The next day at the crack of dawn, Minglan excitedly carried her practice book and made her way to the Old Madame planning to conquer the remaining characters from《Thousand Character Classic》in one shot. This was her plan! In the future she need not pretend to be illiterate any longer! When her little stumpy legs took a step into the main hall, she did not expect to see Wang shi come to greet Governess Kong this early. She was surprisingly similar to those victims of natural disasters lining up to receive emergency provisions and were afraid that if they were late, there would be nothing left.
She sat on the lower seat and respectfully listened to Old Madame Sheng speak “Last night, I humbly lowered my old head and begged Governess Kong to overwork herself a little. She has agreed that when she is teaching Big Girl, she will also teach the remaining little girls as well. Although they are still young but as long as they accompany her, listening and watching carefully, they will also grow in self-restraint…” Wang shi naturally is willing. She mused that this was a rare chance for them to have invited a highly qualified governess and they have to take every advantage of it. Unfortunately, that meant Minglan’s plans for being recognized as a literate member of society could only be put on hold. Once she finished breakfast, she was shipped off to Hualan’s rooms by Mama Cui.
They passed a beautiful bridge spanning half the courtyard leading to Hualan’s lavish pavilion. When she saw Hualan, Minglan was blinded. Hualan wore a cloud embroidered green dress with a double phoenix brocade jacket, a soft jade colored flowing skirt and her hair was bound beautifully into a moon shaped hairstyle all held together by a golden band embedded with gems. Her whole being was like that of a bud of white jade orchid, extremely bright and beautiful. Even Governess Kong could not resist from double taking this picture of beauty. Minglan secretly thought to herself ‘Brother-in-law Yuan, You sure have good luck with women!’
When Wang shi saw her eldest daughter dressed so elegantly and her heart was naturally proud and turned to look at the other two. It was clear that Rulan was not in a good mood, listlessly standing at the side, smacking her lips but Molan is in high spirits. When she saw Governess Kong, she eloquently enquired about her health evoking Wang shi into a burst of fury. She chided “Ru’er, why did you not greet Governess Kong when she arrived! You truly are unruly, be careful of your skin!”
When Rulan heard she was reprimanded, she immediately pouted her small lips and lowered her head in anger.
After Wang shi left, Governess Kong began the lesson. The priority of the lesson was placed on Hualan and the other three were treated as guests. Rulan, whose attitude towards learning was bad was already slacking off at the start. In no time flat, she progressed to playing Cat’s Cradle with the young maid sitting by her side. In truth, Minglan too did not want to study but she did not have Rulan’s stubbornness and unwillingness wasn’t entrenched that deeply in her heart. After all, being forced to study wasn’t out of the ordinary for Minglan, it had in fact become something that she had gotten used to a long time ago. Compared to the grueling exam-oriented education system of the modern times, these little studying sessions were mere child’s play. Did anyone think that Yao Yiyi liked trigonometry so much that she drew and calculated a hyperbola over and over again? Did she really like the British accent that she would wake up early every morning to recite the bird like phrases1? Could it be that she genuinely liked memorising that she chose to specialise in boring political law? Stop joking around! It was all merely for the sake of making a living.
Now although her environment had changed, the same principles still applied. If Minglan wanted to establish her feet in this ancient world, she must start with studying!
“Normally, it is said a girl’s character and virtue are most important. This manner of education is merely just a vain formality, however distinguished families simply love talking about this vain formality. These lessons concern everything and no one will praise you if done well but if done poorly, will inevitably invite ridicule unto yourself in the open and in private. You sisters are all smart and should be able to discern what is truly important.”
Governess Kong earnestly explained to the girls. Firstly she would clearly define the necessity of education and naturally what follows after would be easier to manage. Governess Kong’s lessons are well taught, she explains complicated topics in simple terms by first stating the main points, proceeding to demonstrate clearly and from time to time provide relatable examples. Hualan and Molan did not do well initially, but she did not lose her temper and merely allowed the girls time to gradually understand better.
Molan just blindly followed Hualan, every of Hualan’s actions, she imitated. She set high and strict standards for herself. Every now and then, she will ask ‘Governess, am I doing this correct?’, ‘Governess, what do you think of doing it this way?’. She was practically upstaging the main attraction and parading herself as the real student. Hualan bit her lips trembling and tried her best to endure and not to scold her before Governess Kong.
Minglan’s learning aptitude fell short of being the best but is still better than the worst. The whole morning, she diligently practiced greeting and walking postures but felt that the more she learned, the more awkward it became. She had come to this world for merely a year and more than half of that was spent lying in bed drooling and acting dead. Disregarding Big Sister Hualan, even if compared to the other two, she did not have a single sliver of understanding towards this world’s etiquette. How was she even expected to catch up and improve over such a short period of time.
