Chapter 1: When One Gets Promoted, Some Die… And Some Enter Another World
Translator: Rebirth Online World
The watchman’s clappers began to strike the bell, signaling that the hour of Xu  had begun. Lights are ignited one after another in the Sheng Household of the Quan Prefecture. In the west courtyard’s central building , sitting at the top seat in the main hall  was an old lady with gray hair. In her hands were prayer beads that matched her plain attire, which was rather contradictory to her elegant and luxurious surroundings. Currently, in this room, sitting at her right was the head of the house, Sheng Hong.
“May our ancestors be blessed and be protected. This time, this son’s achievements are excellent. The imperial decree for my promotion should be announced at the end of the month.”
Since it was already early summer, Sheng Hong was dressed in a red ochre summer jacket made out of chiffon silk with wide slits in the sleeves. He spoke to his mother with dignity and reverence.
“Your endurance all these years outside has not been in vain. It is difficult to be promoted to a sixth ranked official . Now you may be considered a mid-ranked official. Do you have some idea of where you will likely be posted?” Old Madam Sheng’s tone sounds tranquil, with hardly any emotion colouring her tone.
“Geng Shishu  has already sent a letter to inform me that I shall become the Zhizhou  of Deng Prefecture.” Sheng Hong had always been cautious in his conduct, yet now his current words could not help but exude a hint of delight.
“I really must congratulate Master, then. Usually the position of Zhizhou is only given to fifth rank officials. We ought to not only thank our ancestors’ merit, but also those who have helped in paving your path.” Old Madam Sheng said.
“That is only natural. This son has already drafted a gift list for the several uncles  in the capital. Mother, please look through it.” Sheng Hong took out a few sheets of paper from his sleeve and handed it to the maid standing by the side.
“After all these years, looks like Master is finally starting to get proficient in handling affairs. Go according to your decision, but bear these words in mind, ‘friendship between gentlemen, insipid as water.’  Money should be earned the right way and etiquette must be thorough. Relationships should neither be servile nor overbearing, but acquaintances must be maintained. Those daren  that have been around the officialdom their entire life, check each and every one of them with discerning eyes. Over the past few years, they have cared for you; it’s true that they do this partially on the account of your late father’s friendship with them. But the real reason why they are willing to help is because you are also working hard.” After a few more sentences, Old Madam Sheng began to gasp. By the side, Fang Mama  immediately carried a teacup and put it close to Old Madam’s mouth, her other hand follow along and gently patted Old Madam’s back.
Upon seeing this, Sheng Hong was frightened and hurriedly said, “Mother must take care of yourself, by any means. If it wasn’t for Mother’s nurturing, this son wouldn’t be where I am today. At that time, if it were not for Mother’s virtuousness, right now, this son would only be capable of passing his days at the countryside. This son ought to be filial to Mother.”
Old Madam Sheng did not speak, seemingly in a daze. After some time she said, “You can’t say that, this is not just a matter of being virtuous or not virtuous. This is merely because of the affection I had for your father. In any case, it is not good to let his tomb be desolate a century later. Fortunately... You have been hardworking.” Gradually, her voice weakened until it became too soft to be heard.
Sheng Hong did not dare to reply and the hall went silent for a moment. Then Sheng Hong said, “Mother upheld the Sheng Family all year round, it is certain that you will continue to have good fortune in the future. For the time being, relax and get some proper rest...” He glances around the surroundings and frowns at what he sees. “Mother’s place is too plain and unadorned, almost as if this was a monastery. Mother, listen to this son’s words, there are other ordinary Old Madams who abstain from eating meat and pray to Buddha, yet live in extravagance. Mother, why do you treat yourself thus? If others were to see this, they would think that this son is not filial.”
Old Madam Sheng said, “Being happy is not about living lavishly. Being happy is feeling at ease within one’s heart. If the heart becomes tired, then no matter how happy you try to act, it will be useless; just like a deaf person’s ear -nothing more than an accessory” .
In a low voice, Sheng Hong said, “All of this happened because this son is not filial and has failed in properly controlling his wife.”
