Author: Feast of Masks
Translated by Gumihou
Edited by Gumihou
Xue Gouzi had been ill for many days. So much that his face had thinned out, making his eyes appear larger.
Zhao’er had always thought her little man’s eyes were the best-looking eyes in the world. Even though they often view her with disgust and resistance.
In fact, Xue Gouzi’s eyes were the only good-looking part of him. Born with a weak body, the second branch had had a difficult time raising him. Their tender care verged on the edge of spoiling him, no, they definitely spoilt him. Other boys at his age were all as swarthy and strong as a calf, but he remained pale, thin, and taciturn.
In contrast, Zhao’er had always been the domineering one. She defended her little man to the death and refused to allow anyone to talk bad about him. Because of this, she got into many fights with the boys and girls in the village. Although there were still people badmouthing him, no one dared to do it in front of her.
Today, Zhao’er had a feeling that there was something odd about her little man’s eyes. It felt like he was trying to avoid looking at her.
It must be because her little man was angry at her again. He never liked it when she said things like ‘Gouzi is my man’. Each time he heard her saying this, he would ignore her for days. Truth be told, Zhao’er also wanted to maintain  face, but as the child bride of the second Xue branch family, her position in the family was very precarious. Even so, to challenge the authority of the Fourth Aunt, Sun’shi, she had no choice but to openly lay claim to this identity despite what her little husband might think.
“Are you hungry? Look what I brought you.”
With a turn of her head, Zhao’er abandoned these headache-inducing problems in favour of taking out a paper packet from her breast pocket. She unwrapped the paper packet to reveal two warm steamed buns. The buns were white and plump, inviting the adoring gazes of the people around them.
“Eat them while they are still warm,” she beamed as she set the paper packet into her little man’s hands, before moving to put the shoulder basket away in a corner.
Xue Gouzi gazed at her.
The girl in front of him was of marriageable age. Her skin was the colour of wheat, which was common with rural girls. However, her complexion was smooth and shiny, as though she was covered with a layer of honey. Her tall nose bridge and eyes that were neither too large nor too small were like dark pearls that sparkled when she smiled. A glance was enough to tell that she was the active, vivacious type.
Zhao’er was also taller than most other regular girls, and well-developed in all the right places. Her chest and waist were full of youthful vitality.
This vivid view… was as vivid as his dreams.
He began to nibble at the steamed bun almost unconsciously. Seeing this, Zhao’er beamed even more happily and quickly went to the kitchen to pour a bowl of water for him. She placed the bowl of water in his hands before tidying up the scattered bedding and quilts on the kang bed. The only thing on her mind was what to cook to properly nourish her man’s body.
After all, it cost her a lot of effort to nurse her little man back to health. He would need more than just medicine to fortify his health. Zhao’er naturally began to calculate the remaining amount of money in her hand, even as she tried to think up ways to solve the urgent issue that is the of lack of money.
“Have you… eaten yet?” Xue Gouzi asked.
This was a rare behaviour from him, and therefore, Zhao’er could not help but pay more attention to the little man sitting on the kang bed.
In fact, the little man has a beautiful appearance. Fair-skinned and slender, different from the swarthy countrymen around her. The corners of his eyes were slightly raised, making him look like a little fox, and the curve of his face gave him a delicately handsome appearance. It’s just that this little man tended to keep his head lowered and had a rather gloomy air around him. His thin and weak appearance did not invite others to give him a second look either.
Even so, Zhao’er’s eyes warmed and her smile widened as her mouth rapidly replied, “Of course, I’ve already eaten outside. This is for you.”
Only then, did she realise her mistake. She waited tensely for the little man to narrow his eyes at her and curse her, or condemn her for running around outside even though she was a girl. However, the expected censure never came. He continued to nibble at the steamed bun, looking as though he had a lot on his mind.
Zhao’er could not help to breathe out a sigh of relief, even as pain pinched her heart. Her mouth moved again as she said, “Gou’er, don’t worry too much. You can just ignore the words from outside. If no one said it to your face, you can dismiss them as falsehoods. Even if they are true, so what? I work to earn money for your education.”
In fact, Xue Gouzi’s head felt a little sore and dizzy. Zhou’er believed that he was still struggling with some inner demons, when in fact he was still struggling to remember that dream. When Zhao’er mentioned the money for his education, he suddenly remembered how he had fallen ill.
In fact, Xue Gouzi’s illness came from anxiety and an excess of heat to the liver.
To explain this, one should talk about the general situation of the Xue Family.
Yuqing Village was considered part of Huyang Town of Xia County, Pinyang Prefecture. It was a fairly small village with a little more than 200 households.
The Xue family was one such household.
However, the Xue household was different from the rest of these ordinary farmers. In fact, one could say that they have a particular background.
A Xue Ancestor, the grandfather of the current Old Man Xue was a scholar. For a poor mountain village like Yuqing to produce a scholar was a great feat, and a great feat even for the entire region.
