The Sound of Firecrackers For A New Year Eve
Idler’s Note: The title of the chapter likely has some wordplay since it is “Bian Pao Sheng Sheng Yi Sui Chu” (鞭炮聲聲一歲除) with “Sui Chu” (歲除) being another way to refer to Chinese New Year’s Eve while “Yi Sui” (一歲) can possibly mean either “one year (old)” or “a single year” which could refer to Xiaobao and Juan-Juan being a year old or that this is their first New Year’s Eve.
Also, Great Tang Idyll is apparently listed on Manga Updates now. To the anonymous kind reader that added it on there, thank you! It’s always cool to see something you worked on being shared and linked by people who take the time and effort to do so. Of course, it is less complimentary when the content itself is outright taken without permission or asking but the less we say about that particular website that I refuse to name or link to, the better—I don’t wish to demoralize myself any further and fall into a deep dark spiral of depression where I curl up and don’t do anything (including translating) but wait to die. 😦
Anyway, moving on! Thank you all for visiting and reading. Please like, comment, and subscribe if you can~! Of course, I wouldn’t say no to people contributing financially since that would help pay for the VIP raws and funnel the money to the author as well as save up for moving this site to its own web hosting. If you are interested in helping out, you can do so through Patreon, Crowdrise, or by sponsoring a chapter through Paypal and any of the other methods listed here. Thanks again! 🙂
Disclaimer: This translation is by a fan for fans. Any opinions or commentary presented here are translated as is written by the original author. Any remarks by the translator will be in footnotes or in an editorial aside. The original work is the property of the author and any other associated copyright holders in their respective territories. Please do not reproduce, redistribute, or resell this translation anywhere else without permission! If you are reading this anywhere else but on 閒人 • O N L I N E at solitaryidler.wordpress.com, then it is being reposted without permission from the translator! If you are the copyright holder and/or have licensed this work for English publication and wish for this translation to be removed, please contact me to do so. Thank you!
The 29th of the 12th lunar month, night.
Zhang Xiaobao and Wang Juan lay on top of the kang [bed-stove]. Shiliu was lying next to the two people as the three of them were all wide-eyed and awake.
“Xiaobao, tomorrow will be New Year’s. We’ll be bigger by a year—nominal age.1 You have any ideas?” Wang Juan couldn’t sleep and her eyes used the lamp light inside the room to look at the ceiling.
“No ideas. Passing the New Year is just passing it—got used to that long before. You lean towards me on this side; don’t be up against the wall—the heated wall2 on that side is scalding.” Zhang Xiaobao also wasn’t asleep as he was thinking on other matters. Noon today, news had been sent over from the location of the Sanshui County’s county seat that the last of the cucumbers had already been sold at 150 wen [cash] for 1 catty. It was estimated that by the afternoon, they would all be able to be sold off.
This now could be considered to have made money. Tomorrow would probably be able to have 300 or more silver taels of income so the cucumbers hadn’t been planted in vain. Adding up the later cost invested in there of the money for the straw curtains, it was only just 27-8 taels so the profit had been tenfold. It had all been given to the people of the manor as well as some other places so it was rather a lot.
Over there, Wang Juan also felt that her sides were hot and moved a little bit towards Zhang Xiaobao here as she said: “I didn’t say to let you have any ideas about the New Year. I was saying if you had any ideas about the manor for next year. It’s only proper that we should have an overall plan.”
“Unh, have ideas. This year was a special year, a harmonious year. Under the efforts of all of the people of the manors—the two families of Zhang and Wang manor—they all achieved good results on top of the establishment of a mental and material culture, upholding to our manor’s constant…”
“Talk for real.” Seeing that Zhang Xiaobao was going to speak these types of words, Wang Juan impatiently interrupted him. She’d really heard too much of these so she had long grown numb to them.
“It really is too difficult. No money. Next year, how to live, ~ya? I need to think of some way.” Zhang Xiaobao estimated his own money for a bit. There were still some carrots that could get 1,800 silver taels. The soybean oil had been more or less sold off over these several days. The spicy sauce had just stopped selling yesterday as all of it had been bought out by people who hoped to have a good New Year.
