Tuesday, February 21, 2017

何为贤妻 (Being a Virtuous Wife) : Chapter 1 – Being a Reasonable Person


Within the residence of the Prince of Duan, it was an ordinary day in the kitchen: servants were busily moving to and fro in an orderly manner. Granny Ma had just returned from delivering pastries to the inner court with a group of servant girls, and her face was not looking well.

Seeing her expression, another old granny servant asked, “What is the matter? Why does your expression look so terrible?” Handing over a cup of tea to Granny Ma to calm her nerves, the latter further inquired, “Didn’t you just deliver the pastries to the inner court? How come…”

“Don’t even mention it! Her highness, the Prince Consort, just woke up this morning. You know rough labor servants like us cannot enter the palace. We only saw one of her highness’s attendants, Miss Yin Liu,” Granny Ma rambled. Taking a big gulp of tea and looking around, Granny Ma lowered her voice and whispered, “The moment I saw that their expression were not right, I quickly hurried back.”

Upon hearing this, the other granny servant sighed, and in a half-pity half-gossipy tone said, “It hasn’t been that long since Her Highness married into the Prince’s Residence, even the wedding decorations have not yet been taken down yet.”

Granny Ma added, “It has been less than 2 months since the Prince’s Consort married and moved into the Prince’s residence. However, since the wedding night, His Highness has not stepped foot into the main palace. Furthermore, in the recent days that the Prince Consort had gotten sick, His Highness had only briefly come and gone. No wonder the Prince Consort’s attendants were not happy.”

Thinking to herself, Granny Ma thought back to her encounter with the Prince Consort – such a dignified and beautiful woman. She could not understand why His Highness did not like his consort.

Suddenly someone cautioned, “Enough of this chatter nonsense. I just saw one of the servant girls’ of the Side Consort (a concubine beneath the Main/Primary Consort, yet higher than the other concubines) come over to the kitchen”. At a drop of a hat, both grannies stopped their chatter and went back to their duties.

Within the main palace, a group of servant girls was preparing the Prince Consort for her morning ablutions. Slender fingertips brushed across a piece of first-rate silk brushed before setting it at the side. Unlike the previous days, there was no hint of anger on her highness, Qu Qing Ju’s face. Lazily, she took off a grade jade bracelet from her wrist and casually threw it into an intricately carved wooden mahogany box and commented, “The color is too old-fashioned.”

Upon hearing this, a servant girl named Jin Zhan paused briefly before signaling to the other attendants behind her. Soon, several boxes containing various designs of bracelets - gold, adorned with pearls, jade etc… - were presented before Qu Qing Ju. Briefly glancing at the bracelets, she finally decided on a blood-red jade bracelet which accentuated against her pale fair wrist. 

Seeing Qu Qng Ju wear that blood-red bracelet made Jin Zhan’s expression falter. Her highness had always thought that that particular bracelet was too gaudy and never worn it. However today she had picked the same piece she disliked without hesitation and even wore it!

Recalling the days of her highness before marriage, where she was such a warm and gentle soul, carefree of the scheming and pettiness of the inner courts of a household with concubines. Having such a personality would be considered a virtue, but in a household where there were concubines and especially when marrying into royalty, this virtue was but a weakness.

Noticing the change in Jin Zhan’s expression, Qu Qing Ju gave a faint smile as she stood up and spread her arms to allow the female attendants to dress her in a wide-sleeved silk dress she had picked out. The dress was made from the highest quality of white brocade and had red plum blossoms embroidered onto it. When the silk dress moved, the embroidered plum blossoms looked as if they were really swaying in the wind.

Hanging from her waist was a spice bag that was embroidered with two blossoming lotus flowers on a single stem, along with a jade beaded knotted ornament. With her long supple hair tied up in a flying fairy braid, perfectly drawn eyebrows and vibrant red lips… the overall scene was one of a bewitching beauty.

Finally inserting a hair ornament into her hair on her own, Qu Jing Ju slowly stood up and cryptically smiled as she looked out the window, “It should be about time for them to pay their respects.”

Jin Zhan, who was a few steps away, forced a smile and resignedly said, “Your highness, as you were sick for the past few days, his highness had told the concubines not to disturb your rest.”

“Oh?” Qu Qing Ju leisurely sat down while caressing the pair of jade earring adorning her earlobes and adjusted their position into one that was more comfortable. After she was done with her action, Yin Liu handed over a cup of warm water for rinsing. As she put the lid back on the cup, Qu Qing Ju said, “In that case, send someone to each of their palaces and tell them that this consort has just recovered from her illness and has missed her ‘sisters’.”

Upon hearing her words, the 4 first ranking maidservants exchanged quizzical glances amongst themselves. Even if they did not understand for her highness’s change in personality upon waking up, they still followed out her instructions.

