CH 17: Soaring Ambitions atop the Soaring Clouds Pavilion

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The Soaring Clouds Pavilion, Lingyun Pavilion, stood atop an earthen mound.
It was far from reaching the clouds, but it stood high enough to oversee half of the Imperial Garden.
Conversely, the pavilion could be seen by half of the garden.

This was where the Emperor was to receive his education.

The fourth morning after the conversation with Yang Feng, Han Ruzi had went to pay his respects to the Empress Dowager.
There, the eunuch Zuo Ji had formally read out the Empress Dowager’s edict.
It was lengthy, written in archaic language, and Zuo Ji had recited very slowly.
He paused often, often looking at the Emperor contemplatively, and spent an entire half hour before finishing.

Ultimately, the Emperor needed to be somewhat educated, and needed to have some skills.

After breakfast, Han Ruzi was escorted to the Soaring Clouds Pavilion by thirty-odd eunuchs.
Yang Feng and Zuo Ji accompanied him, while a eunuch raised a bright yellow parasol[1] behind him.
Further behind, was Prince Donghai.
He was to accompany the Emperor as an attendant.

After entering the Imperial Garden, several more attendants joined the entourage.
There were around fifteen of them.
They were not eunuchs, but sons of nobility.
They were quite young, though Han Ruzi did not recognize any of them.
On the other hand, Prince Donghai was familiar with a few of them.
They nodded at each other in acknowledgement, but did not break into conversation.

it was not easy to accompany the Emperor.
Every moment, there was at least one official from the Ministry of Rites and Decorum keeping watch.
Any impropriety might result in an impeachment.

Han Ruzi noticed that the eunuchs by his side numbered greater than his other attendants.
Evidently, the Empress Dowager did not trust the Emperor, nor did she trust those who came from outside the palace.

The Emperor’s entourage moved in a formidable array.
Most of them stayed below the Soaring Cloud Pavilion.
Only Prince Donghai entered the pavilion to accompany the Emperor in his study, followed by two eunuchs to attend to them.

The room was set up in accordance with ancient practices.
In the east were brocade mats and a short-legged table, requiring one to sit on one’s knees.
The Emperor was to sit there, facing the west.
Prince Donghai sat on the other side in the west, which also had mats and a short-legged table.
He did not face the Emperor directly, but was seated further down, with the Emperor to his northeast.

The Emperor’s first teacher was waiting in another room.
Once the Emperor was settled down, his entry was announced by a eunuch, while the other eunuch presided over the ceremonial rituals of a student greeting his teacher.

The palace had many rules.
So much so that even Yang Feng, who had entered the palace three years ago, and Zuo Ji were unable to fully grasp them.
Such matters could only be handled by experienced and old eunuchs.

Guo Cong — former Provost of the Directorate of Education, former Tutor of the Crown Prince, former Director of Prayer Ceremonies of the Ministry of Rites, was an old man in his seventies.
He walked into the room trembling slightly.
His eyesight was poor, but he could still accurately discern where the Emperor was seated.
He stood in place and took two deep breaths, before spreading both arms wide, causing his wide sleeves to droop down splendidly like a bird’s wings.
He paused for a moment, before clasping his hands together in front of his chest.
He said, in a resounding voice, “Your humble subject Guo Cong, pays his respects to Your Majesty.”

Even though Guo Jing did not kneel, his greeting was extremely formal and decorous.
Han Ruzi was stunned for a moment, not knowing how to respond.
He looked towards the old eunuch who was presiding matters.

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The old eunuch lifted his hand slightly, indicating that the Emperor did not need to do anything.
He then pointed to Prince Donghai.

Other than the Empress Dowager, the Emperor did not bow to anyone else.
But the necessary proprieties needed to be kept, hence Prince Donghai was a suitable replacement.

Prince Donghai was sullen, and rose to his feet.
He said blandly, “Teacher Guo may dispense with ceremonies.
Have a seat.”

The eunuch guarding the door brought a small stool.
Guo Cong was too old, and hence could not sit on his knees.
Hence there was a seat specially prepared for him.

Guo Cong sat down, and again took two heavy breaths.
For him, it was but a moment, but to his students, it was an arduous wait.
Han Ruzi nearly lost the excitement he had harbored.

