Song Dynasty China, 1103-1128 CE
Zheng Mingcheng A Confucian scholar-bureaucrat
Li Qingzhao A renowned poet; wife of Zheng Mingcheng
Song Huizong The Emperor
Qinzong The Emperor’s eldest son
Gaozong The Emperor’s second son
Cai Jing Huizong’s reformist Chancellor
Wang Fu Cai Jing’s replacement as Chancellor
Li Gang Emperor Qinzong’s Chancellor
* * *
In the Year of the Sheep, the fourth year of the reign of the Emperor Huizong, twenty-two-year-old Zhao Mingcheng sat down in the Examination Hall in Kaifeng, waiting for the test to begin. He had spent years preparing for this, but he could not help being nervous. Like the other scholars present in the hall, he checked his ink-pot and brush. Carefully, the proctors roamed through the hall, examining the lunch each student had brought, looking for hidden clues and notes that might be used to cheat.
At the front of the Examination Hall, flanking the stairs, were two enormous statues depicting Mengzi and a former imperial minister, Wang Anshi, who had served the present Emperor’s father. Zhao Mingcheng was not well-disposed toward this particular minister, despite the fact that he was dead. A radical reformer, Wang Anshi had removed from the Imperial Exam the two topics in which Zhao Mingcheng excelled – poetry and history. It was all part of the reform party’s effort to bring practical men into the administrative system of the Empire.
Taking a deep breath, Zhao Mingcheng glanced around the hall, trying to ignore the watchful gaze of the Magistrate of Kaifeng and the other official examiners, including the Hanlin Academy scholars who had devised this year’s questions. There were young men here from every part of China. He knew quite a few of them, for they had studied with him at the National Academy, the Guozijian. But there were aristocratic boys here, too, from the noble families, who had trained at the great private academies – Songyang, Yingtianfu, Yuelu, White Deer Grotto, Culai, and the newest of the lot, Dongpo, founded by the late Su Shi during his exile on the far-away island of Hainan. Here and there, he saw a few older men, one or two in their fifties, taking the exam for the second or third time. Some fellows, he knew – men with more money than sense – made a life’s work of studying for the Jinshi exam. Like him, they all had studied history and poetry. Zhao Mingcheng’s father had inserted these subjects back into the exam during his brief stint as Chancellor, but now Cai Jing was Chancellor, and he had revived almost all of Wang Anshi’s reforms with a vengeance. History and poetry were not considered practical. Well....
The examination booklets were distributed to the scholars while Chen Dong, the youngest member of the Hanlin Academy stood and snapped out their instructions:
“All exam books must be closed until you are told to open them. The first question will be found inside. You will have two hours to complete your essay.”
Zhao Mingcheng glanced at the exam booklet, with its impersonal number. Not only were the books numbered, but each would be recopied so that the Magistrate and other officials who graded the tests would not recognize anyone’s calligraphy.
Zhao Mingcheng opened the booklet and read the exam question. “The Master said: ‘When Ch’ih was proceeding to Ch’i, he had fat horses pulling his carriage, and wore light furs.ʼ”
He sighed, not because it was difficult, but because it was so predictable. While he noticed some of the other students rubbing their faces, staring at the question, Zhao Mingcheng calmly dipped his brush and began to complete the passage:
“ʽI have heard that a superior man helps the distressed,” he wrote, “but does not add to the wealth of the rich.ʼ”
That part of the answer – completing the passage from memory – was easy. The next part – applying Wang Anshi’s commentary on Master Kung’s teachings – that would not be so easy.
The important thing, he thought, is to pass the exam. After all, he had to uphold the honour of the Zhao family, which always had provided scholar-administrators for the Empire. He had to pass for the sake of his father, Zhao Tingzhi, Grand Counsellor in the Ministry of Personnel. But most of all he did not want to let down his wife, Li Qingzhao.
They had been married two years before, in the Year of the Snake, the same year that Su Shi had died. Li Qingzhao’s father was a friend of the late Su Shi, but in happier times, before he had been sent off to rot in the humid jungle of Hainan, the clever old scholar and scientific inventor had taught her how to compose splendid little poems in the musical lyric-style. She had sent him off to the exam with one just this morning:
In the evening gusts of wind and rain
Washed away daylight’s embers.
I stop playing the reed-pipe
And touch up my face at the mirror.
Through the thin red silk my cool flesh glistens
Lustrous as snow, fresh with fragrance.
With a smile I say to my beloved:
“Tonight, inside the mesh curtains, the pillow and mat are cool.”
Zhao Mingcheng was still daydreaming about his pretty young wife and “gusts of wind and rain” when the time-keeper’s stamp struck his booklet, leaving a garish, smeared red mark. He came to his senses and at once began to write:
“ʽIt is the opinion of Wang Anshi that it is necessary for the state to provide all possible assistance to the labouring classes in order to prevent their being ground into dust by the rich.’”
Zhao Mingcheng was clever, though. He remembered that although Wang Anshi had been opposed to forced labor, Cai Jing was not. When he stated his own analysis of Master Kung’s remarks, he made sure to include a justification of the corvée labor system, linking the whole idea to the notion of filial piety, like a good Confucian.
One essay completed – there would be others, but Zao Mingcheng was ready.
* * *
Zhao Mingcheng passed the exam, of course. He had not really doubted that he would. His name and score – along with those of everyone else who had taken the Jinshi exam, was declared on a poster stuck up on the wall outside the Examination Hall, in Horse Guild Avenue, for all to see. As usual, most of those who had taken the exam failed. For many of them, in fact, this was not the first time they had failed. However, the number of students who passed was higher than it had been in the days when Zhao Tingzhi had taken the exam – all part of the state’s program to diversify and enlarge the civil service.
He received an initial appointment to one of the yamens, or central government departments, in Kaifeng. As a functionary of the Ministry of Rites, serving under his father-in-law, who was a division chief, Zhao Mingcheng was sent off to rural Shandong, his home province, to report on the local magistrates’ efforts to put the Emperor’s new religious decree into effect. Song Huizong had decided that Chongning monasteries should be set up in each prefecture to pray for the Emperor’s health and longevity. It was a rather bizarre request, coming from a ruler who was himself only twenty-one years old. At Weifeng, he received the following poem from his wife, Li Qingzhao:
In the little courtyard, by the vacant window
Spring’s colours deepen,
With the double blinds unfurled
The gloom thickens.
The strumming of a jasper lute.
Far-off hills, jutting peaks
Hasten the thinning of the dusk,
Gentle wind, blowing rain
Play with light shades.
Pear blossoms are about to fall,
But there’s no helping that.
Zhao Mingcheng tried to write a poem of his own, in reply, but although he could find the rhyme, he knew his word choice was not up to Li Qingzhao’s standards. She was by far the better poet, which was one of the many reasons why he loved her. Riding in his palanquin from place to place, visiting magistrates’ offices and Buddhist monasteries, Zhao Mingcheng wondered when he would be able to see her again. Meanwhile, he amused himself as best he could pursuing his favourite hobby – collecting.
What had really attracted Zhao Mingcheng to Li Qinzhao even more than her beauty and talent was her passion for old, rare, and beautiful things. It was their bond. Although his father had served on the Emperor’s council, Zhao Mingcheng’s family owned only a modest estate, and he was – after all – the third son. The stipend he was given, while studying in Kaifeng, was rather meagre, a stipend suitable for a third son. However, he had been very careful with his money, staying in one of the Academy dormitories, drinking weak tea and eating only vegetables with his rice; he patched his scholar’s robes, and only occasionally indulged in the luxury of wine. Instead of going out drinking with his fellow students in the Entertainment District, on full-moon festival nights, each feast day he pawned old clothes and roamed the back lanes, seeking antiquities. He saved his silver taels and spent them on shards of inscribed pottery and charcoal rubbings of old inscriptions. He continued this habit after marriage: indeed, whenever a really desirable object appeared on the market, Zhao Mingcheng and Li Qingzhao found themselves wondering what they might be able to sell in order to afford it.