Old Madam Sheng only said, “I’m not blaming you. You’re filial, that much I know. There is also no need to blame your wife either, after all, by all rights, I am not truly her Mother-in-law. There is no need for me to pretend as such around her. If we are to see each other once every three days, she will be tired and I shall be vexed. For this matter, you need not feel concerned for what others will say about your filiality. Even if she won’t come to greet me, people will attribute it to my temperament in keeping a distance and and preference for a simple life over rules. Having a distant relationship would actually make life more comfortable for all of us.”
Sheng Hong worriedly said, “What are you saying, Mother. What do you mean you are not truly her “Mother-in-law”? Mother is the main wife whom father officially wed, thus you are this son’s dimu . Furthermore, you’re the one who has made me who I am today. The ones whose truly at fault here is this son and your daughter-in-law. So, Mother, please don’t say such things.”
Old Madam Sheng somewhat impatiently waved his words away, “Master should not be bothered by such trifling matters. With your imminent promotion, you ought to be diligently setting your affairs in order. You have been an official in Quan Prefecture all these years and have learnt a great deal from others. Proper etiquette must be followed through until the end. Officials all work for the imperial court. Those who gather in the same officialdom may not always meet, but that does not mean you will never see them again. You must not let the hearts of your coworkers turn cold, it is best that you all part on amicable terms.”
“What Mother said is right, this son also thinks the same. I can still remember how the blistering atmosphere of Lingnan  Region felt when we first came to the Quan Prefecture. I had initially presumed the people would be uncivilized, uncouth, and lacking in learning and refinement. Instead I found a land with excellent weather, favorable winds, timely rains, and the people that are down-to-earth and straightforward. Their primary means of living is through making use of the sea’s natural resources, making a profit off of fish and salt. Although inferior to Jiangnan Region’s  luxury, the common folk here do well enough for themselves, and are wealthy in their own way. After staying here all these years, this son actually hates to part with it.” Sheng Hong smiles.
Old Madam Sheng smiles, “That’s right. Even I, who has stayed in the north for a lifetime, is unwilling to go, even if Jiangnan Region is many times better than Quan Prefecture. Unexpectedly, I have grown accustomed to living in Quan Prefecture. Mountains here are tall, the emperor is far , and the days are carefree. Before leaving, sell this large residence and buy a small house surrounded with great scenery at a deal. This is not to brag to others but a place to retire to.”
“This plan is excellent, this son feels it is extremely clever. I’ll handle this matter later.” Sheng Hong smiles.
Old Madam Sheng ‘s rules are extremely strict, during this discussion the servants in the room didn’t make the slightest noise. Both Mother and son chat for awhile about various trivial matters. Sheng Hong twitched his lips a couple of times, wanting to bring up an issue, yet withdrawing repeatedly. After some time, the room turned cold again. Old Madam Sheng looked at him as she lightly stirs the tea leaves in the teacup. Fang Mama, standing at the side, understands the hint and quietly instructs the servants to leave the room. She personally hurried them to the other room and gave instructions to the few first class maids before returning to wait upon the Old Madam. She returned just in time to hear, “...You are finally willing to say it. I originally thought you would want to hide it from this old woman till death.”
Sheng Hong immediately drops his face in terror, “I regret that I did not heed Mother’s words at that time. Things have now become such a disaster. It is all because this son has no virtue, resulting in no peace within the house.”
“Just no peace within the house?” Old Madam Sheng raised her voice, “I did not expect you would be so muddle-headed. You clearly know that this matter can be small, if handle properly, but can also become big, if left alone!”
Sheng Hong was shocked but maintained his bow. He moved his hand in front, palms up and said, “Requesting Mother to give directions.”
Old Madam Sheng rose from the soft red sandalwood couch, “I originally did not care, didn’t want to meddle, did not want to talk about this matter. Whichever you like has nothing to do with me, as I have never gotten involved in your house’s quarrels. During this time I have seen you cross the line of propriety and invite unrest in the house by ruining the established rules. Go and inquire into which well established household treats their concubines the way you do, giving her power and wealth. Currently, she has sons and daughters and only lacking in status, not one bit inferior to the legitimate daughter-in-law! By not differentiating between legitimate and concubine you have messed up the rules, so of course, how would it not to lead to unrest in the house! This unrest has finally resulted in the death of an unborn child and your concubine. Tell me, how do you want to explain this all!”
