Little Sister Su
MME. Chiang Kia-Shek
During the Sung Dynasty when the Chinese essay form reached a degree of literary perfection never since equaled, there lived in the province of Szechwan and old scholar named
Su Hsin. Since he had received no schooling whatsoever up to the age of twenty seven, it was all the more remarkable that he finally attained literary eminence and became a member of the Han lin Yuan, the Imperial Academy, whose members were the most distinguished scholars of the country.
Su had two sons and a young daughter. The sons also ranked among the well known essayists of the period. To distinguish them from their father and from each other, the father was known as Old Su, the elder son Big Su, and the younger one Little Su. The writings of the trio survive to the present day. Those of Big Su rank among the Classics; their exquisite rhythm and inimitable style are the despair of ambitious imitators.
Although Old Su was proud of his sons, he loved most of all of his daughter, whom the family affectionately called Little Sister. He gave her the same education he had given her brother; and since she possessed natural literary gifts, she became wonderfully proficient and at the age of sixteen outshone scholars many years her savior. Her unusual intellectual attainments gave her father as much anxiety as pleasure, however, for he feared it would be difficult to find a husband sufficiently brilliant to please her.
One day the Premier, Wang An shih, invited Su Hsin to dinner. Old Su detested the Premier heartily. He had written satires attacking Wang for promoting queer and freakish fads in order to draw public attention to himself But for the sake of expediency he accepted the invitation. The Premier disliked Old Su as cordially, but he thought it wise to maintain a semblance of
friendship with the literary trio, the biting sting of whose wit he had felt on more than one occasion.
Dinner ended, Old Su and Premier sat in the library. In cup after cup of wine they challenged each other. His tongue loosened by the strong drink, the Premier boasted of his son's literary talents.
"My sons, too, are no mean writers," retorted Old Su, equally flushed with wine. "Besides, my daughter..."
"Oh, daughters!" rudely interrupted the half drunken Premier. "Ha, Ha, ten candles are not to be compared with one lamp," he laughed, quoting a proverb.
"Mm, mm," continued the Premier, bent on having his say, "as I remarked, my son is unusually talented. Why, it is only necessary for him to read a book or manuscript once, just once, and he can reproduce it faultlessly character for character!"
"And, as I was saying, when I was interrupted," retorted Old Su, "my daughter need never read anything more than once. She also has a remarkable talent for criticism. I have never known her to fail to judge literary values accurately. Furthermore, a manuscript reveals to her the personal virtues and shortcomings of the writer."
The Premier started in agitation. "Then, indeed, my friend," he said thoughtfully, "all the genius of the province of Szechwan is concentrated in your illustrious family."
At these words, Old Su recollected himself Covering his confusion as best he could, he rose to take leave, pleading the lateness of the hour. The Premier produced a manuscript and handed it to Old Su, the old scholar. "May I beg you to give my son the benefit of your criticism on the essay?" he requested as he escorted his guest to the gate.
When his head had cleared from the fumes of the wine, Old Su reported bitterly of his boastful words. "Alas, wretched tongue! Alas, drunken folly! Wang An shih certainly means to ask the hand of Little Sister for his son, else why did he request me to criticize this manuscript? Very likely, too, he will begin negotiations at once. What excuse can I give without offending him? For, cost what it may, I will not give my daughter to such a conceited fop as the son must be." And the rest of the night he strove to find a way out of the difficulty.
When morning came, he had still found no solution. Sighing heavily, he picked up the manuscript. To his surprise, it was logically conceived and exquisitely worded. "It is a masterpiece!" he exclaimed happily. "Every character a lustrous pearl, every line an embroidered thread of gold. But I shall let her decide."
Calling Little Sister's maid, he gave her the essay. "Take this to your young lady," he said. "It was given me to criticize, but I am busy now. Let your mistress do it for me."
The maid took the essay to Little Sister, who immediately became absorbed in it. Several times during the reading, she paused and sighed. When she had finished, she wrote on the cover: "Its merits
defying in expression, original in treatment; its faults insincere in feeling, superficial in thought. Your showy qualities will gain you high honors, but alas will you reap them?