Overall speaking, to be able to have 1,600-700 taels as ready cash on hand was quite a lot as many people couldn’t earn that much over a lifetime. But this didn’t leave him satisfied since next year, the roads had to be repaired, the sites had to be plotted out, and a large amount of things had to also be purchased. Added on top of that was the money for bribing the local authorities so nothing could be missing. He’d also heard that next year, there’d be people auditing the lands.
“Then, have you thought of any yet?” Wang Juan helped Zhang Xiaobao tuck3 in that part of the blanket by his neck.
Zhang Xiaobao himself also moved a bit as the Northwest here wasn’t good on this point since in the winter, beneath was the kang [bed-stove] and if it was fired up too much, it’d be scalding while above would be the chilly wind, causing suffering on two fronts. It was as well that a furnace had been lit inside the room, causing the temperature to rise a bit but they could still feel that there was a wind blowing at them from somewhere unknown.
“Talk, ~ya! What good way did you think of?” Wang Juan urged.
“It’s not some way or anything. Just wait when everyone’s done working at the start of spring, I’m ready to do a market fair in that area by the small bridge. There’s quite a few things that were gained from barter in our storehouse. At that time, we’ll take some out every day and place them there to offer to the people of the two manors to trade with. The things we get in exchange can then continue to be traded.
Every type of item will be priced by the people within our courtyard house, which is the same as an exchange value or else supplemented for by using other money. By then, the surrounding manors nearby will also have people coming over. At that time…”
“At that time, you’re prepared to collect taxes? That can’t be good?” As Wang Juan listened to Zhang Xiaobao speak of it bit by bit, she suddenly asked in interruption.
“Collect what tax? As long as the market fair is set up and we have the price-setting right, then we can get quite a bit in benefits. We can build some small warehouses to let them store things while we provide the protection and can even set up two food stalls or snack shops in that place. Whatever else, a little can be earned. There would be an additional income stream and it wouldn’t even require sparing too much effort, either.”
Zhang Xiaobao’s voice gradually grew faint as it looked like he got sleepy or he was about to sleep after saying all this.
Wang Juan seemed to be infected too as she followed him in letting out a yawn. Her head bent over, she leaned against Zhang Xiaobao to fall asleep as well. The topic just now was considered to have been settled.
Shiliu laid there, fully clothed, to watch Little Mister the both of them finally go to sleep. Getting up to check once again whether or not that stovepipe that extended to the exterior was outwardly expelling smoke, she splashed some water on top of the connected area. Seeing that no bubbles appeared, only then did she relax and turn around to leave the room.
Going outside to inspect for a bit those two who were sitting there reading a book together, she instructed them to pay more attention to the furnace at night before she returned to lie down and also slowly fall asleep.
Sanshui County, behind the yamen [govt. offices] where the county magistrate resided.
Cheng Lingxiang hugged the little concubine in his arms as he momentarily couldn’t get to sleep so he estimated how much help he would be able to get with the cucumbers that he would be giving out this time. The cucumbers had been sold off over the past few days so the news had already been transmitted to the ears of those people who would care yet there was not one person who had sent over to people to ask about it. That document that had been submitted didn’t get a reply up until now either, as if it was a rock sinking into the great sea.
“Master, those cucumbers really are delicious. Don’t send any more to other people. Let’s keep them all.” The face of the little concubine in Cheng Lingxiang’s arm was still rosy in the passionate aftermath as she extended an arm to continuously move on top of Cheng Lingxiang’s body as she spoke.
Cheng Lingxiang’s brow wrinkled: “What do womenfolk know? Don’t give—if I don’t give, then where do I go to find my future? Isn’t it simple if you want to eat it? Tomorrow, I’ll send a person over to send money over there. By then, they can get some cucumbers back here.”
The little concubine had also grown docile and didn’t ask after matters in this area: “It’s still Master who is impressive to have gotten cucumbers that are normally worthless sold off such a price. Unh, Master is also impressive in other things, too.”
With this praise, Cheng Lingxiang rubbed that sleek body of the little concubine’s and felt a bit ready for some more action again. With a flip of the body, passion once again reappeared.
