White Clouds Meeting & Parting Words Make A Fortune
Idler’s Note: A bonus release! Trying to see how much work is entailed in doing as many releases as possible if I go on a translation binge… We shall see if I can maintain this pace for the week. I might need to drop back down to the original schedule I set for myself afterwards since I will likely need to go back to focusing my attention on my freelancing to make up for all the time I spent doing just translations. I do wish I could just translate without worrying about other stuff since it is a lot funner for me. Sigh… The working travails of a freelancer… 😦
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Song Jing-gong was a swindler. He had always thought of himself as the most impressive and simply didn’t think on other matters, not even knowing to frequently communicate and exchange ideas with his peers. So he really could be said to be at a self-involved standstill.1
Zhang Xiaobao had seized advantage of this psychology of his to endlessly swindle money. Every time was a little bit and he even utilized the gatekeeper.
The morning after returning, the more Song Jing-gong thought about it, the madder he got. For the sake of taking revenge earlier, he brought along the money to rush back here the same night. The one he encountered was still that gatekeeper and with the experience from this morning, this time without waiting to speak, he had already handed over a piece of silver.
It weighed around half a tael, more than double what Mister Zheng had given in the morning. Sure enough, the gatekeeper greeted him with smiles, taking the money and almost flying, ran inside. Not long after, he came back, revealing a helpless expression.
He said: “Mister Song, the steward is currently checking the accounts. He probably has no way of meeting with Mister today. Perhaps coming early in the day tomorrow would be better.”
“Then, is the Mistress of your house present?” Song Jing-gong had spent half a silver tael. His heart was hurting, ~ne. That much money, ~ah, was just given to the gatekeeper.
Seeing that there was no way to speak to the steward at this time, he presented a new request.
Who knew that upon hearing these words, the gatekeeper who had been dealing him with a smiling face just now, his expression darkened immediately as he coldly said: “The Mistress of my house has no need for Mister’s concern. Please leave, Mister.”
Song Jing-gong froze as he suddenly realized that there were two kids to feed. At this time, she must have been breastfeeding the kids, ~ne. His asking after her like this was really too discourteous. His face embarrassed, he didn’t dare converse too much as he forced a smile and turned around to slowly take his leave.
After walking tens of steps, he discovered that he was currently walking towards that family that he had requested lodging with yesterday. Thinking of that family’s meals, he switched directions, moving towards the Wang Manor there. Who knew that though he had found a household whose appearances looked clean but after speaking of his intent, they had actually wanted 10 wen [cash] in lodging money and the food expenses were likewise doubled.
Thinking that this family’s food should be a bit better, he gritted his teeth and accepted it. After all, in coming here to Zhang Manor to swindle, it wasn’t good to go to Ge Manor. Who knew that dinner upon its delivery was actually a dish of chicken eggs and stir-fried garlic chives? And it didn’t even compare to those chicken eggs with stir-fried garlic chives, ~ne. At least that dish had more chicken eggs.
Lying down on that bed whose boards were nearly gnawed hollow, underneath the thin layer of matting was a carpet of thatch straw2 that pierced him uncomfortably. Just this was bad enough but within the room, there were actually even mosquitoes flying about.
For yesterday night’s sleep, that family’s people had even lit a piece of rope woven from Chinese mugwort3 to use as mosquito repellent, ~ne. Today had nothing whatsoever; this room was even adjacent to the back of that courtyard.
Through the broken half of the window shutter with the illumination of the moonlight, things that were loudly flapping their wings could be seen as they wandered around inside. Song Jing-gong didn’t even dare take off his clothes. Using the blanket that had an odor he couldn’t identify to cover his face with, he was completely unable to fall asleep.
Outside the window, the crickets’ sounds were never-ending. In the past, listening to them was another type of flavor; today, it was even more of a kind of flavor.
The late night dew was heavy as the vegetables and the fruit trees planted within the courtyard endlessly sent damp air into the room. Song Jing-gong felt that his hands and feet were icy cold. Tossing and turning, he curled his body up into a ball but still had no way of stopping this type of chilliness.
“Old Father,4 Old Father, open the door. Let’s discuss something.”