Sheng Hong’s face filled with shame as he repeatedly bows with his hands still held in front, “Mother’s lecture is right. It is all the fault of this son, this son is muddle-headed. Always thinking that she is lonely and needs my protection, is indeed pitiful. Thinking that she lost her chance of becoming a legitimate madame in order to become my concubine, my feelings inevitably starts to grow tender towards her. In addition, she came from Old Madam’s place, so I thought she’ll be more honourable when compared to the other concubines. Never had I thought that love can be harmful. I allowed her to be who she is now, a person with no sense of propriety. This son indeed knows his mistakes.”
Hearing his last sentence, Old Madam Sheng lightly sneered and didn’t give a reply as she blows her tea. Seeing this, Fang Mama stepped forward “Master’s kindness in the house, how can the Old Madam not know. This matter has been dragging on for few years already and the days ahead would not be smooth unless this would be clearly said. Old Madam is an elder, some words are inappropriate for her to say therefore allow this old woman to be entrusted with this big task and clearly tell Master, I hope that Master will not take offence.”
Sheng Hong saw that Fang Mama finished speaking hurriedly said, “What is Mama saying. Mama has spared no effort for the Sheng family all these years, doing your utmost in serving Mother. You are now as if my elder, do not hesitate to speak.”
Fang Mama dare not acknowledge this greeting. She quickly moves sideways and bows repeatedly, “Then this old woman would try to politely say it. The Mother of Concubine Lin and Old Madam formerly met each other in a boudoir. Thinking back it was merely a couple of fated meetings, not even comparable to the other close relationships with others from the boudoir.”
“Furthermore, there was really no relationships after each got married. I have waited upon the Old Madam since she was young; therefore regarding this matter, I am the clearest. Later, her husband’s family were punished for their inappropriate behaviour. Although their possessions were not confiscated nor the family wasn’t beheaded, the family status declined. That year, Old Madam Lin’s husband died of illness and she also did not have any sons. At that time she has lost all of her supporters, so she raise her own daughter to pass those desolate days. But, before facing death, she searched for Old Madam and pleaded with for her to take care of her daughter, based on their past friendship at the boudoir. Those relatives of her were ruthless and would harm the girl until the end.Old Madam is a vegetarian and always prays to Buddha, her heart cannot be any more benevolent, so she agreed and received Concubine Lin into the household. Those few years, our Old Madam treated her as if she was her real daughter, everything from food to clothes were the finest and expenses were not a problem. Old Madam even discussed adding to her dowry while seeking a good husband for her.”
Listening up to here Sheng Hong turns red, appearing to be ashamed. Fang Mama sighs and continues, “Who would ever thought that Concubine Lin is a person actually with such big plans. She was unwilling to get married to the other families because she actually secretly wanted to be with Master from the beginning. The next line, this old lady would be honest and brazen so Master, do not take offence. This whole matter, our Old Madam was completely kept in the dark until Madame  cried angrily before Old Madam. Only then did Old Madam realise that the girl she raised had no sense of propriety...”
Sheng Hong was so ashamed that his face was flushed with anger and unable to speak.
Fang Mama tenderly said, “Originally Old Madam and Madame weren’t like they are today. It was expected that after a few years after the marriage, Mother-in-law and daughter-in-law would have warmed up to each other, been more polite and courteous with one another. But, once that incident happened, the situation reversed and resulted in seeming like Old Madam wanting to intentionally smear Madame’s standing by raising young maiden Lin for Master to take in as a concubine. After you married Concubine Lin and she gave birth to your children and allowed her to raise them, her days became more honourable than the legitimate Madame. Inevitably, Madame put her resentment on the Old Madam and didn’t dare to have any relations with the Old Madam. So their relationship has long turned cold and the situation caused Old Madams heart to become distant and hurt.