Morning the next day, the person sent out by Magistrate Cheng set off while carrying that heavy silver in tow. There were a lot more people out in the streets today in particular as they all wanted to take advantage of the morning period to buy all of the things that hadn’t been prepared in their houses yet as quickly as possible. Also, the couplets4 for their house hadn’t been prepared yet either so at this time, they were also urgently seeking people to go write them.
When Zhang Xiaobao and Wang Juan had gotten up, all of the people in their house were busy, especially in the back where the cucumbers had been planted. The people of the courtyard house were picking the cucumbers that were still covered in dew to pile up to the side in preparation for sending it to each of the houses of the manor peasants after a while.
“This is New Year’s. It’s this side that’s rather lively. I don’t know if I should go back or stay at your house for New Year.”
Wang Juan and Zhang Xiaobao now no longer drank milk as drinking porridge was fine and then eating two bites of pickled vegetables made using tofu was sufficient for all the nutrition that the body required. But thinking of the New Year, Wang Juan didn’t know how to arrange for it.
“To speak based on common sense, you should go back. But there are still exceptions to the rule, didn’t they say that ever since we opened our eyes, there was no way to separate us and that once separated, we’d cry? So this year, you’ll just pass it at my house. If that really isn’t fine, then on the night of the 30th, let’s go back and forth between the two houses.”
Zhang Xiaobao understood Wang Juan’s meaning. She wanted to spend the New Year together with himself and this could be considered to be her having completely abandoned the matters of the past. He also thought like this. Ever since he’d arrived over here, the two of them had been fated to need to work hard together.
“Fine, then let’s do it that way. When will Erniu be sent out? The time of the 15th is also taken seriously over here, ~ne.” Wang Juan lightly pushed a string of bone marrow into her own mouth as she nodded in agreement.
“The 15th won’t do. It’ll be too late so the New 6th.5 It’ll be a bit tough now but in the future, it’ll get better. When the location is found, have the wheatrice stones hauled back here and take advantage of when the land has all thawed to place them in there in advance. Let’s see what the yield will be like.” Zhang Xiaobao drank the last mouthful of porridge as he decided.
The New Year was naturally not the same as usual. Mrs. Zhang-Wang was busy together with the steward so she had no time to come over to see her own child. The people of the courtyard house who still had family members in the manor had all returned so the decrease in staff was obvious as all of them were a single person being treated like they were several and were directed to and fro in circles around the whole of the courtyard house. Though each and every one of them were all so exhausted that they didn’t wish to walk anymore, their faces were still filled with a festive joy.
Zhang Xiaobao and Wang Juan ate and didn’t train for today as they had five strings taken out of the ten firecracker strings they’d finished making several days ago to be sent over to the Wang Family by someone. They also busied themselves with Shiliu in tow.
Among the anticipation of countless people, time slowly passed by. Zhang Xiaobao both placed their flour-filled hands into the water basin to rinse off as the dumplings were now considered to have been finished wrapping in advance. For the sake of the New Year’s vigil6 at night, they would first sleep for a while. They had the willpower for it but a little child’s body wouldn’t be able to withstand it.
With the arrival of nightfall, every family and household all lit up a pile of fire outside of their houses and took out the prepared bamboo poles to throw in there with “pi-pa” sounds that didn’t stop. Slightly more well-off families would even add a bit of salt to let the noise be a little louder.
The two families of Zhang and Wang had also prepared quite a few bamboos. Zhang Xiaobao both first went to the Wang Family before returning over here. So seeing that there were people who were throwing bamboo into the pile of fire, they also took out those five firecracker strings. Tonight, they’d first set off three strings; for tomorrow at midday and night, 1 string each would be set off. By then, they’d still need to go make some more to be held onto until they were lit up for the New 5th7 and the 15th.
Mrs. Zhang-Wang, Father Zhang, Old Madam, and Old Master also stood within the courtyard house to listen to the sound as they hugged the two children in their arms and enjoyed this type of familial feeling. When Shiliu lit up the firecrackers over there to then cover her ears and hide as an even greater commotion of noise erupted, the entire family were all astonished.
