marina_bonomi: (book)
Some time ago I was in the mood for some light, fun reading, I happened across White Tiger by Kylie Chan, the blurb intrigued me, I went with the book and was hooked right from the start.

Let it be said immediately, it isn't a 'perfect' book (if such things even exist) there are moments in which I wish the editing had been tighter, sometimes the romance is a bit schmaltzy and the action feels a bit repetitive, but nothing of this mattered overmuch to this reader, because a whole lot of things felt absolutely right, and one of these is the outsider gaze of the main female character, Emma.

Wave in front of me a book, any book, set in China (in the wider sense, including Taiwan and Hong Kong) and I'll bite, but most of the time when those books are written by non-Chinese authors (mrs. Chan is not an ethnic Chinese) I end up throwing  them against the wall out of frustration (sometimes outright fury, thankfully those are few and far between) due to mistakes, misunderstandings, poor research, exoticizing, 'I want to show you how much research went into this' or anything in between. Not so with White Tiger and the other books in the series.

Emma, the female protagonist is an Australian expat living in Hong Kong, she works as a teacher in a kindergarten and, in her free time, as a nanny. In the same day she leaves her job and gets an offer from one of her private clients, a mr. John Chen, to become a live-in nanny for his daughter. John Chen isn't exactly what he seems and Emma finds herself catapulted in a world she didn't have an inkling about.

When I surfaced for air, having zoomed through White Tiger, Red Phoenix, and Blue Dragon I tried to find out what had me so enthralled in what basically is fantasy light reading, I found a few things.

The setting: as one could hope for, the author having lived there, Hong Kong comes alive in the trilogy, and not as the magical exotic city where magical things happen, Hong Kong here is  alive and concrete (pardon the pun), pollution and maddening traffic very much included.

The cast of characters is wide, but not exaggerated and they are, by and at large, well rounded.

The supernaturals in Hong Kong are mono-cultural (a nice change from the usual) and part of a whole system that is internally consistent and get explained little by little. 

The main thing, though, is Emma's gaze. She is a foreigner and an outsider, her closest friends are also foreigners (an American and an ethnic Chinese from Australia), at the beginning her relationship with the local people is just about work-only, she is adjusted, reads and researches but a lot of things go above her head while she has very present some matters that can directly impact her life ( the 'trophy Western worker' for instance as a way for a company to gain face),and this doesn't change all of a sudden  when she finds herself working for a shen (I'm trying not to spoil too much).

Some of the supernaturals like her from the beginning, some are very standoffish because they don't like the idea of a foreign woman in their midst and, in either case, when they talk and joke among themselves a lot of it is lost to Emma because she doesn't share either their cultural milieu or their common history. It is very well done, half a sentence there, a literary allusion buried in dialogue here, a joke that has somebody reacting strongly for no apparent reason someplace else, definitely not enough to bore a reader with no previous knowledge of Chinese myths (and the tasty morsels are explained in the author's note), but at the same time enough to give cultural dephth  to the whole and to startle this reader into delighted laughter more than once either because I got it or because I didn't and wanted to find out.

So, my compliments to mrs. Chan for the whole and, specifically, for using the outsider gaze as it should be used but too rarely is.

   
It has, in many ways, but no matter what some Western businnessmen may think (I've read people complaining in earnest about 'Those troublemaking NGOs from Hong Kong badmouthing the PRC'), the one thing that hasn't changed is the absolute supremacy of the party.

And so, Monsignor Thaddeus Ma Daqing, the 44-year old auxiliary bishop of Shanghai has been held under house arrest for the last three months, even since he has had the courage ('the gall' according to Beijing) to distance himself in public, during the mass for his ordination, from the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.

Bishop Ma, has been living in solitary confinement in the Shanghai seminary, the students have been forced by the governement to return home and, according to news agency Uca News, the bishop's closest helpers are undergoing a 12-hour a day re-education course.

The only remaining link between Bishop Ma and the outside world is his blog , his most recent post is dated 21st of September. Is he still there? If not, where is he?

Read Today

Oct. 1st, 2012 09:13 pm
marina_bonomi: (facepalm)
Because of sexual discrimination, women in ancient China seldom received education. Women were not expected to write so their work were usually lost to the time.

Really? Everywhere in China? Always in ancient China, never mind that (restricting it to imperial history) 'ancient' (or 'traditional') China goes from 221 BCE to 1644 CE (if you don't count the Manchus, 1911 CE if you do)?