When Old Su read Little Sister's criticism, he tore off the entire cover and replaced it with a new one. Scarcely had he finished writing flattering compliments upon it, when a representative from the Premier was ushered in. The man received the manuscript from Old Su and furtively read the eulogy. Then, smiling with satisfaction, he spoke of everything under the sun except the real purpose of his visit. Old Su understood the visitor's assured smile, and he too chuckled slyly to himself.
"His Grace, the Premier, has a very remarkable son," finally ventured the representative, since Old Su failed to take the indirect hints which he threw out.
"Undoubtedly," replied Su, bowing and smiling benignly.
"And so different from most young men of his exalted station. He is brilliant and handsome, yet modest."
"Yes," politely agreed Su.
"Most young men are so proud and haughty that their eyes might well be set on the very top of their silly heads. Ah, me, sons such as that of the Premier and those of your honorable self are rare."
"My boys are nothing extraordinary," disclaimed Old Su politely.
"And your Excellency is blessed, too, with a priceless daughter."
"How blessed is your illustrious house! Doubtless many suitors have clamored for your honorable daughter's Horoscope of Eight Characters. Probably she is already betrothed?"
Old Su thought a moment. "If I say she is betrothed, then the stupid fellow will insist upon the name of her betrothed. If I tell him the truth, how can I help insulting Wang An shih by an unequivocal refusal? he agonize. "It would serve him right, though. What business did he have to send such a stupid and thick skinned matchmaker?" Deciding, however, that truth telling would be the lesser of two evils, he finally said in a tome of great boredom, "No, she is not betrothed."
In spite of Old Su's efforts to ward off the proposal he so dreaded, the persistent matchmaker continued to throw out hints. The more Su
tried to change the subject, the more resolutely his visitor clung to it. Finally, the matchmaker, unable to believe that Old Su would not jump at the proposed alliance, changed his tactics and stated in unmistakable terms the purpose of his visit.
"His Excellency's condescension," relied Old Su, "fills me with pleasure on one hand and regret on the other. The young man in question is undoubtedly a genius, and the house of Wang dates back seven times seven generations. Would that I could do as His Highness desires; for 2' and here Old Su could not forbear to sn file sardonically "has not this proverb truthfully described his importance as
Premier 'above the myriad people; below one man only'? Certainly his subjects should gratify his every wish. But, even at the risk of his displeasure, I would rather not burden his son with so unprepossessing a bride as my daughter. She is unworthy of the honor of having so handsome a husband. Be so kind, therefore, as to convey my appreciation and regret to His Excellency," and, bowing, he dismissed the unwelcome guest.
Bewildered by this curt and unexpected refusal, and afraid to return to Wang An shih without some plausible excuse, the thwarted matchmaker decided to learn all he could about Little Sister. In this, he was more successful than he had been in the other business.
Although her brothers were many years her senior, Little Sister did not stand in awe of them. From childhood she had looked upon them as obliging playmates. Big Su used often to write nonsense rhymes to tease her about her rather homely appearance, and she would retaliate in kind. The Su family and many
friends, and in time these rhymes became well known around the town.
The matchmaker memorized as many of these rhymes as he could. Then he went back to the yamen and reported the resulted of his visit. As he expected, Wang An shih felt greatly insulted at Old Su's outspoken refusal, and angry at his own loss of face. And, as the matchmaker had also expected, the Premier began by abusing him.
"Your Excellency, with all respect to Miss Su, she is not worthy to be Your Excellency's daughter in law," the matchmaker hastened to say; "for in truth her ugly and repulsive face makes her the laughing stock of every one. Her forehead protrudes like an overhanging cliff, and her eyes are so deeply embedded in her face that they look like muddy ruts. I should not wonder but that she may be a hunchback," he added for good measure. "Besides, as Your Excellency know, the father and brothers have unpleasant faces as well," and he went on to repeat the nonsense rhymes written in fun. Thus he succeeded in appeasing the wrath of the Premier, who consoled himself with the belief that Old Su had exaggerated Litter Sister's accomplishments, and that he would not have her for a daughter in law now, even if Old Su were willing. "For," he argued, "all the brilliancy in the world cannot discount a clown's face.