Other women might not have understood Zhao Mingcheng’s passion for the past, but Li Qingzhao was not merely indulgent: she was a full-fledged collaborator. Every feast day, he bought some fruit and a new artefact, and they would spend the evening eating the fruits, fresh from the market, while studying and critiquing their latest find.
“It’s not just that they’re pretty, or interesting,” Li Qingzhao had said one day. “Each one of these pieces we’re collecting has a story that needs to be recovered and told.”
That was why Zhao Mingcheng, as he travelled, quietly let it be known that he was interested in antiques, especially anything made of stone or metal that had writing on it. He could not always afford to buy what was presented to him, but most people did not mind his “capturing” the inscriptions by making a rubbing using a piece of rice-paper and a stick of charcoal. The palanquin-bearers were grateful, too, because paper was much easier to carry than ancient bronze.
When he returned to Kaifeng, Li Qingzhao received him with a tray of tea in their inner quarters, looking out into the central garden of their home. His journey had been a long one, keeping him away for the Dragon Boat Festival, the Lovers’ Feast of Double Seventh, and the Feast of Hungry Ghosts. He was unable to come back until just before the Mid-Autumn Festival in the eighth month, when the Kaifeng bakers prepared moon-cakes for the crowds they anticipated in the late-night Devils’ Market.
“Will the Emperor’s new temples be ready in time for the New Year?” Li Qinzhao asked.
“Yes,” Zhao Mingcheng nodded, “at least the ones in Shandong will be.”
“Sihui Miaozhan has objected to Furong Daskai being appointed to the Chongning Temple here in Kaifeng,” Li Qingzhao replied. “He was banished for refusing the Emperor’s gift of purple robes.”
“The abbots of the older Buddhist monasteries are not pleased,” Zhao Mingcheng said, shaking his head. “They remember the Great Persecution under the Tang, when it was decreed there could be only one Buddhist temple in each prefecture.”
“Well, there used to be hundreds of thousands of them, and all those hideous relics – the finger-bone of the Buddha and what-not – it was ridiculous,” Li Qingzhao laughed. “And now we can all pray for the long life of Song Huizong.”
“A Daoist on the throne,” Zhao Mingcheng muttered, only now permitting himself a sip of tea. “These Daoists are obsessed with cheating death.”
“Everyone is,” Li Qingzhao smirked. “We Confucians cheat death by claiming that life goes on, as an ancestor, after death: so, we spend all our time worrying about the dead and placating them. The Buddhists, meanwhile, try to cheat death by pretending the world doesn’t really exist. As for the Daoists, they think a man’s lifespan can be increased if he somehow has sex without reaching his climax. In Laozi’s day, they used to be more sensible. It’s all quite absurd, isn’t it?”
“Perhaps, but the Daoist surely is the most absurd philosopher of all. What could be more contradictory than claiming to esteem nature, and natural tendencies, while at the same time denying a great principle of nature, which is that all things inevitably decline and die. It’s like believing in the Will of Heaven, yet doing nothing to uphold it.”
* * *
Three years passed, during which Cai Jing oversaw the imposition of new taxes on salt and tea, as well as the organization of corvée labor throughout the Empire. These new measures were unpopular, and daring officials all over China began to send in memorials urging the Emperor to abandon the reforms. If he had not been so intent on the study of antiquities, Zhao Mingcheng might have penned a memorial himself, but his father urged him to be careful. It was sage advice. Nevertheless, the memorials continued to pile up at the Office of Planning, where Cai Jing worked, and the Chancellor read them with a sour expression and mounting irritation.
Taxes, one memorialist noted, now were seven times what they had been at the end of the Tang Dynasty. Another official pointed out that two-thirds of the landowning families in his district did not pay any taxes at all because they belonged to the elite or wealthy tax-exempt classes, or else because they were rich and well-connected enough to persuade the local tax-collectors to overlook them. The magistrate of one of the more prosperous prefectures objected to tax-paying landowners in his district being assessed for sixty percent more land than they actually owned, simply because they had the good fortune to live in an area favoured by nature. Complaints regarding the corvée system appeared from every part of the Empire: mostly, they did not decry the conscription of manual labourers, but the pressure put on richer peasants to serve as guards, office-runners, and local tax-collectors, all duties considered onerous and demeaning by such people. Indeed, in certain parts of the Empire serving as Li-cheng, or Village Warden, was actually dangerous because such men always were targeted by local bandits.
Cai Jing immediately issued a decree, in the Emperor’s name, banning all further debate on policy. To traditional Confucian scholars, this was like being stabbed in the heart. Internal criticism of policy had always been the soul of the Confucian state. Three hundred officials were summarily removed from office or relocated to distant, miserable frontier districts hundreds of miles away from their families.
In the Year of the Fire Dog, Song Huizong decided to recast the Nine Tripod Cauldrons used in one of the most important imperial rituals of all – the general veneration of the ancestors of the Han people. Once more, Zhao Mingcheng was sent forth on a tour of the prefectures east of Kaifeng. This time, he was to inspect the Chongning temples and also collect the bronze tribute due from each district, for the Emperor insisted that the Cauldrons must be made in exactly the same way the Shang kings had made them – every part of the Empire would contribute, thus making the Cauldrons themselves a potent symbol of both the Empire and the Emperor’s authority. Everywhere he went, he was troubled by glowering thunderclouds, although the countryside was full of peach blossoms.
In Kaifeng, Li Qingzhao composed a poem for her husband. She felt sad, for her father, Li Gefei, has passed away recently.
The Feast of Cold Food,
A quiet and peaceful spring day.
From the jade burner smoke rises, up-curling,
The incense dying.
Dreams returned as I slept
On a hill-shaped pillow, concealing
My flower-ornament hairpins.
Sea-swallows are not yet returned;
People delight in vying for fresh herbs.
Plumb blossoms withered, willows bear catkins;
Twilight falls, light raindrops
Wetting the garden swing.
His mission accomplished, Zhao Mingcheng returned to Kaifeng, taking the southern road that entered the outer city wall via the Dongshui Gate. Unlike the middle gates, which had broad doors and straight entrances, the people had to use the corner gates, which were narrow, zig-zagging through multiple chambers clambering with guards who searched everyone. Zhao Mingcheng was recognized – nothing unusual about that – but, to his surprise, the officer of the watch said:
“Honorable Master, I regret to inform you that an order has been given for your arrest.”
Zhao Mingcheng was so stunned he said nothing. What could he possibly say? His palanquin was carried, under a guard of imperial soldiers, to the Donghua Gate of the Palace City. He sat stolidly, waiting for the shameful procession to end, and soon found himself at the Office of Planning – Cai Jing’s office. Walking into the Chancellor’s presence, he bowed respectfully, and waited.
“Zhao Mingcheng, you have been arrested under suspicion of high treason against the Son of Heaven, Song Huizong. Do you have anything to say?”
“What evidence do you have against me?”
“We intercepted and transcribed a poem recently sent to you by your wife, Li Qingzhao,” the Chancellor answered. He at once opened a thin piece of rice-paper and read the poem, which caused Zhao Mingcheng to smirk a little. Cai Jing, an elderly man and a thoroughly nasty fellow, did not have a voice well-suited to poetry. It was the poem about the Feast of Cold Food – he remembered it well, and had commited his wife’s words to memory. “Well? How do you explain this?”
“I am confident that an official who has attained the rank of Chancellor is better able than I to analyze a poem, Your Excellency.”
“Poetry is an indulgence of the Literati. No practical administrator, truly doing his duty, has time for such frivolities. I ask you again – what is the meaning of this poem?”
“Surely everyone in China knows what the Feast of Cold Food is?” Zhao Mingcheng said. “Once upon a time, Duke Wen....”
“I asked you what this meant!” The Chancellor was losing patience rather quickly, and Zhao Mingcheng suddenly realized that he was not the first person who had been interrogated. This was but a small episode within a larger drama.
