This small house had only one entrance, it was not very spacious, but it was kept very neat and tidy. The roof was covered with fish scale tiles, and the beams were made of cypress wood. The walls of the courtyard and the floor were made of large blue bricks made in Mei and Wu. The gaps between the bricks were clear and straight, arranged in a neat pattern like the streets of Chang’an market, giving a pleasing sense of order in its beauty.
There was also a tall osmanthus tree in the courtyard. Although it was still February, one could tell from its well-proportioned branches that it would be lush and flourishing in the autumn.*
*Osmanthus tree season is in the fall.
Looking at this elegant courtyard, the corners of Li Shande’s mouth couldn’t help but curl up. He could already picture his day of rest in August, with a mat spread out in the courtyard, its corners held down by jars of Xinfeng wine. His wife and daughter would serve freshly steamed Chongyang rice cakes drizzled with thick sugarcane syrup, and the family would enjoy the osmanthus blossoms while eating and drinking together. How delightful it would be!
“Can you make it a little cheaper?” He turned and said to the accompanying broker.
The broker smiled apologetically and said, “Supervisor Li, this is a house from the fourth year of the Tianbao era, with a ten-year history. Three hundred guan is already a very reasonable price. If the landlord wasn’t in a hurry to return to his hometown, he might not have been willing to sell it for even five hundred guan.”
“But this place is really too far away. I have to walk nearly half an hour every day to go to the Imperial City for my duty.”
“Pingkang Square is closer to the Imperial City. How about we go there and take a look?” The broker said with a cunning smile.
Li Shande immediately felt deflated. This was a first-class location in the capital, something he had never dared to dream of. He walked around the courtyard a few more times, slowly adjusting his mindset.
This house was located on the south side of Chang’an city, in Guiyi Square, which is south of the city and west of the fourth street of Zhuque Gate. It was indeed quite remote. However, it has one advantage – the Yong’an Canal, which runs through the Square and flows north. His wife can wash vegetables and do laundry without having to go far to fetch water, and his seven-year-old daughter, who loves to bathe, can take more baths.
There was only so much money to buy a house, so Li Shande had to make a choice. After weighing the pros and cons, he gritted his teeth and decided to take care of his wife and child. He can bear the hardship himself. After all, this was still the city of Chang’an.
“I’ll just take this one,” He exhaled slowly.
The broker first congratulated him and then said, “The landlord is in a hurry to return to his hometown, so it is inconvenient for him to accept payment in grain, cloth, or other goods. It would be better to pay in light goods such as gold and silver. Li Shande understood his implication and smiled bitterly, “You can call the abbot of Zhaofu Temple to come in and we can sign the deed together.
After the deal was done, the broker left happily. After a while, a monk in a grey robe entered the courtyard. Smiling, he clasped his hands and chanted the Buddhist prayer. Then he took two copies of the deed out of his sleeves and said that this was for accumulating merit.
Li Shande reached out and took them, feeling as if the two pieces of paper weighed more than a thousand pounds. The old monk’s two white beards trembled.
As a low-ranking official of the ninth rank, if Li Shande wanted to buy this house, he might have to borrow money in addition to sacrificing all his savings. In the capital, besides the financial houses of the two markets, the most convenient way to borrow money was from a few large Buddhist temples. This kind of borrowing was called “incense money” in Chinese. Of course, Buddhism should not be tainted with the stench of money, so the principle of this borrowing is called “merit” and the interest is called “blessings.
Li Shande took the two loan contracts and read them carefully from the beginning to the end. They were indeed filled with promises of great merit and blessings. He said to the abbot, “Master, the contract says that the total merit is 200 guan, with a monthly blessing of four percent. The repayment period is two years, so the principal and interest together should be 392 guan. But why is it written as 438 guan?”
When this series of numbers came out, the abbot was startled.
