Chapter 42 – Five Elder Cousin Sisters (Pinlan, Shulan, Xiulan, Huilan, Yuelan)

The atmosphere of the Sheng Household that was located in Youyan was full of joy and happiness, and every last one of the family had a similar temper, so they loved chatting and laughing and all treated people with enthusiasm. Since came to Youyang, Minglan was just like a convict, who has served sentence for many years, got parole suddenly and became relaxed completely.

In all probability, Minglan shared the common interest with Pinlan so that they almost chimed in easily. One of them was a hoyden of action, while the other was an accomplice who offered dumb ideas, coupled with the two girls was Taisheng (Pinlan’s elder cousin brother), who was a softy got used to being ordered by his younger cousin sisters. Because of the three children, these days, the whole Sheng Household was really abustle and astir: when Minglan was fishing, Pinlan would help her catch the earthworm, while Taisheng would stand by, holding a fish basket and chattered ‘be careful not to fall into water’, ‘don’t go any further’ and so on; when Pinlan was capturing the sparrow, Minglan would help to set the dustpan and to scatter corn, while Taisheng would hide behind the wall to monitor, holding the rope connected with the stick in his hand…

Mrs. Li was busy in managing family affairs and preparing for Changwu’s marriage, so she had to ask Mrs. Wen (Mrs. Li’s daughter-in-law) to bring Minglan and Pinlan back. However, Mrs. Wen was no match for Pinlan and could do nothing with Minglan as well, so she could only turn a blind eye to them.

“Let them go, they are kids after all, so just leave them alone if they want to play. A bouncing kid would be better than a chump.” The Eldest Madam Sheng smiled and saved the two girls from embarrassment. Found Mrs. Li awkward, the Old Madam Sheng would have wanted to admonish Minglan, however, she then gave up since had seen that these days Minglan was in better spirits than when she was in Dengzhou, so she signed: “It’s true that nephew’s wife loves the kids, it’s … it’s for no other reason than that the girl will suffer a lot in the future if they won’t be restricted now. All right, nephew’s wife, you can pardon them for the moment and just wait for the marriage of Boy Changwu finished, then it will be the time to discipline the two little monkeys.”

Pinlan and Minglan stood by, and they were supposed to be caught and to be given an admonitory talk by Mrs. Li. So, at the very start, the two girls were all standing down in the mouth and frustrated. After listening to the old madams’ words, they all became happy. Mrs. Li glared at her daughter.

Both Old Madam Sheng and Mother Fang were old, and the old madam had already told Minglan to help Mother Fang manage the family affairs when they were in Dengzhou. Therefore, after the long journey came to Youyang, Old Madam Sheng and Mother Fang were tired enough, so they asked Minglan to arrange the luggage and to prepare the gift for relatives in Youyang. Having been playing for only a few days, Minglan and Pinlan were assigned to handle family affairs, so that Pinlan became depressed, but she could not but followed Minglan and complained. However, when Pinlan found that Minglan was a woman of her word and every order of her was executed without fail by the servants; besides, both young servants and old maids reported to Minglan respectfully and no one caused any trouble, so she began to admire Minglan.

“I also have helped my elder brother’s wife to manage family affairs, but the servants always shirked work, which made me suffer every time. Nonetheless, my mother did not support me but lessoned me, is … is there any secret of managing affairs?” Pinlan was modest enough and asked Minglan.

Minglan had also suffered a lot before. She got along with Pinlan for the past few days and fully understood Pinlan’s temper, so she said: “Let me guess. Before you did an errand, would you ask the stewards how they did that in the past?”

“No.” Pinlan denied bluntly. “I had asked my mother and elder sister-in-law about all the details. Why need I ask the stewards?”

“Did you directly ask your people to take the errand, neglecting those maids and housekeepers?” continued Minglan.

Pinlan nodded: “Those housekeepers all get some respects from Old Madam and Madams and they always pay no attention to me. Besides, if I can complete the errand in just one attempt, why bother to assigned it to more people?”

Minglan looked enlightened, while Pinlan was more confused, so she kept asking why, and Minglan laughed: “Those housekeepers’ indentures are in the hands of the host, so they don’t have the courage to go against you publicly. As long as you ‘Follow established rules’, there will be no big problems. Before you do something, ask stewards carefully about how they used to do it. Try to follow rules. If you really want to change the way, don’t do it yourself or expose your thoughts in front of them; you have to first ask Madam or your elder sister-in-law to see if your way is appropriate, and then act upon it.”