“The incense refers to the tradition of ancestor-worship,” Zhao Mingcheng said. “And of course you know about the gathering of fresh herbs....”
“The Feast of Cold Food commemorates a man who shirked his duties when called upon by his prince to serve,” Cai Jing remarked. “It is an indirect accusation against the state.”
Against you? Zhao Mingcheng tried not to laugh, for this would have been ridiculous if Cai Jing had not been so powerful. “How is that possible, Your Excellency?”
“Your wife’s poem accuses the Imperial Government of hypocrisy and corruption.”
“Read the words, Your Excellency. None of that is in there – nor have I ever uttered any statements to that effect.”
Some people, Zhao Mingcheng thought, would get an idea lodged into the brain, and then they would see confirmation of their precious opinion everywhere they looked, regardless of the evidence. Cai Jing, he could see, had become such a man: this persecution served some policy goal, and he was determined to drive onward even at the risk of appearing to be both delusional and unjust.
Cai Jing mulled over Zhao Mingcheng’s response for a moment, finally asking, “What does the wet swing mean?”
“It rained?” Zhao Mingcheng offered the Chancellor an exasperated look. “Playing on swings, in the garden, is what people do during the Feast of Cold Food, Your Excellency.”
Cai Jing stared at Zhao Mingcheng for several long seconds, and at last sighed, making a dismissive gesture. “Go – go. Clearly, we at present have insufficient evidence against you, but you remain under suspicion.”
Zhao Mingcheng went directly home to see Li Qingzhao, who was worried sick, waiting.
“They arrested your father!” she cried. “Cai Jing interrogated him for days. No one knows why... they won’t say. The denunciation was too much. He resigned from the Council and has gone home to Qingzhou.”
Zhao Mingcheng removed his official’s hat and sat down, heavily, utterly drained by everything that had happened.
“What will you do?” his wife asked.
“Song Huizong is a Daoist,” Zhao Mingcheng replied, after a moment of reflection. “The wind of so-called reform is blowing a cyclone. Daoism teaches us to bend before the wind. It would seem that, for now, there is no place in the Emperor’s administration for a proper Confucian bureaucrat like me.”
He knew, without being told, that the humiliation of arrest and interrogation has broken his father’s heart. He was not surprised to hear that his father was ill, or to receive the summons from his elder brother, informing him that Zhao Tingzhi was dead. In accordance with the Law Code, he temporarily resigned from his post and returned to his home town of Qingzhou, in Shandong Province, to observe the legally and ritually-required twenty-seven month mourning period. No one was especially surprised, a few years later, when Zhao Mingcheng formally resigned from the Imperial Civil Service.
So many scholar-officials had quit their jobs, in fact, that the state began to unravel, and Song Huizong was compelled to ask Cai Jing to end the reform movement. Hundreds of less-qualified men had to be promoted beyond their competency levels to fill all the empty posts. Thousands of years worth of collective knowledge and experience were lost overnight, and the administration of the Empire suffered as a result, becoming less efficient, slower, more arbitrary, less just. Injured and slighted subjects began to complain, bitterly; many lost hope, and others fled to the forests and marshes to join bandits, discharged soldiers, renegade peasants, and exiled or unemployed officials, an ever-growing hydra-headed army of the dispossessed and disaffected.
Zhao Mingcheng and Li Qingzhao were by no means wealthy, but even after only four years’ of service in the Ministry of Rites he had amassed enough money, by living abstemiously, to live in genteel poverty, at least for a while. They were able to live with his elder brother at the family’s mansion in Qingzhou, although later they acquired a large house of their own, which was necessary to provide storage for their ever-growing collection of antiquities. Before long, they had to set aside twelve rooms solely for their collection of old manuscripts, and – together – they dedicated themselves to the composition of a sprawling treatise, the Jin Shi Lu, which was the first comprehensive study of epigraphy ever written in China. Before it was completed, it would fill thirty volumes.
* * *
In the Year of the Pig, under the influence of the element of fire, the Empress Xiangong had given birth to a second son, Gaozong. The need to celebrate the child’s birth had compelled Song Huizong to order Cai Jing to curtail his purge of the administration so that all the prefectural governors and district magistrates could attend to organizing local fetes in honor of the new prince.
The Emperor completed a treatise on tea production that he had been working on for some time, and the book was sent at once to the Imperial Press to be published, allowing His Imperial Majesty to return his attention to his other interests – painting, calligraphy, poetry, architecture, gardening, and the acquisition and arrangement of works of art. He had collected already nearly six thousand objects, and a splendid pavilion had to be built inside the Palace City to accommodate them.
Empress Xiangong, however, became withdrawn and sickly after the birth of her son. She had never really liked Huizong, and now that she had fulfilled her matrimonial purpose, she made no secret of the fact that she was utterly indifferent to her husband. Indeed, she urged him to seek out other mistresses, but the Emperor did not accept this resolution. He waited, hoping that Xiangong would change her mind, but he was deeply depressed. Emperors, after all, are accustomed to having anything they want, whenever they want it. To his dismay, a year after the birth of Gaozong, the Empress died, only twenty-four years old. With a heavy heart, the Emperor went into mourning.
Many months passed; the moon waxed and waned – festivals were celebrated, and the enormous city of Kaifeng pulsed with life all around the walls of the Imperial City, but within the inner chambers of the Palace all was quiet gloom, the only sound being the swish of silk robes as eunuchs and courtiers hurried from one pavilion to another.
The Emperor brooded, and his youth slipped away. He put on some weight. His appetites grew more intense, but his relish faded. He began to feel the weight of his own mortality and the need to leave a mark. He married again – the new Empress was named Xiansui – but she was a quiet, plain woman, selected only because the astrologers proclaimed the match to be an auspicious one. The wedding night was grimly perfunctory, and the Emperor stalked away, summoning one of his favourite concubines.
“You need a change of pace, Sire,” the concubine suggested. “You cheer up when you’re creative. Make something – draw something – do something! You float around the Palace like a hungry ghost.”
I shall build something, the young Emperor decided, in the morning, calling for Cai Jing. “Chancellor,” he said when Cai Jing appeared, “I wish to construct a new park here in Kaifeng. I want an artificial hill raised, overlooking the Jinming Pond – something picturesque. It shall be a representation of the Empire, filled with rocks and rare plants from every corner of China. Indeed, I want all of the prefectures to send shipments of their finest specimens for inclusion in the new garden.”
Cai Jing considered the proposal, but nodded quickly. The Emperor’s fertile mind had been conjuring up one audacious building scheme after another – new palaces, libraries, gardens, temples. To keep the cost of these projects low, the Chancellor had established the Exchange System, under which the state could require the summer tax, normally levied in cash, to be paid in kind – in whatever resources the state might require. Sometimes, Cai Jing simply demanded building materials – cut stone, bricks, bamboo, lumber, lacquer, and mortar – without compensation, defining these ad-hoc demands as an auxiliary tax.
* * *
“Sire, one of the Jurchen chiefs along the Amur River has rebelled against the Khitan Emperor of Liao,” Cai Jing reported one day as the Emperor sat down with the chief bureaucrats who formed the Council of State.
“What is his name?”
“A barbaric name for a barbarian,” Huizong replied, and nothing more was said about the matter until, in the next year – the Year of the Sheep – Cai Jing once more reported to the Council.
“Wanyan Aguda, the rebel leader of the Jurchen, has proclaimed himself Emperor of the new state of Jin. The Liao generals seem to be completely unable to deal with him.”
“Liao has always been our enemy,” Huizong replied. “They humiliated us, taking territory, bleeding us with their tribute demands. We should wish this up-start every success. This fellow is from the Amur, is he not? That’s rather far away. Let the barbarians kill each other.” After a pause, he raised his eyebrows and regarded his ministers sceptically. “And what about the internal disorders? I am especially concerned about the situation around Liangshan.”
