Chapter 4 … Winter Solstice; Wànshùn Year 30
Gu Hong Jian first saw Lin Si Ze in the Wànshùn 1 Year 29. At that time, Gu Hong Jian was only five years old while Lin Si Ze was 6 years old.
Lin Si Ze’s birth mother was merely a palace maid. The late Emperor had gotten drunk. After a night of the Emperor’s generosity, he had casually bestowed upon her a title and then abandoned Lin Si Ze’s birth mother. Lin Si Ze’s birth mother was a little lucky,and unexpectedly conceived a child, Lin Si Ze. Because of the difficult birth, however, she died.
Lin Si Ze had to grow up without the love and care of a mother, and because of his mother’s rank, the Emperor also didn’t particularly love him.
Lin Si Ze had four older brothers and three older sisters. Moreover, the Emperor was vigorous and lively, so he gave Lin Si Ze many younger brothers and sisters. Naturally, he didn’t pay a lot of attention to Lin Si Ze.
Ever since his birth, Lin Si Ze hadn’t been treated well. Even though he was called a prince, all the servants in the palace could humiliate him as they wished. They could even make him pick up after his messy older brothers and younger brothers. They didn’t see him as a person.
Gu Hong Jian was sold into the Emperor’s palace at a young age as a palace maid, and every day the older palace maids would bully her.
Originally, the customs of the palace prevented extremely young girls from entering. As it happened, the palace had an old mómo 2 at that time who had quite a bit of influence. From the beginning, she wasn’t able to leave the palace as she was also too old. She then thought about raising a clever girl to be her helper until her deathbed.
One day, she left to purchase things for the Emperor and coincidentally came across a child trafficker who was selling Gu Hong Jian.
Gu Hong Jian’s hometown flooded, and her parents and younger brother died. With no one to look after her, Gu Hong Jian was taken by a child trafficker to the capital.
That same child trafficker kidnapped many people, the majority of which were little girls. Among them was a cute little boy who was half a year younger than Gu Hong Jian. Because Gu Hong Jian split a steamed bun with him, he always liked to follow Gu Hong Jian around, calling her Big Sis. Gu Hong Jian had taken care of her younger brother since she was a child, so she quite easily took care of this new younger brother.
Upon finally reaching the capital, Gu Hong Jian was chosen by the old mómo on the first day of their arrival—Gu Hong Jian was born with good health. With a thin, petite body, pointed face, and doe eyes, she held within her hands a very large bag of steamed cornbread. Her head was practically buried into the bag. The split second she raised her face from the bag’s contents, the old mómo caught her gaze and felt something pierce her heart
The old mómo asked for Gu Hong Jian’s name—Gu Hong Jian originally had a common name like ‘Chun Hua,’3 but the old mómo thought it was extremely coarse. She then gave Gu Hong Jian her own surname ‘Gu.’ As this was around the Pure Brightness micro-season4, when ‘Rainbows begin to appear’5 to be more specific, the old mómo christened her as ‘Gu Hong Jian.’
When the old mómo asked her if she was willing to follow the old mómo back to the palace, she didn’t have any objections. The child trafficker had scrambled over from the side to reply that there was no objections. The old mómo ignored the child trafficker and asked Gu Hong Jian once again. Gu Hong Jian had hurriedly shaken her head, signalling she had no objections, but she did say she had a request.
Gu Hong Jian pulled up that small boy and requested for the old mómo to buy him as well.
The small boy looked up at Gu Hong Jian with gratitude and admiration.
The mómo glanced at the small boy and said she would also buy him. The interior palace would accept the boy, however, he would have to be neutered—preventing him from taking a wife and sleeping with the women.
Gu Hong Jian knew what neutering was. In a neighboring village, there was a man who neutered himself so that he would be allowed to enter the palace. In the end, his application was rejected, and he was no longer considered a man, making him absolutely miserable. Gu Hong Jian pondered this and immediately pushed the small boy away, telling him to take very good care of himself. The small boy didn’t understand what it meant to be neutered, so he sobbed as he was pulled away from Gu Hong Jian; he could only watch as Gu Hong Jian followed the old mómo and left.
Soon Gu Hong Jian entered the palace and followed the old mómo to wait upon her. She wasn’t specially favored, but her status was still pretty decent, serving under the pregnant Duān Fēi.6 Duān Fēi wasn’t a very tolerant master as her temperament wasn’t very good, but she didn’t have any interest in making things difficult for those below her. She held a bit of affection for the old mómo that cared for her, so upon seeing the old mómo lead Gu Hong Jian in, she also didn’t take much notice or care.