As she came out of the main palace, a worried Jin Zhan said. “Her highness does not seem to be normal ever since she woke up today. I don’t know why, but she seems different.”

Yin Liu concurred, “In this Prince's residence, although everyone seems to be showing her highness respect, it is only on the surface. Behind her highness’s back, they actually try to curry favor with the Side Consort in the West Palace. Her highness has been married for just 2 months, but other than the first 3 days of marriage where His highness stayed in the main palace, he has spent all his time with the other concubines. Where does that leave our mistress? It is humiliating.” She added, “That Feng Side Consort has a lofty attitude thinking she is a master, but she is still a concubine and beneath our mistress no less.”

Hearing what Yin Liu said, Yu Zhan looked around cautiously and after seeing that there was no one else, cautioned Yin Liu, “Don’t go around saying such things. Even though his highness favors the Side Consorts over the Primary Consort, he still gives her highness the respect she is due. Don’t add fire the the fuel and create troubles for her highness.” 
“You call that respect?” Yin Liu snorted in displeasure, thinking about her mistress’s warm and soft personality, she helpless sighed, “Jin Zhan and I will go over to invite Feng and Jiang Side Consorts. The second ranked girls can go over to invite the other concubines.”

Mu Jin nodded, “Ok. Bai Lu and Pu Er are sufficient to invite the concubines Madam Luo and Madam Han.”

The Prince Consort’s first ranking maidservants were named after flowers, while the second ranked maidservants were named after teas. As for the third ranking maidservants and those doing heavy-labor, there were no such naming conventions.

Mu Jin, Yin Liu, Mu Jin, Jin Zhan and Yu Zan, had followed Qu Qing Ju when she married the Prince. They were from the Chang De Duke’s residence, so they were naturally closer to the Prince Consort and thought of her well-being. Before being married, her highness was neglected by her stepmother and was not taught how to manage a household. It is even worse when she had married into royalty as the environment was more complex. As a result, her highness quickly became ill just 2 months after entering the Prince residence.

Mu Jin has always been concerned for Qu Qing Ju, so when she saw Qu Qing Ju having the desire to establish her foothold in the Prince residence today, she heaved a sigh of relief. As long as her highness was able to protect herself and establish her presence in the Prince residence, that was all she asked for.

When all the maidservants had left, Qu Qing Ju stood up and walked towards a large copper mirror. The craftsmanship of the mirror was exquisite, and even though it was not as clear as a glass mirror, it was enough to identify a person’s features. In the reflection stood a beautiful girl of around sixteen or seventeen year of age. If this girl was in the era she lived in, she would just be a beautiful high school student.

Trying to piece together the memories in her head, Qu Qing Ju sighed as the memories fleeted across her mind: this girl was not loved by her father and her stepmother was no less horrible, even her husband did not love her and there was even a group of irritating scheming concubines. The original character was a soft personality and somehow she had gotten sick while she was in this complicated Prince residence. During the illness, the original character had mysteriously been replaced with her, a woman from the future. She did not know what warmth or love was, and even in her death there was no justice. 
Qu Qing Ju’s thoughts were soon disrupted by a unfeminine voice, “Your highness, the kitchen servants have delivered breakfast.”

It was probably the voice of one of the eunuchs’ who served within the Prince’s residence. But unlike the eunuchs in the palace, these eunuchs were appointed to serve the Prince when he was given the title, during the time he was in charge of the Department of Household affairs.

“You may proceed”, Qu Qing Ju voiced out as she made her way out while playing with the strands dangling from the gold hair ornament in her hair. Rui Xiang and Shu Kui were already waiting in an adjoining room. Upon hearing the Prince Consort orders, they quickly parted the curtains, and welcomed Qu Qing Ju out, one of them supporting her.

Both Rui Xiang and Shu Kui were maidservants from the Prince residence; hence there was not as much respect for Qu Qing Ju as she was too nice of a person and a pushover. Had the previous Qu Qing Ju not been such a soft person, they would have already been thrown out of the Prince residence. After all, who in their right state of mind would allow potential rivals to serve them and be a temptation to their husbands?

As Qu Qing Ju sat down at the table, her eyes looked over the food that was presented on the table. Stewed pork shoulder, and a bowl of bird’s nest porridge with strands of chicken accompanied by a variety of side dishes that were greasy and fatty. The only dish that looked healthy and palatable was a small side of sautéed lettuce stems.

Just as Shu Kui was about to move forward to serve her, Qu Qing Ju waved her hand and looked at the servants bowing at the entrance with a smile, “The food was delivered by you?”

“Yes, your esteem highness this lowly one has duties in the kitchen”, came the reply from the puzzled kitchen servants.