Li Shande calmly said, “According to the Miscellaneous Laws of the Tang Dynasty, we should only calculate the principal of a loan and not the interest as the basis for repayment. Master is well versed in Buddhist teachings, could there be a miscalculation in this calculation method?” The abbot hesitated and awkwardly suggested that the disciple might have made a mistake in his calculation.
Seeing the embarrassed look on the abbot’s face, Li Shande smugly stroked his beard. As a graduate of the Ming Calculation Department in the fifteenth year of Kaiyuan, he was well versed in these little tricks of numbers that couldn’t fool him at all. However, he quickly sighed in disappointment as he realised that although he was skilled in calculations, he had no hope of being promoted in the Imperial Examination, which selected scholars based on literary talent. He would be stuck in the ninth rank for the rest of his life, and could only be proud of this kind of thing.
The abbot took out a pen and paper, made the necessary changes, and after Li Shande confirmed that everything was correct, he stamped and signed the “incense money” contracts. The following procedures did not need to be handled by him. The agent would take the incense money from Zhao Fu Temple and sign the land contract with the landlord. From that moment on, the house belonged to the Li family.
“Congratulations to Supervisor Ying Qian Renli* for settling down in this beautiful house in the capital.” The broker and the abbot bowed to congratulate him.
*This was what was written in the raws, so I am not sure but it might be a title or honorific given to him based on his past achievements.
Like a small bubble suddenly appearing in an ancient well, a faint feeling of joy rose in Li Shande’s heart. It had been twenty-eight years, and he finally had a place in Chang’an City where his family could live with peace of mind. The osmanthus tree in the courtyard seemed to have bloomed early, emitting a strong fragrance that permeated his entire body.
The sound of a bell ringing in the distance woke Li Shande. He had taken half a day off today, and now he had to hurry back to the government office to report for duty. So he said goodbye to the broker and the abbot, left Guiyi Square, and quickly made his way to the Imperial City.
At the entrance of Guiyi Square, there happened to be a donkey rental shop. Li Shande thought that since he made a big decision today, he should celebrate it. So he gritted his teeth, took ten copper coins out of his purse, and decided to rent a healthy donkey. However, he thought about the huge debt he would have to pay later, so he decided to return three coins and only rent an old donkey.
The old donkey walked slowly and steadily, and Li Shande’s mood followed suit, swaying back and forth. One moment, he was happy to have bought a new house, and the next, he was dreading having to pay off the debt. He had calculated it over and over again, but every time he had free time, he couldn’t help but calculate it again. Li Shande’s income was meager, just over ten guan a month from his salary, rationed rice, and the rent from a few acres of land he farmed as part of his official duties. Even if the whole family scrimped and saved, it still wouldn’t be enough to cover the shortfall, so he had to find a way to earn some extra income.
But in any case, at least with a house, there is a foundation.
He was from Hua county and due to his outstanding arithmetic skills early on, he was selected by the state to study the Ten Mathematical Classics at the Imperial College, with the goal of passing the Imperial Examination in Mathematics. He was then selected by the Ministry of Agriculture to serve as a supervisor in the Shanglin Office*. Although it was a low-ranking position in a cold and obscure government department, his life was stable and uneventful for many years.
*The Shanglin Office was responsible for managing and supervising the imperial gardens and forests, as well as handling related administrative affairs.
Buying this house was the biggest move Li Shande had made in many years. He was fifty-two years old this year. He felt entitled to look forward to a better life.
After arriving in the imperial city, Li Shande went straight to the Shanglin Office, which was located in the shady area in the southeast corner of the city. The area was low-lying, so when it rained, water would immediately accumulate. As a result, the building always emitted a musty smell, and there were spots of mold on the window paper and screens.
It was almost noon, and a group of colleagues were having lunch in the corridor. When they saw Li Shande, they all put down their chopsticks and bowed their hands in greeting. Li Shande was a little surprised. When did these people become so polite? While he was still puzzled, the head of Shanglin Office waved him over to sit next to him.