“Sire,” Cai Jing said, speaking slowly and carefully, “you refer to the area called the Water Margin. The bandits there grow more powerful every year. They have built a fortified camp on Liangshan Mountain, and they follow a leader named Song Jiang.”
“What do we know about him?”
“He used to be a magistrate’s clerk.”
“Ah! A mean sort of person – lowly, the sort of man who fails the exam too many times. And yet he has a heroic name: just two characters long. Tell me, why is the military unable to bring these bandits to justice?”
“The administrators do not know whose task it is, Sire,” Cai Jing explained. “The marshes straddle so many different jurisdictions... the boundaries run through morasses, lakes, and sloughs that no one has ever surveyed.”
“Indeed,” the Emperor muttered. “Well, perhaps a new head is required to deal with them. Who was the top-scoring student this year?”
“Qin Hui, Sire,” Cai Jing said, nodding.
“I want Qin Hui to be posted to the Liangshan area, with troops, and with a special commission to pursue these bandits back and forth across all the administrative boundaries, if necessary.”
Another year passed, and Cai Jing was forced to report that Wanyan Aguda now was conquering the Liao territories to the north and east, at the head of an ever-expanding army of barbarian horsemen. As for Qin Hui, his initial efforts to destroy the bandits of Liangshan had been remarkably unsuccessful.
“Tell him to try harder,” Huizong said, rather annoyed by all this unsettling news. “Clearly, my army has grown weak. I therefore propose that the Eunuch, Tong Guan, be placed at the head of the Military Bureau, to have a seat in the Council of State.”
When the others all heard that a Eunuch was to be promoted to such a high office, they grew visibly restless. All of them were products of the Examination Hall, and all of them – at least to some extent – believed in Confucian values, in particular the importance of family. Eunuchs were to them an abomination – emasculated men without family ties, admitted into the Emperor’s presence merely because they survived their mutilation, and fit only to be servile drones in the Imperial Bedchambers, or pawns in palace intrigues. Worst of all, however, the Eunuchs tended to band together against the whole of the outside world, always seeking to separate the Emperor from the scholar-bureaucrats who administered the Empire. The only person who was not disturbed by the news of Tong Guan’s elevation was Cai Jing, for the Eunuch had helped him obtain the post of Chancellor.
“I must inform you that the divinities have spoken with me in a dream,” the Emperor now said, startling the Council of State even more. “The Gods have informed me that a new network of Daoist temples – in honor of the Divine Empyrean – are to be established.”
“But... Sire. That would be incredibly expensive.”
“Hardly,” Huizong retorted. “Existing Buddhist monasteries will be seized and converted into Daoist temples. The divinities were very insistent that this all be done immediately.”
* * *
In the Year of the Pig, the nineteenth year of the reign of Song Huizong, under the influence of the element of Earth, Wanyan Aguda – who now called himself Emperor Taizu of Jin – sent an embassy to Kaifeng to discuss the possibility of an alliance between the Jurchen and the Song Dynasty. Cai Jing received the barbarian ambassadors with the carefully-measured, cold courtesy normally accorded to foreigners. The barbarians strode into the reception room of the Office of Planning in all their uncivilized splendour – gleaming lamellar armor, furs, and felt boots. They were brown-faced, with long moustaches and pointed beards. The neatly-groomed Song officials in their silk robes and scholars’ caps did not attempt to disguise their contempt for these outsiders.
“We have seen the great mechanical clock-tower, with the moving armillary sphere, built by the late Su Shi. We understand its creator was exiled by the present Emperor’s elder brother.” The Jin ambassador said this with the hint of a smile – it was a strange way to begin negotiations, Cai Jing thought, but one could not expect barbarians to behave with propriety.
“The late Su Shi excelled in all the sciences, but in particular those dealing with astronomy and the reckoning of time,” Cai Jing replied.
“So we have heard. And he is said to have discovered, while visiting Liao, that the Khitan Emperor’s calendar was more accurate than your ancient Chinese calendar. And yet the Han call theirs the Celestial Kingdom.”
“These errors have since been corrected.” Cai Jing, rather impatient, asked, “What bearing does this have on the topic under discussion?”
“The Han Chinese look down their noses at foreigners. You call us barbarians. Yet, the Khitan Empire of Liao has grown strong at the expense of the Song Dynasty. This must rankle. They hold the northern passes and occupy the Sixteen Prefectures. Our master, the Emperor Taizu, will return these prefectures to your master, Song Huizong, if you agree to attack Liao from the south in concert with our invasion from the north. Together, we will extinguish what remains of the Liao state.”
The offer was brought before the Council of State, who heard the news with great excitement.
“Sire,” Cai Jing urged, “possession of the Sixteen Prefectures will allow us to move the northern border of the Empire back up to the Great Wall. We would have a secure military frontier again.”
“At what cost?”
“The deployment of two hundred thousand men – a very short campaign,” said Tong Guan, the military Eunuch, who now headed the Military Bureau. “We have nearly seven million men enrolled in the militia, Sire. The fifty-eight divisions of the army can muster one million, six hundred thousand troops. Half a million militia, in the frontier provinces, are ready for immediate duty.”
“Very well – send the necessary orders to the commanders.”
“Sire,” Cai Jing interjected. “If the militia are to be conscripted, there may be widespread draft-dodging. Many men already join the Buddhist monasteries in order to avoid military service, taxation, and the corvée. I think that for the good of the state we must impose a five year moratorium on new Buddhist ordinations.”
“Why stop at half measures?” Huizong snorted, derisively, and said in a rather petulant tone, “Tell the Buddhist monks that the Sangha is to be merged with Daoism. All the monasteries of their foreign sect are to be assimilated into the Daoist establishment as quickly as possible. They must turn their attention from the study of Dhamma to the pursuit of the Dao, or they must rejoin the ranks of laymen and taxpayers.”
It was a bold, breathtaking move, but Cai Jing bowed, deeply, and said, “Yes, Sire – the Imperial Ancestors will be overjoyed by this expression of filial piety.”
I simply cannot do this anymore, Cai Jing thought as he returned to the Office of Planning. He sat down, took a deep breath, and composed his letter of resignation, declaring himself too old to bear up to the stress of his post.
In family shrines, the statues of the Ancestors stood inert and silent, smothered in clouds of incense. All across the Empire, magistrates read the imperial order calling out the militia. Long ago, even before the chancellorship of Wang Anshi, all the households of the Empire had been divided into units called pao, each consisting of ten families. All families with more than two adult males were required to provide one recruit for the army whenever a conscription order was issued. The recruits were received at the induction stations in each district and prefecture, being tattooed on the hand or shoulder to make it more difficult for them to run away. Those who appeared at the muster-grounds were sent to begin their training under the weapons instructors, but everywhere lists were drawn up of those who failed to present themselves. These lists were long and disheartening.
In the village of Qixian in Shezhou Province, meanwhile, a man named Fang La stirred up a rebellion.
The initial reports regarding the events in Shezhou came before Wang Fu, the new Chancellor, at the end of the year. In official circles, a minor peasant revolt was routinely treated as and referred to as banditry: only a successful, full-scale uprising was considered to be a “rebellion.”
“So,” Wang Fu said to himself, reading the reports that had reached him from terrified, overwhelmed magistrates and prefectural governors. He signalled his subordinate to attend him, laying aside the reports as he pressed his fingers to his temples. “Issue an order for the immediate arrest of the Magistrate of Qixian, who is to be beaten to death for deserting his post. Issue another order to the Eunuch-commander Tan Chen to proceed to Shezhou with a small body of regular troops. He is to apprehend the bandit Fang La, or else send his head to me in a jar.”
The revolt at Qixian had occurred in the tenth lunar month, during the collection of the autumn taxes. For five weeks, Wang Fu was able to censor news about the uprising, but when the prefectural capital of Muzhou was overrun and sacked by the rebels, it became impossible to keep the Emperor in the dark.