And how come, then, that one of the most famous ancient Chinese historians is a woman, one who was  also a poet and  court librarian, taught the Empress and the ladies of the court and whose daughter-in-law was  a writer too?

How come that Stanford University Press has published Women Writers of Traditional China a 928-page anthology including works by about 130 female poets (and poets only) from the Han dinasty  to the end of the empire?

This kinds of extreme generalizations drive me crazy, they tend to pass from a divulgative book (or article) to the next without anyone bothering to check, much like the 'dirty and brutish' view of the European Middle Ages or the fable of the widespread hate of cats in said Middle Ages for being witches' familiars  (never mind that the animals most often quoted as diabolical were black dogs and that the height of the witch hunts was in early modern times).

It isn't the case of the OP, but often, when I see this kind of statement about women being oppressed in ancient China I can almost hear a congratulatory self-pat on the back, an unspoken 'here it was different'. Pray, tell: how many women writers can you mention for the Roman Empire? How many Greek female poets but for Sappho?
A Chinese cartoonist's opinion on the ongoing anti-Japanese demonstrations in China .

For obvious reasons the author of Hexie Farm is known only through his (her?) alias 'Crazy Crab'.

Patriotic turtles
There are 61 hours left in the IndieGoGo campaign to save Pe'Sla from 'development', at the moment the funding is at 147,719 US $.

I found out that there is a petition on-line asking the present owners of the land to  allow the Great Sioux Nation more time to raise the money to buy Pe'Sla, it's a road worth trying in my opinion.

Sign here

My 'save Pe'Sla' auction is still open:

Lot 1   Customs of Old Shanghai

Lot 2  Splendid Slippers for Lotus Feet

Lot 3 Auspicious Patterns for the New Year

Lot 4 Auspicious Paper-cutting Patterns
Here is the last 20-postcard booklet:

Auspicious Chinese Patterns (papercut)

cutout patterns

Auction runs till midnight GMT on Wednesday the 22nd

Please comment to place a bid

Payment via Paypal as soon as your bid is confirmed as the winning one.

The Pe'Sla Indie GoGo campaign

Auspicious Chinese Patterns for the New Year

Another booklet-set of 20 original Chinese postcards

New Year

Auction runs till midnight GMT on Wednesday the 22nd

Please comment to place a bid

Payment via Paypal as soon as your bid is confirmed as the winning one.

The Pe'Sla Indie GoGo campaign
This lot is a  20-postcards booklet called 'Splendid Slippers for Lotus Feet', photos of 20 different pairs of shoes for bound feet, from the Sung Dinasty to the early Republic

slippersed

To place your bid please comment below.

Auction closes at midnight GMT on Wednesday the 22nd (meaning in the night from Wednesday to Thursday).

Payment: via Paypal as soon as your bid is confirmed as the winner

Shipping costs: none, I'll cover them myself everywhere in the world.

The Pe'Sla Indie GoGo campaign







Thinking of Home While on a Mission in the West (1)

This morning, wild geese went East,

At dawn they broke my sleep.

Restless, I can’t dream again,

Alone, I think of Chang’an (2).

(1) Anonymous poem found in the archives of the Chinese embassy in Italy.

(2) Chang’an ( ‘Perpetual peace’, modern day Xi’an 西安 ‘Western peace’), was the capital of more than 10 Chinese dynasties, during its heyday it was one of the most populous cities in the world, this poem dates from the mid-eight century AD, when Chang’an counted a population between 800,000 and 1,000,000 within city walls.


________________________________________________________________________________



This is an apocryphal piece 'in the style of Tang translations', if you wish, that I wrote for the Silk Road Allies alternate history project. While no Tang poem was found in the archives of the Chinese embassy in Italy, the information on Chang'an is true.



If you like my work  and want to contribute, tips are appreciated: they'll go into funding my research for this project and some art commissions to illustrate it.

had been close allies for about 2000 years, how would world history be different?

A few days ago [livejournal.com profile] ysabetwordsmith left a prompt to [livejournal.com profile] thesilentpoet:

In 97 AD, Chinese General Pan Chao sent an embassy to the Roman empire, but little came of it. Suppose China and Italy had united, how would that change things?

