21
Apr
10

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.

紅線

唐潞州節度使薛嵩家青衣紅線者善彈阮咸,又通經史。嵩乃俾掌其箋表,號曰內記室。時軍中大宴,紅線謂嵩曰:“羯鼓之聲,頗甚悲切,其擊者必有事也。”嵩素曉音律,曰:“如汝所言。”乃召而問之,云:“某妻昨夜身亡,不敢求假。”嵩遽放歸。

是時至德之后兩河未宁,以淦陽為鎮,命嵩固守,控壓山東。殺傷之余,軍府草創。朝廷命嵩遣女嫁魏博節度使田承嗣男,又遣嵩男娶滑亳節度使令狐章女。三鎮交為姻婭,使使日浹往來。而田承嗣常患肺气,遇熱增劇。每曰:“我若移鎮山東,納其涼冷,可以延數年之命。”乃募軍中武勇十倍者,得三千人,號外宅男,而厚其恤養。常令三百人夜直州宅,卜選良日,將并潞州。

嵩聞之,日夜懮悶,咄咄自語,計無所出。時夜漏將傳,轅門已閉,杖策庭際,唯紅線從焉。紅線曰:“主自一月,不遑寢食。意有所屬,豈非鄰境乎?”嵩曰:“事系安危,非爾能料。”紅線曰:“某誠賤品,亦能解主懮者。”嵩聞其語异,乃曰:“我知汝是异人,我闇昧也。”遂具告其事曰:“我承祖父遺業,受國家重恩,一旦失其疆土,即數百年勛伐盡矣。”紅線曰:“此易与耳,不足勞主懮焉。暫放某一到魏城,觀其形勢,覘其有無。今一更首途,二更可以复命。請先定一起馬使,具寒喧書。其它即待某卻回也。”嵩曰:“然事或不濟,反速其禍,又如之何?”紅線曰:“某之此行,無不濟也。”乃入闈房,飭其行具。乃梳烏蠻髻,貫金雀釵,衣紫繡短袍,系青絲輕履,胸前佩龍文匕首,額上書太一神名。再拜而名,倏忽不見。

嵩乃返身閉戶,背燭危坐。常時飲酒,不過數合。是夕舉觴,十余不醉。忽聞曉角吟風,一葉墜露。惊而起問,即紅線回矣。嵩喜而慰勞曰:“事諧否?”紅線曰:“不敢辱命。”又問曰:“無傷殺否?”曰:“不至是,但取床頭金合為信耳。”

紅線曰:“某子夜前三刻即達魏城,凡歷數門,遂及寢所。聞外宅儿止于房廊,睡聲雷動。見中軍士卒,徒步于庭,傳叫風生。乃發其左扉,抵其寢帳。田親家翁止于帳內,鼓跌酣眠,頭枕文犀,髻包黃彀,枕前露一星劍,劍前仰開一金合,合內書生身甲子,与北斗神名。复以名香美珠,散覆其上。然則揚威玉帳,坦其心豁于生前。熟寢蘭堂,不覺命懸于手下。宁勞擒縱,只益傷嗟。時則蜡炬煙微,爐香燼委,侍人四布,兵器交羅。或頭触屏風,鼾而亸者;或手持巾拂,寢而伸者。某乃拔其簪珥,縻其襦裳,如病如醒,皆不能寤。遂持金合以歸。出魏城西門,將行二百里,見銅台高揭,漳水東流,晨雞動野,斜月在林。忿往喜還,頓忘于行役。感知酧德,聊副于依歸。所以當夜漏三時,往返七百里,入危邦一道,經過五六城,冀減主懮,敢言其苦。”

嵩乃發使入魏,遺承嗣書曰:“昨夜有客從魏中來云,自元帥床頭獲一金合,不敢留駐,謹卻封納。”專使星馳,夜半方到。見搜捕金合,一軍懮疑。使者以馬棰撾門,非時請見。承嗣遽出,使者乃以金合授之。捧承之時,惊怛絕倒。遂留使者,止于宅中,狎以宴私,多其賜赍。明日,專遣使帛三万匹、名馬二百匹、雜珍异等,以獻于嵩曰:“某之首領,系在恩私。便宜知過自新,不复更貽伊戚。專膺指使,敢議親姻。役當捧轂后車,來在麾鞭前馬,所置紀綱外宅儿者,本防他盜,亦非异圖。今并脫其甲裳,放歸田畝矣。”由是一兩個月內,河北河南信使交至。

忽一日,紅線辭去。嵩曰:“汝生我家,今欲安往?又方賴于汝,豈可議行。”紅線曰:“某前本男子,游學江湖間,讀神農藥書,而救世人災患。時里有孕婦,忽患盅症,某以芫花酒下之,婦人与腹中二子俱斃。是某一舉殺其三人,陰力見誅,降為女子,使身居賤隸,气稟凡俚。幸生于公家,今十九年矣。身厭羅綺,口窮甘鮮。寵待有加,榮亦甚矣。況國家建極,慶且無疆。此即違天,理當盡弭。昨往魏邦,以是報思。今兩地保其城池,万人全其性命,使亂臣知懼,烈士謀安,在某一婦人,功亦不小,固可贖其前罪,還其本形。便當遁跡塵中,栖心物外,澄清一气,生死長存。”嵩曰:“不然,以千金為居山之所。”紅線曰:“事關來世,安可預謀。”嵩知不可留,乃廣為餞別,悉集賓友,夜宴中堂。嵩以歌送紅線酒,請座客冷朝陽為詞。詞曰:“彩菱歌怨木蘭舟,送客魂消百尺樓。還似洛妃乘霧去,碧天無際水空流。歌竟,嵩不胜其悲,紅線拜且泣。因偽醉离席,遂亡所在。

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