accused could occur, especially since ’’innocent until proven guilty’’ wasn't really a basic principle of the Chinese legal system. The nature of ancient Chinese politics meant that the accuser starting the impeachment process could be motivated by a number of reasons such as being part of an opposing political faction, a preemptive strike to prevent their own impeachment, getting rid of a rival, for personal profit or gain, etc. This provided great fodder for a lot of drama in Chinese historical fiction.

  8. Cheng/ (or cheng/稱) was the traditional Chinese balance scale that was commonly used in the markets. It typically had a hook at one end from which the item being weighed would be suspended with the other end reserved for the counterweight to use to determine how heavy the object was. A lighter handheld rod version might be used when weighing herbs for use in traditional Chinese medicine. The English name for these types of scales aresteelyard balances or Roman steelyards. For pictures of what they look like, click 1, 2, 3, or go to the Baidu page

  9. Dan/擔 is usually translated as ’’picul,’’ which is a word with Javanese origins. This is a traditional Chinese measurement unit for mass and it is usually equated to equal 100 catties(50 kilograms or ~110 pounds). Because it is close to 100 pounds, it is also known as the Chinese hundredweight. Confusingly, a dan/石 or ’’stone’’ can also be used similarly as a volume/mass unit and is usually equated with 120 catties (~160 pounds or ~70 kilograms). Since the author previously used dan/石 to list how much vegetable oil is involved, he likely made a typo here. It is just that I am not sure as to which unit he ultimately intended to use here.

  10. Dou/斗 is a traditional Chinese unit of measure for volume that was typically used to measure items like cereal grains. Since the traditional dou/斗 was around ~10 liters or ~2 gallons, it later became standardized to equal 10 liters and 2.64 gallons (U.S.) or 2.20 gallons (Imperial) as the market dou or ’’shi dou’’ (市斗). I've noted gallon in an editorial aside in text as a reminder for its purpose since conversion of Chinese traditional units is usually a bit difficult to pin down.

  11. ’’Hui zuo ren’’ (會做人) basically translates to ’’knows how to be a person’’ and is one of those Chinese expressions that doesn't seem to have a specific literary origin though I did find a bunch of Chinese self-help books on how to be a success with this phrase as part of their titles. It's basically a descriptor for someone who knows how to function well as a person and as a member of society. For brevity's sake, I've translated this as ’’knows how to act.’’

  12. I've translated ’’ya yi’’ (衙役) as constables due to the rudimentary law-keeping roles that ’’ya yi’’ (衙役) had so they can be considered an ancient Chinese version of police officers. Both terms have similar service origins in their etymology since constable evolved from the name of a job position that worked the stables while ’’ya yi’’ (衙役) literally translates to ’’public servant.’’ These were positions where men were hired to do a number of tasks that included being couriers, running errands for the officials, patrolling the area, acting as bailiffs when a court session was held, being wardens of the local jail, guarding the officials and offices, or serving as makeshift troops and riot police for times of unrest or attack. Basically, they could be responsible for any of a broad range of relatively unskilled or physical labor needed outside of their main job of acting as servants and assistants to the officials. So they are sometimes referred to as ’’runners’’ or ’’gofers.’’ However, since ’’ya yi’’ (衙役) were not part of the army in ancient China and their level of organization were highly dependent on the officials in charge, I opted not to use ’’officer’’ or ’’service man’’ as the translation choice. For pictures of what they might have looked like, go to the baidu pagehere. The fictional character of Zhan Zhao (展昭) would probably be considered an heroic version of a constable before he received the title of a 4th ranked Imperial Guard (For pictures of the different adaptation of this charcter.



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