Everyone in the world is putting on a show.
On the second day of the second lunar month, known as the Rain Praying Festival, people eagerly anticipated rainfall in the region of Yongzhou.
This time of year marked the period just before the awakening of spring, and rain was essential for the upcoming agricultural season. Nearly every household was hoping for rain.
In places like Jiangnan, the Rain Praying Festival was more of a folk tradition. People would often organize temple fairs, gatherings, light incense, offer prayers, and then return home to make steamed cakes and enjoy dragon beard noodles, considering their rituals complete.
However, in Yongzhou, the second day of the second lunar month was a significant event.
The region already received less rainfall compared to neighboring prefectures, and recent years had brought severe droughts. As the disaster worsened, people’s hopes turned more fervent, fearing that their sincerity might not be enough to move the heavens.
Coincidentally, wandering martial artists passing through Yongzhou had performed several acts of kindness.
In some remote and superstitious villages, influenced by the ramblings of local shamans, young women had been sacrificed to appease the Dragon King.
These women would be adorned and locked inside the Dragon King’s temple, only to be killed during the next day’s ritual.
Though martial artists in the jianghu were a mixed lot, including both those who claimed righteousness but had done little good and those who were hypocritical, they couldn’t stand idly by and watch a young woman be killed.
As a result, overnight, rumors began to spread along the route from Yongzhou to the capital city. The stories revolved around these righteous and chivalrous martial artists who had, through various means, managed to save these sacrificial victims.
Even those who hadn’t encountered the “sacrificial maiden” found ways to promote their own past deeds.
If they lacked fame and their previous actions were unknown, they simply pretended to have coincidentally met, praised each other, and engaged in conversations.
They would stand in the middle of the road, wearing polite smiles, speaking loudly to one another. Passersby would point and whisper as they exchanged compliments and then went on their way, satisfied with the attention and recognition they received.
The so-called “passersby” might have been pre-arranged.
At the right moment, they would nod approvingly, saying to those around them, “So, this is XX. I’ve heard of their great reputation, but I never expected them to be so young and talented/remarkably good-looking/charismatic. Truly remarkable.”
Once the conversation started, everything became easier.
They could continue praising this person’s extraordinary qualities or flaunt their prestigious martial arts sect. In this manner, they would seamlessly transition from discussing their deeds to revealing their background and, finally, mentioning that they had once been praised by respected figures in the martial world.
Their words would be eloquent and convincing, leaving the other passersby in awe.
After this elaborate series of compliments, even if no one had previously heard of this person in the martial world, they would remember now.
Where there are people, there’s the martial world, and where there’s the martial world, there’s bound to be some theatrics.
Whether it was at the inn’s entrance, in front of a tea stall, or by the well…
These scenes played out repeatedly. Seasoned martial artists chuckled to themselves and took the opportunity to rest, cleaning their teeth while enjoying the spectacle.
When the Elder of the Spring Mountain Sect, Song Ya, stumbled and staggered into view, many didn’t immediately react. Their eyes widened as they saw a bloodied old scholar who appeared gravely injured.
Two righteous young martial artists who had been “complimenting” each other a moment ago stepped back several paces in shock.
“…Help me, please…”
Song Ya had managed to endure until this point, but when he arrived here, his heart meridians suddenly suffered a dark force’s impact. This power seemed to have been lurking at his lute bone injury from before, and he was caught off guard.
He fell to the ground, struggling painfully.
His vision blurred with countless figures, and Song Ya couldn’t recognize any of them.
However, he couldn’t let his sworn enemy off so easily!
Gasping for breath, blood foaming at his lips, his eyes vacant, anyone could see that he was on the brink of death.
“Spring Mountain Sect… who… pass on a message to Spring Mountain Sect for me, and there will be great gratitude.” Song Ya gritted his teeth, using up the last of his life-preserving inner energy. When the inner energy was depleted, he could no longer suppress his injuries.
But the effect was immediate. His speech became clearer, and he could barely make out the surroundings.
To his dismay, he discovered that the people around him were mostly young martial artists. He had hoped for someone more experienced.
He had to make use of this last bit of time and struggled to say, “The Gold Silk Armor has reappeared. Someone has obtained the Gold Silk Armor! He’s nearby…”
The crowd erupted into a commotion, utterly shocked.
They began discussing frantically, and some even shouted involuntarily, drowning out Song Ya’s voice.
A dying man had no strength to raise his voice. The old scholar’s urgent words fell on deaf ears as the closest people to him were too absorbed in their own discussions. His complexion worsened, and he was close to dying from frustration.