The Shanglin Office head, Liu Shuling, was a big fat man who was usually only polite to his superiors, and never showed any respect to his subordinates. His kindness today surprised Li Shande, who felt a bit overwhelmed. He knelt down nervously and looked at the various dishes in front of him, feeling even more uncomfortable.
Lunch was also too rich: braised lamb tails, sour jujube cakes, steamed lotus root and jade well rice, and even a plate of sliced fish with ‘jinji’ sauce made of orange peel and boiled chestnut meat.
Liu Shuling smiled and said, “Supervisor, let’s eat together. There’s something good, so I’ll talk to you while we eat.” Although Li Shande wanted to ask right away, he couldn’t resist the hunger in his stomach. These dishes were rarely seen in his daily life, so he picked up a slice of fish, dipped it in the Jinji sauce, and put it in his mouth. He couldn’t help but close his eyes in satisfaction.
Soft, tender and refreshing, so delicious!
Liu Shuling poured a cup of grape wine for him. Li Shande was so happy that he waved his sleeves. Despite his average tolerance, he drank it all in one go, already feeling a bit tipsy. At that time, Liu Shuling took out a scroll from under the mat and said, “This is nothing important. The imperial palace needs some lychee ‘decoction’,* and there’s no one better to handle it than you, Old Li.”
*A delicacy made by soaking lychees in undiluted honey and sealing them with beeswax. What’s most likely implied is that the emperor wants them to buy fresh lychees and then make the ‘decoction’ before presenting it to him.’
The daily work of the Shanglin Office is to supply the imperial court with various fruits and vegetables. Li Shande swallowed a greasy piece of lamb’s tail and wiped the oil stains from his mouth with a pancake before hastily taking the document to read.
It turned out that the official document was a blank imperial decree sent from the palace, stating that they were going to buy ten jin* of specially made lychee ‘decoction’, and that someone needed to take care of the matter, with the name left blank. When Li Shande saw the words “Imperial Decree”, his eyebrows raised, as this meant that it was a direct order from the Emperor. He was both pleased and skeptical, “Am I supposed to handle this?”
*Jin” (斤) is a unit of measurement for weight that is used in China and other East Asian countries. One jin is equivalent to 500 grams or 1.1023 pounds.
“Just now, while you were away, we had a discussion and everyone agreed that you are the most experienced and reliable, and therefore the most suitable person for this task,” Liu Shuling replied.
‘Boom’ The alcohol rushed to Li Shande’s head, and his face turned deep red. Even his hands began to tremble.
In recent years, the emperor has been fond of creating temporary jobs outside the court, often involving the distribution of various tasks. During the cold winter months, the palace might appoint a charcoal envoy to keep the fires burning, or when looking for beautiful women to enter the palace, a flower and bird envoy might be appointed. Just a year ago, the emperor suddenly wanted to eat sugar crabs from Pingyuan County and casually appointed a sugar crab transport officer, causing a stir in the capital.
All of these envoys were temporary positions, so they were not included in the official bureaucracy. But since they were all given directly by the emperor, they were followed with utmost obedience. The lucrative nature of these positions was obvious. For example, Yang Guozhong, the Duke of Weiguo, had over forty envoys and they could be said to be heavily burdened with responsibilities. As a result, when there were positions to be filled, officials often fought to get them.
Li Shande couldn’t even dream that his colleagues at the Shanglin Office would be so loyal and publicly recommend him as the Lychee Envoy. With his drunken mind racing, he thought about pricing, purchasing, transportation, and storage, each step would bring in extra income. If he had a little more courage, it wouldn’t be impossible to pay off the entire debt in one go.
“Is it really me that the court wants to appoint as this lychee envoy?” Li Shande still couldn’t believe it.