A thump sound was heard as Sheng Hong kneeled before Old Madam Sheng, tearfully saying, “This son deserves to die ten thousand times. Causing so much unhappiness for Mother, allowing Mother’s heart to feel stifled and having nowhere to express it. This son is not filial. This son is not filial.”
After speaking, Sheng Hong kowtows again and again. Old Madam Sheng continuously blinks, then raises her hand towards Fang Mama and Fang Mama immediately helps Sheng Hong up. Yet, Sheng Hong is unwilling to get up as he continues to blame himself. Old Madam Sheng said, “You get up first. You are already a big man. Besides, originally men are not that very clear of these inner room matters. So get up, okay. There is no overnight hatred between Mother and child.”
Sheng Hong then get up, his forehead already swollen. Old Madam Sheng sighed, “I too know that in your childhood, your mother, Concubine Chun, and you were dependant on each other for your survival against the schemes of slaves and other concubines. Those past days were not easy. At that time, I couldn’t even manage my own son, much less know about the corrupt behaviour of the slaves that took advantage of you and then concealed the matter. I have allowed you to suffer. Currently that Madame of yours is not tolerant by nature, therefore you are afraid that Concubine Lin and Feng’er would suffer injustice and then would also get bullied by the servants and would suffer boredom. You gave them houses and land to depend on, how can I not know your earnest thoughts. That is why I closed my eyes, shut my mouth, playing the deaf-mute these years, just acting as a living dead person.”
Sheng Hong sobs, “How is this connected with the Old Madam? It is all because this son has no virtue, Mother’s heart is so bright, every sentence reaches to the bottom of this son’s heart. This son is just afraid that Madame... That’s why I favored them more and in so ruined the rules. This son deserves ten thousand deaths.”
“Do not easily say ten thousand deaths, ten thousand deaths. If you are dead then who would we, orphans and widows, depend on.” Old Madam Sheng gave Fang Mama a hint to bring a chair over to Sheng Hong and to support the distraught him to sit.
Old Madam Sheng only continues after Fang Mama hands him a warm towel and serves the tea, “Leaving aside the heaven’s law and human emotions, you also didn’t think carefully, even after reaching your established year . I wouldn’t say that your career as an official has always been smooth sailing, without twists and turns. Afterall, among those you previously worked with, how many have risen as quickly as you? There are those who that are pointlessly enduring, who are envious of you and are waiting to pick at your faults. Concubine Wei was not a servant bought by me. She was born from a good and proper household in Jiangnan, whom, for generations, have been farmers and scholars. She could had been someone’s main wife. If it wasn’t because communication with her main family was difficult, even if she was poor, she wouldn’t have become a concubine. It is merely been five years since she married over and now she died, tragically. If a resolute person wants to use this matter to attack you, urging her maiden family to cause trouble, accusing you and us of abusing lives, do you think you can be easily promoted then?”
Frightened, Sheng Hong’s heart raced and beads of sweat formed on his head. “Fortunately, Old Madam understood that and promptly settled matters with the Wei Household. Only then was this son able not to worry over anything.
“That Wei household is kind and honest. Even while knowing the real reason of Concubine Wei’s death, they did not make a fuss. They only wanted the corpse of Concubine Wei back, so they can bury her themselves, I didn’t agree as it would be improper. Even when I gave them more money, the Wei household did not accept one penny and said they would be ashamed to take money that cost them their daughter’s life. They pleaded me to take good care of Min yatou  instead, then they’ll be more than thankful. That family was so distressed, I felt looking at them.”
Old Madam Sheng took out her handkerchief to wipe the inner corners of her eyes. Fang Mama personally brought a teapot from outside and replenished the tea. She added water into the two shining porcelain teacups that had excessive patterns around it. Carefully covering the teacups, Fang Mama sighs, “Concubine Wei was a kind and honest person. The young lady that she gave birth to is also pitiful. After losing her biological mother she had a fever for two continuous days, which had cause her to be in daze the entire time. The fever broke but since then shes started to act foolishly, not speaking a word, ever. Old Madam ordered me to visit the child one day and I only saw the servants being noisy as they laugh and play. Not a single person was in the room waiting upon her. When I entered the room, I unexpectedly saw the young lady getting down from the bed and pour a glass of water to drink ! A child merely at the age of four or five, a little thing who was still unable to reach the table, was climbing up onto a stool, tiptoeing to get the water, and then holding the teacup to drink. It was really a pitiful sight!” Fang Mama also wiped her tears.