How could these young martial artists behave like this? They hadn’t even understood the situation before getting so excited.
When some people finally realized and eagerly asked about the identity of the person who had taken the Gold Silk Armor, Song Ya was on the brink of death. He muttered,
“Teacher… Chu Dyn…”
The old scholar’s words were incomprehensible. The onlookers were confused, and Song Ya’s consciousness began to fade away.
Is he delirious? The Chu Dynasty has been gone for sixteen years.
Just as they felt regretful, the old scholar regained consciousness. He suddenly sat up and, with clear articulation, angrily shouted, “Meng Qi!”
The person closest to Song Ya was startled and almost lost their footing.
“Is this that person’s name?”
“Meng Qi(蒙齐)? Or Meng Qi(孟戚)?”
Anxious to ask more questions, they suddenly realized that the old scholar was staring with wide eyes, his body completely still, lifeless.
“Has the Gold Silk Armor truly reappeared in the martial world? Or did this information surface after the news from Emperor Li’s tomb? Could there be deception involved?”
“Are you deaf? Didn’t you hear those three words? Spring Mountain Sect!”
The seasoned martial artists resting at the tea stall exchanged bewildered glances.
The Spring Mountain Sect didn’t hold a particularly high position in the martial world. It was a sect that had been both righteous and unorthodox in its early years but had gradually become more controversial in its actions.
Many of its disciples resorted to shortcuts in their martial arts, and there were also those among them who practiced poison techniques.
Their reputation suffered greatly, but that didn’t mean their actual strength had declined. In fact, they were stronger than many orthodox sects.
“The Gold Silk Armor, Emperor Li’s Tomb, Spring Mountain Sect… This is going to be a big deal!”
People who sensed trouble quickly left, not wanting to get involved.
Of course, there were also those in the martial world who were tempted by the promise of “great gratitude.” They discussed delivering Song Ya’s body to the Spring Mountain Sect, unaware that he was the renowned Song Ya of the martial world.
They bought a simple coffin and placed the body inside.
Since they knew someone would want to inspect it, they didn’t bother to nail the lid shut.
News of the Gold Silk Armor spread like wildfire. On the day of the Rain Praying Festival, every tavern and tea house where martial artists gathered was buzzing with excitement.
While it was just a valuable item, the Gold Silk Armor had captured everyone’s attention, likely because it was associated with Emperor Li’s tomb.
The Gold Silk Armor was impervious to weapons and incredibly valuable.
It was just one of the many treasures buried with Emperor Li, but when the entire martial world was clamoring for it, even common martial artists who knew they had no chance of acquiring it couldn’t help but be interested.
They talked about the Gold Silk Armor and Emperor Li’s extravagant lifestyle.
They wished they could see the Gold Silk Armor with their own eyes and touch it with their own hands. It was as if the more precious the Gold Silk Armor, the more it validated the enormous wealth of the tomb.
When Mo Li entered the Qiong County, apart from the lively scene of the officials and commoners praying for rain, he saw groups of martial artists huddled together, their expressions filled with excitement.
There was an eerie atmosphere in the town, as if everyone had red faces and was preparing for some great endeavor.
The townspeople, in their fervent prayers for favorable weather, were prostrating themselves, bowing with each step.
Almost every street had people dressed as Taoist priests, wielding peach-wood swords, holding talismans inscribed with cinnabar ink, and performing intricate dance-like rituals as they chanted incantations.
Behind them were yamen runners, community leaders, and village chiefs, each carrying censers.
In front of the Dragon King’s Temple, the sacrificial altar had already been set up with offerings of three animals and various fruits and melons.
The Taoist priest leading the ceremony was adorned in an Eight Trigrams robe. With a wave of his whisk, green smoke ascended straight into the sky, creating the illusion of reaching the heavens.
“… We implore the Dragon King to bring forth clouds and rain, hastening to our aid.”
The Taoist priest recited the invocation with great zeal. Suddenly, he noticed a young altar boy peeking curiously from the side of the sacrificial altar. Annoyed by the boy’s lack of solemnity, the priest ignored him until he finished the long prayer. Then, with another flick of his whisk, the smoke transformed into a billowing cloud and wafted toward the assembled crowd.
As the people kowtowed, the Taoist priest stepped aside. He sternly rebuked the young altar boy in a hushed tone, “Why are you acting so fidgety? Don’t you see we are offering prayers to the heavens? Your lack of reverence could displease the Dragon King and bring misfortune to these people.”
The young boy, about eight years old, couldn’t discern the seriousness in the priest’s words. He lowered his head and mumbled, “Yes, something bad has happened.”