Thanks to this scholar, generations of the Head of Xue household also became the de facto elders of Yuqing Village. Their words carried a lot of power in the village and this blessing spilled over to the younger generation as well. Old Man Xue’s father was also a hardworking person who was willing to work the land. With the assistance of the village elders, he slowly built up the family wealth.
By Old Man Xue’s generation, the family had accumulated more than 30 acres of fertile land with several sons, each with their own livelihoods. They were in an enviable position, prosperous, landed and educated. A well-to-do family in the village.
Old Man Xue and his wife, Zhao’shi, had four sons and two daughters. The eldest son, Xue Qingshan, who married Yang’shi, had two sons and one daughter. The eldest son was Xue Juncai (15), the second son, Xue Youcai (10) and a married daughter, Xue Man’er.
The second son, Xue Qingsong, specialised as a carpenter and married Qiu’shi. They had one son, Xue Gouzi. Third son Xue Qingbai was the farmer of the family who married Zhou’shi, the couple had a son Xue Shuanzi (8) and a daughter Xue Tao’er (13). Fourth son Xue Qinghuai was a peddler of goods, he was married to Sun’shi and they had one son together, Xue Maodan (4).
As for the two daughters, the eldest daughter, Xue Cuiping was married while Xue Cui’E, was only fourteen, unmarried and still living with the old couple.
It is worth mentioning that in this era, there is a saying that goes: So long as the parents are alive, the family does not separate. Moreover, families exist in clans, and therefore, the Xue family did not practice separation either.
With the benefit of education, the Xue family had better vision than regular farmers. As the eldest son and the smartest one, Old Man Xue had high hopes for him. When he was of age, Old Man Xue invested money on this son and sent him to a private school.
Xue Qingshan was very competent and achieved  Tong Sheng status at the age of 20. Although he failed to achieve Xiu Cai status, he could still be considered a well-educated man from the village.
Moreover, don’t look down on a Tong Sheng! According to Confucius, between the scholar, farmer, artisan and merchant, scholars are considered to be the highest rung of society. If ordinary citizens want to be scholars, there is only one way to achieve this, and that is to take the Imperial Examination. Moreover, the Imperial Examination is akin to travelling to the West for the Buddhist Scriptures, where one has to go through tremendous hardship and all kinds of obstacles before succeeding.
First, one must be qualified. A Tong Sheng is someone who is recognised as having the qualifications to attempt the Imperial Exam. To become a proper Tong Sheng, one has to pass both the County and Prefecture Exam. Next was the Xiu Cai status. Once a scholar has officially embarked on the road to conquer the Imperial Examination, that is when they are first properly recognised as a Xiu Cai.
Therefore, one can see that a Tong Sheng is no ordinary person. As such, Xue Qingshan’s status within the Xue Clan was something significant.
Even so, the Xue Clan, even with their illustrious background, could only be regarded as a middle-class family at best. For a mid-range family to support a single scholar, nearly the entire family coffers and human resources would be exhausted. However, as the eldest and most talented and promising person, everyone else in the family had no choice but to pour all their resources into this person in the hopes that he would bring glory to their family in the future.
As for Xue Gouzi’s serious illness, it was actually related to an old matter with the Xue family.
Back when Xue Qingshan achieved Tong Sheng status, he was a young man filled with the confidence that he could pass the next three great imperial examinations in one fell swoop and return home as a great Xiu Cai. Unfortunately, fate does not always follow man’s wishes.
He was just a step from achieving his dreams of becoming a proper scholar, but failed at that final step. It was natural to feel unreconciled. However, Xue Qingshan could only lower his head, suppress the frustration in his heart, and put in the work in hopes that he would succeed the next try.
After many years of ‘just one more try,’ whatever confidence he once had in his ability had been eroded away, devastated by the harsh impact of reality. Xue Qingshan failed the exams too many times and could no longer justify living off the family with such lacklustre results. Therefore, he had no choice but to set up a private school in the village, teaching children from Yuqing Village and several others nearby how to recognise letters and more or less sustain himself that way.
Since the family effectively owns the school, several of the Xue Clan children attended the school as well. Though many were still young, in the grandchildren’s generation, the eldest grandson Xue Juncai and second branch’s Xue Gouzi studied the longest.
However, compared to his older cousin Xue Juncai, Xue Gouze was obviously inferior in many ways. Part of the reason was his weak body. Being sick often meant that he missed a lot of schooling time.
Let us speak of a matter that happened five years ago.
At that time, an exam was held at Fucheng. Naturally, Xue Qingshan could not miss this opportunity. He had already stopped giving out private lessons in order to focus on his own studies and later made his way to Fucheng to take the exam.
Travelling was not easy in those times. Moreover, Old Man Xue could not feel assured about his precious eldest son travelling on his own. Therefore, Xue Qingsong, the second son was sent out to accompany him. Not only as a companion but also as someone to take care of his daily needs.
It was during this time that tragedy struck. It was unclear who Xue Qingshan offended, but as the younger brother, Xue Qingsong was beaten up and injured while protecting his eldest brother. He was barely pulled back from death but died shortly after returning home. Before his death, Xue Qingsong extracted a promise from Xue Qingshan to do everything in his power to cultivate Xue Gouzi as a scholar in the future.