Guo Cong was a renown Confucian scholar, well versed in the classics, especially the Classic of Poetry.
Without even needing to have a book in hand, he started his lecture.
The first chapter was Guan Ju.
“Guan Ju is about the virtue of a man’s wife.
‘The modest, retiring, virtuous, young lady; For our prince a good mate she’.[2] This verse evokes the virtuous lady as the companion to the righteous gentleman.
Its significance lies in valuing virtue in seeking one’s wife, and not befalling to one’s luscious desires.”

Han Ruzi hurriedly flipped the pages of his book, and could scarcely keep up.
He unintentionally looked over at Prince Donghai, only to see his dark and sullen face.
“Virtue of a man’s wife” — these words had evidently set him off.

Guo Cong was quickly immersed in his own lecture.
He first explained the meaning of the verses, before explaining the particular words, and then went on to discuss the meaning within the meaning, the words beyond the words.
For nearly two hours, he kept discussing the same verse: ‘The modest, retiring, virtuous, young lady; For our prince a good mate she’.
Han Ruzi was soon befuddled.
A few times he had wanted to raise a question, but the old teacher paid no attention to his expression or gestures, only caring to continue speaking.
He got more passionate as he went on, contrary to what one might expect of a feeble old man.

 Han Ruzi had no choice but to give up, resorting to staring at the slobber drooping from Guo Cong’s mouth, wondering why it never seemed to fall off.

The morning’s lesson was finally over, and Guo Cong took his leave with the two eunuchs escorting him out.
Han Ruzi immediately stood up to stretch his aching legs.
He let out a deep breath, and said to Prince Donghai, “Is this the way with all old teachers? I had thought that…”

Prince Donghai grumpily harrumphed, and got up to leave.

“You can’t resent me for that matter with the Empress.” Han Ruzi said loudly.
Even though he neither trusted nor liked this brother, he was not willing to bear the brunt of his unwarranted blame.

Prince Donghai walked down the building without even turning around.
The two eunuchs returned and escorted the Emperor to a separate room for lunch.

As usual, the meal tasted like wax.
After lunch, the eunuchs withdrew and Han Ruzi walked to the window, admiring the scenery of the Imperial Garden.
His mood grew better as he looked around.
Suddenly, he saw Prince Donghai.

The young nobles of his entourage had gotten their meals from somewhere, and they were gathered at a gazebo.
Prince Donghai was amongst them, as he conversed with them affectedly and in full spirit.
Every few sentences would garner hearty laughs.
Hence, an official from the Ministry of Rites came by and warned them not to make noise.

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Prince Donghai was unafraid.
Once the official turned around, Prince Donghai made various faces in imitation of the official, causing the other young nobles to quietly snicker.

That ought to be the life of a teenager.

Han Ruzi watched them for a while, trying his best to remember the appearances of those who were most lively and boisterous.
Since he was a boy, he had never had playmates.
Rather than fun and games, he was more used to silent contemplation.

In the afternoon, a different teacher came by.
He was even older and feebler than Guo Cong — he could not even speak clearly.
His subject of instruction was the Book of Documents — unintelligible archaic words  streamed out of his mouth, like bees fleeing a destroyed hive, buzzing about aimlessly.

Such were the teachers the Empress Dowager had selected for the Emperor — five feeble old men, the youngest being in his sixties, to teach the Classic of Poetry, Book of Documents, Book of Rites, Classic of Music, and Book of Changes.[3] It was hard even to communicate normally to them.

Han Ruzi did not give up on his studies.
If he could not understand his teachers then he would study by himself.
If he encountered words that he did not understand he would circle them out, believing that he would eventually have the chance to clarify.

A few days in a row went by like this.
Han Ruzi did not think that he had learnt much from the books, and he carried on only by sheer willpower.

One day, at noon, Prince Donghai did not gather with the other nobles, and instead stayed by the Emperor’s side, and dined with him.
When the eunuchs withdrew to clear the table, he finally spoke to the Emperor.
“The dower gifts have been delivered.”

“Huh?” Han Ruzi was unaccustomed to Prince Donghai’s change.

“The palace has delivered the dower gifts to the Cui clan.
When my uncle returns from Qi, the Empress will be appointed.”

Han Ruzi was rather sympathetic to Prince Donghai.
“Do you like her very much?”

Prince Donghai’s eyes erupted in fiery rage.
“It is not a matter of liking her! She was to be mine! This was something that was said since I was young, both Mother and Uncle had agreed!” Prince Donghai clenched both fists as he said forcefully.
“My things are never handed over to others!”