“The Gold Silk Armor…”
Impatiently, the Taoist priest scolded, “You’re just a child; don’t believe everything you hear on the streets. Our Cangfeng Temple is blessed by the heavens and possesses various mystical arts. How can you, with your gossipy tendencies, ever become a great master?”
The young boy hesitated but mustered the courage to speak, “But they all spoke with such certainty, like they knew it for a fact. And our sect leader has gone to the capital. I overheard them saying…”
The Taoist priest glared at him, and the boy trembled, not daring to beat around the bush any more, and quickly said: “Several martial sects sent people to inspect the dead body from the Spring Mountain Sect, and, guess what, they identified the corpse as Song Ya!”
“What?” The Taoist priest was taken aback and asked urgently, “Where did you hear this?”
“From outside, it’s already spreading.”
The young boy, frightened by the priest’s reaction, shrank back and timidly said, “Master, should we send a message to the sect leader?”
The Taoist priest sneered, revealing a sly smile, and replied in a less-than-friendly tone, “You needn’t trouble yourself, and I don’t need to be bothered either. There are plenty of people in Cangfeng Sect who can carry messages.”
As the Taoist priest spoke, he suddenly felt a chill down his spine, sensing that someone was watching him from behind.
He quickly turned around, suspecting that someone was staring at him.
However, there was a large crowd gathered in front of the Dragon King’s Temple, and the county magistrate and others had arrived, causing a commotion.
The Taoist priest was distracted by their presence, making it impossible for him to identify the person who had been spying on him.
“Let’s go,” Mo Li adjusted his bamboo hat and said to Meng Qi, who wasn’t wearing a hat.
Meng Qi had concealed his presence, making it appear as if nobody paid particular attention to him.
This was a peculiar phenomenon. It wasn’t that people no longer noticed Meng Qi’s existence; instead, those who came close to him always seemed to divert their attention elsewhere, missing the opportunity to see his face.
It was a characteristic of martial prowess reaching a profound level—being able to harm or influence others even through seemingly inconspicuous actions, like plucking a leaf or a petal.
However, it was a legend, and while one could use leaves to harm others, the ability to remain unnoticed by those nearby was an extraordinary feat even for a supreme expert.
Meng Qi had always possessed this ability, and when Mo Li had inquired about it, Meng Qi couldn’t provide a clear explanation.
Over time, Mo Li even began to suspect that it might be a talent related to dragon veins.
The Daoists were fond of discussing dragon veins and often busied themselves with searching for them, but when the real dragon veins appeared before their eyes, who among them could recognize them?
“The man we just encountered has some skills, but he doesn’t seem to be a close confidant of Qingwu Ancestor.”
The Taoist and the Taoist boy spoke in low voices. In such a noisy place, even Meng Qi could not hear what they were saying. However, they did not cover their mouths when they talked, and Meng Qi could tell the main idea.
Mo Li originally planned to track down the messenger from Cangfeng Sect who was reporting to Qingwu Ancestor. However, since this Daoist didn’t seem to be involved, there was no point in keeping an eye on him.
“Today, there are dozens of Daoists, monks, and shamans performing rituals in the city, but this one was invited by the government. It seems that Cangfeng Sect has a significant influence within the borders of Yongzhou.”
Meng Qi assessed the situation and didn’t make any immediate decisions. Instead, he asked Mo Li, “Physician, where do we go next?”
“The Imperial Mausoleum.”
Although Qiong County was small, it was quite special.
It was the ancestral home of Emperor Lu Zhang of the Qi Dynasty, and some members of the Lu clan were said to still live there.
During the Qi Dynasty’s reign, these clan members didn’t ascend to heaven alongside their emperor but lived cautiously in Lu Family Village, which was located near the Imperial Mausoleum built by the Qi Dynasty.
The mausoleum was heavily guarded, and ordinary people were forbidden from approaching it.
As a result, these clan members lived a difficult life, not much different from those guarding the mausoleum.
They couldn’t complain either because the mausoleum now housed their ancestors, and it was their duty to protect it.
“Why did Lu Zhang do this?” Mo Li asked curiously.
According to Meng Qi’s account, Lu Zhang was an emperor who cared greatly about his reputation. Even though he had usurped the throne, he always made an effort to save face. He had launched his rebellion under the banner of being a righteous ruler who sought to overthrow the harsh rule of the Chu Dynasty.
It’s said that if the king treats his ministers like his hands and feet, then his ministers will regard him as his heart and soul; if the king regards his ministers as dirt, then his ministers will regard him as a bandit.