Pinlan wrinkled her little face and complained: “My mother always makes trouble for me, I’d rather not ask her!”

Minglan held Pinlan’s face, flattened the wrinkles, and then said seriously: “There is a set of rules in the household. How do you know that your method must be good? Your mother is sophisticated, she will know whether your method is good or bad once she listens. Anyway, it’s better than doing something wrong. This is the first point. Secondly, if you have a errand to assign, all participants will take advantage from it. But you take their profits away by bypassing them. How can these people be happy? Naturally, they will impede you publicly or secretly. But if you have informed Old Madam and Madam in advance, those housekeepers and maids can do nothing with you!”

Pinlan was still a little hesitating, so Minglan added a few more words: “The housekeeping is not an easy task. You haven’t heard of ‘Three years in housekeeping, even cats and dogs dislike you’? If you are afraid of troubles, you can just go away. If you want to manage it, you can’t be afraid of any difficulties or troubles. Remember, you get immediate families to support you, while those who have already married lead a rather harder life as they have to deal with different relatives-in-law!”

Minglan didn’t mention that, as the concubine’s daughter, her life was rougher than Pinlan’s, as Rulan and Molan were very good at strategies and calculating, and Mrs. Wang might not support her in some situations.

In Minglan’s opinion, more responsibilities usually bring about more mistakes, and if you don’t want to err you can only drop those errands.

The employee’s wish is to do less work but get more money, and the employer’s goal is to let employees do more work and pay less. This is a long-lasting contradiction. No matter how sophisticated the hostess is, as long as she deprives others of their profits, she will inevitably be hindered.

If a hostess uses the budget of 10,000 ounces of silver to manage a household which only needs 1,000 ounces of silver, she could pay the servants generously: double their salary, give bonus every end of a year, or maybe even offer overseas travel awards. As long as the hostess is not extremely fatuous or being cheated by others, she would be highly praised as “benevolent and kind-hearted”. However, if it is the other way around, a hostess needs to use 1,000 ounces of silver to cover a large bill of 10,000 ounces of silver, it’s impossible. For instance, today your uncle may buy a concubine for 800 ounces of silver; tomorrow your sister-in-law may hold a poetry assembly and cost you 500 ounces of silver; the next day, your granny may donate 1,000 ounces of silver saisen to the Buddha. Maybe only the fairies could manage the tight budget – a fairy can turn a stone into gold.

The right way to spend the money is to use it wisely. Neither waste money nor being too frugal. Don’t rip your servants off. Sometimes it is smart to give them extra tips. And on this basis the hostess could set household rules, standardize servant behaviors and manners, thus to arrange the whole household in good order. This is an ideal way to manage a large household.

Actually Pinlan was smart. It was because Mrs. Li didn’t find an appropriate way to teach her the household management. And as Mrs. Wen was only Pinlan’s sister-in-law, it was improper for her to over-intervene Pinlan’s household management learning. But Minglan found a rational way to tell Pinlan. Pinlan thought it over and found it very reasonable. After talking with Minglan, Pinlan went back and followed Mrs. Li while she was dealing with household issues. Pinlan saw her mother was as busy as a spinning top: she arranged the servants to organize the trousseau, gave bonus to outstanding maids and set bedrooms for guests. There were a dozen of maids asked her about how to deal with all chores everyday. Pinlan suddenly felt that her mother was busy and tired managing the whole household everyday—life was not easy. Then she behaved obediently in the next few days. She practiced calligraphy and embroidery together with Minglan.  

Mrs. Li found her daughter became sensible recently, and she was quite relieved. A few days ago, Mrs. Li saw Minglan managing several complicated chores, when Minglan handled all things easily: she didn’t even use the abacus to help calculate the accounts, since written calculation was enough for her. Mrs. Li was amazed by the outstanding intelligence of Minglan. When she looked at her own daughter Pinlan, who kept buzzing:”You still haven’t finished your work? Let’s go play outside!”, Mrs. Li couldn’t help worrying about Pinlan.

Seeing that Pinlan became much grown up now, Mrs. Li was delighted. But she also felt sorry when she saw Pinlan was in low spirits. She crumpled Pinlan’s hair, said:”Your sister Ming should obey several strict rules when she’s at home. Now she visited our house, you can show her around in the garden, as long as you behave properly.”