Having a spark of inspiration, she took advantage of the time they stopped for lunch to request Mama Cui make a small booklet from excess raw silk. First she noted down the morning’s lessons from memory and when she went for classes in the afternoon, she instructed Xiaotao carry along her own little brush, little ink slab, little ink stick as well as the booklet made from raw silk and put them all into a portable wicker basket. When Governess Kong finished teaching, she did not hurry forward to practice but rather sat at a small table made of plum blossom wood where her brush and ink slab were laid out. She then hiked up her sleeves and hefted herself up to the table and began taking notes.
Governess Kong who was just then instructing Hualan on several different postures appropriate for serving food, calmly shot a curious glance at Minglan.
For Minglan who was groomed under an exam-oriented education system, with regards taking notes in class it was practically second nature. If the teacher was teaching and she did not hold a pen in her hands then she was simply inviting the teacher to target her. A pen in the hand, no worries in the heart! Minglan instantly focused on note taking, over ten years of an all-rounded education was not in vain, every paragraph was summarised neatly and clearly.
The so-called rules and etiquette was a very broad concept. It comprised every conceivable activity in a day, from salutations, walking, talking, smiling, mannerisms towards others and even encompassed things as esoteric as how to lift a teacup and sip a mouthful of water, all of which had a proper way of executing. It goes without saying that young misses from established families that were influenced from childhood would naturally form these etiquettes from habit. Governess Kong merely pointed out to the girls, the differences in etiquette between the top aristocracy and middle-ranked officialdom families like the Sheng family. To put it simply, it was a crash course in aristocratic etiquette.
The teacher personally lead in the practices of marriage and the Lan young ladies obediently followed. Minglan was naturally weak and suffered the consequences. Rulan has abundant ability but was lacking in desire, spreading the net for two days and not catching any fish for three days.2 Although Molan was smart but she had a small frame after all and her age limited her understanding and her actions were not as cleanly executed. Finally, only Hualan was naturally outstanding, fast at learning with an impeccable memory.
Several days later, the basics instilled began to take effect. Hualan was no longer overbearing and Molan no longer acted coy. Rulan stopped her atrocious behaviour and Minglan no longer daydreamed. The girls all suddenly appeared gentle and dignified, their speech elegant and appropriate, their conduct soft like the spring wind brushing against the willows. Sheng Hong was greatly satisfied when he saw them and continuously praised their virtues for a good few days, even Wang shi began to sincerely revere Governess Kong.
“She is after all from the palace and has abundant capability. This manner of teaching without beating, scolding nor anger has really had an effect on these girls.” Wang shi praised repeatedly.
“It is all thanks to Mother’s fortune. I have heard that when Governess Kong was in the capital, ordinary duke and marquis households were unable to invite her. You shouldn’t put on airs in front of her and let others laugh at our ignorance.” Sheng Hong reminded.
Sheng Hong was being rather cautious and calculative. After a lifetime of education from Old Madame Sheng, he was open-minded and had long-term vision. He knew that if he wanted a long career as an official, he must have sharp ears and keen eyes and ‘to know oneself is to know your enemy’. These days he took every opportunity to ask Governess Kong for news regarding matters from the capital. Governess Kong looked upon the face of her friend Old Madame Sheng, sighed internally and briefly talked about the capital’s powerful officials and aristocrats complicated private relationships. Governess Kong had swam in the inner palace and courtyards for over ten years, and the people she interacted with were mostly from the cream of society thus her experiences were hardly ordinary. The several times they talked, Sheng Hong benefited greatly. He genuinely treated Governess Kong as his own elder and wished that he could convince her to stay. Unfortunately, Governess Kong gave the excuse of missing her hometown and was resolved to leave, ultimately Sheng Hong could only drop the topic.
Governess Kong’s class schedule was very humane. After studying hard for ten days, she issued a message to rest for a day. It was a great coincidence there was good weather, Hualan dragged Rulan and Minglan to play in the gardens. Governess Kong who was also on vacation went to Shou’an Hall to chat with Old Madame Sheng.
“I am afraid that I have far underestimated your family’s Sixth Young Lady.” Governess Kong sat on a couch, separated from Old Madame Sheng by the jade couch table.
“Why do you say that?” The Old Madame raised an eyebrow, very interested.
Governess Kong carried the teacup before her eyes, appreciating the artwork on it carefully and slowly said “Initially I only treated that child as honest and naive, and thought the person dumb. I did not expect in a turn of the eye, it was actually intelligence masquerading as stupidity.”
“Don’t make silly guesses. You’ve merely taught a few days of rules, it’s impossible to have taught her to be an intelligent person appearing stupid.” Old Madame Sheng smiled and shook her head.
