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In a distant land, far… far… away from here, deep in a rural village, there was an orphaned girl. To only her relatives – her grandparents – Nai-Nai [grandmother] and Ye-Ye [grandfather], she was Xian Hong – little, red, wild swan – so that no evil spirits would recognize her. Everyone else called her by the name she was given at birth – Jui Shi. Her name, which means salvation, was always a mystery to her because she never knew why she was given such a name.
When in her presence, people would always lower their eyes and not say a word. Sometimes when she went to the market with her nai-nai, this happened. The marketplace was always incredibly noisy, heard from miles around. But when Jui Shi came into view, the villagers grew silent. Even the animals seemed to lower their eyes.
Once, a young boy even bowed to her. Then his mother quickly grabbed his shirt and dragged him away. Jui Shi was always curious about these incidents and wanted the truth. But, her grandparents had much of the same reaction when she asked; they spoke no words and lowered their eyes. Ye-Ye and Nai-Nai were loving and Jui Shi trusted them. So, she simply decided to ask no more questions and live with the mystery.
Her grandparents were simple and poor villagers, living deep in the countryside. They did not even have enough money to buy proper clothes for Jui Shi. But, she was well educated by her ye-ye in math, science, history, and literature. Any extra yuan were used to buy old discount schoolbooks and literature from a town bookstore.
One of these books and Jui Shi’s favorite was Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen. Ye-Ye used to sit on their doorway with his Xiao Hong on his lap, while he read this book. She closed her eyes and, in an instant, she was there in Africa.
As Jui Shi walked for miles and miles collecting water from a distant well, she used to dream that she was on a safari, in the plains of Africa. She was hunting lions with the pole she carried buckets on. The trees became giraffes, stubborn creatures who never heeded her advice to move left or right, when she accidentally fired in their direction. It made her day seem happy, although the long hours of carrying buckets of water had calloused her tiny hands and shoulders. She played this game every day, as she fetched water - until one day.
In the full heat of summer, she was on her normal path to collect water when she came upon a stranger. He had a young man’s face and was clad in an oversized brown weathered cape. Jui Shi thought he was the handsomest man she had ever laid eyes upon.
“Xiaohong,” the stranger asked, as if he had known Jui Shi all her life, “why do you fetch water?”
“Sir,” Jui Shi responded, “my grandparents are too old and weak to do such tasks.”
“But, where are your parents?” said the stranger.
“I am an orphan,” Jui Shi replied.
“Ah, I see.” the young man said, “Then, I will carry the buckets for you.” He reached for the yoke, but Jui Shi shook her head.
“Please, no sir. My grandparents will be angry with me. They will think that I was lazy and asked you to carry the water.”
“No, they will understand. Take me to your home,” the stranger said firmly, but gently. So, Jui Shi led the stranger through fields, up and down the sloping hills, until finally they had reached her village – her humble home. Jui Shi saw her ye-ye, standing in the doorway. He glanced at the stranger carrying the buckets. The stranger put down the buckets and met Ye-Ye’s penetrating gaze. Jui Shi explained,
“Ye-Ye, I’m sorry. I didn’t want this stranger to carry the water, but he–—.”
“–— never mind, child. Go and play. We have much to discuss,” Ye-Ye gravely said. Ye-Ye led the stranger into their hut, almost with regret. He took a match box from its place on the hearth and struck it to light several very thick, yellow candles, made from animal fat, rarely lighted on special occasions. He sighed thoughtfully.
“Stranger, are you the one we have expected?” asked Ye-Ye. “If you are, you will have the key to open this box.” Ye-Ye reached under the cotton mat that he slept on, revealing a jeweled box of emeralds, rubies, sapphires, and amethysts. The stranger put his hand into the deep inner pocket of his cloak. He placed a very simple key that did not seem to match the elegance of the jeweled box.