“You hang about those attendants every day.
Are you unable to get a message out to your mother? Perhaps she could help you.”

The fiery rage in Prince Donghai’s eyes was suddenly extinguished.
He said dejectedly, “Mother wrote a letter berating me, telling me to know my place and behave well in the palace — to focus on serving the Empress Dowager and… you.
Things have changed, everything has changed.
Just because I did not become Emperor, even Mother and Uncle have changed.”

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Han Ruzi was unable to console Prince Donghai.
He only found matters ridiculous.
Both he and Prince Donghai wanted the life the other had, but neither of them could have their way.
They were trapped in their positions, envious of the other.

“How is it going in Qi? Did Prince Qi confess to his crimes?”

“Did Yang Feng tell you nothing?” Prince Donghai said sarcastically.

Yang Feng was too busy.
He had not spoken to the Emperor in days.
Han Ruzi said, “If things do not go as planned in Qi, the matter with the Empress might see changes.”

Prince Donghai considered this for a moment.
“Things are still in a stalemate over there.
Prince Qi did not immediately rise in open rebellion.
He denied the accusation and claimed that he was being set up by treacherous villains.
But it is no use.
The longer the matter is delayed, the worse it is for Prince Qi.
He will surely be defeated and Uncle will return victorious… Forget it, I know I can’t blame you.
But you must remember, when I… Sooner or later, I will take back everything that belongs to me.”

Han Ruzi laughed.
“I wish you all the best.”

Han Ruzi understood one thing.
The greater the conflict between the Cui clan and the Empress Dowager, the more secured his position once.
If the time comes when the two sides are at ease with each other, then he would be in danger.
At least for the time being, Prince Donghai’s fighting spirit was more beneficial than detrimental to him.

In the evening that day, Han Ruzi was idling in his room.
Yang Feng walked in, carry bundles of books.
These were the tomes that the Emperor was reading for his studies in the Soaring Cloud Pavilion.

Yang Feng ordered the servant-girls to withdraw, and placed the books on the table.
He opened one of them and turned to face the Empress.
“It seems like Your Majesty has drawn quite a number of circles.”

Han Ruzi’s face grew a little red.
“There are some words that I do not recognize.”

“Mm.
I have spoken to the Empress Dowager.
She has allowed me to teach you your characters.”

“That’s great!” Han Ruzi was not thrilled about learning to read, but about being able to properly communicate with someone.

Yang Feng placed the books down and moved closer to the Emperor.
“Learning to read is but a minor skill.
Your basics are not good, so all we can do is mend the fence after the sheep have been stolen.
It will not benefit you that much.
Instead, I will be teaching you something else.”

“What would Lord Yang be teaching me?” Han Ruzi’s enthusiasm for learning was magnified once again.

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“History.”

“History?”

“Rulers must learn from history.
History is usually one of the most important subjects for a ruler, but the Empress Dowager has omitted it from the curriculum.
Hence, I will be giving instruction on it.
Your Majesty should keep this to yourself and not let others know.”

Han Ruzi nodded vigorously.
He would not say a word to anyone.

Yang Feng did not have any history books at hand, so he relied entirely on his own memory.
He did not wish to teach the Emperor formal history.
He first picked up a book and taught the Emperor a few words, before saying, “Your Majesty has begun your studies, and will meet more officials.
Perhaps I will tell you about the interactions between the Founding Emperor and his subjects.”

Han Ruzi liked listening to stories, but he felt like the Founding Emperor was not a suitable reference for him.
“But I hardly get to interact with anyone…”

“Do not be in a hurry.
Everyone is still observing matters.
Once the opportunity arises, there will be moments of interactions.
But I must remind Your Majesty of one matter.”

“Please speak, Lord Yang.”

“Do not believe the first person who comes forward to contact you.
That person would surely have ulterior motives.”

Han Ruzi was stunned.
He remembered clearly: the first person who came forward to contact him was Yang Feng himself.

[1] This is what a yellow parasol would look like.

 

[2] Full translation of this poem can be found online here.

[3] Of the five classic texts mentioned here, the Classic of Music is not one of the Five Classics of Confucianism because in our reality the Classic of Music was a text lost by the time of the Han Dynasty.
Hence, an astute native reader might realize that one of the Classics is missing from Han Ruzi’s education: the Spring and Autumn Annals, which is a historical text.

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