Zhang Xiaobao and Wang Juan didn’t tell anyone else about making the firecrackers as they had wanted to give everyone a surprise. The result here was just great now. Not only had there been a surprise, they had even frightened people. Such a loud noise! Everyone was all dazed there and didn’t react until Shiliu went over to light up the second firecracker string.
“Xiaobao, what is this stuff? Hearing it, the noise isn’t little. If more are made, it can be sold for money.” Mrs. Zhang-Wang was rather economically-minded so upon seeing the situation after this stuff was lit up, she thought of business.
“Mom, this stuff is called firecrackers. It’s not easy to make and could even cause trouble. If too many people know of it and we’re not careful, the formula might get leaked. There are lots of trades that make money so let’s first not do this one.” Zhang Xiaobao and Wang Juan didn’t wish to have firecrackers become well known by everybody right now. Thinking on it, that Wang Family’s reaction at this time would probably be like this, too.
“My son speaks so. Let’s go. It’s time. Let’s go eat dumplings.” Mrs. Zhang-Wang considered it and thought him right so no longer had any ideas as she entered the house with her family. The dumplings had already been put in the pot to cook and a hot pot had even been placed on top of the table. The younger generation first kowtowed to the elder generation in a New Year’s greeting and received red envelopes.8 Only then did they start eating.
Watching the adults eat there in a merry commotion, Zhang Xiaobao and Wang Juan both could only select a few items that they could chew on such as duck’s blood,9 tofu, and smaller pieces of mutton. After eating a few bites, the two of them nearly simultaneously put down their chopsticks to say to each other: “It’s Kaiyuan year 3. Happy New Year.”
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Nominal age is usually how “xu sui” (虛歲) is translated. Xu/虛 basically means “false, unreal.” The reason for this is that East Asia has two ways for calculating age. One is the “xu sui” (虛歲) and the other is the “zhou sui” (周歲), which means “complete age,” or “shi sui” (實歲) for “real age.” The real age is the age you would arrive at if you were calculating it based on the Gregorian calendar and Western sensibilities so no confusion there. The real confusion is with the nominal or false age. The nominal age is set to begin at year 1 at birth as they start counting it from the time of conception (and then some—unless it was a longer than usual pregnancy…) so a newborn baby would be considered 0 months age with the real age but 1 year old using the nominal age system. However, unlike with the real age where it increases on the next year of the person’s birthday, the nominal age is incremented with each start of spring of the Chinese calendar. So depending on where a person’s birthday falls in the lunar calendar, they might end up having an unevenly higher nominal age than their real age. For example, a person born during the 11th or 12 lunar month would have been 1 year old at birth under the nominal age calculation system and then after 1-2 lunar months, immediately be considered to be 2 years old because they were born just 1-2 month before the nominal age is set to increment by a year with the Chinese New Year. So even though they are really more like 1.5 months old with their real age, their nominal age is considered to be 2 years old. A similar type of situation with age discrepancies that you can see in the West in regards to age calculations is someone who was born on February 29th and has a leap year birthday. This East Asian convention in regards to age calculation is also likely part of the reason for the confusion behind the age controversy of the Chinese gymnasts at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. ↩
The Chinese term of “huo qiang” (火牆) literally means “fire wall” so it can lead to some confusion because the technical term of firewall in Chinese is “fang huo qiang” (防火牆) or “anti-firewall.” However, in this case, it is a term referring to a short and hollowed out wall that was built and connected to an interior stove or furnace that served to provide a form of radiant heating since the hot air produced by the stove or furnace would heat up the wall to warm the room. So it works similar to the idea of a hypocaust except instead of it being an underfloor heating system, it is a wall heating system. This is not to be confused with the concept of a physical firewall in English, which is a wall that is built to passively prevent fires from spreading if a fire breaks out in the house. To avoid confusion, I didn’t translate the Chinese term literally and opted to translate it as “heated wall.” ↩
“Dui zi” (對子) can also be referred to as “Dui lian” (對聯) in Chinese and refers to paired Chinese poetry couplets that are written in matching counterpoint to each other according to Chinese poetry rules. So think of “dui zi” (對子) as being similar to two poetry lines that rhyme with each other in English, often with opposite or complementary meanings. This is actually a reference to the “spring couplets” or “chun lian” (春聯), which are a special type of couplets that are written especially for Chinese New Year so the content of the phrases will usually wish for luck, fortune, prosperity, or good health, etc. ↩