This poem was the result, outlining a whole timeline. If you know me you can imagine the rest, I wanted more and wanted to see what [livejournal.com profile] ysabetwordsmith herself would do with a few prompts related to this alternate-history universe, [livejournal.com profile] thesilentpoet agreed as well.
The result were The Treasures of Marco Polo based on a couple of items listed in an inventory after Marco's death he never spoke about; The Lost and Found Legion about the idea of the embassy and the identity of the ambassador and the , as yet unpublished The Tea Tempest.
I was reading about the real embassy sent by general Ban Chao and how in Chinese documents it is said that ambassador Gan Ying turned back because of the info he got from some Parthian sailors about the lenght of the remaining leg of his trip to Rome and the dangers involved. Fact is that Parthians and Scythians were the middlemen of the silk trade and wouldn't have been too happy if the two empires started dealing with each other directly.

I couldn't help but imagine a pair of Parthians trying the same stunt on a very different ambassador, [livejournal.com profile] ysabetwordsmith 's Cai Luoma, the result was:

Cai Luoma and the Parthians

They tried it on him, the two Parthian brothers.

The older spoke first, in sorrowful tones:

“This sea, o my friend, is so vast and large,

With terrible storms, and many hidden dangers;

It may take years  to cross it at all”.

Then spoke the younger, with honeyed words:

“ This we say to you  in token of friendship,

Your faraway lord, no matter how wise,

Could not have known  the dangers you face”.

Insisted the brothers, concern in their voices:

“Providing for many, your friends and retainers,

Will tax your resources, will leave you stranded,

Turn back while you can, we speak out of care”.


But in truth... )
Read The Treasures of Marco Polo a poem by [livejournal.com profile] ysabetwordsmith based on my prompt about some objects Marco brought back from his travels and their possible history and significance.

The objects are real and documented, the poem is part of an alternate history series in which China and Italy have been closed allies for about 2000 years because they are two of the many things Marco never spoke or wrote about, so we are in the realm of what if...

No need to say that Marco has always been one of my heroes.

Paper Mage

May. 1st, 2012 10:32 pm
marina_bonomi: (book)
Thanks to this post by [livejournal.com profile] haikujaguar I learned that Paper Mage is now available as an ebook, I had read of it some time ago and was intrigued, I don't know of many Chinese-themed fantasy books and the idea of one where a mage folded paper to do magic, bringing back origami to its Chinese roots intrigued me even more.

I started Paper Mage yesterday, and finished it a short time ago.


Read more... )

Today...

Apr. 25th, 2012 09:59 pm
marina_bonomi: (sad)

The 11th Panchen Lama turns 23 years old. 

Gendhun Choekyi Nyima was 6 when he was recognized as the 11th Panchen Lama, one of the most important figures in Tibetan Buddhism, 2 months later he was abducted by the Chinese governement and wasn't seen or heard of since.

Today many people are acting, in different ways, to demand Gendhun's release, if you want to join them you may sign this on-line petition

NOTE: if for any reason you don't want your name to appear, the petition CAN be signed anonimously.

Signal boosting is appreciated.
But this time the whole ballad...

木 兰 辞
Mulan ci


唧唧复唧唧,木兰当户织。
Jiji fu jiji, Mulan dang hu zhi.
不闻机杼声,唯闻女叹息。
Bu wen jizhu sheng, wei wen nü danxi.
问女何所思?问女何所忆?
Wen nü he suo si? Wen nü he suo yi?
女亦无所思,女亦无所忆。
Nü yi wu suo si, Nü yi wu suo yi.
昨夜见军帖,可汗大点兵,
Zuoye jian juntie, kehan da dian bin,
军书十二卷,卷卷有爷名。
Jun shu shier juan, juan juan you ye ming.
阿爷无大儿,木兰无长兄,
Ah ye wu da er, Mulan wu zhang xiong.
为市鞍马,从此替爷征。
Yuan wei shi an ma, cong ci ti ye zheng.


东市买骏马西市买鞍鞯
Dong shi mai junma, xi shi mai an jian,
南市买辔头,北市买长鞭。
nan shi mai peitou, bei shi mai chang bian.

Read more... )






marina_bonomi: (book)
This is another of my favorite Chinese poems (actually the first stanza, but I want to translate it in full).

It is older than the Tang, in fact it dates from the Northen Wei dinasty (386-534 AD) although the original collection it was part of is lost, and the ballad survived in another, much later, opus. I find it remarkable in many ways.