In fact, it was Emperor Chu Yuan who took the most drastic actions. Later, Emperor Chu Ling treated his ministers poorly, but he certainly compensated General Lu Zhang for his loyalty. Otherwise, no matter how hard Lu Zhang worked, he wouldn’t have been able to obtain the decree of General at such a young age, in his early thirties.
Lu Zhang wanted to keep things ambiguous. From the perspective of the common people, he was known for being a benevolent and generous emperor. He handed out gold, silver, jewels, and even precious elixirs. It was this ambiguity that confused the masses. The people didn’t know the full story; they only heard rumors in tea houses. All they knew was that the righteous general who pacified the realm, Marquis Jingyuan, died under mysterious circumstances.
According to Meng Qi, after ascending to the throne, Lu Zhang established the Jin Yi Wei (Embroidered Uniform Guard) as a hidden force, curtailed the power of military commanders, and appeared quite magnanimous to his officials.
He was generous with wealth and bestowed precious items, including elixirs, to win the favor of his courtiers.
This was how Liu Dan was targeted by Master Meng.
“He goes to great lengths to maintain a facade of benevolence, yet he’s kept the Lu clan members under house arrest. Even the most discerning individuals can easily see the problem, but he doesn’t seem to care. Could it be a deep-seated grudge against his own family?” Mo Li inquired as they walked along.
The people in Zhushan County didn’t even know the Emperor’s surname, so naturally they had no secrets about the Emperor.
In these times, clan influence was substantial.
Some villages were formed by refugees from the same lineage who had come together, often through intermarriage.
In some cases, entire villages shared the same surname. The words of clan elders held more sway than those of the authorities. Going against one’s own clan, no matter the reasons, was perceived by society as the height of filial impiety and disloyalty.
If someone couldn’t even honor their own ancestors, who could they be trusted with?
“My teacher used to say that such notions are misleading. The more influential a clan, the more likely it is to harbor dark secrets,” Mo Li recalled.
Qin Lu was a complex individual, a Confucian scholar who adhered to principles of etiquette and propriety but also had a disdain for tradition. To him, decorum was a matter of self-cultivation, not a set of rigid constraints. He believed that people shouldn’t allow themselves to be bound by societal norms.
Meng Qi walked with his hands behind his back, casually observing the people along the road while continuing, “You guessed correctly, Physician. Lu Zhang indeed has a significant vendetta against his own clan.”
“I’d appreciate further details.”
“He enlisted at a young age, achieved military success on the border, received promotions, and gradually made his way to the capital…” Meng Qi began, then paused to make an observation. “This background sounds quite similar to moneybag Liu’s. No wonder Lu Zhang held him in such high regard.”
“We have money too,” Mo Li subtly reminded Meng Qi not to be overly concerned with other people’s wealth.
“As for money, who would ever complain about having too much?”
Meng Qi replied with a knowing tone. “I’ve looked into Liu Dan’s background. Although his family was poor, with his parents gone and no supportive relatives, he wanted to rise above his circumstances and sought his fortune in the military, hoping to achieve wealth and glory through risk. Compared to moneybag Liu, Lu Zhang had a much tougher time in his youth. During the Chu Dynasty, there were hardly any external threats, so it was difficult to earn significant military merits. If he hadn’t married the daughter of the Shangguan family later on, he might not have managed to gain prominence or catch the attention of Emperor Chu Ling.”
They passed through the city gates of Qiong County and traveled eastward for about twenty li, where they could see a grand archway in the distance.
“This is where the story begins.”
Lu Zhang’s father had died early, and his mother had been forced to hang herself. The Lu clan members composed a beautiful article and submitted it to the authorities, claiming that she had voluntarily sacrificed herself for her husband.
This allowed them to seize the woman’s dowry and the property and wealth meant for Lu Zhang, as well as earn the clan a virtuous archway.
What was the purpose of a virtuous archway?
It wasn’t just a decorative structure; it also came with tangible benefits from the government. The authorities would grant the clan exemptions from taxes and corvée labor as a reward.
“…In short, it’s all about money! The Lu family of Qiong County isn’t the first to do this, and they won’t be the last,” Meng Qi explained. As he spoke, his expression remained indifferent, as if he had seen such tragic events far too often.
Mo Li furrowed his brow deeply and asked, puzzled, “But weren’t there any exposés?”
“Throughout history, only families with some influence could pull off such schemes. It’s not just about extolling the virtues of a ‘chaste woman’ but also talking about how her deceased husband was outstanding, well-educated, and a paragon of righteousness.