On the wedding day, the Sheng household was fully decorated, even the maids and servants were dressed up. Pinlan and Minglan were playing around happily. In the lively sound of gongs and drums, Brother Changwu was riding a big white horse and wearing a traditional groom’s red robe to welcome the sedan chair of the bride.

“Second brother is so silly! Look at him, he is grinning ear to ear.” Pinlan put her arm on Minglan’s shoulder and whispered. Minglan nodded, Brother Changwu was indeed smiling like an idiot. But anyway, we could understand him.

The Eldest Madam Sheng did not allow Changwu to have concubines. In order to avoid making mistakes in adolescence, boys usually got married early. The Eldest Madam Sheng and Mrs. Li started looking for a suitable wife for Changwu when he was fifteen, but it was difficult – even a groomsman in the Sheng family wanted to form a connection with them. The Eldest Madam Sheng and Mrs. Li were too picky, not willing to have a daughter-in-law coming from a family with low status, so Changwu didn’t get married until he was 21 years old. He was walking on air now!

Minglan also saw Taisheng’s father Uncle Hu, whose name was Erniu (which means “the second cow”). Minglan thought that since he was the second, he must have an elder brother, but he didn’t. It was said Uncle Hu’s mother dreamed that someone gave two cows to the Hu family as presents the night before she gave birth to Uncle Hu, so she named her son Erniu. Uncle Hu was a good person, helping the Sheng family a lot as Sheng Wei’s assistant.

Minglan didn’t like cousin Shulan’s husband, Sun Zhigao. Though good-looking, he had his nose in the air, appearing to be very arrogant. Minglan later learned that he was a famous child prodigy in Youyang. He became a xiucai (an entry-level licentiate who had passed the college exam) at the age of twelve… but he was still a xiucai until now. After knowing that Old Madam Sheng was the only daughter of the Marquis of Yongyi
matriarch, and all her sons and grandsons had high grades in court exam, he became respectful immediately.

The girls couldn’t show their face in public, so they couldn’t go to the wedding hall to see the ceremony, nor could they talk with strange guests. Pinlan tried to break through to the front to see the wedding ceremony, and was stopped by Minglan, who asked Pinlan to accompany her to the garden behind to see the new flowering trees. Mrs. Li knew Pinlan’s character, so she sent a servant to ask Pinlan to the back hall to talk with the Eldest Madam Sheng and the womenfolk.

“Did the young ladies in the third branch come?” Pinlan asked. The servant girl chortled: “Yes – Xiulan and Yulan in the neighboring county also came.” Pinlan’s heart immediately sank. She refused: “I won’t go!”

The servant girl felt embarrassed: “You have to go. Mrs. Li told me…” Seeing the servant girl was sweating with anxiety, Minglan said: “You go first, and I will go with Pinlan then.”

Although Minglan hadn’t been here for a long time, but she hit it off with Pinlan and could often gave Pinlan some good advice, so the servant girl relieved and went away after thanking Minglan.

Pinlan glared at Minglan: “Why did you promise it? I won’t go.” Minglan said coolly: “I don’t care, but Mrs. Li worry about you, and she will definitely send someone to catch you for many time. Do you want to be penalized over rewarding?”

Thinking about her mother’s harsh words, Pinlan said grimly: “I really don’t want to see the third branch! Except elder sister Xiulan who was nice, both Huilan and the concubine’s daughter Yuelan were… I don’t want to talk about them any further.”

Minglan pulled Pinlan slowly toward the main hall and asked while walking: “Why do you bear deep hatreds for them? So deep that leaves you such deep impressions.” Minglan asked the question to distract Pinlan.

Pinlan walked with Minglan unconsciously and said in an angry voice: “You have been living outside, so you don’t know the things they did. Three nuisances! When I was young, Third Madam said that her family circumstance was not well and daughters should be raised in a good environment. Therefore, she sent her three daughters to my family. My sister and I suffered a lot because of that! Sister Xiulan only tended to protect herself from troubles and didn’t make troubles ever. However, as for that Yuelan, Humph! She always made troubles, either grabbing my clothes or stealing my sister’s jewelries. When I complained that to my mother, Yuelan would cry and say we bullied her!” “She stole things?” Minglan was really surprised by that.

Every time thinking of the past, she felt very angry: “Stealing? It was robbing. Whenever there was no one in my sister’s room, she would walk in and rummage in the room. If finding something she likes, she would take them away directly and never give them back. My sister was honest and didn’t complain about that. But Yuelan gradually became more and more presumptuous and later she even stole something from my mother’s room. At first, my mother could tolerate what she did, thinking that it is normal for her to want some decorations for make-up. Whensome land deeds disappeared, including the deed of ancestral home they lived in now, then my mother was aware of the severity of what Pinlan did.”