Meanwhile, Little Sister did not lack suitors. In each case Old Su requested the prospective husband to submit an essay, which be then passed on to his daughter. But Little Sister found flaws in each and every manuscript submitted. Old Su became more and more perplexed. One day, however, he found this criticism on the cover of an essay.
"Today, an earnest Hsiu Ts'ai' Tomorrow, a brilliant scholar; Too bad te Su Brothers live in your generation, Otherwise, you alone would deserve admiration."
In spite of this half mocking verse, Su saw that his daughter was really impressed by the writer's ability and personality.
At once he gave orders that, when the scholar, Chin Shao yu did not appear. Mystified, Old Su made secret attempts to identify the young man. Shacj yu himself heard of all this in time, but still he did not present himself.
"For all I know," thought the young man, "Little Sister's wit and learning may be exaggerated. Besides, I hear she is homely. Now, accomplishments and intellect are all very well in a girl and quite worthy of admiration, but suppose she is actually so ugly that I feel repulsion at the sight of her? And is she really such a wonderful scholar? Beauty fades with time, and I love not beauty for beauty's sake, but a wife ought to have at least passable good looks. What if I married her and then discovered her wit to be shallow, her pride intolerable, her looks unbearable? Why should I not watch her unobserved and test her in conversation before I present myself'?
An opportunity soon came for him to do this. He learned that on the first day of the Second Moon Miss Su had planned to offer sacrifices at a certain temple. Shao yu dressed himself in the robes of a Taoist priest with chains of prayer beads around his neck and placed himself at the temple gate, holding a mendicant's bowl in his hands. Before long, Little Sister appeared, riding in a palanquin and followed by a retinue of servants. Shao yu followed her into the Sacrificial Hall. To his great joy, although her face was not of the goose egg shape most often lauded by poets and connoisseurs of feminine beauty, it looked very pleasing and most intelligent. "Not bad," He said to himself, "in fact I prefer it to the regular contours of the egg oval. And how gracefully she carries herself! Her gestures suggest willow leaves in the breeze, and her movements bespeak delicacy and precision. Now to test her wit."
When the sacrifices had burned to ashes he followed her out into the courtyard. Making a deep obeisance, e held out his bowl toward her. "May the young lady have happiness and long life in doing good works, " he murmured.
"You, oh Taoist, what virtue and merit have you who dare to hope for alms?" she asked.
"May the young lady be a life giving plant, free from the hundred human ills," he chanted.
"I would not give one cash for verbal flowers such as these" she retorted.
"Good little woman, well said," he mocked.
"Crazy Taoist, it is hard to acquire merit because of such as you!" she exclaimed as she stepped into her waiting palanquin.
An old retainer, hearing the Taoist's impertinence to his mistress was about to rebuke him when he heard a voice calling to Shao yu.
"0 Master, come hither to change your robes." His curiosity aroused, the old servant followed the voice and perceived a young valet with a pile of neatly folded clothes in his arms. "Who is he whom you called master?" asked the retainer.
"That is my master, Chin Shao yu, the most brilliant and talented Hsiu. Ts'ai in the world, on the word of no less an exalted person than your old master. And the very man your master has been searching for," boasted the valet.
Upon returning home, the old servant lost no time in relating the incident of the morning. Little Sister heard of it through her maid, while she was having her long tresses oiled and combed that evening. through the recital she smiled mischievously but remained silent.
The very next day, Shao yu appeared before Old Su and requested Little Sister's Horoscope of Eight Character. Old Su joyfully consented, and upon being pressed to set the suspicious date for the wedding he consulted his daughter.
"Tell him," replied Little Sister, "that he must first pass the examination for the Degree of the Raised Man. This is the Second Moon; on the third day of the Third Moon the examination will commence. Until then, let him prepare himself."
In the middle of the Third Moon, Shao yu, having won the coveted degree with honors, returned to beg Old Su to set the wedding day. Little Sister consented demurely to her father's wishes and the wedding took place. After the ceremony, when the quests had feasted until midnight, Shao yu traced his steps to the nuptial chamber. He tried the door and found it securely latched on the inside. Looking around the antechamber, he noticed a table on which were placed writing brushes, paper, ink, three wine post and three wine cups. A young maid stood near the table, and three wine cups. A young maid stood new the table.
"Tell your mistress," directed Shao yu, "that the bridegroom is here. Why not open the door?"
