Book 33 Chapter 4 – Banquet Night at Taiji
It was not until he stepped into the vast and magnificent space of the Taiji Palace Hall did Kou Zhong find out how popular he was in Chang’an. It did not matter whether it was somebody he knew or not, everybody was striving to greet him and to climb the friendship ladder with him.
While he was extremely busy with these people, Mei Xun patted his shoulder and said, “Xiaodi will have to ask to be excused! Later on I will find Mo Xiansheng to drink and be merry; let Xiaodi be the little host.”
Kou Zhong was stunned, “Where is Mei Zhangmen [headmaster] going?” he asked.
Chang He laughed and said, “Mei Zhangmen is not going anywhere; he just need to go to his assigned seat. Momentarily we have to part company!”
Mei Xun laughed aloud and left by himself.
Chang He pulled Kou Zhong toward a banquet table near the main table; he explained, “Jiancheng Taizi is taking up eight tables, Qin Wang six tables, but Qi Wang’s quota is only four tables. All seats are reserved for nobilities. Mei Xun could only sit on the table allocated to Qi Wang.”
Kou Zhong understood. He said, “Xiaodi naturally will sit with Laoye, Gongzi, and the others at the table allocated to Taizi Dianxia, right?”
Chang He laughed and said, “Your LaoGe is some kind of VIP; we are going to sit on the table allocated to Huangshang. Over there!”
Kou Zhong followed him toward the third banquet table on the east. Two high-ranking officials stood up and said, “Mo Xiansheng, please sit down!”
Kou Zhong looked up. Unexpectedly they were Liu Zhenghui and Wen Yanbo of the Foreign Affairs Ministry, whom he met at the Sifang Lou earlier. Promptly he returned the greeting.
Liu Zhenghui personally introduced him to various men around the banquet table; all were top rank officials of various ministries and departments.
Kou Zhong sat down between Liu Zhenghui and Chang He. Two of the seats were still vacant. After chatting and laughing for a moment, Kou Zhong could not bear not to ask, “Who are not here yet?”
Liu Zhenghui laughed and said, “On this, you must ask Old Wen.”
Wen Yanbo said, “One is an important foreign envoy. According to etiquette, we ought to wait for him, and not let him waiting for us! Now Xiaodi must ask to be excused.”
Kou Zhong did not take it to heart. Leaning toward Chang He, he said, “This kind of feast is so boring that people want to get the bird out of it, so when can we go out to play?”
Chang He awkwardly said, “I thought you were going to sit at Taizi Dianxia’s allocated table, so that slipping away would not be too conspicuous. But now …”
Noticing the two whispering to one another’s ear, Liu Zhenghui was curious, “What is it?” he asked.
Kou Zhong smiled bitterly and replied, “Nothing, it’s just my grand plan of touring the outside is done for.”
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Sitting together with him were all Heavenly Policy Mansion’s martial art masters, including Zhangsun Wuji, Yuchi Jingde, Li Jing, husband and wife, Pang Yu, Luo Shixin, and Liu Dewei. There were still four empty seats, but he did not know whom they were reserved for. Xu Ziling was not like Kou Zhong; although inwardly he was apprehensive, he was well aware that it was inappropriate to ask. Fortunately Zhangsun Wuji was not sitting by his side, otherwise Xu Ziling would have to keep warding off his questions.
Palace maids and court eunuchs poured wine for them. Pang Yu, sitting on his left, sighed and said, “I wonder who will be the lucky one tonight to sit by Xiufang Dajia’s side.”
Although the main hall was packed with people, but since this was imperial court banquet, everybody was solemn and exercising self-control, no one dared to make a racket, hence the atmosphere remained serious.
Hong Funu laughed and swore in a low voice, “In my opinion, Xiufang’s heart already belongs to someone. Yu Gongzi must not be carried away by your wishful thinking.”
No one present was not emotionally moved, yet no one was not without envy either.
‘Yu Gongzi’ [lit. jade young master] was Pang Yu’s nickname-in-jest at the Heavenly Policy Mansion.
Hearing that, he was shaken. “Which lucky guy could really make people envious and jealous? Who is he? If this Gongzi spread this news around, I guarantee that there will be many men looking for him to stake his life against him.”
Hong Funu said, “Whatever this gentleman’s name and surname are, please forgive Hong Fu for being unable to provide, because I am just guessing.”
Greatly interested, Zhangsun Wuji said, “Although Zaixia does not have the qualifications to become the minister under Xiufang Dajia’s skirt [I know, it sounds weird in English, but that’s what the text says], I am still concerned over Shang Cainu’s [talented woman] lifelong happiness. I wonder from which spider’s thread and horse track [i.e. clues] did Dajie [big sister] guess that Shang Cainu’s heart belongs to someone?”
