Portraits of Thirty-three Swordsmen – 11 Hong Xian

No. 11 Hong Xian: golden box by the bed, penitently ridding residue sin.

Tang Dynasty, commanding general of Lu Zhou military district Xue Song had a female servant named Hong Xian (red string). She was expert at Pipa, and well-read in the classics. She served as Xue’s ‘interior secretary’, in charge of various types of paperwork.

One time during a military banquet, Hong Xian said to Xue: “the sound of drum tonight is full of sorrow and melancholy, the drummer must have something in his mind.” Xue knew music as well, he agreed “you’re right”. He summoned the drummer and asked what happened. The drummer said “Last night my wide died, but I dare not request absence from this performance.” So Xue sent the drummer home.

This is during the reign of Emperor Suzong. There were much unrest in Henan, Hebei region. Xue was tasked to guard Ganyang, and maintain control of Shandong. During the early days of his command, by emperor’s command Xue married his laughter to the son of Tian Chengsi – commanding general of Hebei military district, and his son to the daughter of LingHu Zhang’s – commanding general of Hua Zhou military district. All this to ensure stability and promote frequent communication amongst these three vital areas.

Tian Chengsi – commanding general of Hebei military district, suffered recurring lung problems. The problems were especially severe during the heat of the summer. He often mused out loud: “If I lived in Shangdong, the weather there is much cooler, then I can live a few years longer.” Hence, he formed an elite unit with 3,000 specially-selected, heavily-compensated soldiers he called “outer house men”. 300 of such men were posted at his office and residence, waiting for an opportunity to strike and annex Lu Zhou.

When Xue Song found out, he spent night and day worrying, mumbling to himself, but could find no solutions. One night, after the front gate of the military camp was locked down, Xue was on one such walks; a cane in hand, and only Hong Xian behind him. Hong Xian said: “Your Excellency has not eat or slept well for over a month, is it because of Tian Chengsi?” Xue Song replied: “This has to do with our very survival, not something you can handle.” Hong Xian said: “Although I am just a servant, I can help you ease your worries.” Sensing something unusual, Xue Song said: “You are an exceptional person, that I know.” So he told Hong Xian everything: “I inherited this enterprise from by grandfather and father, along with the privilege, I carry with me duties to the country. If I lose this land, then several hundred years of honorable services are all for naught.”

Hong Xian replied: “This is easy, no need to worry like this. Why don’t know let me go to Wei city to take a look? I’ll leave by Yi Geng (7pm – 9pm) and will be back by Er Geng (9pm – 11pm). Meanwhile, please prepare an emissary, a horse, and a letter of greeting. Everything else we will discuss when I get back. Xue Song is worried: “If this does not go well, it would only make things worse. Then what do we do?” Hong Xian replied “Success is guaranteed.”

With that, she went back to her room to wash up and make preparations. When she reappeared, her hair is in an bun secured by a golden sparrow pin; she wore a short purple robe with black sash at the waist; light boots, in front her chest is a dagger with dragon engraving; and on her forehead the name of God of North Star. She bowed to Xue Song and disappeared.

Xue Song returned to his room and sat down with his back to the lamp, drinking by himself. Normally he does not drink, tonight after more than ten glasses, he was still sober. Suddenly it felt as if a gust of wind had blown by, and a leaf felt to the ground. Startled, he rose up quickly. It was Hong Xian. Glad to see her back, he asked “How was it?” “I dare not failure”, said Hong Xian. “Did you harm anyone”, asked Xue Song. “That was not necessary, I took his golden box as a token.”

She then detailed what happened: “I arrived at Wei before midnight, and arrived at his sleeping quarters after passing through several gates. In the hallways the “Outer House Men” were fast asleep, their snoring like thunder. There were soldiers in the courtyard, calling out sentry codes. I opened the left door, and walked right up to his bed.

Tian Chengsi was fully asleep, his feet were exposed, and he wore a yellow cap. In front of the embroidered pillow a seven-star sword peaked out below the covers. And in front of the sword was an open box. The box contained record of his exact time of birth, along with name of God of North Star. These were covered with expensive fragrances and pearls on top.

Seeing how deep in slumber he was, that he had no idea his life was completely under my control, I thought the act of killing him would be so easy, but consequences would be troublesome.

By this time, the candles are about to be out, the incenses were all but ashes, his servants were scattered, their weapons in a pile together; some leaned against the screen, snoring; some asleep, still holding towels and dusters. I took off their hair pins, earrings, touched their cloth. None of them could wake up, as if sick. So I just took the gold box.

