An Once Abandoned Plan Turned Into A Good Idea
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Following Zhang Xiaobao and Wang Juan’s answers, the members of the two families of Zhang and Wang valued these two children more and more. Especially after Wang Manor had also imitated Zhang Manor by hiring several more people and discovered that the money spent wasn’t that much but the people underneath worked even harder than they had previously.
In the afternoon, the temperature went back up. Zhang Xiaobao and Wang Juan brought along Shiliu as they walked towards those fields that had been completely harvested. At this time, the fields had patch after patch of short stubble; it was all like this, regardless of whether it was rice, wheat, and millet.
“Xiaobao, can some vegetables be planted during the winter?” Wang Juan picked up a leaf that had been blown by the wind onto her body and felt that for the land in front of her to be empty for the winter was a bit wasteful.
Zhang Xiaobao pursed his little mouth as he gazed at those fields. Only after a long while did he shake his head and say with resignation: “To want to plant these lands here isn’t feasible. Wonder how much is 1 catty of cucumbers in the winter?”
“Shiliu, how much do cucumbers cost in the winter?” Wang Juan turned her head around to ask Shiliu who was following closely.
“Where are there cucumbers? After two more days, the stockpiled cucumbers will need to be eaten up otherwise they’ll go bad. If Little Miss wishes to eat cucumbers, the cucumbers can be dried in the shade.1 Then, use water to soak them with to eat them—the other vegetables are prepared this way, too.” Shiliu didn’t know what these two little guys were thinking? To even expect to buy cucumbers in the winter.
“Then if there are cucumbers—just picked—how much money would you be prepared to buy them for?” Zhang Xiaobao subsequently asked.
“In reply to Little Mister’s words, I wouldn’t buy them. Even if they could be bought, I wouldn’t be able to afford them.” Shiliu also didn’t have anything to do so she went along with conversing on these topics that were impossible to realize.
But Wang Juan didn’t think so. If Zhang Xiaobao didn’t have a way, he wouldn’t be so fixated on this line of questioning. She thought on it for a while but discovered that a greenhouse2 couldn’t be built so she could only use her hand to bump Zhang Xiaobao: “How do you want to plant cucumbers?”
“Erniu has grown idle. Have him go to Ge Manor to collect firewood—that is, the stalks from rice, wheat, and millet. This stuff should be extremely cheap as 1 wen [cash] of money should be enough to buy several large bundles. Then, we’ll plant the cucumbers. Today, we’ll do the preparation work; tomorrow, we’ll do it.”
Zhang Xiaobao started planning things out while to the side, Wang Juan still had not figured out how the cucumbers could be planted.
Not waiting for her to ask, Zhang Xiaobao explained it for her: “In fact, this is a scam—one that a subordinate had originally thought up. I thought that it wouldn’t be easy to implement so I didn’t use it. This method can, in a situation without using any transparent materials, plant vegetables in the north during the winter.
Theoretically, it’s possible but the reality of the process is that it doesn’t compare to just shipping it over from other summer seasonal countries. The investment is large but the gain is small so the revenue wouldn’t make up for the deficits.3 Over on this side, some of the materials are cheap and you don’t even need to account for the time or labor; on top of that, winter has no cucumbers so it should be able to make money. Tomorrow, get busy along with me.”
Wang Juan, seeing that Zhang Xiaobao had spoken of it in passing but still hadn’t pointed out the matter, didn’t hurry to ask as she would know by looking at how he prepared today.
With business to be accomplished, the three of them didn’t linger much outside as they turned around to go back and Zhang Xiaobao started setting up the arrangements.
Picking out a plot of land that was 40 meters by 40 meters in the back, he and Wang Juan did the rough measurements together, digging out a square trench located every 5 meters by 5 meters with the trench being 1.5 meters deep.
Subsequently, a wall was built on top to surround that area of over 20 square meters. It was the kind that was hollow-shelled4 in the middle with a wall height of 2 meters. Near the top of the interior, holes that were as thick as a small child’s arm were drilled in place at every 1 meter interval.
The manor was currently not busy and had a lot of people. The master-family took care of the meals so that they could even save up some of their own family’s food grains. So they all came over to help. Once the holes on the wall had been completely bored out, another hole was drilled in each exterior surrounding wall that was slightly larger.
It was only when night came that these could all be considered to be finished though it had not dried yet. Erniu brought over firewood to start baking the walls during the night as a stove5 had been connected to the bottom hole and firewood placed within the stove so that the hot air could travel along the area in between the two walls to move to other places.
During this one night, there were a lot of people lighting the fire so it was rather lively. The little kids of the manor were all too excited to sleep as they wandered back and forth.
Morning, the next day. Zhang Xiaobao had people go and collect mats—those types that were the cheapest. They could be mats6 woven out of grass and could also be woven out of reeds. Bamboo wasn’t considered as they were a bit costly. They did purchase countless bamboo poles that were as thick as a little child’s arm and at least 2.5 meters long, which was around 6 chi [foot].
Don’t just see how the stuff wasn’t worth any money. To buy everything had even cost Zhang Xiaobao 100 bolts of silk along with 20 silver taels, causing Steward Zhang who had been looking on from the side bad heart pains.