"My mistress," replied the maid, making a deep bow, "ordered me to stay here to await the bridegroom. On the table are writing materials, and here are three sealed envelopes. when the bridegroom shall have successfully passed the three tests in them, then, and only then, will the door of the Perfumed Chamber be opened to him."
Shao yu took the three envelopes from her outstretched hand. "And what is the meaning of these?" he inquired in amazement, pointing to the three wine pots and cups. "Inside this pot of green jade is fragrant wine," she explained. "If the bridegroom is successful in all three test, he may drink three cups of fragrant wine out of the jade cup, and will have immediate access to the Perfumed Chamber. Inside this pot of bright silver is amber tea. If the bridegroom is successful in two of the three tests, he may drink two cups of wnber tea out of the silver cup and then may try again tomorrow. Inside this pot of white porcelain is clear water. If the bridegroom is successful in only one out of the three tests, then he may drink one cup of clear water to quench his thirst and must remain in solitude in the antechamber for three months to sharpen his wits.
"Ho, ho," thought the bridegroom, "so Little Sister is as doubtful of the keenness of my wits as I was of her. Well, she may give me three hundred tests and not find me wanting."
Opening the first envelope, he took out a piece of shining white silk, delicate as gossamer. On it was written a poem of four lines.
"You are to write a companion poem to it," directed the maid. "The theme of each of your four lines must be sought in hidden significance of each of the for corresponding lines in my mistress's poem."
Shao yu, his brush posed in mid air, chuckled. "The little tease! So she recognized the Crazy Taoist! I see, I see. The key to her poem must signify 'Heaven Fated Begging Taoist. Setting to work, he soon finished his poem, which the maid thrust under the door.
Little Sister in the Perfumed Chamber smiled.
Opening the second envelope, he found another four lines of poetry. "Each of these lines refers to an ancient hero," explained the maid. Shao yu thought a few moments, and wrote the correct names, which the maid again thrust through the crevice.
Little Sister in the Perfumed Chamber nodded with delight.
"Now for the third," laughed Shao y. In the third envelope he found only seven characters. "You yourself are to write seven characters which together with those in the envelope will form a perfect antithetical couplet." direct the maid, who herself was no mean scholar.
,,Easy!" he cried as he read the line. He set to work, but try as he would, he could not find seven characters which would match the seven which he had found in the third envelope and still conform to the rules of versification. Unable to think sitting down, he began to pace back and forth. Finding no inspiration, he stepped out on the balcony and gazed pleadingly at the silvery moon. Roguishly the stars twinkled. He scratched his head, he caressed his moustache, grown in honor of the marriage. He chanted poem after poem from the famous T'ang poets. Still no inspiration. He sighed, he groaned, he fidgeted. And all in vain. Finally, with beads of perspiration on his forehead, face uplifted heavenward, one hand motioning as if to close a door, the other as if to shut out the moon from his sight, he murmured over and over the seven characters: "Closing door, shut out moon from window."
Little Sister in the Perfumed Chamber giggled.
Now Big Su, having drunk a great deal of wine at the marriage feast, could not sleep. Stepping out on to the balcony to cool his head, he heard Shao yu murmuring the first line of the couplet and saw him gesticulating.
"So, Little Sister, is this the way you treat your bridegroom!" he chuckled silently, taking in the situation. Leaning forward, he started to call to the hapless Shao yu, when he noticed the bride peeping from behind a half opened window of the Perfumed Chamber. The more violent the bridegroom's gestures, the more merrily she laughed. Finally, unable to control her silent mirth, she covered her face with both hands. Big Su picked up handful of pebbles from a nearby
jardinière and threw them into the lily pond in the garden just beneath the balcony.
Drops of water splashed into Shao yu's face. He came to himself with a start and looked downward. The surface of the water, disturbed by the stones, rippled into widening circles. The moonlight danced quiveringly over it as it reflected the sky above. With a shout
of joy, he rushed back into the antechamber, seized a brush and finished the couplet:
"Closing door, shut out moon from windows, Throwing stone, open up sky in waters. "
Big Su waited until the door of the Perfumed Chamber had been unlatched and closed again behind Shao yu. then he yawned sleepily and returned to his room.