Liu Shuling laughed heartily, “The emperor left the name blank on purpose, so that every bureau could recommend someone. If you don’t believe me, I’ll appoint you right now.” He then instructed his subordinates to bring pen and ink, and signed a line of beautiful script at the bottom of the decree: “By imperial command, Li Shande is recommended as the supervisor to handle this matter,” and pushed it toward Li Shande.
Li Shande immediately stopped eating, wiped his hands, and respectfully accepted the document. He signed his name neatly at the bottom, adding a large “奉” character*. As someone familiar with official documents, he also wrote the date at the top: February 3, the 14th year of Tianbao.
*A respectful way to indicate full obedience to the order given.
Liu Shuling nodded in satisfaction, called the scribe over, and had copies made. They were stamped with the official seal of the Shanglin Office and given to the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Personnel, and the Imperial Records Office for record-keeping. The remaining copy of the edict was given to Li Shande.
From that moment on, Li Shande was the lychee envoy appointed by the emperor. It could be said that he suddenly rose to heaven with a single step.
The colleagues around him were not jealous and congratulated him one after another. These congratulations were more intoxicating than wine, making Li Shande dizzy and excited. He couldn’t help but get up from his seat and offer a round of drinks. If it weren’t for the working hours, he even wanted to dance a ‘Huxuan’* dance in the corridor.
*A traditional Chinese dance originated from the Tang Dynasty which involves spinning, leaping, and graceful movements to the accompaniment of lively music.
The drunkenness of double luck did not subside until the afternoon. Li Shande took a sip of sugarcane juice to clear his head and knelt down at his desk to think about how to proceed.
As a supervisor in the Shanglin Office for many years, Li Shande was most familiar with fruits and vegetables. Lingnan produced lychees with red scales and flesh as white as condensed milk. The taste was excellent, but they were extremely susceptible to rotting. Lychees presented as tribute to the imperial court in Chang’an were either preserved with salt, dried in the sun, or soaked in undiluted honey and sealed with beeswax, known as “lychee decoction”. Only high-ranking officials could afford this delicacy, and even in the imperial palace, only ten pounds was needed.
In fact, Li Shande was still a little confused about this task.
If the emperor wanted to eat lychee decoction, he could simply order it from the Imperial Kitchen, which has a special storehouse for various regional delicacies. Even if it is not available there, officials from the Palace Market could be sent to the Eastern Market to buy it. If it is not available in the Eastern Market, a decree could be sent to the court officials in Lingnan to send it as a tribute. Therefore, it is hard to understand why the Shanglin Office, a relatively insignificant government office, would have to recommend someone for such a task.
Li Shande’s drunkenness had subsided somewhat, and he realized that there was something fishy about this. With such a great opportunity, why would someone give it to you for free? Perhaps it was because time was short and difficult to manage.
Thinking of this, he quickly unfolded the edict to check the deadline. The court had a rule that every document had a deadline, and those who failed to complete the task on time would be punished. However, to his surprise, the deadline on this edict was June 1st, in the 14th year of Tianbao reign, which was almost four months from now. It was neither too tight nor too loose.
Li Shande breathed a sigh of relief and decided not to think too much for now. He would concentrate on getting the lychee ‘decoction’ first.
The Shanglin Office was responsible for the gardens and orchards outside the city, so Li Shande knew many fruit merchants in the Jianghuai area and could ask them to inquire about it. Even if there were no stocks in the capital, there would be some in Luoyang, Yangzhou, and other places. If all else failed, he could ask for a batch of fresh lychees from the south, which would be immediately salted and sealed for delivery. The lychee fruit ripens early, starting in April for early varieties and May for the main crop, so it would barely make it in time for June 1.
Li Shande picked up the abacus and brush and calculated the cost of sending lychee decoction from Lingnan to Chang’an, figuring out the most efficient and affordable method of transportation. But soon he shook his head and laughed at himself, thinking that he was acting like a miser. This was a task for the emperor, not for him to buy a house. The imperial court was rich and powerful, and there was no need to worry about such small amounts of money.