Song Jing-gong who was finally unable to endure this kind of torture rose to arrive in front of a room next door, gently knocking on the door and speaking up only after hearing a querying response from within.
“What—why aren’t you sleeping when it’s this late?” Opening the door was a 50-something year old person who yawned as he discontentedly asked.
“Old Father, that room of mine is really too cold. I wonder if there is a thin quilt that can be lent for my use?” Song Jing-gong didn’t expect that a peasant could actually dare to speak in such a way to him and sighed desolately in his heart while speaking in a conciliatory manner.
“What bedding is there? It’s all been put away. Where would I go with you in the middle of the night to find it? Put up with it for a night. What were you thinking earlier before?” The old father rejected him.
“There really isn’t?”
“It’s not like there isn’t—there is a new bed quilt that’s been given to my grandson to use for wedding a wife. It was put in a conspicuous spot; spent an entire 1 silver tael to have people make it.” The old father spoke while sighing over the master-family’s formidability—they had calculated even this.
“It’s still a bothersome effort to go get it.” The old father griped while not moving.
“I’ll add another 10 wen [cash].” Song Jing-gong raised the fee.
“Wait here.” The old father humphed once and closed the door, probably going inside to find the quilt.
Only after an entire quarter-hour5 did he saunter out and stuff a bundled up item into Song Jing-gong’s arms before turning around to close the door and put up the crossbar.
Song Jing-gong hugged the quilt, feeling a bit warmer. Returning to his own room, he spread the quilt to lay on top of his body but he still couldn’t sleep so he could only look around in all four directions using the moonlight.
As he looked around, he saw the quilt. The more he looked, the more that he felt like something was a bit wrong. He didn’t know if it was the moonlight that was originally such a pure white or if it was an issue with the quilt’s color. When he peered closely at it to see, it was made out of coarse thread. With this one set, 30 wen [cash] would be considered too much; the most expensive couldn’t be more than 50 wen [cash] but he had actually spent 1 silver tael.
This was bad enough but seeing that those dyed areas had obviously been starched and washed till they had lost their color and were splotched off-white—this was called a new quilt?
Song Jing-gong was this mad, ~ah. After thinking on it, he simply didn’t sleep and directly stood up to walk in front of the window as he pushed open the other window shutter to look at the night view with the quilt draped over him.
Several days passed like this. Song Jing-gong had spent quite a bit of money. Excluding what he had given to Zhang Xiaobao, it was enough to be 10 silver taels added up all together, including lodgings, food and drink, as well as gifts yet he had only met Steward Zhang once. He did speak of the matter but had only said that it was a partnership for a profitable business.
But Steward Zhang said he wasn’t able to make the decision and needed to report to his Mistress for her to know.
Who knew that this wait would be another several days? If he hadn’t spent so much money, he’d have already gone back—who’d freely loiter here? But the money had been spent yet the business hadn’t been completed. He wasn’t satisfied, ~ah. Today, he finally decided to go to Ge Manor to stay and not spend that wrongful money.
“Xiaobao, we’ve arrived here for 20 days?” On one end of a seesaw under the shade of a tree was Wang Juan, who asked this as she vigorously pressed down to get Zhang Xiaobao on that side raised up.
Zhang Xiaobao shifted his center of gravity to have Wang Juan lift him up as he answered: “No, just 19 days. After another 10 or so days, the chicks should come out. The earthworms haven’t grown up yet so put them in the bathrooms of the peasant houses. Oh, they’re called outhouses.6 If they eat maggots, it doesn’t matter if they’re buried but I’m afraid that they’ll fall into the cesspool and die from drowning—they’ll need to be fed a bit of food grain.”
“The sauce, ~ne. It’s almost done?”
“Still early, ~ne. Still needs 20 some days to be done.” Zhang Xiaobao estimated the days that Erniu stated.
“Are you sure there’ll be people to buy it? It’s no more than a bit of spiciness with meat inside.” Wang Juan also energetically moved back to lift Zhang Xiaobao back up again as they used this to exercise the strength of their legs and hips, playing while they were training.
“Definitely not a problem. Wait until the sauce comes out, we’ll include the methods for dishes made using the sauce to be sent together to those inns and restaurants as well as shops. If they sell well, then they’ll come buy the sauce. Let’s rest. It’s been 2 hours. My legs have been rubbed raw.