“What in the hell is going on down there!” Song Huizong demanded, summoning Wang Fu to his presence. “Who is this man? Is he a rebel official?”
“The bandit Fang La is a peasant, Sire.”
“A peasant?” Huizong scoffed, shaking his head. “What sort of peasant calls himself Chen? Only Emperors of China take that name.”
“He’s a rather well-to-do peasant from the village of Qixian. He owned a grove of lacquer trees.” Wang Fu sighed, for the rest of the story was difficult to relate. “He was required to serve as Village Warden, under the corvée. When he failed to raise the assessed revenue demand, the magistrate in Qixian took him to task and told him he had better make up the shortfall out of his own funds. So... well, he... he took up banditry.”
“Am I supposed to believe that a bandit calls himself Chen... that he commands thousands of men and captures prefectural capitals? How many districts have fallen into his hands, Wang Fu?”
“We... Sire... we don’t actually know. Dozens. Perhaps more – we just received word that Hangzhou fell to the rebels without a fight on the twenty-ninth of last month.”
“Well, this is a very inauspicious beginning to the New Year – a year in which we are supposed to fight a war against Liao alongside our new Jin allies!” Huizong was furious. “Contact Tong Guan: order him to move at once against Fang La’s stronghold with five divisions. And I want this peasant prankster who thinks he’s too good to pay his taxes taken alive.”
* * *
The Emperor was growing weary of the cold indifference of the Empress Xiansui, and increasingly perturbed by annoying news. He sometimes wondered if Wang Fu ever had anything positive to say. Tong Guan’s well-trained, battle-ready troops – withdrawn from the frontier – were marching to various points along the Grand Canal, where hundreds of barges had been requisitioned to carry them down to the areas that had fallen under rebel control. Over fifty districts, now, had succumbed to Fang La’s revolt, and the fellow, not content merely to call himself Emperor, had commissioned architects to build him an imperial palace. Local commanders had attacked the rebels, but one by one they had been cut off, slaughtered, or routed. Those administrators who did not flee, at the approach of the insurgent armies, were massacred along with their families. Worst of all, the uprising had completely disrupted the shipment of hundreds of thousands of bushels of rice collected during the autumn tax season – rice that normally supplied the markets of Kaifeng and the granaries of the frontier garrisons.
With great trepidation, Wang Fu approached the brooding Emperor and said: “Our latest intelligence reports, Sire, indicate that Fang La has secured the loyalty of many of his key followers by advancing loans, or by helping them evade their tax payments. The mass of rebels, however, he has mesmerized or astounded with magic tricks. He has set himself up as a Daoist magician, but the few prisoners we have been able to capture speak of a strange, dualistic doctrine. We believe the insurgents are inspired by Manichaean beliefs. They say that life has no value, that morality means nothing. They claim that a new dispensation is at hand – the learned and the rich will be destroyed, and the lowly will walk in the sun, enjoying ease and plenty.”
“Magic?” Huizong scowled. “What kind of nonsense is this?”
“Yes, Sire. Many of the rebels do not have arms. But they believe they are aided by magic. Our soldiers have reported being attacked by mobs of men, women, even children, who had no weapons at all but their bare hands. The rebels employ all sorts of trickery. They have built huge mechanical puppets, like monsters. Some of them don costumes and walk into battle on stilts. They lob smoke bombs. One magician who has joined them even claims to have a magical sword that can strike someone down at a hundred paces.”
“Our soldiers are behaving like little boys who piss the bed because they see a shadow,” Huizong muttered. “Do the rebels have a stronghold?”
“Yes, Sire. Fang La has made his headquarters in a huge network of caves called Pangyuan, eighty li to the west of Qixian.”
“Attack him there – trap the rebels, flush them out, annihilate them. But I want Fang La alive. Do you understand? I want him brought here to Kaifeng in chains, with a cangue around his neck, to be decapitated in public, where everyone can see it.”
Song Huizong tried to amuse himself with his hobbies, but simply could not focus his attention. He was thirty-seven years old, his vital energies were wasting away, despite the prayers offered on his behalf at all the Chongning temples. The glass of plumb wine that had become his constant companion, constantly filled by his Eunuch attendants, clouded his thinking, rendering him by turns excited, exhausted, and irritable. At last, he came to the conclusion that there was only one cure for what ailed him – he needed a woman.
Within sight of the Imperial Palace there was a splendid restaurant called the Abundant Joy Pavilion, three stories tall with its dining terraces connected by arched bridges. A subterranean escape tunnel led from the Palace to this restaurant, and the third floor was closed to the general public, as it happened to overlook the walls of the Imperial City. Huizong made his way through the tunnel, bearing a torch, and climbed up to the empty third floor of the Abundant Joy Pavilion by means of a secret staircase. There, he found the courtesan, Shishi, who had been asked to meet him here.
“Sire,” she said, bowing her head.
Huizong took a deep breath. Shishi was perfect – seven years younger than himself, but old enough to understand. Although she was by no means naive, she was experienced enough in coquetry and manners to conceal her feelings. Indeed, she was radiant with glamour.
“You are as beautiful as they promised,” the Emperor said.
“Sire, I cannot consider myself worthy of such praise.”
Huizong smiled, gesturing toward the cushions and table that had been arranged for them. “Your modesty – although quite as false as the reports I receive – is refreshing. You’re also considerably easier on the eyes than the Confucian ministers I have to deal with.”
“Why should I deceive you, Sire? You are the Emperor of China. What am I?”
Huizong contemplated her brazen, enquiring eyes for a moment, and at last said, “Can you drive thought from my mind, Shishi?”
Leaning toward him, she made a wry face and whispered, “I can do whatever you want me to do, Sire.” She moved a little closer, as if to kiss him, but hesitated. “As you know, I am a courtesan.”
“That’s an improvement. My Chancellor’s a common whore,” Huizong smiled.
“Then you must know that all whores have a price.”
“And what is yours?” the Emperor asked, unsurprised. “Name it, and I shall give you whatever you want.”
“The leader of the Liangshan bandits, Song Jiang, has sent me a message to give to you: they ask to be pardoned.”
Huizong lowered his eyebrows, for this was not at all what he had expected. “Pardoned?”
“They ask only that they be allowed to redeem themselves – by leading the final attack against Fang La.”
Huizong pursed his lips, mulling this over, and at last smiled. “So, Song Jiang is willing to lead his men into a death-trap in order to obtain a pardon? So be it.”
“The bandits will be pleased to hear this.”
“The Emperor will be pleased to hear of Fang La’s downfall.”
* * *
The courtesan, Shishi, was a natural actress, adept at manipulating her audience, whoever it might be, but despite the duplicity inherent in her profession, she was the most authentic person Song Huizong had ever met. If nothing else, she was able to convey to him the true feelings of the people of China. The Emperor began to see the world clearly for the first time, and he was horrified. The rosy fantasy that Cai Jing had maintained, for all those years, turned out to be a lie. Huizong began to realize that he was a distant, irrelevant puppet, surrounded by manipulating courtiers, perched on the backs of millions and millions of over-taxed, downtrodden, alienated, increasingly impatient people who no longer believed either in China or the Song Dynasty. The Emperor watched Wang Fu closely as the incompetent Chancellor tried to blame every problem that arose on his predecessor’s policies.
The Liangshan bandits did not let the Emperor down – half of them died in the bloody assault on Fang La’s subterranean stronghold, where the trapped rebels fought back against overwhelming odds with suicidal frenzy. The rebel leaders were brought to Kaifeng in chains, as requested, and executed with all due ceremony. The most excruciating, lengthy, and disgusting of all imaginable deaths was inflicted upon Fang La by the imperial executioners. However, Huizong drew no comfort or satisfaction from this, for the damage was done. The withdrawal of Tong Guan’s force from the Liao frontier, on the eve of the projected joint attack, was seen by the Jin as a betrayal. In the invasion of the Liao state, the Song troops had fared poorly, suffering several defeats, while the Jurchen cavalry routed the enemy forces at every encounter. The Sixteen Prefectures were handed over, during the Year of the Rabbit, as promised, but the Emperor Taizu demanded an indemnity of two hundred thousand silver taels and three hundred thousand bolts of silk, to make up for the withdrawal of troops. Those at court who knew the general character of the Jin leaders suggested that this was not the end of their demands.