Leaning back into her seat, Qu Qing Ju nonchalantly commented, “Really such a good kitchen in the Prince’s residence.” Her face slowly darkened as puzzlement washed over the servants present. Swiping over the dish of stewed pig shoulder onto the floor, the room was soon overflowing with the smell of meat. “Men, take them away and give them a good beating.”

Silence filled the air as no one managed to respond as they were in a state of shock. They could not comprehend how a soft personality like her highness would suddenly act so fiercely.

Qui Qing Ju eyes narrowed as she spitted out the words, “What is this? This esteemed princess does not have any authority to command you people now?” Glancing across the servants in the room, she angrily added, “Or do you think it is naturally proper for the kitchen in the Prince’s residence to disrespect me?”

As her gaze went over the servants, they shook in fear and some managed to respond to her commands: a few eunuchs and some strong grannies rush rushed to the front and started to drag the kitchen servants away.

The kitchen servants who were being dragged away did not dare protest or struggle, they only begged for mercy. One kitchen servant even yelled that they were being framed, that they had served her highness with the best foods.

Looking at the kitchen servant who was shouting about being framed and wronged, Qu Qing Ju commanded, “What you people still standing around for? Bring them down and punish them in front of me now.”

Hearing her command, a quick-witted eunuch took out a handkerchief and stuffed it into the mouth of the rambling kitchen servant. When his mouth was stuffed, the eunuch then proceeded to drag him towards to outer yard to carry out the punishment.

Soon the other servants who were holding down the kitchen servants always dragged them out. The remaining servants, cleared a table outside and spread out refreshments for her highness to enjoy while watching the punishment.

“What is that eunuch’s name? He seems quite strong.” Qu Qing Ju asked Shu Kui as she was supporting her outside.

“That eunuch’s name is Xiao Gao Zi (Little Tall) and he is in charge of sweeping the yard”, Shu Kui replied in reverence unaware that her movements and actions were more subservient. 
“He doesn’t seem like he is very tall. Why don’t we change his name to Huang Yang, and make him serve in the inner courtyards?”, Qu Qing Ju mused.

When she was at the outside yard, the kitchen servants were already tied to long benches and being punished as the heavy wooden paddles came into contact with their behinds mercilessly. Qu Qing Ju mentally counted to twenty as she sat down in a chair prepared for her. She calmly said, “Other than the servant who talked back just now, the punishment for the other servants can stop.”

Casting her gaze upon the 3 kitchen servants who were enduring the aftermath of the punishment whilst kneeling down and thanking her, Qu Qing Ju leisurely took a sip from her cup and said, “You must be wondering why you are punished.”

“I am a reasonable person; however, you people who are part of the kitchen staff have crossed the boundary. So much so, I am left with no other choice but to punish you.”, Qu Qing Ju helplessly lamented as she put her cup down.

Even if the Prince Consort did not have the favor of the Prince, she was still the consort that the Emperor had personally decreed to enter the Prince’s residence with the title of primary wife. How would the servants from the kitchen date to disrespect her? Despite finding something amiss, no one dared to say anything, as a good example of someone who voiced out his complaints was being punished in front of them. So who would dare say a word?

Qu Qing Ju continued, “Everyone in the Prince’s residence should know that I have been ill. Even the imperial doctors’ have advised what I should and should not be eating. But what have you been serving every day?” Sighing, Qu Qing Ju with her face filled with anguish went on, “I know you people could not be bothered to treat a sick Prince Consort properly and with respect, so I was resigned to fate and was only waiting for death. But since I have recovered, I will have a good life. Yet you heartless creature have purposefully only brought oily and greasy foods! Is it in the hope that I will die faster?!”

The 3 kitchen servants who were spared the prolong agony of punished wanted to explain but did not dare to, in case they incurred the wrath of her highness and continued their punishment,

Having deemed that the effect was just about right, Qu Qing Ju waved her hand weakly as though she were emotionally drained and wounded, “That’s enough. You all can leave now.”

Turning over to Rui Xiang, Qu Qing Ju instructed, “Give them ointment for their injuries, they are after all servants who are essential to the running of the Prince residence, we can’t have them incapacitated from the punishment.”

Upon hearing her words, the 4 kitchen servants were in despair. Her highness's words meant that even if they were to crawl they still had to continue their work at the Prince’s residence as they were indispensable. Otherwise, they might be thrown out and left begging in the streets.

After finishing her orders, Qu Qing Ju slowly stood up from the chair and turned over to look at the Side Consorts and other concubines who had arrived just in time. Seeing them, Qu Qing Ju showed a look of surprise and exclaimed, “When did you arrive? Since you are all here, come in.”

With that said, without caring about the looks o their faces, Qu Qing Ju took Shu Kui’s hand and walked back to the inner hall. 


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