In a while, let’s have Xiaohong go to the back kitchen and tell them to make some kelp and bone soup—wasn’t some kelp bought 2 days ago? Supplement the diet a bit; just drinking milk won’t do either, ~ah.”
Zhang Xiaobao got down from this end of the seesaw to walk outside where there was sunlight to bask in the sun.
Wang Juan also followed by going there. On that side, Xiaohong hurried over to the kitchen to order people to make stuff, rushed back to take out a small couch to place it in the center of the courtyard, and raised an umbrella. She herself took cover underneath the shade as she watched over the two little ancestors while pondering her own concerns.
Usually, when she had free time, she would make clothes for herself and for Xiaoqi. This time, whatever else said, she didn’t dare to. If she let people catch her holding needle and thread while caring for the children, then nobody could help her at all.
“Xiaobao, don’t keep lying down. See how much money we have.” Wang Juan flipped over, resting her chin on the couch as she asked.
“There isn’t too much money; accumulated a bit of stuff, though. Let’s wait. Waiting till the fall harvest will be good.”
“What do you want to do for the fall harvest? Keep feeling like you’re up to no good.” Up to this moment, Wang Juan still didn’t know what calculations Zhang Xiaobao was making.7
“How to say, ~ne. If you say up to no good is fine, saying it’s working with good intentions8 would also do—it just depends on which angle you approach this from.”
“Like?” Wang Juan prompted.
“Like trade merchants making money, is that good or bad, ~ne? If they want profit, they can only buy low to sell high.” Zhang Xiaobao pensively said.
When Wang Juan, who had been lying there, heard these words, she sat up in a flash as she stared at Zhang Xiaobao and said: “You want to buy food grains? You want to hoard to corner the market?”9
“Don’t be silly. How much money can I have—and to hoard, too? I’m thinking of buying up food grains locally. Today was a rich harvest here so food grain is cheap; next year, transport it somewhere else to sell and make a great sum.” Zhang Xiaobao finally spoke his objective out loud.
“First, can’t say it. If it’s spoken of with another person, then a secret is no longer secret.” Zhang Xiaobao refused once again.
“I won’t ask at all from now on. You think on that Swindler Song and how he’ll need to be swindled.”
“I’m not a divine sage and not even a monster, either. Let’s wait. Have Steward Zhang get in contact tomorrow; if the soldiers come, the general will deal with it.”10
The next day, Song Jing-gong came to the courthouse here as expected. Coming once every day, it had already become a habit. He originally assumed that he wouldn’t have any results today but who knew that the gatekeeper would take the money he gave to go inside for the notification and that Steward Zhang himself had actually come out in welcome.
“He-he, Mister Song in coming here must have waited for a long time? Quickly, follow me inside.” Steward Zhang enthusiastically led Song Jing-gong into the parlor room, making Song Jing-gong feel a bit unaccustomed.
When the two people had sat down, the servants delivered the tea water that had finished brewing. After drinking a few sips, Steward Zhang opened his mouth to say: “For Mister Song to come here for this many days, it must certainly be an important matter? Today, Mistress is out on business and will require several days to return. All of the affairs within the manor have all been handed to this Zhang to manage. If Mister Song has something to say, please do.”
Upon hearing these words from Steward Zhang, Song Jing-gong was tempted within his heart and tentatively asked: “Decisions on financial matters can also be made?”
“Of course. My family has been the Steward of the Zhang family for generations; the paltry matter of allocating funds is naturally not impossible.” Steward Zhang replied with a bit of loftiness.
“Oh, if this is as you said, then Steward Zhang is greatly esteemed in this Zhang Manor. Congratulations, Steward Zhang.” Song Jing-gong flattered.
“Well said, well said. Mister Song might as well speak of the matter that you’ve come for.” Steward Zhang squinted his eyes, appearing to have enjoyed being praised.
“Oh? Could it be to have me go buy some calligraphy and paintings? ” Steward Zhang asked.
“Not so, it is to discuss another important matter—the matter of making a fortune.” Song Jing-gong finally spoke out loud words that he considered to be full of temptation.
