Old Madame Sheng appointed a new old female servant for Minglan, surnamed Cui. She was plump and not of many words but gave off a friendly atmosphere. When she carried Minglan she was extremely gentle. Old Madame noticed Xiaotao and Minglan, both servant and master, one more foolish than the other, so she appointed a young maid, Danju from her side to Minglan. Once Danju began serving, Xiaotao immediately felt inferior. She was merely just a year older than Minglan but was very earnest and attentive towards Minglan’s needs. Xiaotao was bought from outside whereas Danju was raised in the household. Her parents tended to land on the outside, but because there were too many children they were unable to manage. Thus she entered the household at a young age, after that she caught the eye of Mama Fang and was selected to serve in the Shou’an Hall.
Old Madame Sheng was from a Marquis household and although her lifestyle is simple but she kept by strict rules. Every word and action were in a strict and orderly fashion and the maids here were more honest than others. Also, Minglan had the soul of an adult and naturally would not act naughty or mischievously. Once Mama Cui took over, she praised to Mama Fang that the Sixth Young Lady’s nature was honest and sincere and was very easy to serve.
Every night before bedtime, Danju diligently prepared a blanket warmed over a copper heater.1 Minglan lazily let Mama Cui change her into pajamas,2 carry and slip her comfortably into the warm blanket, later she was gently coaxed to sleep by light patting. If she woke up in the middle of the night and was thirsty or wished to use the toilet, once Minglan summoned, mystically a servant would appear to tend to her needs. On the second morning when Minglan woke up, a steaming warm towel had already been prepared and there was a basket covering small cups of warm jujube tea. Firstly servants gently massaged the towel over the forehead and cheeks and when she was more alert Mama Cui held onto the dazed Minglan and helped her to the tea. Mama Cui then washed her face, rinsed her mouth, dressed and helped comb her hair. Little Danju would attentively be at her side assisting fastening her belt, buttons as well as putting on socks and shoes. Finally she was ready to pay her respects to Old Madame Sheng.
Minglan felt every moment since waking up was like moving through clouds and flowing water, natural and appropriate, not the slightest bit of harshness perceptible. Xiaotao was rooted dumbstruck not being able to lift a hand. Minglan had still yet to come to her senses, even when she was standing before Old Madame’s couch to give morning greetings, she felt fuzzy and warm inside and it wasn’t just because her clothes were thick. She thought to herself, waking up on winter mornings isn’t so terrible after all.
Heavens! Minglan had been in this world for so long but this was the first time that she enjoyed this special luxury where she didn’t have to lift a finger. Oh corruption! Oh depravity! Minglan deeply admonished her own degenerate lifestyle!
After paying respects to Old Madame, the Old Madame embraced Minglan on the couch, letting her bask warmly while waiting for others to come pay their respects. Shortly after, Wang shi attended with the children excepting Molan and Changfeng attesting that they claimed to be sick. Wang shi pretended to be concerned about their welfare and Minglan stole a glance, only to see that the Old Madame’s expression was unaffected.
“Both of them are sick at the same time, could it be a cold? This illness spreads easily and I have already sent a servant to call for a physician. I only hope Buddha will bless that the two children are fine and nothing serious will happen.” Wang shi worriedly said.
Minglan secretly gave her a double thumbs up in her mind. It would seem that this year Wang shi’s performing skills has drastically improved. That emotion! That expression! Those who didn’t know otherwise would think that Changfeng and Molan were her blood born children.
Old Madame Sheng suddenly said “Later, you should ask Master personally visit them, raising the two children close together, it is easy to catch sickness when one falls ill. Little Boy Feng has also grown, why not separate them for now?”
Wang shi was shocked but happy. Shocked that the Old Madame had not bothered to correct this for many years, wondering why she would suddenly gain an interest now. Happy because this was the Old Madame teaching Concubine Lin a lesson. In any case, it was better than she herself having to take matters into her own hands. She quickly added “Old Madame is indeed right, Little Boy Feng and Little Girl Mo are Master’s favorites, now that both are sick, Master surely has to visit them.”
Old Madame Sheng looked indifferently her, merely lowered her head and drank tea. Wang shi smiled and turned her head looking at Minglan, noticing that she was wearing a brand new peach red, feathered jacket standing at the side demurely. She enquired a few words about her health and Minglan replied discussing a little about house moving. Hualan then jested with Minglan and both happily laughed for a while, then they left.
When the others left, Mama Fang immediately led a group of maids holding on to the eight-cornered food case3 in from outside. She herself helped the Old Madame off the couch while Mama Cui led Minglan to the first seat on the left, by then the maids had already spread out the breakfast on a black cloth on top of the hexagon decorative table. After waiting for the Old Madame to sit, Mama Cui carried Minglan onto the round stool. Once Minglan sat down and saw the ‘light breakfast’, she was incredulously shocked!
