In the afternoon, aunt Sheng Yun and Minglan’s elder cousin sister Shulan came back home to Old Madam Sheng. Both of them had married. Minglan and Pinlan were playing together. Mrs. Li summoned the two girls to the main hall to see their aunt and sister. Pinlan’s elder sister Shulan and brother Changsong got married at an early age, her second brother Changwu went to Bianjing, so Pinlan was always alone. Then she started to play the Chinese Rings. Minglan had never played that gadget before, she had to admit that Pinlan is a better player. Pinlan was so happy. She asked maids to help her dress up and teaching Minglan the tricks of playing the Chinese Rings proudly.
Danju took out a large pearl hairpin decorated with golden silk and a red phoenix with a ruby in its mouth from the jewel case. This hairpin was rather heavy, Minglan felt her neck was shrinked. A maid of Pinlan also tried to wear a luxury hairpin for her. This was also a large and heavy pearl hairpin mounted with gems and decorated with the flower and butterfly pattern. Pinlan refused immediately and said:”I don’t want to wear that! Last time I wore it for a whole morning, and my neck hurt for three days!”
The maid coaxed Pinlan patiently:”My lady, just put it on. If just your mother and lady Shulan come to visit, you don’t have to wear it. But the Third Madam (Sheng Zhou’s legal wife, Huilan’s mother) and lady Huilan will also come. You see, lady Minglan has worn her hairpin. That one seems even heavier than yours.”
Pinlan raised her head and saw Minglan was wearing a very large trembling hairpin. She felt a bit relieved and agreed to put her own hairpin on, unwillingly.
The two girls walked slowly towards the main hall. They strolled along the corridor and turned off. There’s a maid waiting at the door. She lifted up the door curtain and said:”Lady Pinlan and lady Minglan are arriving!” Minglan walked in with Pinlan. They saw Old Madam Sheng and the Eldest Madam Sheng were sitting in the centre of the room. Mrs. Li was sitting on a round stool. Mrs. Wen was entertaining the guests with tea and desserts. All of them were talking with some noble women.
A woman around 40 told jokes intimately with Old Madam Sheng. She was a bit dark, but her eyes were as lively as a young lady. As soon as she saw Minglan, she held Minglan’s hands and checked her carefully. Minglan had fair skin, red lips and bright eyes, with two little dimples at each side of her face. The woman liked Minglan a lot. She laughed:”Aunt, this lovely girl must be my niece Minglan. Look at her, even more beautiful than a portrait. There is a saying that a niece looks like her aunt. Minglan looks just like me! ”
The Eldest Madam Sheng poked fun at her:”Shameless you! Are you praising Girl Ming, or blowing your own horn?” Hearing that, the woman was not angry, but stamped her feet and replied like a spoiled child:”Mum! I’m actually praising you. You see, I look like you. If I’m a beauty, you must be very beautiful! Isn’t it?”
The Eldest Madam Sheng shook her head helplessly, and the Old Madam Sheng, who was amused as well, nodded and said: “Girl Yun is really filial!” The people in the hall laughed together, among them the daughters-in-law and servant girls also grinned.
The Eldest Madam Sheng pointed at a woman and told Minglan: “This is your Aunt Yun.” And she pointed to another woman, who was with sharp eyebrow and sat on the lower seat: “This is your aunt in your third grandfather family.” Then the Eldest Madam Sheng pointed to a young daughter-in-law and a head bowed little girl who was standing next to her, said that “This is your elder Sister Shulan, and this is your elder cousin Sister Huilan who is the daughter of your third uncle.”
Minglan immediately bent her body and walked toward them. She bowed and saluted them with good manners, and made the recognition one by one; everyone in the hall saw that Minglan’s manner was neat and well-behaved, and from shoulder to waist to knee and even to arch, her gesture was so elegant that the Eldest Madam Sheng also found Minglan was natural, graceful, decent and honest when she held Minglan’s hands and talked with. Everyone liked Minglan a lot.
Among all the people, the most straightforward one was Sheng Yun. She pulled Minglan, asked details such as what she likes to eat; if she can get used to living here and so on. At the same time, she took out a heavy red-gold embroidery pouch from her arms and gave it to Minglan, “My Sister Minglan is fortunate, I will present a few Yun brocades and satin silk for you to make the dress!”