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“Gu bu zi feng” (固步自封) is a 4-character couplet that literally translates to “solid step self seal” and is used to describe someone who doesn’t improve and has closed themselves off from the world. A roughly equivalent English expression would be “resting on one’s laurels” where a person decides to rely on their existing reputation or fame but doesn’t bother improving further, running the risk of their rivals or enemies overtaking them in the future. ↩
I have literally translated the name for “mao cao” (茅草), whose scientific name is Imperata cylindrica. Because it is a grass native to wide swathes of the world including Asia, Africa, and Oceania, it has several other names associated with it. However, in Chinese, its name is mostly derived from its function, which is its use in thatching the roofs of buildings. It can also be used medicinally and in other handicrafts. ↩
“Ai hao” (艾蒿) is a plant most well known for its use in traditional Chinese medicine. It can also be referred to as ai cao/艾草 (ai grass) or aiye/艾葉 (ai leaf) but its scientific name is Artemisia argyi. It has many effects proscribed to it with many applications in different areas. ↩
I’ve translated “lao zhang” (老丈) as “old father” because it is a respectful way to address an older man and zhang/丈 also comes up as part of the formal term of address for a father-in-law, “yue zhang” (岳丈). ↩
Time in ancient China could be divided decimally with the traditional time units for divisions of the day being shichen/時辰 (2 hours), fen/分 (minute), miao/秒 or hao/毫 (second). The exact amount of the time unit of ke/刻 varied wildly over history but since it had been roughly around 15 minutes before finally being modernized to equal exactly 15 minutes, I have opted to translate ke/刻 as a quarter-hour. ↩
“Mao fang” (茅房) are the ancient Chinese equivalents of latrines or outhouses as they were pits dug into the ground with thatched straw roofs. Obviously, they were an outdoor building separated from the residential areas. Needless to say, they’re a rare sight in China nowadays. ↩
The text used here is “da de she me suan pan” (打的什麼盤算), which literally means “hitting what suanpan/abacus.” Complex math calculations were done using the suanpan (算盤) in ancient China, the Chinese abacus. Because the character for plan or scheme (ji/計) also has heavy connotations with making calculations, the act of using an abacus (da suan pan/打盤算) would be a natural metaphor for the Chinese to use in describing someone scheming or making plans for their own benefit. ↩
There is a bit of wordplay here as Xiaobao springboards off of Juan-Juan’s choice of phrasing to use two 4-character couplets that both contain “hao xin” (好心), which means “good heart.” I’ve translated “mei an hao xin” (沒安好心) as “up to no good” while “hao xin ban shi” (好心辦事) has been translated as “working with good intentions.” Hopefully, this bit of wordplay is apparent in the English translation. ↩
“Tun ji ju qi” (囤積居奇) is a Chinese idiom that describes stocking up on goods in vast quantities while the price is low with the intent of waiting for or creating a future situation where its price will skyrocket due to rarity in order to sell it for an exponential amount of profit. Because China historically has had a lot of plagues and famines that caused food shortages and a corresponding rise in prices, this expression is politically sensitive in connotation since most often or not, Chinese merchants would profit greatly from the misery of the populace using the unstable food supply as a basis for their fortune. Hence, the bad reputation merchants kept getting in ancient China. ↩
This is actually the first half of a 8 character long sentence in Chinese: “Bing lai jiang dang, shui lai tu yan” (兵來將擋，水來土掩), which illustrates adapting one’s reaction according to the needs of the moment or the current threat. Translated, this idiom means: “if soldiers come, the general will block it; if the waters come, the earth will cover it.” However, like with these phrases, the first 4-character couplet (Bing lai jiang dang/兵來將擋) is quoted more frequently and tends to act as a mnemonic device for the entire quote. A roughly equivalent English expression would be, “What will come will come and we will meet it when it does,” which can be similarly abbreviated into “What will come will come.” ↩
Because I’ve decided to use pinyin for the names of locations in order to match up with the names of real-life historical places when they are mentioned, 三水縣 will be transcribed as “Sanshui County” from now on. Sanshui/三水 simply means “Three Waters.” ↩
The phrase used here is “gu wan zi hua” (古玩字畫), which translates to “antiques, calligraphy and paintings.” Since zihua/字畫 was usually considered collectible art, that is the reason for my translation choice here.