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1.1 风华 Magnificence
This year’s eighth month, thirteenth day, was my fifteenth birthday, and also the day of my coming of age ceremony.
The ceremony was jointly held by the Empress and the Jin Min Princess1. The Crown Princess led the ladies of the inner court in attendance. Every distinguished family in the capital sent congratulations.1
Wearing five layers of intricate robes, wide skirts trailing behind me, I slowly walked along the brocade spread across the steps of the bright hall. In the hall in front of me hung the names of the ancestors of successive generations of the Wang family. Holding my breath, I knelt, folded my two hands over each other and raised them to my forehead, and lowered my head and bowed down.
My mother, the Jin Min Princess, wore a phoenix-patterned robe of apricot yellow, hair adornments swaying gently over her forehead, reflected in the sparkling tears in her eyes.
Magnificent in her dress, the Empress, my father’s sister, slowly stepped down from her seat and smiling looked at me.
Mother, with her own hands, coiled up my long hair, layer and layer pulled into a high topknot.
Aunt inserted into my hair the eight-jeweled golden hairpin bestowed by the Emperor as a gift, and fastened my hair with an eighteen-pearled crescent shaped hair comb, revealing a bright and clean forehead.
Mother, restraining her tears, smiled and unblinking watched me — while the officer of rites chanted aloud — bow to the ancestors, bow to the Empress, bow to father and mother and brother2. Ritual completed, I slowly stood. I raised my head and looked around.2
In the resplendent hall, everyone was silent.
The light from the tall candles cast my shadows on the bright walls of the hall: a graceful and lithe figure, hair fastened loftily high.
When I strolled by, the gazes of those I passed were pulled along as by a yoke, and even the officer of rites forgot his ritual chant.
Standing alone in the center of such extraordinary splendor and light, I raised my head slightly — solitary, without anyone to lean on, and proud.
For the first time in my life, I stood alone in front of everyone, without father or mother or brother to shield me.
At that moment, I felt the distance between myself and everyone, as I stood there a long time.
Ten thousand eyes upon me — only, his were not there.
His pair of always warm, always smiling eyes.
I knew, from this moment on, the past was gone and would not return.
Early the second morning, I was wakened by Aunt Xu urging me to rise. While it was still dark outside, I began to dress and make my morning toilette.
Today would be my first to pay my respects to my father and mother according to the etiquette of an adult woman.
When my toilette was complete, Aunt Xu and Jin’er3 and the maids dazedly stared at me for a long while, speechless.3
The girl in the mirror had her hair pulled up in two high coils4, in long skirts of jade green threaded through with silver, and an outer robe of muslin gauze the color wild rose.4
Clearly it was me, and yet, clearly it was also no longer me.
The skies were clear after the rains last night. The early morning breeze swept through the osmanthus tree outside in a great flurry, casting an abundance of fragrant flower petals to the ground.
Turning the corner of the west corridor, I ran into brother, his robes and sleeves fluttering as he came.
He made a noise of surprise, and paced around me in a circle. His swooping eyebrows lifted, eyes full of amazement.
I deliberately lifted my head up and mimicked his raised eyebrows. Smiling, I eyed him and allowed him to look me up and down.
“A winsome smile, bright dark eyes . . . . really, how beautiful a maiden5.” Reciting in that clear high voice, there was in his eyes a strange, wicked smile.5
I pressed my lips together, silent, and cast my eyes over him, up and down, curious as to what mischief he was up to today.
Tapping his fan, he continued, “Marquis Qi’s daughter, Marquis Wei’s bride, the Crown Prince’s sister, Marquis Xing’s sister-in-law, the Duke Tan6 — ”6
The second “sister-in-law” had not yet been said yet, when I reached over and snatched his fan, forcefully hitting him.
Laughing, he ducked away, still teasing, “Marquis Wei, Marquis Wei, where is our little Ah Wu’s Marquis Wei?”
I bit my lip, but my ears were burning and my cheeks started to warm.
“Daddy’s not Marquis Qi, and you’re not the Crown Prince.” I glared at him in annoyance. “If Daddy heard you spouting such nonsense, see if he doesn’t break both your legs.”
“Though I am not correct, yet I am not wrong. Aren’t you basically the Crown Prince’s little sister7?” Seeing my entire face blush red, that hateful person became even more pleased with himself. Giggling, he drew closer. “Yesterday, your older brother tried to divine for you your future. This year an auspicious star moves8 for our little Ah Wu — you’ll meet a good man9!”789
I stamped my foot and pounced forward to tickle him under his arms. He most hated being tickled, and dodged, and soon the two of us were entangled, raising a ruckus.