Pinlan was by nature open-minded, seeing Minglan was popular with the multitude, she never once got angry but only pretended to be annoyed, “My aunt was so prejudicial, I was forgotten since you have beheld a younger sister better than me.” Sheng Yun touched heavily Pinlan’s forehead with her finger and mocked with a smile: “You lousy kid, you have taken a lot from me these years!”
Everyone in the hall gossiped, only the Third Madam was alienated. She was drinking tea alone when she interrupted, “Pinlan should have been content with your lot, although you two are nieces, your elder Sister Huilan got nothing at all.”
Minglan lowered her head and sneaked at Huilan, whose face flushed, sat in silence with bowed head. Then looked at the Third Madam, whose clothes seemed glamorous, there were traces of wear and remedy at the cuffs when looked carefully, however.
Sheng Yun ignored her, only said softly: “We are in debt to Aunt Sheng, so niece Minglan should be special as well.” Having been given a cold shoulder, the Third Madam turned and cast a stern glance at Huilan, then she abused over the shoulder of Huilan: “You such a gutless girl, if you have the ability to fascinate your elders just like your cousin Sister Minglan, you have had already got lots of articles from your aunt! Now you have been calling ‘aunt’ in vain for more than a decade, but you missed everything.”
Sheng Yun immediately retorted: “My Sister Zhou’s words really confused me, could it be said that why your children call me ‘aunt’ is just expect me to give them my property?”
The Third Madam raised her eyebrows and said shrilly, “I don’t have the nerve! Now everyone says, the senior and the second branch of the Sheng family are in the money, but they don’t help their brothers and uncles who are in abject poverty! However, these two branches are very generous to strangers, just because they want to pretend to be good people and to gain a good reputation. It’s just an act!”
When Pinlan heard someone insulting her father, she immediately said loudly: “My father just sent carriages of rice to your home a few days ago, and he also gives you money every month. Is this also an act?”
Mrs. Li (Sheng Wei’s legal wife) said in a deep voice: “Pinlan, don’t be so rude! Go back!”
An undercurrent of resentment could be detected in the room now.
Minglan was left speechless with surprise. But she dared not to let others see the surprise on her face: she and her sisters often have quarrels, and Mrs. Wang and Lady Lin sometimes also stung each other by harsh words, but they had never offended each other openly like this. Minglan secretly observed others next to her, and everyone, including Old Madam Sheng, looked as usual.
The Eldest Madam Sheng snorted: “The Third Madam, are you coming to see your second aunt or provoke us today? You just yelled in front of elder members in our family and let the younger generation laugh at you!”
The Third Madam blushed and sat down without a word, just drinking tea and eating refreshments.
Minglan turned her head and saw Pinlan smirking. Pinlan looked at Huilan provocatively. It was Shulan who was kind enough to take Huilan away and talk to her, relieving the embarrassment of the room. At this time a servant girl came in, saying: “Mrs. Zhu (Mrs. Li’s sister-in-law) came.”
“Let her in,” The Eldest Madam said hastily. The servant girl opened the curtains, and a woman whose whole head was streaked with jewel walked in. She saluted the Eldest Madam Sheng and Old Madam Sheng respectfully, laughing, “Here I come, the Eldest Madam. I used to listen to Mrs. Li saying that the Old Madam Sheng was kind, so thick-skinned as I am, I come here today.”
The Old Madam Sheng laughed: “You are too modest. We are a family – Don’t be so polite. Now I’m old, and I prefer a jolly time. I’m glad to see all of you here. …Minglan, come to salute Aunt Li.”
Minglan stepped forward and saluted, hesitating how she should call this woman. “You can call me aunt just like Pinlan,” said Mrs. Zhu. Minglan looked up at Old Madam Sheng, and saw her slightly nodded. So Minglan said: “Nice to meet you, aunt.”
Mrs. Zhu’s eyes narrowed happily and she said: “What a beautiful girl! The Old Madam, you are so blessed.” She took a pink purse from the hand of the servant girl beside her and stuffed it into Minglan’s hand; Minglan looked down at the purse which showed brilliantly coloured embroidery and was decorated with precious pearls. Without what was inside, the purse alone was extremely valuable.
