t of the princess as soon as I stepped onto the landing.
She was breakfasting at a table by the window, still wearing the changshan from last night.
She wasn’t doing anything out of the ordinary, yet the very sight of her still emblazoned itself across my vision.
Out of all the people in this world, I met you.
The princess seemed to feel my stare.
She looked up, meeting my eyes.
Then a smile rippled slowly across her face, starting from the corners of her eyes and mouth.
‘You rise even later than the most pampered young lady, Zisong.’
Beside her, Xiao Hei twitched visibly.
Silly Girl, who was just sitting down at the table, curled her lip.
‘These pretty boys are all the same.
They need to spend hours in front of the mirror painting their faces.’
This shattered any resolutions I might have formed about not picking fights with a mere child.
For a moment, all the wild tumult — and faint sadness — in my heart vanished, to be replaced by a single emotion: regret that Silly Girl was sitting too far away and that my arms were too short for me to reach over, lightning-quick, and clap a hand over her mouth.
Luckily, my powers of expression were strong enough for me to give voice to my feelings.
‘You’re the one who spends all day painting her face!’ I said, and declaimed:
‘There once was a girl who wished to marry,
Over her trousseau she did not tarry.
To her matchmaker’s joy,
She wed a pretty boy,
Now they paint each other’s faces daily.’
‘You—’ Silly Girl began, but seemed to find herself at a loss for words.
Huffily, she turned away from me and began stuffing food into her mouth.
Peace descended upon the earth; my heart blossomed with joy.
I went over to the table, sat down and poured myself a cup of water.
I had just taken a long drink when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the princess gazing steadily at me.
Mouth still full of water, I turned and gave her a questioning look.
She nodded at me, her expression completely serious.
‘Mm,’ she said, drawing out the syllable.
Then, in the tones of someone reaching a conclusion after a period of deep and prolonged reflection, she added, ‘The face-painting seems to have yielded results.
You look quite handsome today, Zisong.’
I promptly choked on my mouthful of water.
Desperately I thumped my chest a few times, and realised that my heart was pounding erratically.
I knew perfectly well that it was only a bit of casual banter on the princess’ part, but I still couldn’t help feeling a secret spark of delight at the praise.
True, she had spoken mostly in jest, but might there not be a kernel of sincerity somewhere in the middle? Oh, the pains of being a secret admirer!
And then we were off.
I soon discovered why the princess had chosen to wear men’s clothing: so that she could ride through town on horseback rather than being sequestered away from public view in the coach, as befitted a noblewoman of her station.
Instead I was the one consigned to a seat on the coach, my own wishes going completely unheeded.
Opposite me sat Silly Girl; there wasn’t much for us to do but stare at each other. The coach’s thin curtains did absolutely nothing to block out the besotted cries of the women outside.
‘Look at that young gentleman! When people say someone is as handsome as Pan An reborn, this must be exactly what they mean!’
‘Pfft, what’s Pan An compared to him? I think this young gentleman looks like a celestial come down from Heaven.’
‘Oh, did you see that? He just smiled at me! Oh, he’s making me blush! Young Master, I live just by the crooked willow tree on East Street.
My father won’t be home tonight…’
‘You shameless hussy! Young Master… my name is Huang, Huang with an H…’
I scraped my nails along the coach’s window lattice, all the while muttering silently to myself: How shameless! How vulgar! How indecent! How completely debauched! …Princess, my name is Wei, Wei Zisong…
Unable to help myself, I finally lifted one of the curtains and peered out — just in time to see the homely-faced Very Horny Huang with an H tossing a red silk handkerchief up at the princess.
The princess was riding just a little way ahead of the coach, her hands resting easily on the reins of her horse.
All I could see of her was her back, but there was something indescribably debonair about even that.
The sun was rising just overhead.
It illuminated those three characters carved into the sign above the city gates: Zhezhi City.
Three blood-red characters spelling out a most evocative name.
There must be something in the air of this city, I decided.
Something that enthralled the senses and held one spellbound.
Why else would I find myself gazing at the princess’ back like a woman possessed? And why else would I want nothing more but to gaze at her like this forever, until the end of time?