Jin’er and the rest watched us horse-playing, and retreated to one side, chuckling to themselves.
Aunt Xu didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. “Behave, my little princess10. . . Lord Chancellor will be coming back to the manor soon. If you keep on like this, your servant I11 will be punished again.”1011
Taking advantage of Aunt Xu’s hand hauling me back, brother managed to free himself. Laughing, he ran away.
I turned around angrily. “Aunt Xu! You’re always on his side!”
Aunt Xu covered her smile with a sleeve, exquisitely elegant. She said softly, “An auspicious star moving is a good thing. Princess, why be so angry?”
Immediately, I glared at her, not knowing whether to be angry or whether to laugh. Even Aunt Xu was poking fun at me.
“Lord Chancellor is still in the front hall. Princess, it may be better to pay your respects to your mother first,” the maid Jin’er said quietly from one side, timely releasing me from this coil.
“Very well.” Feigning indifference, I turned around and walked away — but quietly lowered my head, hiding the red blush once again staining my cheeks.
We really were a pair of naughty, mischievous siblings, ever since we were little.
In the eyes of the world, brother was distinguished and accomplished, I was beautiful and respected, and we were admired as deified figures.
But the eminence of scions of even as prestigious a family as ours was but an appearance.
In private, we too were a pair of ordinary siblings, similar to any common family’s boy and girl: we too were naughty, mischievous, endlessly squabbling over trivial matters; we too were spoiled, naive, willful, headstrong; in front of father and mother, we too were forever children who would not grow up; we too could be gloomy and helpless, hiding in our hearts a small, little sliver of attachment. . . .
A gust of wind blew by, bringing with it a flurry of yellow osmanthus flower loose petals to fall on the ground outside the corridor railing, the fragrance charming.
This year’s osmanthus flowers had bloomed early. Now, they were already beginning to fall.
I walked along with my head lowered, minding only myself. Yet, brother’s words had stirred up anxieties and, in a moment, my heart was full of melancholy.
What auspicious star to move, what fated meeting with a good man. . . . my good man was gone to the imperial tombs in filial piety to mourn. Until three years had passed, how could he come back to marry me?
Three years. How long and endless a time was it?
I gazed blankly at the distant empty sky, and sighed softly.
That remote imperial tomb, situated beyond the far mountains, it might already be autumn there now.
1 – “the Jin Min Princess” – 长公主/zhanggongzhu is the Emperor’s sister, as opposed to 公主/gongzhu who would be the Emperor’s daughter; but there’s no really good English equivalent to make that distinction. Jin Min is part of her title, not her name.zhanggongzhugongzhu
2 – “brother” – 哥哥 – specifically, her older brother
3 – “Jin’er” – 锦儿 – where 锦/jin is her name and 儿/child is the diminutive suffix. Presumably, they are affectionate and Jin’er is younger than Ah Wu.jin
4 – “in two high coils” –
5 – “a winsome smile, bright dark eyes. . . ” – He’s quoting here from an old collection of poems () which describes the beauty Zhuang Jiang marrying the Marquis Wei. Specifically, the phrases he quotes when rendered more colloquially: (“硕人其颀”) a beautiful woman is tall and slender / (“巧笑倩兮”) so sweetly smiling to move a person’s heart / (“美目盼兮”) the turn of her luminous eyes to pierce a person’s soul.
6 – “Marquis Qi’s daughter, Marquis Wei’s bride. . . ” – from the same collection ().
7 – “the Crown Prince’s little sister” – in Chinese, female cousins can also be called ‘sister’; so (implied by the Empress = her father’s sister/ her mother = the Emperor’s sister), Ah Wu is the Crown Prince’s younger cousin, or: his little sister.
8 – “an auspicious star moves” – more literally, 红鸾星动/the red phoenix star moves: in ancient Chinese divination, the red phoenix star moving indicates that you’ll be getting married. No real star corresponds to the red phoenix star. (鸾 is a mythical bird related to the phoenix, not the phoenix itself; but for simplicity, I’m fudging.)
9 – “you’ll meet a good man” – the joke here: 良人 means ‘a good man’ but archaically also means ‘husband’.
10 – “my little princess” – (郡主/junzhu) is the daughter of a prince, as opposed to (公主/gongzhu) the daughter of the Emperor. For Ah Wu, this title comes from her mother, who as (长公主/zhanggongzhu) is the daughter of the previous Emperor.junzhugongzhuzhanggongzhu
11 – “your servant I” – 奴婢/nubi means “slave”, and how servants call themselves when speaking to the master. So Aunt Xu is a servant slave in the family; but because she has presumably been with the family for a long time, Ah Wu affectionately calls her “Aunt”nubi
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