All the people in the house sat down and talked with each other. Mrs. Zhu ignored the Third Madam and spoke to others. They talked things from Jinling to Bianjing, from women to children in their families. Minglan never looked down on the gossips and compliments talked between women, so she listened carefully. From their conversation, Minglan knew that Old Master Li started business together with Old Master Sheng in his early years. At first, the Li family was not as prosperous as Sheng family, but the sons of the Li family were well educated (they all married girls from local families). The three generations of Li family worked diligently and the family business flourished and eventually became one of the wealthiest families in Youyang.
The Third Madam intended to interfere the conversation several times but failed. The Eldest Madam Sheng suddenly said to Sheng Yun: “Where is Taisheng? Didn’t he come with you today?” Sheng Yun smiled and said: “Boy Wu seldom comes back from the capital city. My silly boy was talking with him. Mrs. Zhu, are you coming alone today?” Mrs. Zhu smiled: “Boy Yu and Boy Du also came together. They are outside now.”
The Eldest Madam Sheng smiled and said: “Let them in and talk together.”
After saying these words, the Eldest Madam Sheng asked the maid to call them to come in. Then the curtains were opened. Three boys of similar age came in, bowing to Old Madam Sheng. The Eldest Madam Sheng smiled, pointing to the good looking boy who stood in front of the other two boys, and said. “This is Boy Yu, the second son of Mrs. Zhu.” Then she pointed to a shy boy on the left and said, “This is Boy Du, the third boy of the Li family.” Finally, she pointed to a strong boy and said: “This is the son of Sheng Yun, Taisheng.”
The three boys had their own styles, and the house was full of enthusiasm at once. Except for Minglan, the rest of the people knew each other before. Therefore, Minglan had to meet each boy, and called them “cousin” the same as Pinlan.
Mrs. Zhu smiled and said to Minglan: “There is another boy who is the eldest in my family. He went out to do some business. His wife is very kind, and you can come to visit us later.”
Old Madam Sheng praised: “Mrs. Zhu is so blessed. The boys are so handsome and refined. I can see they are all talented.” Mrs. Zhu smiled and said: “These two boys are not as good as Old Madame praised.”
Old Madam Sheng asked the two boys of Li family to come next to her, and asked them about their education. She knew that the older one had already become Xiucai (an entry-level licentiate who had passed the college exam), and the younger one had been Linsheng (the first class of Xiucai, who were the best performers in the college exam). She praised them more: “Well, it is good that you two are hardworking.” Mrs. Zhu smiled and said: “Compared to Changbai, they are nothing. I’ve heard that the grandson of Old Madam Sheng passed the examinations for Xiucai, Juren (a qualified graduate who passed the triennial provincial exam) and Jinshi (a graduate who passed the triennial court exam) all once. Now he serves as Shujishi (Imperial Hanlin Academy’s short-term position, served by capable people selected from Jinshi) at the Imperial Hanlin Academy. He is definitely the live Wenquxing (the star of the text and the exam).”
Old Madam Sheng glanced at the Eldest Madam Sheng: “It must be you who informed all people here and there. If Changbai hears that, he might be arrogant.” The Eldest Madam Sheng smiled: “We should praise the achievement Changbai has gained. And please take care of these two boys when they go to the capital city for the imperial examination.”
Old Madam Sheng said: “Even though without your request, I will also invite the nephews of Sheng Wei’s daughter-in-law to my home when they arrived the capital city. I will treat them as our own children. What’s more, there are two children in my family who are also preparing for the examination, and then they can accompany each other.”
Mrs. Zhu expected for the words long before she came. She smiled and said: “If so, I am really grateful for that. Yu’er and Du’er, kowtow and give thanks to the Old Madam Sheng for her favor”
Li Yu and Li Du kowtowed without delay, on the other side, Mrs. Zhu said many thanks again to Old Madam Sheng.
Pinlan whispered to Minglan: “Old Madam Sheng just invited them to her home. Why they are so appreciative for that?”
Minglan gave out a bitter smile, thinking that the little girl was so naive to ask the question. Minglan just answered: “There are more books in our home.”