“For Little Mister who’s been busy these past few days making money, it hasn’t been so easy either. Mess around once and 20 taels were gone. The spicy sauce, vegetable oil, and borrowing on credit for the past two days had to be resorted to make up for it. And the money from Little Mister selling the carrots has even been used. Of the money of the two manors added on top of the money that Little Mister made, 3,900 taels of silver has all been exchanged for food grains. This even includes that portion originally from Mister Song.
The chicks have grown up quite a bit but selling them isn’t allowed and they’ll only be able to produce eggs next year. After paying the taxes in grains,7 the manor won’t have any extra money8 to spare. Right now, all of the expenses of the manor are even being supported by the money from Little Mister’s daily sale of the oil and sauce. Mistress, how about persuading Little Mister?”
Steward Zhang muttered for a while at Mrs. Zhang-Wang who was also watching the commotion. 20 silver taels, ~ah! It was enough for the courtyard house’s overhead for a single month.
“Steward Zhang, Xiaobao wants to do this and he’s even using his own money so bystanders shouldn’t mind. Xiaobao has his own plans.”
Mrs. Zhang-Wang was rather indifferent. There were still hundreds and tens of guan [strings of cash] in the house and when she looked again at those food grains that had been piled up into hill after hill, she basically wasn’t worried. Moreover, that vegetable oil would have daily revenue and even after subtracting the two manors’ expenses, there was still a surplus left over.
When it was night, several people remained here to light the fire and keep watch as Wang Juan and Zhang Xiaobao also came over to see.
“Xiaobao, you’re thinking of planting cucumbers in the middle here. If it’s cold, just light up the fire a bit. During the daytime, open up the shed and connect the hollowed out bamboo so as to preserve the interior temperature. If two bamboo poles are joined together, their two ends would meet up just right. Then, cover it up with mats at night. Then, what about the moisture level for winter here, ~ne?”
Wang Juan understood. No wonder Zhang Xiaobao said that it was a scam. Wasn’t that so? If placed in that time, this stuff would require a lot of money—it’d even more expensive than building a greenhouse. Cucumbers could be had elsewhere and basically couldn’t be sold for too much money. How much money would be needed to ship it over from the south to the north?
“Maintaining the moisture’s easy. Just spraying water on the mats covering it would be fine. The mats consumed will be a bit more but it’s good that they’re inexpensive. The most important consideration for winter is the snow. If there really is heavy snow, then people will need to get up to brush it off at night. The land fears the chill so the trenches were dug out so that it could be baked with fire every few days.
Under this kind of sunlight, the cucumbers will grow slowly. It’s the middle 10 days of the 9th lunar month9 right now, according to the calculations on this side. With another 2 and half months, it’ll be the New Year, which is about when they’ll come down. Then, we’ll earn a big sum and have a good New Year’s. The secrecy needs to be protected well when it’s being artificially pollinated.”
As the words slowly came out of Zhang Xiaobao’s mouth, Wang Juan gazed at his calm expression on his face and felt that this was the style that International Criminal Swindler of before should have—just like a patriarch10 commanding their subordinates to knock down one after another one of their enemies with a steadfast and profound bearing that allowed their subordinates to forever be filled with confidence and hope.
“Didn’t expect it, ~ah. Something that was originally meant to scam people with could actually make money on this side. By that time, eating a bite of cucumbers would be more expensive than eating a bite of meat. Let’s go. Tomorrow morning, Mister Song will be returning to give us the money from selling the sugar in cooperation with that Zhou Xihu. The peasants from your and my two families’ manors needs people to go renovate their houses as well as to set up the kang [bed-stove]. It’s all counting on this sum of money, ~ne.”
Wang Juan pulled on Zhang Xiaobao’s hand as she turned around to walk towards the residential area, the two small little figures growing longer and longer under the firelight.
The morning of the second day, Song Jing-gong rushed back as he first took out the money from the oil that had been sold yesterday. It wasn’t much, being only 900 or so copper coins and not even reaching 1 silver tael. However, carrying it wasn’t light or easy. The main thing was that a lot of people had used other things in exchange.
According to Zhang Xiaobao’s instructions, if these things could be preserved, they were aggregated before being sold off in bulk while the ones that couldn’t be preserved were basically some edibles such as 3 catties of dewy spinach that were used to exchange for 1 catty of tofu. The spinach would be directly brought over to that small eatery that had been purchased. The accounts were recorded separately and then, would be settled at the end of the month.
“Little Mister, this is the money that Zhou Xihu gave. Based on what you [honorific] said, I initially asked for 30% of the money, lowering the 50% by two levels on my own. That Zhou Xihu was so badly delighted. This is 120 silver taels. Carrying them on my person along with those copper coins almost crushed me to death.”
Song Jing-gong placed a bundle he’d been carrying on his back in front of Zhang Xiaobao and Wang Juan. He pulled open the knot to reveal inside the gray-white color of silver—12 ingots, each ingot weighing 10 taels.
Zhang Xiaobao nodded his head. Having this money would be enough.