“Now is the time that the good and simple will discover their own wonderful mysteries,” said the stranger. Ye-Ye smiled and began to cry, knowing exactly who the stranger was. The stranger twisted the key into the keyhole of the box and lifted the lid. The interior of the ornate box was simple, just as the key had been. But, there laid a gold locket. Ye-Ye grasped the locket and opened it. He peered into the locket and at last said,
“Ah, I see why you have come.” Meanwhile, Jui Shi gasped, as she carefully watched the strange exchange between the stranger and her ye-ye. Jui Shi had walked a while in the opposite direction. Then, she turned to see her ye-ye leading the stranger into their mud home. She thought it was queer, as her ye-ye had always allowed her to remain with his company and benefit from all forms of interesting discussions and debates. She decided to investigate. Jui Shi padded toward the house, as quietly as one can in thick mud. The mud seemed to grab her thin, cotton shoes with every step. She had crept behind an opening in the straw hut and listened to everything. She thought,
Who is that stranger? Is he rich relative or perhaps a blackmailer? She turned to distance herself from the hut, only to find herself face to face with the stranger. He looked stunned.
“I did not think you would stoop to eavesdropping,” said the stranger, glumly. Ignoring his statement, Jui Shi asked,
“Stranger, who are you?” Her eyes were big with wonderment.
“I am your tang-ge [cousin],” he said.
“What shall I call you? Did you know my parents? What happened to them?” Jui Shi curiously asked.
“My name is Baojia. As for your other questions, Ye-Ye will answer them,” replied Baojia. He led Jui Shi into the hut and closed the wooden door behind him. Jui Shi looked at her ye-ye in disbelief.
“Child… No, you are a young woman now. This is your tang-ge, Baojia. He is your father’s younger sister’s son. He has come to take you far away from Nai-Nai and me. You are the daughter and present heir of the last true mandarin emperor. You were raised in this meager village to hide you from the sinister dictator that overthrew and assassinated your father. He is dead now. It is time for you to claim your inheritance as the next in line to the throne,” Ye-Ye said.
“This is all too fast! Must I? But Ye-Ye, what will happen to you? Who will haul water for your tea and bath water? Who will collect sticks for the fire and mend the holes in the wall? Who will do all that?” Jui Shi asked frantically.
“Do not worry, Xiaohong. Your grandmother and I will manage. You are more important,” Ye-Ye said, gently. Jui Shi bowed her head and began to cry. Ye-Ye put his hand, caressingly, on her shoulder. Baojia sadly looked at Jui Shi.
“Will I ever see you again?” Jui Shi sobbed.
“Time will tell, but I feel in my heart that we will see each other again,” Ye-Ye said, as tears welled in his eyes. “Well, you both must be off! You haven’t a moment to spare!” The elderly man then whistled a sound more beautiful than the finest country flutist that Jui Shi had ever heard. A very large horse came galloping out of the distance. It was white like moonlight upon a lake and larger than any horse Jui Shi had seen in paintings before. In fact, she had never seen a real, live horse before let alone ridden one. So when she was told that Baojia and she would ride for two days and nights on this creature, her eyes grew to the size of watermelons and she asked,
“Is this creature trained? Can we ride for two days and nights on this?” Baojia only laughed.
“Ha! Xiaohong, I have trained Jiao from infancy! Don’t be frightened. Just get on. Here I’ll help you,” Baojia said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. Suddenly, Jui Shi found herself lifted onto the tall white horse and then thrown up and down by the horses’ long, but bumpy strides. She fell asleep on Baojia’s shoulder. He smiled as he kissed her forehead. So this was his long lost cousin.
When Jui Shi awoke, Baojia reported that they were halfway to the royal palace. She looked around the green rolling countryside. She never had seen such vast land unsettled. She exclaimed,
“The Da Hinggan Ling Mountains are to the north! I read about them in many stories of literature and had always wished to see them!”
“Yes, you are right and well educated too. Few people know the mountain range’s name,” Baojia complimented. Jui Shi blushed.
“Ye-Ye has always take the time to educate me, even when many villagers told him it was foolish to educate girls,” responded Chan Juan.
“Well, he was right about that,” said Baojia. “Villagers will always be villagers, uneducated, prideful, and arrogant. It will be your and my duty to see to their education.”
“Will it be our duty? Will you be at my side?” asked Chan Juan.
“Yes, of course. As the next in line after you, if you do not bear children, I will become your second-in-command. I will help you rule and make decisions until you become of age at eighteen or when the council sees fit,” said Baojia.
“Then, I will certainly feel more secure with you at my side,” Jui Shi said, as she put her hand over Baojia’s. Again, Jui Shi fell asleep on Baojia’s shoulder.