Sheng Hong recalled those days when Concubine Wei emitted her goodness and gentleness, and with a deeply sorry and ashamed heart said, “I originally wanted to send her to Madame’s place but the past few days Ru Yatou has also been sick. Madame’s place is also a mess, I will consider sending her after a few days, when Madame is not busy.”
Old Madam Sheng breathed evenly and slowly said, “What ‘not busy’? Must Ming Yatou be carried or piggy-backed by her? There are many servants in the house, how many more do you desire; how many currently work there? There is someone to do fulfil your instructions as you tell them, when you tell them. It only cost a few thoughts. These are just excuses not to raise Ming Yatou, your promises feel like nothing more than empty words.
In a very reserved manner, Sheng Hong stands up, not daring to make even the slightest sound. Old Madam Sheng looks at him, her voice carrying a cold tone, “You are in no position to rebuke her. This happened because you did not conduct yourself well. She was able to gain the upper hand in all your arguments because you first broke the rules and pampered a mere concubine. She dares to be imprudent, conduct herself extravagantly, and act like any other Main Wife because of your indulgence. I can imagine what Madame must have said. ‘What? When there are no problems, the concubines can raise the children by themselves but once the biological Mother dies, suddenly you remember this decorative legitimate Mother?’ It’s no wonder the Madame got angry. Things of the past, I am not going to bother about anymore, but now answer these two questions, honestly.”
Sheng Hong hurried said, “Mother please speak, not only two but even a thousand or ten thousand questions I will answer.”
“Number one – The matter of Concubine Wei and the unborn child,are you planning to let this whole matter go? Or are you going to demand an exchange for that life?” Old Madam Sheng watches Sheng Hong attentively.
“There is need for careful planning there is a sinister person within the family, I can not let it go easily. If she can harm Concubine Wei and my unborn child today, who knows what she will be capable of doing tomorrow.How can I tolerate this kind of person in my Sheng Clan!” Sheng Hong answered through clenched teeth.
Old Madam Sheng’s complexion lighten up slightly. She continues to her next question, “Good. Question Number two, to fix this kind of imprudent situation in the family, not differentiating between legitimate and concubine, what do you plan to do?”
Sheng Hong took a deep breath, “Mother is brilliant. When I returned only to see the bloody corpse of Concubine Wei and the child that had suffocated within her belly, my heart felt very remorseful. The slaves dare to be so insolent, no strict rules to restrain them. If the the people at the top are crooked, then surely the slaves below are crooked as well. The root of everything is at the top, I have made a firm decision to tidy up the family principles.”
“Good, good. All will be well with those from you.” Old Madam Sheng’s heart is slightly lightened, knowing Sheng Hong’s character she no longer speaks, only nods her head repeatedly, “If you want to be an official for a long time, our Sheng family must have offsprings. Also, you must strictly govern the house, know that disaster and misery starts from inside. Many large and influential families start to rot from the inside, we must learn from them.”
“What Mother said is right. Recently, I have been concerned over the evaluation. Now that big rock in my heart has dropped, I will clear out time to rectify and sort out those servants. . Starting with those who waited on Concubine Wei’s during her labour day.” Sheng Hong’s tone was serene but his heart was considerably furious.
“Can’t, you can’t do that now.” Old Madam Sheng unexpectedly outright rejects the idea leaving Shen Hong puzzled. He asks, “Old Madam, why is this so? Do not tell me we should indulge these servants.”
Old Madam Sheng looks deeply at Sheng Hong “You have been appointed as a government official in Quan Prefecture for many years now. All the influential families know each other’s background thoroughly as the families’ females have always kept in contact. Those group of servants, many are bought locally. Any sign of trouble in the house, do you think the the others would remain unaware. Although you are friendly with most of your colleagues, it is hard to say for sure who secretly hates or envies you. If your first step after your concubines death is to tidy up your servants without restraint, would that now reveal that you have something to hide. Clearly revealing to others that there is no peace in the house?”