He sketched and calculated for a long time, but suddenly he heard the ‘dong dong’ of the drum at the gate of the Imperial City. According to the rules of Chang’an, after six hundred beats of the evening drum, pedestrians must stay within their designated blocks, otherwise it is a violation of the curfew. His house is now in Changshou Block, a bit far away, so he had to leave early.
Li Shande packed his things and hung them one by one on his clogs. He hesitated for a moment, then tucked the edict into his pocket as well. As an envoy, he had no official rank and no credentials. This edict was his proof, and it was best to carry it with him.
Amidst the sound of the drum, Li Shande left the Imperial City and hurried along the main road toward his home. The carts, horses, and pedestrians on the road were all in a hurry to reach their destination as quickly as possible. Li Shande looked at the dusty appearance of these travellers and felt a bit proud. They could only panic and seek shelter in inns and temples, while he would soon be able to return to his own home.
He raised his chin in a dignified manner and took confident steps forward, but he was unexpectedly tripped by a deep rut in the road and fell to the ground with a thud. Li Shande scrambled to his feet, only to find that even his black futou (headwear) had fallen off, along with the imperial edict he was carrying. He was so frightened that he didn’t bother to pick up his hat, but instead rushed to retrieve the edict and dust it off. As he did so, he noticed a small piece of paper floating out of the rolled-up parchment.
Li Shande picked it up and looked at it. The piece of paper was only half the size of a fingernail, and it was made of the same yellow rattan material as the edict. A single character was written on it: “煎” (decoction).
This is a common item used by scribes, called a “yellow patch”. When the scribe is writing a document, mistakes and omissions are inevitable, so they cut a small piece of paper of the same color and texture and paste it over the wrong or missing part. This is more convenient than using realgar*.
*It is very bright red in color insecticide and I believe it is written to make a comparison between the yellow paper and it.
However, it is said that after applying the “yellow patch”, it is necessary to place a seal on the seam to indicate that it is not a private modification. But why is there no trace of the seal on the yellow sticker? With this in mind, Li Shande couldn’t help but look curiously at what character was hidden under the “煎” character.
But when he looked closer, he was struck by lightning – the character was actually “鲜” (fresh)!
The difference between “fresh lychee” and “lychee decoction” is only one character, but the nature of the two was like heaven and earth.
He stood frozen, with only the grey and white beard on his chin shaking violently. Some passing guards noticed the strange behaviour of the green-robed official and approached to inquire, but their voices sounded to Li Shande as if they were speaking from outside a well while he was at the bottom of it.
The street drums were still beating rhythmically. Li Shande grabbed the imperial edict and turned his neck stiffly toward the guard. The guard took a step back in fear and tightened his sword at his waist. The guard had never seen such a look before: confusion, disorientation, panic, terror… not even Wu Daozi could copy it.
The guard was contemplating how to handle the situation when he suddenly saw the official move.
He slowly turned around, took big steps, suddenly accelerated, and ran frantically toward the north gate of the Imperial City, his grey hair flying in the wind. The guard couldn’t help but be astonished. It was rare for someone in his fifties to run at such a speed.
TL: So, this is the first part of the chapter with freaking 4k words… The next part will be the last part of this chapter and will most likely have about 5k word count. The thing is I have the whole chapter translated but, me personally, I won’t read a whopping 9k word count chapter, so I decided to split it^^ Don’t worry, I will clearly note it down everywhere:)
Just decided to take on this cause i saw that this only had 6 chapters, but it said guess what shawty… it has 9k words in each chapter… fuck me.
But, I like the story so I decided to take on it:) Also myself, personally, don’t like split chapters, but I had to because it’s too long and a person with short attention span would find it difficult to read (its me). But, most likely I will just post the split chapters at once not like posting each part like a whole chapter each week.
But, yeah that’s all and I hope you enjoy reading it^^
see u next time, bye<3