Portraits of Thirty-three Swordsmen – 16 The Young Seamstress

No. 16 The Young Seamstress: going after the pearls is easy, possessing the oranges is odd.

Tang Dynasty, a heroic figure name general Pan lived at Guangde neighborhood of the capitol. His exact name has been long forgotten, we only know his nickname was “Pan the muddled one”. He was from Hubei, near Xianyang, Hanko area. He used to be in business, transporting the goods himself on ships. On time, while docked at the side of river, a monk came by begging for food. Pan treated him courteously, inviting him to stay on the ship for several days, donating a lot of money. As the monk was departing, he said “judging by your aura, you are not like an average merchant. Your wife and daughter too, judging by their looks they will enjoy great fortunate in their lives.” The monk took out a strand of pearls, “here, take good care of this. If you do, not only will you make more money, but you will become a government official as well.”

Pan stayed in business for several years, which were hugely profitable for him. Then he went into government, eventually becoming the general of the Left Wing of Imperial Garrison. He built an nice house in the capitol. Deeply believing all this wealth and status were brought by the pearls, he treasured it: storing it inside an embroidered satin bag within a jade box. Enshrined at the alter, he would salute it on his knees the first of every month.

One day when he opened it, he found it gone. But the silk pouch and jade box has not been moved, and nothing else was missing. Shocked and frightened, he thought this was an omen signaling the imminent downfall. A meticulous investigation was conducted, but there were no clues. Pan’s household manager has a close acquittance name Wang Chao who is a city government clerk. Wang is nearly 80 years old and a native of the city. When the household manager confided the matter to him, he said “that is rather odd. This is not the work of an average thief. I’ll try to find it for you, but I cannot guarantee anything.”

One day, passing through North Street of Shengyie neighborhood, Wang Chao saw an young girl 17, 18 years of age. It was right after a spring shower, the girl wore her hair in three buns, her clothing was ragged, and had on wooden sandals. She was playing football with a group of young soldiers by the road under the ash trees. The soldiers would kick the ball to her, and she would kick it back, each time the ball soared toward the heavens, tens of feet in the air. Her kicks were marvelous, truly a rare sight. On the sides crowds gathered, the cheers often thunderous.

Wang Chao was astonished. Judging from her kicks and the power generated, she must be in possession of great gongfu. So he quietly observed from the sidelines. After a while, the players and the crowds dispersed. The girl walked away alone. Wang Chao followed her discreetly. She lived on a very short block near the north gate of Shengyie neighborhood. After making some inquiries, he found out she lived with her mother, and made a living as a seamstress.

Over time Wang found an excuse to get acquainted with the girl. Upon hearing her mother’s family name is also Wang, he started calling her ‘niece’, so she addressed him as ‘uncle’. The girl’s family is very poor. They slept together in one bed. Sometimes they would not have enough money to buy rice, so a whole day would go by without anyone boiling the rice. Wang helped them out often.

But from time to time, the girl would surprise Wang by offering him rare fruits from far away places, such as Suzhou’s Dongting orange, which were imported at great expense for the emperor. Other than the prime minister and other favored ministers, in the capitol city few outside the royal family had access to it. But the girl made it sound like it was not a big deal, that someone from the forbidden city brought it out. She’s a stubborn one, so there’s no use in arguing. Even though he felt suspicious, Wang revealed nothing.

A year would pass by like this. One day, bringing over food and wine, Wang Chao casually asked the girl “uncle has something close to my heart I want to discuss with you, is that okay?” The girl replied “I’m deeply appreciate everything you have done for us, I often regret that I cannot repay you. Anything I can do, even it meant going through fire and water, I would not refuse.” Wang Chao was direct “General Pan lose a set of pearls. Do you know anything about that?” The girl just smiled “why would I know anything about that?”

Seeing an opening, Wang said “if niece can find it somehow, there would be a great reward.” The girl replied “uncle cannot tell this to anyone else. I made a bet with some friends that I could take it. I didn’t really want it. I was going to return it eventually. It’s just with work and everything, I’ve been too busy. Wait for me at the Ci En Temple tomorrow morning. I knew someone placed the pearl there.”

Wang Chao arrived as planned. Soon the girl arrived. The temple was open already, but the pagoda was still locked. The girl instructed “Just wait here and watch the pagoda”. Going straight up, she flew up the pagoda like a bird, getting higher and higher. She ducked inside, and soon she was standing at the top next to the Dharma wheel, holding a strand of pearls in her hand. She waved, then leap to the ground. Handing over the jewels, she smiled “[I’ll have to] trouble uncle to return it. As for rewards and such, please don’t mention it.”

Wang Chao returned the pearls to General Pan, and told him everything that happened. General Pan was ecstatic. He prepared gold, jade, and many other lavish gifts, asking Wang Chao to give them to the young girl. But the next day when Wang Chao got to the girl’s house, mother and daughter were long gone.

When Feng Jian was a Level Five officer, he often heard the capitol was full of xia. When he became mayor of the capitol, he asked his subordinates about them. That’s when Wang Chao related the story to him. Wang’s account matched with what General Pan had told others.

Ci En temple is a famous temple in Changan. It was commissioned by emperor Gaozhong when he was still the royal prince to commemorate his mother, hence the name Temple of Merciful Benevolence. Incidentally, this is where Xuan Zhuang (the monk of Journey to the West) became chief abbot when he returned from his arduous journey. Inside the temple there is a pagoda towering over 300 feet with seven levels.







Through these stories we can see the definition of xia changed over time. Frankly, for many in this collection, the character merely possess extraordinary skills, but did not channel them toward any unselfish cause. They maybe brave and tough, but they are not heroic. Here we have a young girl who possess the skills that would allow her to take anything from anyone, yet she was content to make an honest, often impoverished living. We are finally getting closer to the meanings of xia as we know them today.

Tang dynasty was a period of great cultural export for China. Even today we can see the influence of Tang in traditional culture of other nations. For example, sumo is the Japanese pronunciation for Xian Pu – the name used for wrestling during Tang and Song Dynasties. Here, we can see the popular footwear of the time remain unchanged today in the form of Japanese geta.


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