The Year of the Dragon came, influenced by the element of wood, and at the Lantern Festival, on the very banks of Jinming Pond, the Emperor was accosted by a deranged fortune-teller, who declared that the Will of Heaven was lost – the Song Dynasty, the man cried, was finished! Only a few months later, however, the new Jurchen emperor, Taizong, announced that his forces had located and secured the Liao ruler, thus ending the war against the Khitan Empire.
“This is splendid news, Your Majesty,” Wang Fu said, smiling brightly.
“This is not good news,” Huizong replied. “Now that all of Liao except the Sixteen Prefectures is in Jurchen hands, who do you think they’re going to attack next? This year pairs the dragon with wood – we must expect a conflagration.”
As quickly as troops could be mustered, they were sent to the northern frontier. A large army was massed at the city of Taiyuan in Shanxi, under the command of Tong Guan. The Song ambassador to the Jin court, meanwhile, was informed that as far as the Taizong Emperor was concerned, Huizong had violated the former treaty of alliance. In order to make amends, he was asked to surrender the provinces of Hebei and Shanxi.
“We cannot possibly comply with such a demand,” Huizong replied, outraged that the Jin would even consider so egregious a request. “Hebei is our northern granary, and necessary for the adequate defense of our capital; Shanxi is our armoury. It’s where the Silk Road enters China. To give up either province is suicide. We would have to surrender the Sixteen Prefectures, as well, for they would become untenable. The Jurchen might as well be demanding everything north of the Yellow River, including Kaifeng, the largest city in the world! No.”
* * *
In the Year of the Ox, the year in which Fang La was captured and executed, the Chancellor summoned Zhao Mingcheng from his scholarly retirement, offering him the post of mayor of the city of Zizhou, near Jinan, where Li Qingzhao’s family lived.
“They must be desperate,” Zhao Mingcheng laughed, perusing the Chancellor’s letter at his quiet country retreat near Qingzhou.
“So are we,” Li Qingzhao smiled. “Our savings have nearly run out – you should take up the post. And Zizhou isn’t far away, and it’s close to my family’s house. If we had more money, we could finish our research.”
“What do you make of Wang Fu’s calligraphy?” Zhao Mingcheng asked, handing the letter to his wife.
“Rubbish,” she replied, according the note a mere glance. “Song Huizong can do better, surely.”
“Moving our collection will be nearly impossible,” Zhao Mingcheng noted.
“Leave it here – I’ll stay with the collection, you go to Zizhou. And I’ll send you poems – lots and lots of poems.”
Zhao Mingcheng went to Zizhou and fell immediately into all the cares, worries, and annoyances of district administration. The crops ripened in the fields, and were cut down. Inevitably, the Feast of Double Ninth came – the time for visiting ancestral graves and climbing hills. Li Qinzhao sent him a poem.
I climb up to the pagoda,
Below scattered, disorderly mountains;
A fallow plain reaches
Away into light mist.
In the light mist,
Crows return to nests;
At dusk, the evening horn.
Extinguished incense, stale wine -
My heavy heart!
A freshening breeze, at dusk,
The wutong leaves are shed.
The wutong leaves are shed,
Again autumn is beautiful,
Again my heart grows lonesome.
One month later, the Jurchen army crossed the northern frontier, moving swiftly in two columns. One army struck southward, across the Great Wall, directly into the Sixteen Prefectures and on to the borders of Hebei Province, while the other marched west into Shanxi, heading directly toward the Song garrison town of Taiyuan. Nothing was ready, and while the Song army dithered, waiting for orders that never came, the roads leading toward the south were filled with massive crowds of refugees, carts, and livestock, all fleeing from the wrath of the Jurchen.
* * *
Li Qingzhao waited, anxiously, at the country house in Qingzhou, hearing from her neighbours the most alarming rumours.
“The Eunuch-general, Tong Guan, is besieged at Taiyuan,” was the first rumour, followed by, “One of our armies tried to stop the Jurchen in Hebei, but was completely destroyed.”
“The Jurchen emperor has sent his nephew’s army to attack the capital – I heard that some Jurchen patrols were seen near Weifang, just north of here.” The same woman, sipping her tea, at once changed the subject. “Do you think I should have my baby girl’s feet bound? All the best families are doing that now, it seems. Lotus feet is what everyone wants.”
“You have to break the girl’s toes to do that,” Li Qingzhao pointed out. “Their feet grow to look like claws, and they smell terrible because they’re always rotting. In times like these, if I had a daughter, I would want her to be able to run away.”
The New Year came, and with it a prose letter from Zhao Mingcheng, from Zizhou.
An old school friend of mine, recently arrived from Kaifeng, brings momentous news of the Emperor’s abdication. Feigning a stroke, for the sake of face, he has compelled his son, Qinzong, to take the throne. The prince made a show of refusal, claiming that to take the throne from his father would be unfilial. The officials and eunuchs eventually had to wrestle the imperial robes onto him. Only a few days after this, the scholar-examiners of the Hanlin Academy, rallied by Chen Dong, led the students studying for the Jinshi exam on a protest march, demanding the arrest and execution of six traitors, including Cai Jing, Wang Fu, Tong Guan, and the corrupt official Zhu Mian, who has abused his office connected with the collection of stones and plants for the new imperial garden. Wang Fu has already been put to death, and Cai Jing is to be exiled. Li Gang, from the Ministry of Rites, is to be the new Chancellor, and he has summoned me to report to Kaifeng to help organize the defence of the capital. The enemy is expected to arrive before the city walls at or shortly after the New Year.
Li Qingzhao was appalled by this news, but tried to console herself with the thought that Kaifeng was simply too big to be captured. The city walls extended for six thousand five hundred yards from north to south, and for seven thousand five hundred yards from east to west: over a million people lived in the capital – there were eight divisions and one hundred and twenty sub-divisions. The city’s militia force alone mustered over sixty thousand men-at-arms. The walls had been rebuilt recently – she had seen the construction going on as a girl: the massive new moat, the new outer wall, well-sunk down into the ground, twenty-seven yards wide to deter mining. The Jurchen armies excelled in open field battles, fighting from horseback; they were excellent bowmen, but what could they do to a city like Kaifeng?
The Jurchen troops arrived two days before the end of the year, but only the division under the command of Wo Li Bu, the Taizong Emperor’s nephew. The barbarian horsemen kept their distance, ravaging the countryside and setting up their camps and patrols. Inside the Palace, a terrified Qinzong asked his new Chancellor, “What shall we do?”
“Fear not, Sire – the enemy has chosen an inauspicious time to begin their siege: it is still the year of the Snake, under the influence of wood: nothing will come of this. We must turn our attention, instead, to the new complaints being raised by Chen Dong and the Hanlin scholars.”
Qinzong listened, fidgeting, as Li Gang laid out the jist of Chen Dong’s new demands:
“He accuses Cai Jing of kidnapping your father – he says that you are being unfilial, Your Majesty, unless you put Cai Jing to death. He also demands to know why – at a time like this – Huizong’s court continues to spend so much money. They are sending in bills for six thousand strings of cash every day.”
“Perhaps I should have appointed Chen Dong to be Chancellor – then he could rule the Empire and pull my puppet strings as much as he wanted. Is the Emperor of China to be bullied into submission by protesting students while the imperial capital is surrounded by barbarian hordes?”
Li Gang bowed his head, but summoned the courage to say, “Sire – they’re not just students: they are the future rulers of the Empire. How do you want them to remember you, and how you behaved during this crisis?”