木 兰 辞
Mulan ci



唧唧复唧唧,木兰当户织。
Jiji fu jiji, Mulan dang hu zhi.
不闻机杼声,唯闻女叹息。
Bu wen jizhu sheng, wei wen nü danxi.
问女何所思?问女何所忆?
Wen nü he suo si? Wen nü he suo yi?
女亦无所思,女亦无所忆。
Nü yi wu suo si, Nü yi wu suo yi.
昨夜见军帖,可汗大点兵,
Zuoye jian juntie, kehan da dian bin,
军书十二卷,卷卷有爷名。
Jun shu shier juan, juan juan you ye ming.
阿爷无大儿,木兰无长兄,
Ah ye wu da er, Mulan wu zhang xiong.
为市鞍马,从此替爷征。
Yuan wei shi an ma, cong ci ti ye zheng.


The Ballad of Mulan

Whirr-clack and again whirr-clack, Mulan weaves facing the door.

(But now) no sound from the loom is heard, only (our) daughter’s sighs.

“ Daughter, what are you thinking of? What are you brooding over?”

Nothing I’m thinking of, nothing I’m brooding over.

Yestereve I saw the army register, the Khan is levying the troops.

The register is twelve scrolls, each one bears father’s name.

Father has no first-born son, Mulan has no elder brother.

I wish to buy horse and saddle, soldiering in father’s stead.



Mulan is an enormously popular character in Chinese folklore, it all started from this ballad, composed about 1500 years ago. From here came a novel written during the Ming dinasty, more poems, theatrical plays, TV series, live-action movies and cartoons, including the Disney one that gave Mulan popularity in the West (the downside of it is that many schoolchildren over here think Disney invented Mulan).

I liked the Disney movie for many reasons, and honestly I don't mind the chronological mish-mash overmuch, after all in China beloved stories are told and retold and undergo many transformations, so long as the 'layering' is evident and the different strata are there if one digs, I have no problems with the process.

But I like the original better, and some of the reasons are right there in the first stanza. For starters, Mulan is no freak: no girl out of place trying to conform to the norms of society and failing. She enters the scene fulfilling the expected duty of an unmarried daughter, weaving for the family, but is pondering on a problem,the call to arms her family cannot answer, and comes up with her own solution.

Mulan doesn't steal out of the house during the night. She has a plan and executes it with the full knowledge and consent of her parents. The Northern Wei was a troubled time, historians say that it's very likely that women (specifically in Northern China where the ballad originated) received weapon training as a matter of course, in Wei statuary there are images of female warriors. So why is she passing herself off as a man? I think (and it's all speculation on my part, mind you) that it may depend on a technicality.
The ballad says that the army scrolls bear father's name and also  Father has no first-born son, Mulan has no elder brother, my guess is that a son could fulfill his father's duty if the latter was incapacitated but there was no written rule about a daughter doing the same, so Mulan assumes a man's identity (later works say she takes her younger brother's name) to avoid a possible refusal.


I was planning to post this tomorrow, but it's likely I'll be out the whole day, so...here is the last instalment.

Ming Li regretted being unable to describe that journey for the rest of his life.Most of the time the wind forced him to keep his eyes closed,  as for the rest, the ground went so fast under him it made him dizzy.As an old man, when they asked him to talk about that flight, he used to say: “ A bird cannot tell a fish what it’s like to fly, and even less can a fish  which has flown and come back to water”.

That same evening, with the first stars, they arrived at Meihuang cave-palace. At least. the Dragon said that was the gate, Ming li saw just a caved in grotto: grass, climbing weeds and young bushes started to carpet the mound of earth and rocks.

“It would be better if you announce yourself”, said the Dragon King, back in human shape, “ I doubt the gate would open for me”, and he stepped back.

 

Read more behind the cut )

“ As you know, honourable lords”, he said (and his voice was behaving now), “ I did not know which of the guards would tell the truth. The only question I could ask would have to involve both of them. So I asked: ‘ If you were the other guardian, which door would you show me to save me?’

As soon as I had the answer, I went through the other door”.

 

While the Dragon King nodded, satisfied, the hall buzzed like an angry beehive, then one of the guests asked:

“ Why through the other one, human?”

“ I asked one guardian” answered Ming Li, “what he would have done if he was the other, remember?

The one who tells the truth would answer like the liar, showing me the wrong door, the liar would lie anyway, and show me the wrong door as well, so I had to take the door that wasn’t shown to me”.