Governess Kong lifted the teacup lid and gently swirled the leaves in the cup. “You’d better believe it. In these few days of lessons, your family’s First Young Lady is not bad. She is clever and quick-witted and understands without needing much explanation, only lacking a little in patience. We do not need to speak of the Fifth Young Lady, she is still young and playful so it is understandable. The Fourth Young Lady seems weak but is in fact strong-minded and forcefully3 wants to learn. As you also know, these pesky rules are not meant for children. For a person who has not grown physically to a suitable height, many of these movements are impossible to implement but Fourth Young Lady insists on showing off. Yesterday alone, she broke four teacups, two saucers and dropped the chopsticks while distributing food.”
When Old Madame Sheng heard it, she did not reply and merely shook her head. Governess Kong glanced at her, the corner of her mouth curved mischievously and teasingly said “Only that darling Sixth Young Lady of yours, seeing this she did not make a single sound or movement but thought through all the key points in one morning. The same afternoon she brought pen and paper and did not crowd around me. Merely, picking up on matters I corrected Hualan and Molan and recorded them all to paper. I even stole a look. En, it was very well written.”
Old Madame Sheng still did not believe, smiling while shaking her head “Ming yatou only knows a few words? How can I believe? You are trying to trick me again.”
“If you still do not believe, then ask someone to fetch that book of hers to take a look then.” Governess Kong said.
Old Madame Sheng was interested4 and immediately asked Mama Fang to fetch the book from Minglan’s rooms. Mama Fang asked Mama Cui for the book and handed it to the Old Madame. She opened the four-sided wicker basket. Inside was a brush and ink slab neatly placed and a nifty thick white book. When Old Madame flipped through the book, she was greatly taken aback.
The book clearly recorded the content of the days classes and it was further categorised and summarised into topics of ‘Food and Drinks’, ‘Rest’, ‘Everyday’ etc. Under each category, she neatly wrote in numeral points ‘one, two, three, four’. Every sentence and words were clearly written. It was probably because she did not know too many words, that most of the words were incorrect. If not missing a stroke, then it was the wrong spelling. Some places, had amusing pictures drawn, for example when distributing food to the elders, how the sleeves ought to be rolled up and specifically how many inches should it be rolled. Minglan probably did not know how to write the words so she simply drew a short and fat arm along with a row of words. The sleeves were slightly rolled up and an arrow is pointed at it to show details.
Old Madame Sheng flipped a few pages and felt happy but also thought it was surprising. A few more pages flipped, probably because of heavier content, Minglan even used red lines to point out important points. Mama Fang moved her head closer to take a look and started smiling “That day when Danju asked me for cinnabar, it turned out it was for Sixth Young Lady to use it like so. Black words written tightly everywhere, makes one feel dizzy when looking at it. These notes with red indications are very eye-catching and clear. Our Sixth Young Lady has come up with a good idea.”
The Old Madame saw that there were some weird symbols, pointing at them she asked Governess Kong “What are these? They do not seem to be words.”
Governess Kong put down the teacup and smiled “I have also asked Sixth Young Lady, she said that there are some words she does not know how to write. So she will first make a symbol and fill it in after she checks the《Zihui》and《Zhengzitong》5. Do not merely think that she is just scribbling, I have carefully examined it and these crooked symbols are all carefully chosen. She has her own system, it’s quite ingenious.”
The Old Madame was a little flabbergasted and looked up at Governess Kong to see the other smiling and shaking her head, sighing “When I was studying at the old Shang Palace, the cheat sheets I borrowed then were not half this good. Structured and this level of detail, it is evidence enough to see her understanding. Surely when she handles things in the future it will be efficient and clear. Moreover, her character is gentle and polite. Alas, what a pity that she is a concubine born daughter.”
The Old Madame remained silent and after a long time she finally said “Good or bad days are not in riches nor honour. If she can understand this, then she will have good and comfortable days in the future.”
Governess Kong slowly nodded “I can see that this girl is not muddle-headed and will definitely understand your painstaking efforts.”
1. 鸟语单词 (Niao Yu Dan Ci): Figuratively means phrases that is not understandable. ‘How can humans understand what the birds are saying’ is the idea behind it
2. Rephrasing of a known saying 三天打鱼，两天晒网 (San Tian Da Yu, Liang Tian Shai Wang) which means there is no perseverance when learning to work.
3. 硬撑 (Ying Cheng): Has a negative connotation where it a person will do whatever it takes despite the pain
4. 童心 (Tong Xin): Literally childlike innocence, Old Madame Sheng probably was innocently interested
5. They are both Chinese dictionaries.
I like how Minglan takes notes, it is so organised and good for the brain. If I was Minglan, my first issue would be: I NEED MORE COLOURS MAN. Just black and red, I am grateful for the modern technology which brings more colours and make note-taking fun. Next up, fight fight fight!
Sorry to those who have seen the updates from novelupdates of chapter 14 part 2, I made lots of mistakes when trying to post this chapter. Lesson learnt, never doing this when the
mind night is dead.