Hong Funu said, “Yesterday Hong Fu went to Shang Lin Yuan to call on her. I saw her writing ‘Thinking about the countenance, remembering the countenance, droplets of tears wet the beautiful silk fabrics, young master [orig. shaonian gongzi – young master who is young in age] bearing heavy kindness’, these several lines over and over more than a dozen times. When she saw me coming, she threw the note away. If her heart was not yearning, how could she act like that?”
Pang Yu dejectedly said, “Thank you Dajie for mentioning that; I’m sure she did not write that note for me.”
Li Jing suddenly spoke in low voice, “Look who’s here.”
Following his gaze, the crowd saw a group of men, upright and unafraid, entering the palace hall. Two of those men were surprisingly the Eastern Tujue’s Kang Qiaoli and Jingzhao Lian’s Big Boss Yang WenGan.
The latter was obviously getting on well with the influential officials of Chang’an; he never stopped exchanging greetings with high officials and noble persons on the east and west banquet tables.
Following behind them was the Great Immortal Hu Fo and his daughter, Hu Xiaoxian. Who could have imagined that this pair of father and daughter, who was famous in the gambling world – would also be in the list of people being invited to the feast.
When Hu Xiaoxian was passing by, her beautiful eyes cast a glance toward Xu Ziling; she even pursed her mouth and chuckled lightly, a pleased-with-herself, graceful but hateful appearance.
Luo Shixin, who was sitting by Xu Ziling, asked, “Does Mo Laoshi know Hu Xiaoxian?”
Xu Ziling was greatly embarrassed; he had no choice but to give him a vague answer, “Only met one time!”
This moment Hong Funu nudged Li Jing and said, “Shiji with Madame are here!”
Hearing that, Xu Ziling’s heart was shocked. Looking toward the palace hall door, indeed he saw Shen Luoyan, like a little bird relying on people [idiom: cute and helpless-looking], leaning on Li Shiji as they walked in this direction. Xu Ziling groaned inwardly.
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Kou Zhong was unable to stop himself from asking Liu Zhenghui about the rise and fall of the terrain of the buildings around the Yue Ma Bridge region. While they were engrossed in the discussion suddenly everybody was standing up one after another, only he did not know what happened. But then he saw the beautiful Shang Xiufang, with Chen Gonggong, the head eunuch who was in charge of the seating arrangement of tonight’s feast, floating directly toward their table.
None of the people on the nearby tables did not reveal envious expression.
Kou Zhong came to his senses. He hurriedly copied everybody else by standing up to welcome her, while thinking inwardly that Shang Xiufang had more charisma than any high-ranking official or millionaire.
Chen Gonggong personally pulled the chair for Shang Xiufang, asking her to take the seat. Who would have thought that Shang Xiufang said, “Please forgive my presumptuous request, but I was wondering if Xiufang could sit by Mo Xiansheng’s side, so that I could consult Mo Xiansheng about some medical problem.”
If Kou Zhong were either Pang Yu or Hou Xibai, men with distinguished and accomplished appearance, everybody might guess that this goddess had some interest; but since it was Kou Zhong, the ugly divine doctor, naturally nobody suspected her motive.
Immediately Liu Zhenghui gave up his seat. Two young eunuchs came to move Shang Xiufang’s chair around. It was after Shang Xiufang was seated properly that everybody started to return to their seat.
Chang He leaned over to whisper teasingly in Kou Zhong’s ear, “Be careful Laoxiong, your virginity cannot be guaranteed.”
Kou Zhong could only respond with wry smile.
Shang Xiufang immediately became the target of a multitude of arrows; everybody, including Chang He, was striving to fawn on her. But she was an eloquent and fluent speaker as well; with springtime never leaving the corner of her mouth, she held her ground in responding to everyone.
Kou Zhong, on the other hand, became like a mute. From time to time he took a furtive look at the palace hall door. One after another he saw Li Mi, Wang Bodang, Huang Gongcuo, Ke Dazhi, and so on entering the hall.
By the time he saw Dong Ming Princess Shan Wanjing and her designated husband Shang Ming entering the hall, Shang Xiufang was finally able to ‘cast away’ her fans around the banquet table. She leaned close to his ear and softly said, “Does Mo Xiansheng know why Xiufang could be placed on this banquet table?”
Knowing something was amiss, Kou Zhong braced himself to speak in low voice, “What exactly was the reason?”
The other people thought that they were discussing some medical problems, hence no one dared to disturb; they continued talking and joking among themselves.
“Because Xiufang specifically requested it,” Shang Xiufang replied, “Ay! You! You nearly deceived me.”
Inwardly Kou Zhong was severely shaken. Stunned, he looked at her.
In return, Shang Xiufang flashed him an enchanting smile. As if nothing had happened, she said, “When can Mo Shen Yi find the time to come to treat Xiufang’s illness?”