The Jurchen army remained before Kaifeng for thirty-three days, hoping to starve the vast city into submission, but the markets and granaries were well-stocked, after the harvest. Moreover, the main Jurchen force became bogged down while marching through Hebei and Shandong, where peasant guerrillas harassed their supply lines. In the end, the Jurchen commander agreed to raise the siege if Qinzong would supply the Jin state with five million taels of gold, fifty million taels of silver, one million bolts of satin, one million bolts of silk, thirty thousand cattle, horses, and mules, and a thousand camels. Moreover, Gaozong agreed to surrender the cities of Taiyuan, Zhongshan, and Hejian. The new Emperor also handed over his younger brother, Prince Gaozong, as a hostage.
* * *
The concessions made by Qinzong did not end the war, however, because neither the Jurchen nor the Song were ready to give up. The garrison of Taiyuan, holding out under the Eunuch-general Tong Guan, continued to fight, refusing to surrender. Likewise, Zhongshan and Hejian also held out. Impressed, Qinzong despatched a relief force to the latter two cities during the fifth month, at the time of the Dragon Festival – ninety thousand men altogether. The Jurchen forces attacked, however, and annihilated this army, killing its commander. A second relief force of sixty thousand men, trying to break through to Taiyuan, was also destroyed.
“Sire,” Li Gang said, bowing before the young Emperor, “the enemy is resurgent: we have lost one hundred and fifty thousand troops. Another three hundred thousand troops are tied down in besieged garrison towns. The latest communiqué from General Tong Guan says that his soldiers are starving. He will have to capitulate in twenty days if we cannot relieve him.”
“It is the Year of the Horse, influenced by fire,” Qinzong sighed. “There is nothing we can do to save Taiyuan: we must prepare Kaifeng for another siege – the Jurchen will be coming. Make ready to receive them, Chancellor.”
The Council of State met, and with the aid of maps they discussed and argued for hours regarding the best possible strategy to pursue. In the end, Qinzong decided not to mass what remained of the Song army at Kaifeng.
“As we are on the defensive, our numbers will work against us – too many mouths to feed. Our granaries were depleted during the first siege, and the countryside now is so disturbed that new stocks of grain and fuel will not be available for the coming winter. Kaifeng may fall. The armies should remain where they are, defending the different provinces. If we withdraw troops from any point, right now, there will be uprisings. The people can see clearly what a state we are in: therefore, the defence of the capital will be left to the Palace Guard and the militia. Fortunately, Prince Gaozong has been returned to us, and cannot be used to raise up a puppet government: indeed, we can hold the Prince in reserve, if necessary.”
From his desk at the Ministry of Rites, Zhao Mingcheng wrote to Li Qingzhao, urging her to pack up all their belongings and flee, as soon as possible, to some safe place south of the Yangtze River. As the autumn festivals came and went, celebrated with little cheer, Zhao Mingcheng waited stolidly for news from his wife. At last, one of her poems arrived.
Wind ceasing; fallen flowers piling high.
Beyond my screen petals collect, heaps of red
I am reminded that after the blooming
Of the cherry-apple tree
Comes the lamentation for dying spring.
Singing and drinking come to an end;
Jade cups empty;
Scarcely able to bear the sorrows and regrets
Of my dreams
I hear the mournful cry of the cuckoo.
Li Qingzhao spent almost every tael they had to buy fifteen carts, hiring drivers and horses, but even so she could save only a few things: the ancestral urns, the family heirlooms, the most precious documents... her surly family, who fled to Qingzhou from Jinan. Her instructions from Zhao Mingcheng were clear, however – let the enemy have the house and furniture. Save the family and yourself first, then the research notes, and finally the books, if possible. In the end, however, the flight to the south was complete chaos. Bandits looted and burned the house, the fire devouring ancient documents by the thousands, the wind carrying the embers and scraps of smouldering rice-paper away across the snowy landscape.
On the twenty-third day of the eleventh month, after the Winter Solstice, the Jurchen army appeared in strength before the walls of Kaifeng, moving south. That evening, the lights of their encampment could be seen, stretching for miles opposite the Nanxun Gate. This time, there were a lot more of them.
* * *
Several days later, Zhao Mingcheng sat in the darkness of the Ministry of Rites, looking out over the walls of the Palace City and the Inner City, toward the outer ramparts, where the sky was flickering as fiery missiles were catapulted back and forth; in the city, several buildings were ablaze, struck by explosive shells lobbed into the city by trebuchets. Tirelessly, the Jurchen warriors had advanced their siege lines opposite the south wall, focusing their attack on the Nanxun Gate, which was the widest and most difficult to defend.
The Jurchen had begun their assault by digging a mine under the moat, up to the part of the wall that was sunk into the ground. Their plan was to burrow into the base of the wall and fill the space with gunpowder, enough to blow up the foundation of the wall above, creating a breach. The Song guardsmen, however, heard the tell-tale signs of a mining operation and at once sank a counter-mine: when they broke through into the Jurchen mine-shaft, they employed bamboo nozzles and bellows to fill the narrow, dark space with a thick cloud of poison gas, killing the enemy engineers or driving them out.
“So,” Zhao Mingcheng muttered to himself, watching a fiery missile strike one of the tiered towers of the Dailou Gate, “this is what it looks like when the Emperors lose the Will of Heaven.”
In the morning, it was snowing, and a huge crowd broke through the police cordon, swarming into the new imperial garden to cut down the Emperor’s trees for fuel. It was not just a matter of staying warm now: all the water had frozen. The snow intensified into a blizzard, covering the surrounding countryside, the ramparts, and the rooftops of the city, including the Palace. Icicles hung from the eaves of the empty Abundant Joy Pavilion, and in Liu Shiquan’s casino the rattle of dice was not to be heard – only the distant creaking of huge wheels. Smoke billowed from the charred wreckage of the tower above the Dailou Gate. The tower above the Nanxun Gate was already a burned-out ruin.
Soldiers shouldering crossbows swarmed up steep, icy ramps to the tops of the walls, peering over the battlements to see three huge towers rolling toward them.
“What are those?” one soldier asked his companion.
“Cloud-ladders,” the other soldier replied. “The moat is frozen – they’re going to try to storm the gates!”
It took the Jurchen soldiers several hours to push and pull the enormous towers to the edge of the moat, labouring doggedly under a constant hail of bolts as the Song guardsmen fired their crossbows. All along the wall, Chinese soldiers pushed to the battlements, each seizing a brief moment to lean over and fire down into the thick crowd of Jurchen warriors. Aiming was impossible, the snow was blowing so thick, but even so bolt after bolt hit its mark. As the fighting continued, the archers carefully reloaded, frantically cranking their bows, while trebuchets went into action, flinging incendiary bombs at the towers. Some of the pots burst, smothering the enemy with thick clouds of noxious smoke, while others showered down sparks, fragmenting against the huge iron plates that were hung over the sides of the towers. When the lumbering siege engines were close enough, the Jurchen archers began to return fire, through narrow slits in the castellated fighting-tops of the towers, inflicting heavy casualties on the defenders.
“The tops of the towers are higher than the wall!”
Soon the towers were on the compact ice of the moat. The captains manning each fighting-top gave a signal when their tower was close enough to the wall, and immediately a tension rope was severed, causing the ladders of each tower to fly forward, bringing huge metal claws down onto the battlements with enough force to smash masonry. With a great cheer, the Jurchen warriors began to swarm up into the bottom of the siege engines, clambering upward to the ladders before making a mad dash toward the top of the city wall. Crossbow bolts knocked several of the enemy off the ladders, but a few were able to jump down onto the wall, cutting down defending soldiers until they were despatched with pikes. The Song officers called for fire-lances – weapons made of heavy bamboo secured with iron rings, operated by a squad of men, which poured sheets of flame down upon the towers, setting the attackers on fire as they emerged onto the ladders. And so the slaughter went on, hour after hour. Thousands of Jurchen soldiers fell, killed or wounded, in the snow outside the Nanxun Gate, which was trampled until the whole area was a seething mass of blood-smeared mud and mud-spattered warriors, all flailing and sliding about, so that it was impossible to tell who was wounded and who was still trying to fight. However, the invaders removed their casualties as quickly as they could, while the Song guardsmen who fell remained where they were.