When she awoke, it seemed as if no time had passed. She felt more refreshed than she ever had before such a sleep. She looked around to see no Baojia, rolling hills, no white horse. Instead, she was in a large, luxurious bedroom. There were silk sheets, a silk comforter, silk drapes, silk covered chaises, everything that could be silk was, except for the very fine painting that overlooked the opposite wall. It pictured a couple, holding a toddler that looked very much like her. She was very confused. How could this couple, so extravagantly dressed, be her parents? A matronly mistress entered. She looked like the woman in the painting, weathered by hard years.
“Xiahong, I am the woman in the painting, your mother,” the woman spoke.
“What? I thought I was an orphan!” Jui Shi said loudly.
“I always regretted sending you to be raised by my parents. Spies were everywhere, looking for you to kill the next in line. Even our most trusted servants betrayed us for one thousand yuan.” The woman began to sob. Jui Shi gasped.
“I would have preferred a thousand deaths than to not have parents to raise me,” Jui Shi proclaimed.
“Your father and I only acted to protect you and our family line,” the woman said.
“Still, I would have preferred death as an alternative to no parents,” Jui Shi said. The woman began to cry loudly.
“I wished we could have raised you. I do, truly,” the woman said.
“But, I forgive you, Ma-Ma. My grandparents raised and educated me well,” Jui Shi replied. “You know, I always wished for this moment.”
“I too have wished for this, Xiao Hong,” Ma-Ma replied.
“I know. I understand. Any loving parent would have made the same decisions. At least now, we have each other,” Jui Shi said with happiness, filling her being. Baojia stood outside, watching this happy moment, and smiled. After the crying and sobbing and hugging was over, he entered.
“Please, your servants await to bathe and dress you to present you before the council. They wish to meet you and test you in the areas that a ruler must know,” Baojia said softly.
“As you wish,” Jui Shi answered. Aside to her mother she said smiling,
“I will see you soon.”
Baojia led her to the adjourning bathing room, as large as the small hut she had grown up in. Then she remembered.
“Baojia, can my grandparents come and live here?” Jui Shi pleaded.
“They are already here. They left the night that we did by horseback,” answered Baojia.
“Then, when will I see them?” Jui Shi asked.
“You will see them soon, very soon,” Baojia replied. “Now is the time for you to bathe.” He clapped his hands three times and three beautiful maidens, also clothed elegantly, came scurrying.
“These maidens will help you bathe,” Baojia said.
“Help me bathe?” Jui Shi asked. “I do not need help bathing.”
“Please, it is an old custom,” Baojia said. Jui Shi nodded her head. Baojia left and the maidens began to attend to Jui Shi.
The bath was unusually relaxing. She was sponged and her hair was washed countless times, again and again. It was the longest bath she had ever taken and the maidens poured in more and more water after the water grew cold. It seemed to last forever, until one of the maidens announced that Jui Shi was ready to be dressed.
As Jui Shi stepped out of the bathtub, she noticed that the water was a filthy grey. She had no idea that one person could be so dirty, least of all her. One of the maidens opened the great wardrobe.
“What would you like to wear?” she asked. “This pink one, perhaps?” She took out a lovely pink silk dress, embroidered with daisies.
“Is there a red dress?” Jui Shi asked. Red had always been her favorite color and it suited the occasion. (As you may know, red is the color of joy in China.)
“Yes, certainly there is,” said the maiden. She pulled out a grand red gown, with a high mandarin collar and long empress sleeves. It was equal to no dress Jui Shi had ever seen or ever dreamt of.
“Would you like to wear this one?” she asked.
“Yes, this one.” As the maidens clothed her in this beautiful gown, she felt so loved by her servants, Ma-Ma, Baojia, her grandparents, and hopefully, by her people. She truly, truly felt joyful.
This was the beginning of many joyful moments for Jui Shi. She was reunited with her grandparents, who later lived in the palace. The year after, she was crowned empress. She married Baojia and had children of her own. She was loved by her people and every noble who met her. She prospered greatly and kept the peace for all of her reign. Her reign was the Ta-Ping [peace and security] Age of the Mandarins. She was the last great Mandarin leader and the people’s queen.