In Chinese, 凤冠霞帔.
Literally ‘phoenix crown (or coronet) and cape the colour of a sunrise or sunset’. The original text uses the chengyu 耳鬓厮磨, literally ‘one person’s ear rubbing against the hair at the other person’s temple’.
It is used to denote physical and emotional intimacy between two people, and is often (though not exclusively) used in the romantic sense. In the original text, this is 断袖情流感菌, which translates more literally to ‘cut-sleeve flu virus’.
However, as I wanted to avoid any hint of the ‘queerness as disease’ trope, I chose to go with a less literal translation instead. In the original text, 弄潮儿.
In its literal sense, the term denotes someone who is frolicking in the water or engaging in water sports.
In internet slang, it means something like ‘trend-setter’ or ‘influencer’. In Chinese, 当断不断,反受其乱.
The phrase exhorts the listener to take decisive action, as failure to do so will only lead to future trouble.
It originates from the Records of the Grand Historian (see footnote 5 to Chapter 2). In Chinese, the chengyu 花容失色, literally ‘flower countenance loses colour’.
It describes a (usually beautiful) woman turning pale due to shock or fear. ‘Doubling’ a syllable of another person’s name, as Zisong is doing here, is a method of creating an intimate nickname.
Such a nickname would typically be used only by a parent to a child, an elder sibling to a younger sibling, between lovers or between very close friends.
Here, Zisong starts out by calling him ‘Heihei’, which is derived from ‘Xiao Hei’, the nickname she made up for him, before remembering that his real name is ‘Zhongliang’ and switching hastily to ‘Liangliang’. Traditional Chinese medicine classifies food items as ‘heating’, ‘cooling’ or ‘neutral’.
This is based not on the temperature at which the food is consumed, but by its effects (or perceived effects) on a person after consumption.
The consumption of too much ‘heating’ food is said to lead to ailments such as fever, throat irritation, acne, and mouth ulcers.
The consumption of too much ‘cooling’ food, meanwhile, is believed to give rise to chills, sore muscles and joints, and fatigue.
Ginger is considered to be a ‘heating’ food. In the original text, 对镜贴黄花, literally ‘facing the mirror while sticking on a yellow flower’.
The ‘yellow flower’ belongs to a category of facial adornments known as huadian (花钿), which are either painted on or made out of materials such as paper, foil or fish scales and affixed to the wearer’s forehead.
Huadian are typically red in colour, but may also be yellow or green.
The yellow version is strongly associated with unmarried women. In the original text, the doggerel Zisong makes up on the spot runs as follows: 你才对镜贴黄花, 贴好黄花栽衣裳, 栽完衣裳办嫁妆, 办妥嫁妆找婆家, 嫁于一位小白脸, 全家一起贴黄花.
This translates fairly literally to: ‘You’re the one that sticks yellow flowers on your face before the mirror / After sticking on the flowers, you get your wedding clothes made / After getting the clothes made, you get your dowry ready / Once your dowry is ready, you start looking for a husband / You end up marrying a pretty boy / Your whole family sticks yellow flowers on your faces before the mirror’.
I’ve chosen to render this as a looser translation in the form of a limerick to reflect Zisong’s spontaneous spinning of nonsense verse. In the original text, 大眼瞪小眼, literally ‘big eye staring at small eye’.
This describes two people staring at each other, either in consternation or puzzlement, or for want of anything else to do. In Chinese, 潘安.
A poet who lived during the Western Jin dynasty, famous for his good looks.
His name has become a byword for male beauty. In the original text, the speaker describes her surname Huang (黄) as 草头黄, literally ‘grass top Huang’.
This is because the top part of the character for Huang is made up of the radical 艹, which is in turn derived from the character for ‘grass’ (草). In the original text, Zisong uncharitably describes this woman as 很黄的草头黄, literally ‘the very lecherous grass top Huang’ (on ‘grass top Huang’, see the previous footnote).
The character for ‘lecherous’ in this context is exactly the same as that for ‘Huang’, so I decided to allude to this through alliteration. In Chinese, the chengyu 天荒地老, literally ‘Heaven is desolate and the earth is old’.
Used to denote a very, very long time.
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