Sheng Hong was enlightened as he praises her, “Luckily Mother reminded me, this son almost made another mistake. If I sort out the home in Quan Prefecture, when the time comes to sell the people, perhaps all of Quan Prefecture would know. Waiting until we reach Deng Prefecture, a foreign place to us, to deal with those wicked servants would be smarter. .”
“Exactly. You, therefore, must not disclose anything at the moment. Stabilize and maintain tranquility within the household until you’ve moved to Deng Prefecture. Once the imperial decree is passed, you’ve take the official seal, and the whole family has settled down in Shandong, it is not too late if we act then.”
“Old Madam is wise. This son has not spoken intimately with Mother for many years. Having a conversation with you today, my heart has become quite clear. Regarding managing the household, I still have to rely on the Old Madam in the future. Must get Madame to come here and seek guidance from Old Madam more often.” Sheng Hong honestly said.
“No, I already have one foot in the grave. . If not for the big fuss, I would not had been bothered to speak out. In the future, the same as before,it is sufficient to let your wife pay her respects thrice a month. You guys manage your affairs, run your own house, I will just quietly pray and abstain from meat.”
Old Madam Sheng appeared to be somewhat tired. Resting on the back of the soft couch she slightly closed her eyes and her voice gradually becoming weaker. A copper that had an engraving of a Qilin  was in the incense burner on top of a small sandalwood table in the corner of the room, quietly diffusing clouds-like smoke.
 戌时 (Xushi): From 7 PM to 8:59 PM. It’s the first watch of the night.
 正房 (Zheng Fang): Main room meant for the legitimate wife
 堂屋 (Tang Wu): Literally means central room, it’s the main hall/living room; in other words, a room where people can interact to the one living in the courtyard.
 Officials work their way through the nine ranks (pin), where 9 is the lowest and 1 is the highest. This tells them what position they could obtain.
 世叔 (Shi Shu): father’s friend who is about the same age as him or slightly younger; father’s younger brothers.
 知州(Zhi Zhou): Senior Provincial Government Official.
 世叔世伯 (Shi Shu Shi Bo): It added Shishu (世叔) and Shibo (世伯), if Shishu means father’s younger brothers or friends who are younger than the person’s father, then Shibo means father’s older brother or friends who are older that the person’s father. In simple term, they can be called uncles who may or may not be really related to you.
 君子之交淡如水 (Jun Zi Zhi Jiao Dan Ru Shui): A proverb from Zhuangzi, which means that friendship between men of virtue, involves no self-interest.
 大人 (Da Ren) adult; title of respect towards superiors. In short a respectful way to say for adult that’s superior than you.
 妈妈 (Ma Ma): Mother or elderly maid, in this case it’s the latter (Elder Maid).
 嫡母 (Di Mu): where 嫡 (Di) means first wife or born from the first wife; in other words the legitimate line while 母 (Mu) means Mother. This simply means legitimate Mother or the way the concubine children call the main wife. This means Sheng Hong wasn’t the di son and was actually born from a concubine making Old Madam not his blooded Mother only in records. Normally Sheng Hong calls her, muqin (母亲) which means Mother.
 嶺南(Ling Nan) – south of the five ranges (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NanlingMountains) / old term for south China. This means Quan Prefecture is in the southern region.
 江南(Jiang Nan) – At the top; where Deng Prefecture is located.
 because as they say, the closer you are to the emperor, the better your life is, the dangerous it is.
 If Old Madam Sheng is for the previous head’s main wife, then the Madame Sheng or just Madame is for the currently head’s main wife.
 而立之年 (Er Li Zhi Nian): Thirty Years old and therefore independent, idiom from Confucius.
 丫頭 (Ya Tou): means girl (endearment; way of calling a girl affectionately) or servant girl, in this case it’s the former.
 I think it’s because in the past, the norm for girls, especially for people with status is that they should be dependent with their servants and give all the task like getting water to them instead of being independent.
 麒麟 (Qi Lin): A mythical Chinese creature, representing prosperity and serenity.