Impossible! the bird shotgun has been replaced by cannon!4
A sumptuous mouth-watering feast was on the big table, deep red jujube cakes, strong purple yam cakes, a plate of piping hot sugar-frosted millet cakes, exquisite aroma seeped from all around. Crispy and golden fruits, Xiaolongbao enclosed in the steam basket even more unexpectedly there was also Wonton with cilantro.5 Served in front of her was a sweet and fragrant jujube porridge and over ten plates of marinated vegetables side dishes.
Minglan held onto her chopsticks, a little dazed. She had after all, a deep impression of the likely impoverished breakfast at Shou’an Hall. She gulped and raised her eyes to look at the Old Madame and softly said “…… so much ah.”
The Old Madame did not even raise her eyes and started tasting the porridge. Mama Fang smiled brightly and added “Yes, the Old Madame suddenly felt like tasting a few new dishes.” She had persistently persuaded for so many years and yet the Old Madame was adamant, however now thanks to Sixth Young Lady that the Old Madame finally agreed to stop living a simple and impoverished lifestyle.
Minglan was deeply moved and looked at the Old Madame. Her small mouth moved, lowering her head then raising again looking into her eyes she softly said “Thank you Grandmother, this granddaughter will eat more and grow. Grow more flesh for you!”
When the Old Madame first heard the first half, she only smiled slightly in the inside but when she heard the latter half, she couldn’t help but burst out in a girn. What ‘Grow more flesh for you!’ Did she think she was rearing a piglet? Mama Fang turned her head to the side to cover up her laughter.
After breakfast, both grandmother and granddaughter return to the couch. Old Madame Sheng took out a copy of《Three Characters Classic》6 allowing Minglan to read a few lines to evaluate how many words she could recognise. Minglan felt exceedingly guilty but resolved to bring shame upon herself thus her opening words were “Man and knife, born tree sheep, born tree weight, behaviour tree first…….”7
The Old Madame nearly spat out a mouthful of tea and coughed repeatedly. Minglan was shocked and hurriedly went past the table to pat the elder on her back. While she was still patting, very innocently and scared she asked “Old Madame, did I read it wrong?”
Old Madame took a few deep breaths to calm herself again, looking at the granddaughter’s confused look, she forcefully muttered “You have read… very well, with only a few mistakes. There’s no harm, just learn slowly.”
Twelve words out of which only two were correct, not even twenty percent right! Minglan’s heart was laden with grief. She, a distinguished university student had to act illiterate, it truly wasn’t easy!
It was not only Minglan who was laden with grief that day. When Sheng Hong returned from the office in the evening Wang shi immediately conveyed the Old Madame’s words with her own little interpretation. Sheng Hong did not even change out his official garments and went to Concubine Lin’s place with a black face. When the door was shut, outsiders did not know what was happening inside, only vague sobbing sounds, raging shouting and the sharp sounds of chinaware being smashed was heard……
About an hour later, Sheng Hong came out with a livid expression. When the maids went in to serve, they found the room was in a complete mess. Concubine Lin herself lying on the couch, crying like the China apple bathed in rain,8 practically about to faint.
When she heard this, Wang shi’s spirits stirred and she poured herself three cups of strong tea. Later she lit incense for Primeval Lord of Heaven9 and Buddha respectively, muttering to herself. Although she knew that Sheng Hong slept in the study, it also did not reduce her good mood. After all, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Wang shi decided that in the future she must redouble her filial piety to the Old Madame.
1. For those who are interested in knowing what is the copper heater: http://tinyurl.com/zdjtyrs
2. 亵衣 (Xie Yi): Interestingly enough it also can be translated to disrespectful/obscene clothes
3. 八角食盒 (Ba Jiao Shi He): Think of it as lunch boxes for the ancient, it has a octagon base and there are quite a few layers to the lunch box
4. 鸟枪换炮 (Niao Qiang Hua Pao): Figuratively means that the equipment has been improved tremendously
5. Xiaolongbao and Wonton are both dumplings with different stuffings though some would consider xiaolongbao to be more of a bun
6. Also known as San Zi Jing, it is written in triplets so that young children can remember and it teaches many Confucius teachings such as filial piety and respect for the elderly.
7. Minglan is purposely reading the wrong words that is why it makes no sense, the characters she read out are very similar to the original. This is what Minglan read “人之刀，生木羊，生木斤，习木元……” and the correct version is “人之初, 性本善, 性相近, 习相远” It can be translated to “Man at birth, are naturally good, their nature similar, their behaviour different.”
8. 海棠带雨 (Hai Tang Dai Yu): Meaning weeping beauty
9. 元始天尊 (Yuan Shi Tian Zun): In Taoist mythology he is considered to be of a higher rank than the Jade Emperor
Really, I really do not understand why Old Madame Sheng did not want to put Concubine Lin in place when she has the power to do so. Glad everyone is enjoying the story. Next up, Geese!