Kou Zhong has not figured out the real meaning why she said she was ‘nearly deceived’; smiling wryly, he said, “Xiufang Xiaojie’s order, how could Xiaoren dare not to obey? Whatever time Xiaojie wants me to come, that will be the time Xiaoren will report for duty to see Xiaojie.”
‘Pfft!’ Shang Xiufang broke into tender giggle. She rolled her pair of eyes, which could hook the soul and suck the spirit, like a clear stream spinning round and round – at his ugly face, and then she leaned closer and with a voice so low that it could not be lower, but still every word was distinct, and her breath smelled like orchid, she spoke softly, “Spring Festival, how about Shao Shuai come to Shang Lin Yuan to accompany Xiufang celebrating the New Year? This time you must not miss the appointment!”
Instantly Kou Zhong’s scalp went numb. He was completely at a loss on where did he reveal the flaw so that she was able to see through his fake countenance. Dejected, he said, “How could Xiaoren dare to disobey?”
This moment Wen Yanbo returned. With him was the foreign VIP, which was, surprisingly, the Eastern Tujue diplomatic envoy on commercial trade Mo He’er.
Suddenly the music started.
The Great Tang Emperor has arrived. The nearly a thousand guests in the main hall stood respectfully to welcome him.
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Xu Ziling really wished he could find a hole where he could hide.
The four vacant seats were subsequently filled by the two couples. One couple was Xu Shiji and Shen Luoyan, the other was Shan Wanjing and Shang Ming. Hearing the ‘Fuma Ye’ [emperor’s son-in-law] appellation, Xu Ziling knew that the Dong Ming Princess Shan Wanjing, in accordance to the Dong Ming Pai law – has made the arrangement to ‘take’ Shang Ming as her husband.
No wonder when they met earlier, she was showing dignity and self-control; in her speech and manners, she avoided anything pertaining to man-woman relationship as much as possible.
Shen Luoyan’s beautiful eyes gazed deeply in his eyes, and then she pretended not to pay attention to him anymore. But Xu Ziling dared to say that she already knew that he was Xu Ziling.
However, because of her previous convictions about ‘Yong Qin’, although there was doubt, Shan Wanjing could not be certain. Thereupon she continually bombarded him with her gaze, so that he could not sit peacefully.
Although no relation, let alone a romantic one – had ever grown between he and the two ladies, moreover, he already knew early on that the girls were already taken [orig. famous flower has its master], but seeing face-to-face with the two women, sitting together at the same banquet table, while the women had become couples, it was such an unpleasant and weird feeling that only he would know.
Fortunately, this moment Li Yuan, leading the imperial concubines, his three sons, and various relatives of the Emperor, entered the banquet. A majestic party of nearly a hundred persons attracted everybody’s attention. And thus his miserable plight and pressure were easing off somewhat.
From among Li Yuan’s imperial concubines, Xu Ziling only knew Dong Shuni. Her beauty was not inferior to the other imperial concubines. She was following closely behind Yin De Fei and Zhang Jieyu, who had just recovered from strange illness. It was thus clear that she was indeed beloved by Li Yuan.
Li Jiancheng and the others also lead their respective imperial concubines, as they entered the palace hall according to their rank. Behind Jiancheng was Shimin, followed by Yuanji. Finally Li Shentong, Li Nantian, and the other members of the Li Clan brought up the rear.
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Ever since Li Xiuning entered the hall, Kou Zhong’s eyes have never left her. The most wretched thing was that Chai Shao publicly accompanied her by her side. Evidently his place has already been determined that his seat was so arranged.
When the people of the Li Clan were seated on the six main banquet tables, the ministers and guests in the hall, led by two cabinet ministers closest to Li Yuan, Liu Wenjing and Pei Ji, toasted Li Yuan with three rounds of wine, so that the atmosphere in the hall immediately warmed up.
Li Yuan again asked everyone not to stand on ceremony. After some more holiday speech, more than a hundred singing and dancing artisans, under Ji Qian’s leadership – floated out like butterflies from the doors at the back of the hall on both sides of the main banquet tables, singing and dancing in the midst of melodious drumming music.
In the middle of the dancers, Ji Qian was exceptionally charming. Even inside the formation of many singing and dancing artists, her beautiful and wonderful posture stood out. Amidst the choir of female voices, she lightly sang and gracefully danced; her voice was sweet. Although she could not match Shang Xiufang’s unique and outstanding style, there was a different touchingly implicit charm in her voice; no wonder she could become the most popular female entertainer in Chang’an.
Her skirt and garment were rolling, her long sleeves floating; Ji Qian’s touching and suave singing voice seemed to be coming from everywhere. Added to that her beautiful dancing movement that could overturn a nation, even Li Yuan found it difficult to avert his eyes from her.