As a result, when she entered the palace, Gu Hong Jian became familiar with the customs of the palace. She learned to clean, do the laundry, and even cook. Although it was very tiring, living with the old mómo and having food and clothing made the exhaustion worth it.
A good thing didn’t last forever, however, as an imperial physician unexpectedly discovered that the Duān Fēi had committed adultery. She was summarily executed, The old mómo was believed to be an accomplice, so she was also executed. As a result, Gu Hong Jian in regards to this…she was raised as a small palace maid.
This really was an awfully indescribable affair. Gu Hong Jian had already entered the Emperor’s palace and was not allowed to leave, and she had nowhere else to go. The head maid casually glanced at her and assigned her to the Huǎn Yī Jú.7
This could be described as the more painstaking assignment in the palace. Every day, they must incessantly wash and wash clothes, wash their superiors’ clothes, and even wash the clothes of the servants while secretly tossing in their own clothes. Gu Hong Jian was only five years old and simply couldn’t wash anything. The other palace maids were disinclined to look after her. Every meal time, Gu Hong Jian was the last to eat, and she was presented with only a pile of cold leftovers.. Sometimes, there wasn’t even any leftovers.
Hence, Gu Hong Jian always slept on a cold and hard bed, holding her stomach and listening to it grumble.
Gu Hong Jian met Lin Si Ze twice later on.
Lin Si Ze was very miserable, but sometimes she served him regardless of his status. He would carry his clothes and sheets to the Huǎn Yī Jú on his own, but the servants of the Huǎn Yī Jú weren’t particularly willing to serve him.
This was the first time Gu Hong Jian had seen a man apart from palace eunuchs, although Lin Si Ze fundamentally couldn’t be considered a man at that time. The boy was nearly the same height as Gu Hong Jian and nearly as petite, which Gu Hong Jian thought of as interesting. Looking at his miserable appearance, she also had no sympathy, thinking instead—Ah! As it turns out, the so-called prince’s life is not much better.
Gu Hong Jian was always assigned so much clothes to wash that she had to stay up late into the night to finish. So naturally, she didn’t have time to attend to Lin Si Ze. Nevertheless, when Lin Si Ze arrived with a delivery of clothes, someone always reluctantly accepted them and carelessly washed them before tossing them back at Lin Si Ze.
After several more encounters with Lin Si Ze, Gu Hong Jian finally viewed him as a boy who was not much older than her with an unbiased perspective.
Lin Si Ze was actually very good-looking. He was simply more attractive than Gu Hong Jian. Although Gu Hong Jian appeared to be as thin and petite as him, his skin was also fairer and delicately smooth. Both of their appearances were as contrasting as black and white. In addition to the jealousy within her heart, there was a bit of admiration.
But that was all.
By the second year, Gu Hong Jian had already adapted to palace life, but she had still never spoken to Lin Si Ze. Lin Si Ze also never acknowledged Gu Hong Jian’s existence.
Every time Lin Si Ze came around, Gu Hong Jian would steal glances at the attractive boy from the gaps of the air-dried clothes. He carried a pile of clothes, looking somewhat shy.
At that time, Lin Si Ze’s expressions were indeed written on his face, his appearance now was entirely different from a dead person’s face. As it happened, he blushed very easily, so his fair face always seemed a little flushed. He was truly cuter than a girl.
Later she recalled that she didn’t understand at all the feelings she held towards Lin Si Ze at that time. In short, she might not have liked him. After all, she was very young, so how could she know the feelings between a man and a woman?
Most likely because the age gap between her and Lin Si Ze simply wasn’t large, she was curious about the unconventional Prince Lin Si Ze.
Since Lin Si Ze turned out to be pretty attractive, aside from curiosity, observers were divided between being attentive and feeling admiration. Some even faintly desired to get close to him.
This intimacy was still not the intimacy between a man and a woman; it was the intimacy of looking at a beautiful object and wanting to touch it.
Gu Hong Jian basically considered Lin Si Ze to be a girl—at least at that moment.
In the end, Gu Hong Jian didn’t go up to Lin Si Ze to speak to him. She didn’t dare to, nor did she want to. Although Lin Si Ze was unconventional, he was still a prince while she was a slave.
A slave needed to act as a slave; this was the most important rule the old mómo taught her. Gu Hong Jian carefully abided by this rule.
In the second year, the Winter Solstice8 of Wànshùn Year 30 was a big event in the palace. Every palace was decorated with lanterns and colored banners. Bright red lanterns were hung orderly above the walls, making the tall, frightening wall become slightly lovely during the day.
That year…Gu Hong Jian remembered that Winter Solstice had a very large snowfall. Red light shone down on the snow, giving the feeling of warmth while also allowing Gu Hong Jian to have a bit of indescribably cheer in her bitter palace life.