The Jurchen had lost ten men for every defender they had killed, but even so hundreds of Song guardsmen were slain: the invaders were tough, battle-hardened men who had been waging war for years, while the defenders of Kaifeng were militia, completely unaccustomed to this sort of thing. The Chinese militia panicked and began to abandon their posts, swarming down from the city walls.
* * *
Li Qingzhao and her family lost almost everything they possessed trying to get across the Yangtze River. The whole of northern China seemed to be in flames as the Jurchen armies, victorious, swept over the land. Millions of refugees fled, and hundreds of thousands reached the great river, but only the fortunate, the daring, and the well-to-do managed to cross. Thousands died as over-crowded boats sank or capsized, and their bodies floated downstream toward the sea for days and days. Often, when there was a pause in their southward flight, Li Qingzhao would sit quietly and cry, for it seemed like the end of the world, and – in a way – it was.
The news the refugees heard was horrifying. Both Huizong and the Emperor Qinzong, together with the Empress and princesses, Li Gang, and hundreds of officials were all prisoners of the Jurchen. Taizong’s troops, meanwhile, ransacked Kaifeng, subjecting the city and its inhabitants to rape, arson, and plundering that went on for days and days. The captives, meanwhile, were led away to the northern wilderness, to the Jurchen capital, where they were given new, humiliating names and forced to pay homage to Taizong’s ancestors. Meanwhile, a puppet regime was established in Kaifeng under a pliant official who had gone over to the enemy. The only good news was that Prince Gaozong somehow had escaped – he reached Hangzhou, attended by loyalist soldiers and officials, and there set himself up as the new Emperor.
Li Qingzhao and her relatives ended up in Nanjing, nearly penniless, and months passed before she received word that her husband was alive, and had been appointed to the governorship of the Huzhou Prefecture. She travelled at once to join him, but reached the town only to find her husband’s servants exhausted and worried.
“He is ill, lady – you must go to him at once!”
“Fever,” he stammered, shivering and sweating simultaneously, lying prostrate in his bed. “It’s the climate here in the south....”
“This is awful – what can be done?”
“They say very few survive this,” her husband whispered. “These are interesting times, are they not? You must do whatever you can to survive. The order of things is unsettled. Now is a time to be outwardly Daoist and inwardly Confucian. Bend before the wind, but stay rooted.”
“I promise, I’ll see that the book is published,” she said, stroking his greying hair. But it was too late. The fever had taken him, and now she was a widow, facing a very cruel world all alone.
This story is based on the extant poems and letters of Li Qingzhao, the dynastic History of the Song, various reports and poems penned by contemporary officials, and Chinese historical novels such as The Water Margin and the legends of Yue Fei. Academic studies of the late “Northern Song” period also were consulted, as were paintings contemporary with the events described here. This story is set against events that remain controversial in China to this day. The period has supplied the imaginations of Chinese artists, novelists, and historians with a wealth of material and compelling problems. Research conducted on the deformed feet of female skeletons found in upper class Song Dynasty tombs also suggests that this was the first period in Chinese history when the controversial practice of foot-binding began to become common among the upper classes.
All the characters in this story are historical, as are all of the events and places described, including the details about the Jurchen attack on Kaifeng. Li Qingzhao, as foreshadowed here, lived on into old age, but she did not accept the docile role of the typical Confucian widow. Seeking escape from her grasping, meddling, and disapproving relatives, she remarried – a taboo that many widows were breaking in an effort to survive – but her second husband was abusive and deceptive. She eventually brought a charge of corruption against him, risking public humiliation, and was even imprisoned for a short while. In the end, however, she managed to scrape by after moving to the new imperial capital of Hangzhou, and she saw her husband’s thirty-volume labour of love regarding Chinese epigraphy published, writing the preface herself. Indeed, her lively and candid prose provided many of the details used in this story, such as Zhao Mingcheng buying fruit and rubbings on the full-moon feast days.
One of the only concessions I had to make in this story was the use of one consistent name for all of the characters. In traditional China, however, people of high rank usually had many different names. Apart from formal family names, elites used pen-names, temple names, and formal “courtesy” names, as well as posthumous names for use after their death. Using the real name of the Emperor was actually against the law, to prevent it being known to sorcerers and thus used in magical rites directed against the state. Only once, when Zhao Mingcheng calls his wife “Relaxed Scholar,” do we catch a glimpse of Li Qingzhao’s pen-name. Some scholars, translating this pen name as “Lay Buddhist,” have attempted to find strong, consistent Buddhist themes in Li Qingzhao’s writings, but I have not uncovered much evidence suggesting that she was anything but a Confucian, possibly with some Daoist tendencies. Religion of the Song period, however, was very eclectic, and most people in China combined elements of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism.
 The Jinshi Exam was the highest-level exam in China, taken only by leading scholars; it qualified a person for a job in the Imperial Civil Service.
 Exam questions usually consisted of part of a passage from a classical Confucian work like the Analects. Scholars were expected to complete the passage, give the standard analysis according to the approved curriculum of the period, and then offer their own analysis based on Confucian values.
 In the ci style of poetry, the poem had to be written like a song, employing a common tune, although the poem and tune might have nothing to do with each other.
 A common euphemism for sex, in Chinese poetry, is “clouds and rain,” or any allusion to them. Li Qingzhao’s poetry, in fact, was considered extremely risqué, which is probably why she later became so popular. Remember, however, that these poems were private letters written for her husband.
 Corvée is another term for forced labour, usually required for state projects and exacted as a kind of tax. Certain classes of people either were exempted from forced labour, or could buy their way out of it.
 The reference to pear blossoms suggests that Li Qinzhao wrote this poem in the early spring. The weather also suggests typical weather for April in the Kaifeng area.
 Chinese New Year typically began in January or February, according to the Lunar-solar Chinese calendar.
 The Jurchen were the ancestors of the Manchus, who conquered Ming Dynasty China in the 17th century.
 This river has traditionally marked the boundary separating northern China (Manchuria) from Siberia.
 Liao was a state ruled by Central Asian invaders who had adopted Chinese civilization and the Buddhist religion; they ruled much of northern China.
 Liangshan was a semi-wilderness area located east of Kaifeng, in the southwestern part of Shandong Province. The bandits referred to here are those immortalized in the Chinese historical novel, The Water Margin; although historical, many legends have grown up around the Liangshan bandits.
 According to the tale, Su Shi was sent on a diplomatic mission to the Liao, but using the Chinese calendar arrived a day late for an important festival. He later helped revise the Chinese calendar to correct such problems.
 This revolt occurred in the region immediately south of Shanghai.
 Manichaean beliefs had emerged from Zoroastrianism, spreading both east and west from Persia. Some early Christian sects were influenced by Manichaean ideas prior to the Council of Nicaea, while in China the sect gained ground among disgruntled peasants by masquerading as a new school of Buddhism.
 A li was the standard Chinese unit for measuring long distances, being equal to one-third of a mile.
 The wutong tree was a deciduous ornamental tree said to be the perch of the phoenix in Chinese mythology.
 The Song Dynasty was the first state in history to use gunpowder. Gunpowder had been known to the Chinese for about ninety years by the time of the events described here, however there is no evidence that either rockets or cannon were being used at this time.
 A kind of catapult.
 Recent evidence has shown that poison gas had been used in warfare (especially in house-to-house and underground combat) by advanced civilizations since at least the Roman period.
 The Jurchen are thought to have lost approximately 3,000 men, the Song Chinese about 300, but nevertheless the morale of the defenders suffered more than that of the attacking force.
 Zhao Mingcheng probably suffered from an especially lethal form of malaria.