This was the first time that Kou Zhong saw Ji Qian; he could not help momentarily laying down the anxiety and depressed mind, which was caused by Li Xiuning’s arrival. He watched her as if he was drunk and stupefied.
Suddenly Shang Xiufang’s tender and soft voice rang in his ear, “Is Mo Xiansheng’s heart moved?”
Kou Zhong came to his senses. His nostrils were filled with this beauty’s scent; he could not help countering the remark without even thinking, “Only toward Xiufang Xiaojie Xiaodi’s heart is moved.”
Shang Xiufang was slightly stunned. Her pretty face was glowing hot, she glowered at him and said in a low voice, “You are lying to me again!”
This time it was Kou Zhong’s turn to be stunned. He was wondering inwardly if Shang Xiufang took a fancy to him? Otherwise, how could she act like a spoilt and naïve little girl like this? Moreover, she was using that kind of tone to respond to his remark.
The others around the table were still watching the singing and dancing with full attention; no one paid any attention to the brief interlude happening between this pair of a man and a woman.
They heard Ji Qian’s singing, “New rain and dew in front of Hua’e Lou [flower’s calyx building], peace and security reign over mankind in the City of Chang’an. Flame from the dragon’s mouth engulfs the trees a thousand layers thick, chicken step on lotus flower over ten-thousand-year springtime. Three or five Spring performance stages in the Emperor’s Palace, passing rain and flowing wind, none came in envy. In the Western Region the lantern wheel like a thousand-shadow tree, in the Magnificent East [orig. ‘hua’, i.e. China] the imperial place is open ten-thousand times.”
As soon as the song ended, the lights suddenly went dark. Almost as suddenly, like performing magic trick the group of female dancers produced brightly colored lanterns in their hands. The hundred or so lanterns danced together like dazzling red clouds. The space in the middle of the main hall was turned into ten million kinds of lights moving in a dance, weaving across each other in certain patterns. Everybody watching was unable to take it all in, everybody was gasping in amazement.
When the lights in the main hall returned, the dancers already left the hall via the same route they were coming in. Cheers and applause shook the palace hall.
A cabinet minister sitting on Kou Zhong’s table, Gao Shilian, clapped his hands while also spoke to Shang Xiufang, “Xiu Fang Dajia’s choreography of this singing and dancing routine was certainly brilliant beyond compare, making people could not help but gasping in admiration.”
It was only then did Kou Zhong understand the reason Shang Xiufang was staying at Shang Lin Yuan. Turned out it was to train this group of dancers/singers for this performance.
Shang Xiufang promptly declined modestly.
This moment the palace maids, like flowing water, delivered the fine food and delicacies to the banquet tables, creating another burst of noise and excitement.
And then it was Li Yuan’s turn to toast the crowd, rising the harmonious atmosphere among the host and guest to its warmest level.
Xu Ziling, sitting on the other side, was thinking that were it not for the Great Tang’s fame and power, which was like the sun in the middle of the sky, tonight’s New Year’s Eve banquet would not be as blazing-hot as it was this moment. Were it not for the unending struggle among the different factions of the imperial court, the Great Tang definitely did not have anybody with enough momentum to challenge it.
After three rounds of wine, three hundred imposing-looking imperial guards and bodyguards, in full battle armors, marched inside from the main hall gate, arranged in all kinds of battle array, holding sabers, spears, swords, and shields, performing beautiful troops formation, which came from full hard work. Compared to the fluttering, colorful dancers just now, it carried another kind masculine flavor, an equally thrilling show.
Once the ‘troop dance’ finished, Li Jiancheng, leading Li Shimin, Li Yuanji, and the other kings and their relatives and nobilities – offered a toast to Li Yuan, arousing another mood surge.
When the crowd calmed down, Li Jiancheng rose up to his full height, and spoke in loud and clear voice, “Since our Great Tang raised our troops in Taiyuan, all along we fought battles with no one could subdue us. It’s all because we were able to use martial art to found a country, as well as because we embrace worthy talents from wide range of area. Tonight, in this distinguished meeting, according to our Great Tang tradition, martial art examination is indispensable, thus this Dianxia is throwing out a brick to get the jade thrown back [idiom: to attract others’ interest or suggestions by putting forward one’s own modest ideas to get the ball rolling] by sending out Chang Lin Army Duwei [military rank] Ke Dazhi Jiangjun to accept challenge, to touch on the opponent and leave it there. Regardless of winning or losing, both sides will be bestowed ten taels of gold reward to liven things up.”
Immediately the palace hall exploded in cheers and applause.
Xu Ziling also cheered inwardly. He did not expect to go down the area for the martial art competition this quickly.
Under everybody’s eyes, Ke Dazhi rose up to his full height; upright and unafraid he walked down to the front of the palace hall, and went down on his knees to kowtow toward Li Yuan.