In fact, besides studying hard, there are lots of things one need to prepare for the imperial examination before and after it. There are key points and ways one need to know: first, a student should know the examiners’ preferences for articles, even for the calligraphic style, and their political views; then it involves the present trending policies and one should avoid the taboos topics and the fight between different factions; last but not least, he should make more friends and pay visits to teachers so as to make people with good reputations know him.
Although the name line of exam papers was hidden, actually, almost all examiners were capable to recognize their familiar students, according to the content and handwriting of papers. To some extent, it was not a way of cheating and if only one student didn’t write something outrageous, he could be rated highly. If Sheng Family could introduce them to some people with talent or high ranks, Li Yu and Li Du could spend less efforts and get better results.
Minglan thought that… the candidates who didn’t want to get good results were not good candidates, but one examination without any private benefit or friendship involved was an examination with justice.
At that time, Pinlan was talking with Hu Taisheng and then laughed a little loudly. Sheng Yun turned to them and frowned. Then she stood near Old Madam Sheng and smiled: “Our Taisheng doesn’t have the talent of studying. Could it be that Aunt Sheng doesn’t like him?”
The Old Madam Sheng liked the naughty niece very much and scolded her only with a smile: “You, like a little naughty monkey. When you were a child, I taught you to read, but you didn’t do it well. And you couldn’t even recite Three-Character Canon (a 13th-century reading primer consisting of Confucian tenets in lines of 3 characters). How dare you ask about that? Taisheng’s personality is just like yours. Come here, Taisheng.” The Old Madam Sheng held Taisheng’s hands: “What a good child! Each profession produces its top experts. Your uncle often praised your honesty and diligence. And he said, you devoted yourself wholly to work and are good at handling family business. I am so delighted to hear that.”
Hu Taisheng just kept giggling. Pinlan came over and smiled: “Elder cousin, it’s the first time younger sister Ming came here, what good things have you brought to us?” Taisheng replied honestly: “I bought the western desserts on the opposite side of Haizi as a treat for your sisters.”
The Third Madam couldn’t bear the neglect anymore, she said: “I have never tasted western desserts in my life, but I heard that they’re rather delicious. Let me bring some back to your third uncle; other relatives look down on your third uncle’s , nephew you shall not follow them!” Huilan also smiled: “Why do you say that mother, cousin Taisheng is the kindest person, how can he look down upon us?” Huilan’s tone showed a sense of intimacy, and she looked at Taisheng with her sparkling eyes. Taisheng blushed, stood still and looked down, not willing to speak anymore.
The rest of the present all pretended that nothing happened, only Pinlan was angry and wanted to come forward. Minglan sighed secretly. She was intended to pull Pinlan’s sleeves, but considering her strength, she decided to change her strategy.
Minglan turned around deftly and stood in the way of Pinlan, but she hadn’t thought of a good excuse in that critical situation, so she said something that she thought was brilliant, “Sister Pinlan, tell me again about how to solve the Chinese Rings; it distressed me a lot as I haven’t figured it out.”
Sure enough, Pinlan stopped and turned around with amazement: “Hey? Didn’t I just taught it to you step by step? You forgot it so quickly?” Her voice was a little loud, and several boys in the room all looked over, especially the youngest Li Du, showing an expression of “She’s so stupid”. Minglan blushed and felt hot on her face, but she was cursing in her mind.
Li Yu chuckled and glanced at Minglan, said: “The Chinese Rings is so abstruse, only smart people like younger sister Pin can master it in just one lesson. We are all unintelligent, naturally, we need to have more practices.” Hu Taisheng was the most straightforward one, as he added: “Yes, yes, I don’t know how to solve it either though I have learned several times.”
Pinlan was very proud of their words: “Elder cousin you are right.” And then she started to teach Minglan patiently again the tips to resolve the Chinese Rings.
Minglan was quite embarrassed, thinking: it’s not abstruse at all! But after all, she achieved her goal.
Minglan smiled, listened and nodded constantly. Unconsciously, she turned around and saw Old Madam Sheng sitting on the seat of honor. Old Madam Sheng was talking to the womenfolk and kept smiling. Minglan was a little absent-minded as she found that smile quite familiar. Ah, yes, when she was a child, her own grandmother took a boiled egg to coax her into piercing ear, and grandmother also smiled like that.