After living a lifetime of giving way to others, how could Xue Qingsong not feel wronged or have no complaints? However, he was a simple and honest person by nature and realised early that his ability to study was not as great as his elder brother’s. Therefore, he could only content himself by contributing to the family in the background.
However, when it came to his own son, especially considering Xue Gouzi’s weak constitution which would not sustain a rough life as a farmer and his pending death, Xue Qingsong took the opportunity to force a promise from his elder brother.
Xue Qingsong did this to break the status quo where all resources were funnelled towards the main branch family all this while. However, in the main branch family alone there were two sons to support, to add another Xue Gouzi would burden the family even more. Third branch’s children were still young and back then, the fourth son had not yet married. So long as Xue Qingshan agreed, the rest would have no say. In short, Xue Qingsong could be said to have strived the best for his son.
Xue Qingshan immediately agreed. With tears of blood falling down his face, he swore that he would treat Xue Gouzi as his own child and raise him well. It was only after this promise was secured that Xue Qingsong finally closed his eyes and died.
Not long after that, the already weak and sickly Qiu’shi became depressed and ill, and passed away shortly after. Thus, Xue Gouzi was left a poor orphan without any parents in the world. Fortunately, he still had his uncles and grandparents as well as his child bride Zhao’er, so he did not have to worry about his basic needs of food and clothes. For the next few years, Xue Qingshan really did treat Xue Gouzi as though he was his own son as promised. The villagers all praised this Eldest Xue for his virtuousness. However, as the saying goes, the human heart is a fickle thing, and to be selfish is only human. As time went by, the main branch eventually began to change their attitude. Though it looked like things were still as it was before others, only the people involved knew what was really happening.
This year, when Xue Qingshan realised he had nothing more to teach his son, he wanted to send Xue Juncai to a school in town for two years.
However, it costs a lot of money to send a child to study in town. The teacher’s remuneration alone would cost them 2 silver taels, not to mention gifts for the teacher as well as the necessary brush, ink, paper and inkstones; these all require money. The Xue clan had suffered a great loss having supported Xue Qingshan all these years, where would they find the money to support two more children?
The money that could be spared was limited. In other words, either Xue Juncai or Xue Gouzi could go.
Xue Qingshan explained the matter before the whole family. Xue Gouzi remained tactfully silent throughout the whole meeting.
The atmosphere of the Xue Clan was very odd at that moment. Old Man Xue frowned. Grandmother Zhao’s face was very long. However, the main branch couple acted as though nothing was wrong.
This matter aside, Xue Gouzi had also coincidentally and accidentally overheard First Aunt Yang and Fourth Aunt Sun whispering with each other, talking about how they intend to have the grandparents come forward and convince Xue Gouzi to voluntarily give up his place to study in town. Hearing this, Xue Gouzi fell ill in a fit of rage.
As these various thoughts flooded his mind, Xue Gouzi felt uneasy for a while. Flashes of pictures appeared in his mind, the sensation was similar to his previous dreams.
In this dream, he had faced this exact situation at fourteen years old. It was at this moment that ‘he’ had drastically changed.
Could he really be Xue Tingxiang? Could that Xue Tingxiang be him? But why is he having these dreams?!
Xue Gouzi’s head began to ache again. The steamed bun in his hand fell onto the bed. The bowl of water was knocked over and clattered onto the floor. Zhao’er jumped at the sound and ran over to hug him.
“Gou’er, Gou’er, don’t frighten me!”
[Gumihou: Yes, I studied a lot just to translate this novel. It’s really fascinating.]
 The concept of ‘face’ is similar to ‘honour’ or the opposite of ‘shame’
For example: to ‘lose face’ is to ‘gain shame’; to ‘maintain face’ is to ‘maintain an appearance of honour’ Scholarly titles:
Tong Sheng: Pass the Village Exam
- Depending on the era, there were times when attempting the process of taking the county exam was enough to be considered a Tong Sheng. That’s because it costs a whole lot of money just to become educated. Paper, ink, and brushes are the least of them. Books, proper scholarly clothes etc, all cost money. Teachers? Students must come bearing gifts of chicken, pork, and moneyif you want secret tips on how to pass exams. Seriously, it’s hardcore.
Sheng Yuan (生員): Passed the County Exam
- If you pass the County Exam, you may call yourself Xiu Cai 秀才 (cultivated scholar)
- This is the one that First Uncle kept failing
Ju Ren (舉人): Passed the Provincial Exam
- You’re still a provincial graduate, a lot of nobles from the aristocracy will look down on you as an upstart if you come from the village
- Scholars who passed this are called Ju Ren
Gong Shi (貢士): Passed the Capital Exam (every 3 years)
Jin Shi (進士): Passed the Imperial Exam 科举
- For those who want Very Important official posts
The above is not a fixed definition because the definition changes depending on the era.
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