In a moment the young scholar went from lucky criminal to known genius. While he was trying to  politely disengage himself from all the guests wanting to congratulate him, the Dragon King of Dongting Lake drew him aside:

“ You want to go back to Meihuang’s court as soon as possible, I suppose” he said. “ Do not look so surprised, who else could have sent you? I do not spend my whole time changing people into something else! I shall come with you, my cousin is a bad loser, in a few days’ time he will be in a better temper”.

Ming Li just wished for a hot meal and some sleep, but he suspected that  contradicting the King of the Lake too much would not have been a wise move, so, he bowed to the guests and, with a drawn smile, followed the Dragon King out of the hall , wishing that it was really the last time he did.

Once in the outer court Ming Li turned towards the stables, but his guide stopped him.

“I was thinking of a faster way” he said, “ one of my grooms will follow us with the mare, she will be brought back, do not worry. Let us go out”.

As they crossed the gate Ming Li saw the palace wasn’t anymore in the meadows, as he remembered, but on a rock shelf facing a ravine, on three sides it was sourrounded by thick forest. While the young man looked around, the Dragon King of Dongting Lake  moved  away a bit, then stopped and closed his eyes, centering himself.

After a moment, in the stead of the imposing King was a colossal silver dragon, with an iridescent blue crest, like a peacock’s feathers in colour.

The huge reptile’s head turned towards the young man who was now staring at him agape, totally oblivious of the decorum suitable of a scholar.

“ Are you coming, then, or must I go alone?”

Following the king’s suggestions, Ming Li climbed on his back, settling himself between two of the crest’s scales, all the while praying earnestly to all the Gods and Bodhisattvas he knew, then he said he was ready.

“ It would be better” suggested the dragon with an amused note in his voice” if you tie yourself to me with your belt. I am fast, and do not feel your weight, I could lose you and arrive  before realising it; it would be a pity to miss a hero’s welcome, don’t you think?”.

With these words the Dragon King of Dongting Lake walked to the ravine’s rim… and jumped.

To be continued

Ming Li and the Charmed Poenix part 1 

Ming Li and the Charmed Poenix part 2

Ming Li and the Charmed Poenix part 3

Ming Li and the Charmed Poenix part 4

Ming Li and the Charmed Poenix part 5

Ming Li and the Charmed Poenix part 6

Ming Li and the Charmed Poenix part 7

Ming Li and the Charmed Phoenix part 8

Ming Li and the Charmed Phoenix part 9

They went in.

The young man breathed a bit more freely when he saw the interior: no cells, no executioner, no torture irons: a simple, eight-sided room, empty but for the gigantic statues of two guardian spirits wearing armor, like those common in temples, each of them seemed to guard one of two little doors, in adjoining walls.   

What was the King planning?

“ We are here”, and, hearing their master’s voice, the statues turned and  saluted. The guardians were alive!

“For your crime you deserve death” went on the King, “ but you have been clever, and really are a remarkable scholar. Killing you would be a waste. I shall give you a chance.

When I leave, the door we came in through will disappear.

The guardians you see are two of my most faithful soldiers, they will not keep you from going through one of the other doors, but  mind you, one of them is the road to safety, the other one leads to death…

To decide which one to take, you can ask one question to one of the guards, only one! Of them, one always tells the truth, the other always lies…

There is a way, you have my word on that, if you find it you will be allowed to leave, taking the magic pollen with you, here it is.” And, taking the little purse out of his sleeve, he gave it to Ming Li.

“ You have no set time for choosing” the Dragon went on, “but while you are here you will have neither food nor drink. Good luck ‘Wang De’ “.

As soon as the Dragon went, Ming Li collapsed to the ground, his legs didn’t support him anymore, he was shaking and the words of the Dragon King echoed in his mind:” one of them is the road to safety, the other one leads to death… one always tells the truth, the other always lies…” but there was a way, the Dragon had given his word, but which way?

“ Calm down, now!” said the young man to himself, “ you are alive and have a chance, but if you behave so you will waste it!”

He forced himself to sit straight and breathe deeply; after some time he stopped shaking and was able to think rationally.

He had time, the best thing was to ponder carefully over all the elements of the riddle he was in.

Two doors: one of them would save his life.

Two guards: one was truthful, the other a liar, he did not know which one was which and he had just one question to discover it.

What question would save him?

Hours went, and he didn’t have any ideas, he was beginning to feel hungry, but the thirst was worse. He hadn’t taken a single step towards the answer, and yet there must be one…one question, two guards, two doors…one question…

 Yes! This was the answer!