“Chu Liu” (初六) actually means “initial 6” because the first 10 days of a month in the Chinese calendar will always be referred to as the initial plus whatever date it is. For days after the 10th such as from the 11th onward, the date is simply numbered accordingly. However, the first days after the New Year has begun tend to have different activities associated with them just like the 12 Days of Christmas. The 6th day of Chinese New Year is also called “Ma Ri” (馬日) or “Horse Day” because this is when Nüwa (女媧), the Chinese creation goddess, is believed to have created the horse. To differentiate this 6th from other 6ths, I will be translating it as “New 6th.” ↩
“Shou ye” (守夜) in Chinese normally means to keep watch at night. However, it can also refer to the tradition of staying up all night on the 30th, the eve of Chinese New Year. The legend goes that the Nian Beast or “Nian Shou” (年獸) would attack on this night so people would stay up all night for fear of the attack until daybreak when there would be no more danger since it would leave with the onset of daylight. The Nian Beast is also the reason for why so much red and loud noises are part of the Chinese New Year festivities as they would scare it off. It is questionable whether the Nian Beast is the reason for why a year is called nian/年 in Chinese or vice versa but there is an amount of wordplay in its name since it was supposed to make an annual visit, came on Chinese New Year, and its name basically meant “Year Beast.” ↩
“Chu Wu” (初五) means “initial 5” and is how the 5th out of the first 10 days of a new month is referred to in the Chinese calendar. However, this is also how the first 10 days of the New Year are called in Chinese as well. For this reason, I have chosen to translate it as “New 5th.” This date is also called “Po Wu” (破五) or “Broken 5” and is a day where people would light up firecrackers in order to scare away any evil spirits and bad luck by using the loud noises to make them break and flee. The name is also a reference to the aftermath when after the bad luck had been driven off and purified for sure, the superstitious restrictions that they had to keep in observation of Chinese New Year such as staying indoors for fear of contaminating friends or family with misfortune and vice versa, not doing any heavy cleaning for fear of getting rid of the good luck inside the house, etc. were lifted. There are a number of other little assorted tradition and beliefs associated with this day but that’s the general gist of it. ↩
Red envelopes or “hong bao” (紅包) can also be called “ya sui qian” (壓歲錢) or “weighted age/year money” in Chinese. This is money that was wrapped up in red paper envelopes and given by family elders to their later generations. It was originally in the form of coins tied up with a red string to represent luck and fortune before it evolved into money that was placed into red envelopes. Typically, you are eligible for receiving the money as long as you are considered a child in the household. So yes, this means that if you are still unmarried in your 30s (marriage being a significant coming of age landmark), you could be considered to be a child since you hadn’t left the nest to establish your own in Chinese culture. Although don’t expect stingy Chinese parents to try to pressure their unmarried children into marriage by rewarding them with money… They are smart enough to know not to do that unless it would work. Anyway, the reason for why New Year money can be referred to as “weighted age/year money” is because the Chinese believed children to be especially vulnerable to injury from spirits as an explanation for the high child mortality rate back then, so the money was meant to weigh the child down (preventing their being taken away) and act as a good luck talisman that bore the well wishes of the family elders that cherished them. Money can also be gifted to family elders by their younger generations as well to signify their hopes that their elders will be long-lived in age. Other than Chinese New Year, red envelopes can also be given on happy occasions such as marriages or graduations although red envelopes have also become an euphemism for bribery as well, especially in recent years. ↩
“Ya xue” (鴨血) or duck’s blood is consumed in Chinese cuisine as it is considered to be good for enriching the blood and detoxification. For the sake of reference, you can look at black pudding or Juka, a type of blood soup, for similar dishes in Western cuisine. Congealed blood that is consumed is generally referred to as blood sausages in English and can show up in a number of world cuisines as well. For pictures of what duck’s blood would look like and some of the dishes it can be made into, you can go to the Baidu page here.