“Then they’d hire people to go far and wide, singing their praises. Finally, a heartfelt and well-written article would be necessary. The local officials in those regions often lacked common sense and relied on the imperial exams to advance in their careers. When they saw such moving articles, they’d be deeply impressed, and that would seal the deal.
“If an official governed his area well, these ‘filial sons and chaste women’ would also be part of the assessment by the Ministry of Personnel. They served as proof that the region was governed admirably, as plenty in the granaries and proper etiquette are the signs of a successful administration. These can be found in the county annals.”
To construct a virtuous archway over the death of a village woman required more than just her death.
It necessitated the involvement of influential families from the countryside who had a history of scholarship and public service, along with a reputation recorded in the county records.
By erecting a virtuous memorial arch, the county magistrate can also place his name in the county annals, and it’s a good name for the court to commend the local clan.
Meng Qi continued in a solemn tone, “When so many people’s interests are involved, who would stand up for a dead person? Both the woman’s family and her husband’s family gained rewards, and the closest people to her won’t say a word either. Some major clans value their reputation and choose widows without children. If there were children involved, it could lead to complications – outsiders might not believe it, but if the child thrived and gained prominence, it would be troublesome.”
The current Emperor of the Qi Dynasty, Lu Zhang, was undoubtedly one such troublesome figure.
“…Physician Mo has been in Zhushan County for a long time, and your master mostly treated poor people when he traveled around the world, so he probably doesn’t know the faces of the rich people in these villages. Even if they force people to die, they rarely do it themselves. The women in the family and the women they marry from well-matched families have been taught to be submissive early on. Even if there are some who was reluctant and insists on not dying, the clan will not strangle the person to death, but will slowly grind her on various small things until she is completely changed beyond recognition, making all the female relatives of the clan see it so clearly that they couldn’t bear to look and were frightened. In this way, if a young woman’s husband dies and she has no children to rely on, as soon as the clan members come to persuade her to die, they will cry loudly and hang themselves from the rafters. It’s said that it’s better to die than to live in vain, but the fact is often the opposite. Thinking of living in such a vain way makes people prefer to die early.”
Mo Li was speechless. He looked at the old archway in the distance and said after a long time: “Is there still such a custom today? Under the Qi Dynasty, the government should not allow the construction of virtuous memorial arches anymore, right?”
“The government can stop building archways, but can it still prevent widows from hanging themselves in the middle of the night?”
If a widow lives longer, how much of the wealth left by her husband and her own dowry will be left after she eats and drinks until she is seventy years old? Naturally, it would be better to die early and have the money divided among the clan elders.
Meng Qi looked solemn and sighed: “Not only did the Qi dynasty not allow it, but the Chu Dynasty also banned the construction of memorial arches in the later years. They even issued orders to reprimand them several times, but the teaching had no results. How will those women be punished if they die voluntarily? The disaster to the clan is worse than the evil beast that eats people.”
Mo Li was silent for a long time and then said: “This archway was given by the government of the Chu Dynasty? Is the Chu Dynasty also on his hate list?”
“No, this memorial archway should belong to the Chen dynasty. By the time Lu Zhang’s mother died, officials from the Rituals Department of the Chu dynasty were already aware of these issues and no longer granted memorial archways so easily. Thus, they rejected it. Seven years after Emperor Chu Yuan, none of the archways were awarded to women who died for their virtuousness, but to elderly women renowned in the countryside for their good deeds, as well as women whose raised children were exceptionally talented.”
Meng Qi’s voice grew softer, shaking his head and said, “The wealth of the Lu family belongs to the clan elder and clan chief. All the clan members could hope for was a reduction in taxes and labor. Given their high hopes, even this wasn’t achieved. One can imagine the plight of Lu Zhang in his younger days.”
Mo Li silently realized that in this matter, whether or not the Chu dynasty granted an archway, in Lu Zhang’s eyes, they were at fault.
The Emperor of the Qi dynasty is mentioned due to the subsequent plot twists about the fight for the throne. It’s not a court drama, but more about “The misfortune of the royal physician”, so I want to talk about it.
Of course, Lu Zhang’s rebellion wasn’t due to hatred for the Chu dynasty. He was born in a prosperous era and felt no gratitude towards the Chu dynasty rulers who established it. It’s all due to his background, and people’s characters vary greatly.
In this chapter, the two dragon veins meander around in the midst of voices praying for rain and offering sacrifices to the Dragon God.
Meng Qi: “Why ask me! I even have to find water to drink for myself!”