He stood and, unsteady on stiffened legs, he approached one of the two guards and asked his question; given the answer he went through the correct door and was in the garden, took one step…and found himself facing the Dragon Kings’ thrones, the hall was full of dignitaries and guests.

After a moment’s surprise, the young man squared his shoulders and spoke to the Dragon King of Dongting Lake in a voice less firm than he would have liked, because of his exaustion and  strain: “ You had given your word I would be free, Sire”.

“And you are,” was the answer, “ you have just won me a bet against my royal cousin. Even more, while you were taking your test, I told the same riddle to these honoured guests, not one of them has been able to solve it , they say there is no answer. Would you tell them, before going?”

He clapped his hands, and a bowl of freshly brewed tea flew through the hall, coming to hover in front of Ming Li, he took it, grateful, and sipped: the room was silent.

To be continued

Ming Li and the Charmed Poenix part 1 

Ming Li and the Charmed Poenix part 2

Ming Li and the Charmed Poenix part 3

Ming Li and the Charmed Poenix part 4

Ming Li and the Charmed Poenix part 5

Ming Li and the Charmed Poenix part 6

Ming Li and the Charmed Poenix part 7

Ming Li and the Charmed Phoenix part 8

I owe you all an apology for stopping to post 'Ming Li and the Charmed Phoenix' half-way though. Real life got in between and things became rather complicated, I'm very sorry to have left you hanging.

Now things are, thankfully, quieter and, if you are still interested in following the tale of a young scholar in a magical China of long ago, here it is for you.

Ming Li and the Charmed Poenix part 1 

Ming Li and the Charmed Poenix part 2

Ming Li and the Charmed Poenix part 3

Ming Li and the Charmed Poenix part 4

Ming Li and the Charmed Poenix part 5

Ming Li and the Charmed Poenix part 6

Ming Li and the Charmed Poenix part 7


And now, part 8

 

At the stroke of midnight the door opened, and an invisible hand took his writing, Ming Li stood and followed the floating paper to the throne room.The King of the Yellow Mountains did not even look at him, but took the essay and, with his cousin, was soon absorbed in reading.

Ming Li remained there, kneeling in the middle of the room, silent, waiting for the verdict.

Finally, after an endless time, the Dragon King of the Lake Dongting raised his eyes from the paper.

Interesting piece” he said,” I have not seen anything like this for ages, not only have you written your essay in poetry , but have also used ‘Big Seal’ calligraphy to do it. If you do not want him cousin, I have a place for him”.

If you insist” was the answer, “ we could settle the question with a friendly challenge…It has been ages since the last time even for that”.

His voice was absolutely calm, but Ming Li could almost see a scaled tail swishing nervously.

I need a secretary-librarian” the King of the Yellow Mountains resumed to speak “the last one was not very able. The last time I lost my temper with him his job became vacant…

You will have much to do, boy, you will start early tomorrow”.

In the following days Ming Li barely had the time to eat (little) and sleep (less). If one of the kings was not asking for him, ‘Wang De’ was in the library, cataloguing and arranging the thousands of books gathered there.

He found the original manuscript of ‘The Book of the Way and its Virtue’, written by Laozi before vanishing, astride his ox, in the mountains beyond the border and many books everybody believed lost forever in the fires ordered by the First Emperor.

He could have been the happiest man in the whole of the Empire, if not for what he knew he had to do, sooner or later.

As the days went by, the Dragons’ interest for the newest talent at court ebbed, and Ming Li had opportunities to study the palace’s layout.

The chambers of the Dragon King of Dongting Lake were a few courts away from the library.

Problem was he always had the pollen bag on his person, unless he was sleeping. Entering in the dragon’s bedroom while he was asleep and stealing it without awakening him was impossible for any human being, not even a warrior monk could be soundless enough. 

No man… but a bird…!

Friend had been accepted at court too, sometimes he roamed alone and nobody minded where he was or what he did.

One night, while everybody slept after a late-ended banquet, Ming Li took Friend and went into the garden, told him what he needed and set him in flight.

The raven disappeared in the dark.

After what seemed ages (according to Ming Li), the bird came back and dropped the small brocaded purse into his hand, the young man put it up his sleeve and hurried towards the outer court and the stables.

He saddled Mist without seeing anyone and went towards the gate…only to find his way blocked by the Dragon King of the Lake Dongting himself.

It was the end.

Ming Li was escorted to the throne room. There, while the Dragon King of the Yellow Mountains bellowed, hissed and threathened endless tortures, his cousin stared at the young scholar, silently, with cold reptile eyes.