The nobles were in Ying Xi Palace to take part in the Winter Solstice ceremony, cheerfully chatting as the distant sounds of traditional Chinese instruments echoed, reaching even Gu Hong Jian’s ears. Gu Hong Jian couldn’t help but think of Lin Si Ze, thinking about how that shy boy was now in Ying Xi Palace and probably extremely blushing red upon seeing so many people.
Gu Hong Jian naturally wasn’t qualified to serve in Ying Xi Palace, and she didn’t have any friends within the palace at all. So with no one else around, she rested and had fun alone. Gu Hong Jian couldn’t sleep, and with no one to keep her company, she could only rock herself to sleep in the interior palace alone.
And then she saw a small girl.
She and that girl were approximately the same age, and her dolled up appearance was several times better than hers. She wasn’t that inferior in looks to Lin Si Ze… Well, Lin Si Ze was a boy…
Gu Hong Jian only thought that she was very small. She had a pointed chin hidden by her collar. A simple white lotus agate pendant hairpin kept her hair in a simple style. It seemed as if it was a real white bird jade carving, cute and lovely.
Beside her was a maid. She led her by the hand and said, “Little girl, follow right behind me. The dà ren are still inside. Besides, it’s cold outside…I’ll bring some warm soup out for you. You can drink a bit to defend against the cold.”
The maid opened up a small wooden box in her hand, and inside was steaming hot soup. In the cold winter night, it seemed very touching.
That little girl took a glance just in time to see the steaming hot soup within the small wooden box, curled her lips, and said, “I don’t want to drink.”
Just as she finished speaking, she glimpsed an extremely anxious Gu Hong Jian looking at them. As a result, she grabbed the wooden box from the maid’s hand and walked up to Gu Hong Jian. She said, “Here! For you.”
Gu Hong Jian was confused. “Eh?”
”For you. You are a young maid, right? You look really pitiful, here.”
She stopped talking and immediately handed the wooden box to Gu Hong Jian. As the girl took her leave, Gu Hong Jian was left stupefied. The girl walked back to a middle-aged woman’s side and said, “Madam, Ning Yan is good, right? I don’t need it, so I gave it to others who need it.”
That middle-aged woman didn’t look at Gu Hong Jian at all, instead stroking the small girl’s head and saying, “Yes, Ning Yan is good.”
They left, leaving behind a stupefied Gu Hong Jian holding the wooden box. She heard their conversation from beginning to end. Even though she knew that small girl’s actions were… probably due to kindness, hearing their words and seeing their manners made Gu Hong Jian’s heart ill at ease.
After staying in the palace for over a year, Gu Hong Jian very clearly understood her place as a servant. As for her masters, regardless if they came from inside the palace or outside, a master was a master. There is a difference between her and them.
As a result, the slightly hungry Gu Hong Jian didn’t act shy and immediately opened the wooden box. Inside, there was a small porcelain case that was slightly open. Steam rose up, accompanied by a salivating aroma. Gu Hong Jian stared at it. Had she ever eaten something this good…?
Thus, Gu Hong Jian swallowed her saliva and took out a spoon that was adhered to the wooden box for the purpose of drinking the soup. Before she was able to bring the spoonful of soup to her mouth, she heard an uproar.
Gu Hong Jian was somewhat doubtful. She was afraid of being seen by those around her. She covered the wooden box in her hand and carried it towards the source of the commotion—the Imperial Garden neighboring Taiye Lake.9
Utilizing her small stature, Gu Hong Jian hid in the underbrush. She was able to catch sight of a few princes grabbing a petite boy and circling around him, jeering and mocking him.
Under the somewhat hazy light, Gu Hong Jian realized that the boy they were surrounding was Lin Si Ze.
Gu Hong Jian was stunned. Although she knew Lin Si Ze was of a low status, how could she fathom the other princes going as far as to bully Lin Si Ze…
And bully him so cruelly.
In the end, those few princes collaborated and grabbed Lin Si Ze, carrying and throwing him in Taiye Lake. Afterwards, they laughed heartily and left. Some of them commented on how the Winter Solstice Ceremony would go on for a while so no one would notice Lin Si Ze missing because he didn’t matter anyway. In short, their words were full of ridicule.
Gu Hong Jian naturally didn’t step forward. Stunned, she watched them leave before shifting her gaze to watch Lin Si Ze struggle extremely to crawl out of Taiye Lake. After he crawled onto the shore of the lake, he collapsed.
Gu Hong Jian’s soul returned. She scouted her surroundings to see if anyone was around. After she saw that the coast was clear, she dashed to Lin Si Ze to check if he was breathing. Luckily, he still was.