“Have you got the deeds back?” Minglan asked her in curiosity.

The question made Pinlan excited. With a satisfied face, she said: “That time, she was going to be married in two months. Therefore, she thought that her family, considering her marriage, dared not rebuke her. However, my mother invited her politely from her family, and then ordered one servant to tell her husband’s parents that ‘She caught a cold, so the marriage date has to be put off for half a year.’ Later, my mother locked her in one room. Despite whatever her family said, we didn’t agree to release her out. But the people of her family dared not to make it a big deal out of it, because they were afraid of breaking off Yuelan’s engagement. Ahahah! Sister Yuelan was locked for several days until she gave back the deeds. She hid it under her undergarment and wanted to give them to her husband. Even her father (my third uncle) didn’t know anything about it.”

Pinlan said that with an exultant expression, while Minglan was greatly shocked by what she said. Then Minglan put her thumb up in her deep mind – Greatest genius often lies concealed. How she could expect that the eldest aunt was so difficult to deal with!

Pinlan’s desire to talk was drawn and continued: “As for Huilan, we often fought during our childhood. Here, look at the scar. It was caused by knocking down upon a stone when we fought. If I didn’t support my body with arms in time, I could not imagine what my appearance has been like.” When talking, Pinlan raised her sleeve and reached one arm out. Really, a big pink scar, like a centipede, was embedded on her arm.

“Then, Huilan was sent back her home.” said Pinlan with hatress, “They are all ungrateful!”

Huilan was three years older than Pinlan. How could she hurt her young sister (Pinlan) then? Looking at the scar on Pinlan’s arm which was almost 20 cm long, Minglan couldn’t imagine how painful Pinlan was in her age of eight or nine. Minglan helped Pinlan put down her sleeves and comforted her, “I’ve heard the Eldest Madam Sheng talking about Sister Xiulan, saying that she is a kind girl. She lives harmoniously with her husband. I believe Sister Xiulan knows Mrs. Li’s kindness.”

Pinlan finally smiled, “That’s because my mother helped her a lot. That year, Sister Xiulan came to our house at night. She kowtowed to my parents, with her head bleeding. Her father arranged a marriage for her. It was a rich old man but was not kind. She asked my parents to persuade her father to cancel the marriage arrangement. My mother promised to help her and introduced a man to her. She then married the man. After becoming Xiucai (an entry-level licentiate who had passed the college exam), her husband failed to pass the triennial provincial exam. My dad sought help from some officials and he is now an official teacher in the neighbor county.”

Minglan greatly appreciated what they did. “Your parents are really kind, willing to help Sister Xiulan. But why didn’t your father help Shulan’s husband, Mr. Sun, to serve as an official teacher,” said Minglan.

Pinlan snorted, “When Mr. Sun was young, a fortune teller told him that he could be the grand chancellor (prime minister in ancient China) one day. So he made up his mind to pass the triennial court exam in order to become a higher-level official. As a result, he is not willing to serve as a teacher in a county, and has rejected my dad’s suggestion several times. But I think his ability does not match with his ambition.”

Listening to Pinlan’s complaints, Minglan can’t help smiling. If Pinlan lives in modern China, she could post on Tianya BBS (a Chinese community website), titling “My strange cousins, uncles, and aunts.” It would definitely stir up discussions.

When Pinlan finished her story, she and Minglan were about to reach the main hall. A maid was looking at their side. When the maid found the two girls were coming, she was so happy that she came close to talk to them, “My ladies, you finally come. The Eldest Madame has asked us whether you come or not for several times. She is going to send more servants to call you.”

“I am here now!” After speaking out her grievances, Pinlan was a lot more pleasant. She took Minglan and lifted her leg to enter the room. The maids standing in front of the door opened the curtain, and then it came a voice from a strange old woman, “…Why not arrange a marriage for Girl Ming with my nephew!”

Pinlan was shocked and turned to look at Minglan. Pinlan was surprised to find that Minglan seemed to be relieved. Minglan smiled and said, “What did you say when your mother punished you? No matter how you think about it, you have to face it. Ok, let’s go in!”


Chapter 41 - Cousin, Cousin, Cousin (Li Yu, Li Du, Taisheng)
Character Relationship Chart (Spoiler Warning!!!)

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