When he, at last, asked permission to speak, Ming Li was too terrified even to move.

Cousin, since I am the victim of this crime I ask to be the one who decides on the punishment”.

 “ Agreed”, growled the other one, reluctantly.

Come”, said the Dragon King of Dongting Lake, and Ming Li, mesmerized, followed him out of the room.

The walk through the gardens felt endless, the young man noticed his sourroundings as he had never seen them before: an old magpie nest on the branch  of a cryptomeria tree, dew drops on bronze chrysanthemums, the first red leaves on a maple sapling leaning towards the water near a small bridge… yet, in a few moments they arrived at a small pavillion, standing alone in a bamboo grove.

When he saw were they where, Ming Li felt terror almost turning him to stone. That pavillion was always locked and none of the men who served the Dragons approached it, ever.

Even animals avoided the bamboo grove.

After about half an hour the path vanished into a vast meadow. The young man looked around, when he looked ahead again, he saw a marvellous palace: blue tiles were glittering in the sun, at the four corners of the roof and on its ridge there were dragon statues in enamels and precious stones so life-like they seemed almost breathing. The roof beams where cedar, splendidly carved and painted and the pillars of the colonnade were sculpted in the likeness of dragons wound around tree trunks and so big that only two grown men could have embraced one in their arms.

No one was in sight.

Ming Li dismounted and approached the outer gate leading Mist, a few steps from it he stopped and bowed deeply: “ Great Lord”, he said “ my name is Wang De, I am a scholar from a far away province and I have come here to offer my services”.
One of the side gates opened noiselessly and Ming Li (or Wang De, as he had introduced himself), entered the palace of the Dragon King of the Yellow Mountains.

As soon as he was in the outer court, an invisible hand took Mist’s reins and lead her away.
The horse didn’t react, instead Ming Li heard a loud cawing and wing-beating.
Friend, flying to and fro almost as though he was trying not to get caught, came to perch on his shoulder.
“ Then they can see these spirit-servants” thought he, who had started wondering about how he could try and steal something without even knowing if it was watched.

They were going towards the main pavillion. Ming Li had lost count of the courts and the gardens they had passed through when, at last, the door of the throne room opened and he found himself in the presence of two of the most powerful Dragon Kings.
At the other end of the room was a dais, on it two thrones, side by side, one slightly larger than the other, and sitting on the thrones…

Ming Li knelt, he didn’t know what he had been expecting but the kings sat on the thrones in human shape: taller than average and imposing, with strong bones, amber skin and ‘sword eyebrows’ just like heroes from long ago, they could have been mistaken for sovereigns of the Black Haired People if not for their eyes: dragon eyes, very round and with vertical pupils.
They wore dragon-head headdresses, made in metals and precious stones of the same hues as their clothes: gold, rubies and eyes-of-tiger for one, silver, sapphires and pearls for the other.


The King wearing gold,red and brown and sitting on the bigger throne (‘the master of the house’ thought Ming Li) spoke first:
“ So you are a scholar? …Wang De…I do not know this name.
You were not on the graduate list, this year, neither on the one of three years ago; why should I employ you?”.
“ You are right, Your Majesty”, answered the young scholar, “ but I should have been on that list: one of the examiners lost a case against my paternal grand-father years ago.
I thought he had reconciled himself with it, but after all those years he still bears a grudge against my family and has succeeded in arranging my failure.
I am not asking you to act on my word alone, I am ready to prove my worth in whatever way may please you”.

“ This is a good idea, cousin” put in the Dragon King of Dongting Lake. “ let us find a good test for him, at the worst it will be an interesting pastime!”
"So be it!” agreed the other king; “ Let’s see, you could write an essay on…hmmm…no, nothing Confucian, it would be too easy…”

“ What do you think, cousin”, suggested the King of the Lake, “ of having him write about us? An essay on the different Dragon lineages…?”.

“ Great topic! Well, human, you have till midnight for your work: an essay on the different dragon clans; and believe me” he added with a dangerous light in his eyes, “ it will be better for you to do a good job of it. Go now!”

A door opened and Ming Li was escorted by the usual invisible servants into a small study.
On the writing table some new brushes appeared, rolls of the finest silk, inksticks and inkstone, and a small water basin.
The young man sat straight and centered himself, preparing to begin.

To be continued

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

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marina_bonomi

March 2013

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