But the weather was very chilly, and Taiye Lake was practically freezing. Lin Si Ze wasn’t wearing much, so he was almost like an icy corpse. Gu Hong Jian was slightly afraid that Lin Si Ze would die in his current condition, so she surreptitiously sneaked away and returned to the Huǎn Yī Jú, grabbing some unused blankets. She sprinted back to Taiye Lake, helped Lin Si Ze peel off his outer clothing, and covered him with the blankets.
Lin Si Ze was completely unconscious, his lips tinted violet. Gu Hong Jian didn’t know what to do, so she could only protect him by dragging him to the underbrush—which was comparatively warmer.
So when Lin Si Ze roused a little, Gu Hong Jian was relieved. She heard Lin Si Ze faintly announce his thirst and then his cold state. After a while, he dazedly announced his hunger.
Truly pathetic, this boy hadn’t eaten? Moreover, he was also cold and thirsty…
Gu Hong Jian was at a loss at this reveal. Finally, she retrieved the wooden box and placed it in Lin Si Ze’s hands.
Gu Hong Jian wanted to wait for Lin Si Ze to be awake to eat, but a few palace maids from the Huǎn Yī Jú were looking for her. Gu Hong Jian had no option but to scamper off and return to the Huǎn Yī Jú, praying mentally for Lin Si Ze to not die. Otherwise, that bowl of soup would be wasted.
Later, Gu Hong Jian didn’t hear any news of Lin Si Ze’s death. On the other hand, it was a long while before Lin Si Ze came back holding a pile of clothes with both hands.
Not long after that, Wànshùn Year 31 began. Gu Hong Jian also officially met Lin Si Ze for the first time, which was also when their ill-fated relationship officially unfolded.
Lin Si Ze was unable to clearly recall the event that occurred during the Winter Solstice of Wànshùn Year 30, and Gu Hong Jian didn’t want to raise the issue.
Afterwards, she finally learned that the girl with the white bird jade carving who gave her the food was called Zuo Ning Yan.
The two imperial court elders Minister Zuo and his wife were in love. He had only taken one wife, but it wasn’t until Minister Zuo was in his late years that the Zuo fū rén10 was able to give him a pair of fraternal twins. Minister Zuo gained a daughter and a son whom he loved dearly. Zuo Ning Yan was that daughter.
Nowadays, when Gu Hong Jian recalled Zuo Ning Yan, she only felt like the events in life were predetermined. The first time they met, Zuo Ning Yan gave Gu Hong Jian her leftover soup. As if fated for a long time afterwards, if Zuo Ning Yan didn’t want it, Gu Hong Jian had to silently accept it. If Zuo Ning Yan wanted it, Gu Hong Jian had to try hard for it, fighting for it and coming up a little short.
For example, Lin Si Ze.
- (Wànshùn is the Calendar preceding Píngchāng) ↩
- (mómo = elderly lady/older female servant) ↩
- (In this case, 春 |chūn| most likely means ‘Youthful’ whereas 花 |Huā| means ‘Flower,’ a common term used to address females or ‘beauties.’ Gu Hong Jian’s original name can thus be interpreted as ‘Youthful Beauty’ even though she was most likely called 春 for ‘Spring’ and 花 for ‘Flower.’ ↩
- (清明 means ‘Qingming’ or ‘Pure Brightness.’ It refers to 5th-19th April, the time of the Pure Brightness Festival or Tomb Sweeping Day in early April, and the 5th of 24 solar terms in the 72 Climates. It is also known as Seimei in Japanese, Thanh minh in Vietnamese, and Cheongmyeong in Korean.) ↩
- (虹始见 |Hóng shǐ jiàn| is the last pentad or solar term of the Qingming microseason. It is also referred to as ‘Rainbows begin to appear in the sky after shower’ from a translation of the Japanese term.) ↩
- (|端妃| is a rather low ranking imperial consort title. Duān even means ‘end/fringe.’) ↩
- (|浣衣局| Huǎn Yī Jú is the Imperial Palace Laundry Service/Bureau. Maids that have committed offenses or are being punished are assigned to this laundry room. This is because the hard laundry work gradually destroys the maid’s beauty, lessening her chance of ever leaving the bureau. The History of Laundry) ↩
- (|冬至| Dōngzhì is the 22nd micro-season of the 72 Climates; commonly known as the Winter Solstice, it is from the 22nd of December to the 5th of January) ↩
- (An artificial lake in the imperial city. Link.) ↩
- (|左夫| fū rén: the mistress/wife, also a general term to refer to an official’s wife) ↩