Song Jing-gong saw that Little Mister didn’t have any expression of surprise so he himself couldn’t be so excited, either. So he asked as if wishing to play a guessing game with Little Mister: “Little Mister, why don’t you [honorific] guess why over 100 silver taels were gained in such a short time?”
“This requires a guess? Zhou Xihu has been spoiled and pampered since birth and he hasn’t even come of age yet, ~ne, so he’s still considered a child. He’s the same as me and wants to have the people in his family be happy. So in the end, he used quite a few tricks to transport over a large amount of brown sugar to make into white sugar and then sold them using the connections that he found.
I can guess that within the prefecture, any place that sells sugar will have his white sugar. What you’ve brought over will only be the first sum of money; the next sum of money will soon arrive. Yesterday night, I told Erniu to leave the prefecture today and go elsewhere to buy brown sugar. Before the New Year, it’ll increase greatly in price—the money that needs to be made still has to be made.”
Zhang Xiaobao used his hands to caress the silver, feeling the coolness of the surface while he talked.
“Little Mister, I’ll go back first. Tomorrow, I’ll return in the afternoon and bring over the second sum of money here.”
After Song Jing-gong finished listening to Zhang Xiaobao’s words, the last trace of excitement also disappeared from his face as he stood up, leaving behind a sentence before he listlessly and dispiritedly left. He suddenly felt like his constant swindling in the past had been meaningless. Facing Little Mister, he was like a small child who had just learned how to walk.
It was only when he asked these types of questions that he thought were rather difficult that Little Mister would always be that nonchalantly blasé,11 always with a smile on that cute face that made him feel chills from the inside out the more that he looked at it.
“Xiaobao, you’ve scared him.” Wang Juan knew as a matter of course what Song Jing-gong’s mood was like. It was just like when she had first seen Zhang Xiaobao’s data. When you were faced with this type of genius who you couldn’t deny, there was a sense of powerlessness.
“I didn’t scare him. I’m giving him confidence. He’s a conceited person who thinks that he’s smarter than other people. I’ll keep him tightly in check and then, he’ll think it through.
He himself is already that impressive and behind him, there’s an even more impressive person—so what does he have to fear when he’s doing something? He’ll then utilize all of his abilities and not need to think of a path for retreat and will let him be self-confident. This is the position that he should be in.”
Zhang Xiaobao provided Wang Juan a one-time analysis of the motivational theory behind human nature and talented personnel.
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“Yin gan” (蔭乾) basically means “to dry in the shade” and refers to a type of food drying. This would be an ancient way of dehydrating food for the purposes of storage preservation where the food is placed in a cool and dry place for a period of time so that the water contents can naturally evaporate. The ancient Chinese did this for a variety of foods that included vegetables and fruits as well as medicines and herbs. ↩
I translated for the meaning of the Chinese expression used here of “ru bu fu chu” (入不敷出), which breaks down etymologically as “entry (intake) not sufficient for exit (expense)” and is generally translated as “unable to make ends meet.” ↩
Technically, it is described as “jia ceng” (夾層) in the original text, which literally means “folded layer” and can either refer to a mezzanine-like middle layer or a double-decker setup or a structure whose layers are folded around a hollow center. Based on the description and to avoid reader confusion, I chose to word it as “hollow.” ↩
The kind of stove that they are talking about here is slightly different in structure and design than the ones most people have in mind as they share the same function as modern stovetops but had different designs. In Chinese, it is called a “zao tai” (灶台) and was a structure that was the combination of a hearth and stove. For a picture, go to the Baidu page here. ↩
“Xizi” (席子) just means “mat” in Chinese and described mats that were typically woven out of straw or reeds as ones that were woven out of cloth were usually described as rugs or blankets rather than mats in Chinese. For reference, the “xizi” (席子) would closely resemble Japanese tatami mats or reed mats from India and Thailand. ↩
The original Chinese of “xiang shang mian jiao wan liang” (向上面交完糧) literally translates to “giving the food/grains upwards,” which would sound confusing to readers. To clarify, “upwards” is an euphemism for the government which rules over all of them. So in this case, Steward Zhang is speaking of paying taxes to the government using food grains in exchange rather than hard currency. ↩
“Zhong xun” (中旬) refers to the time period within a month that is specifically the 11th to 20th day. “Jiu yue” (九月) means “9th month” and it is more than likely that Xiaobao is using the traditional Chinese calendar so the “9th month” would probably not be referring to September but the 9th lunar month. ↩
“Jia zhang” (家長) normally means “parents or child’s guardians” in Chinese and you will see it being used within the term that is the Chinese equivalent for a parent-teacher conference. However, it literally means “family elder/chief” and in this case, it is being used for its connotations as the head of the family (i.e. the patriarch or matriarch). Since Juan-Juan is using it as an analogy for Xiaobao, I have chosen to translate it as “patriarch” in this context. ↩
“Qing miao dan xie” (輕描淡寫) is actually a Chinese idiom describing the act of filling in the colors of a painting as it literally translates to “lightly draw, shallowly write.” It is generally used as an euphemism for delicate actions or subtle and understated emotions that are airy and composed. In order to try to convey the connotations of the usage here, I’ve translated this expression as “nonchalantly blasé.”