Exiting through the western gate, after about 200 Li (100km), I could just make out the Bronze Sparrow Terrace rising high, with Zhang river flowing to the east, the morning wind roaming through the field, and the moon hanging just above the trees. Going in anxiety but returning in joy, one suddenly forget the fatigue. Your excellency always treated me with such kindness, the thought of repaying is always in my mind. In that spirit, I, in the middle of night, venturing into dangerous land, passing through 5, 6 cities, traveling over 700 Li, all to alleviate your worries. So how dare I complain about being tired?”

So Xue Song sent an emissary to city of Wei with a letter. The letter said: “Last night someone came from Wei, that person took a golden box from your bed, I dare not keep it. So I’ve sealed it and am returning to you.” The emissary left right away on a fast horse, but he did not arrive until midnight. Tiang’s soldiers was still on high alert, looking for the missing box.

The emissary knocked on the front door with his riding crop, seeking immediate audience. Tian came out immediately. When the emissary handed over the golden box, the general almost feinted. He set up a lavish banquet for the emissary, and showed him with gifts. The next day, the general sent his emissary, bearing 30,000 pi (1 pi = 4 yards) of fine fabric, 200 top quality horses, and various other treasures for Xue Song. He also sent Xue words that he was grateful to Xue for being so magnanimous for sparring his life. That he was going to be seriously think about his past mistakes. Further, he will send people to discuss the marriage of his son to Xue’s daughter. As for the “Outer House Men”, they were to protect against burglary, there were no ulterior motives. In any case they’ve been disbanded now, shedding their uniforms and returned to their farms.

For a month or two after the incident, there was much communication between Henan and Hebei military district.

Suddenly one day, Hong Xian came to bid farewell. Xue Song said to her: “You were born in my house, where would you go now? I am dependent on you, how can you leave?” Hong Xian replied: “I was a man in previous life. I traveled everywhere, seeking knowledge and wisdom. I read medicine, so I also cured people. But one time, a pregnant woman had intestinal worms, to cure her, I gave her medicinal wine. After drinking it, she and the twins in her womb all died. In one stroke I ended three innocent lives. To punish me, the Lord of the Underworld made me a woman and a servant. Lucky for me I was born into your household. It’s been 19 years. I’ve worn enough silk and satin, eaten enough manners of delicacies, you have given me honor, and spoiled me with kindness; now your land is peaceful, the people secure. But if I stayed, it would be against the wishes of the heaven. My trip yesterday to Wei was to repay your kindness. Today both places are saved, tens of thousands of lives sparred, the mutinous afraid, the righteous secure. For a woman such as myself, this is no small achievement. It should be enough to return me to previous form. Now I should leave this conventional world, focus on spiritual practice, and purify myself, prepare for everlasting life.” Song asked: “How can a pampered young woman like you live alone in a mountain?” Hong Xian replied: “This is about the next life, how can I stay any longer?”

Xue Song knew it was no use trying to make her stay, so he held a farewell party in the center hall that night, gathering his many good friends. He dedicated a song to Hong Xian, and asked those guests to contribute the verses (wuyizidi: really rough translation here): “The ‘picking water chestnuts’ song blames the boat made of mulan three, bidden farewell to guest [one’s] spirit broke over the hundred feet tall tower, the angel went away riding on the fog, the blue sky endless[,] the water flowing on its own.” By the end of the song Xue Song could not manage his grief, and Hong Xian stood up, deeply bowing with tears. She excused herself pretending she had too much to drink. Nothing more is known about her after that.

Notes and Commentary:

Such great literature, marred by the one unnecessary and disastrous part toward the end about sin and reincarnation. I blame the Buddhist influence of that time.

After the Chaos of Anshi that almost upended the Tang Dynasty, real power fell into the hands of major regional military commanders. Installed at strategic locations to ward off threat of barbarians, these position over time became hereditary, and not subject to the control of central government. Eventually they would lead to the downfall of Tang Dynasty.

Xue Song and Tian Chengsi were originally subordinates of An Lushan, the originator of An Shi Rebellion. After surrendering Tang, they kept their power and became major warlords. Historically Hong Xian did exist, and the poem at the end is genuine and quite famous, so only the story is imagined. Neverless, this story reflected the very genuine and popular desire amongst the common people at the time for the cessation of conflict amongst the new warlords by peaceful means.










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