All Under Heaven – Chapter 6

If a dog bites a person, would you bite the dog?
The Prefecture of Fuzhou in the eighth month of the lunar calendar was so hot, it was like being inside a steam basket. If a snail was stuck inside a small space for three days straight with food and drink inside, the desire for death would be even greater.

At least it was finally over, Zhao Su came out of the examination hall, he turned around to look inside, if he has made the honours list this time he will never have to live through this nightmare again.

He hoped that he was lucky this time. Zhao Su shook his head and didn’t think anymore. He slowly moved forward in the crowd with a small basket. The people who passed by in twos and threes were still discussing the gains and losses of the exam with many grey-haired people among them.

During this era, there were many people who spent their entire lifetime in pursuit of scholarly honour. To become a Court Official was to bring honor to their family and ancestors alike. In the Ming dynasty, the status of a Civil Official was usually higher than a Military Official. Even if their official ranks were the same – the Military Officials would still be considered to be half a rank lower than Civil Officials. The Frontline Commanders in chief were mostly Civil Officials who had achieved jinshi. This phenomenon makes everyone even more enthusiastic about achieving fame through the Imperial Examinations. The exams were only held every three years and there was also a set quota. There are so many candidates nationwide. The competition was fierce and cruel. Compared to the modern gaokao, it could be said to be several times harder.

Zhao Su sighed deeply, looking in front of him he saw a familiar figure standing under a tree. This figure occasionally raised his head and looked around, and then impatiently strolled back and forth, unconsciously biting his lip.

“Ziyang.” Zhao Su said unexpectedly whilst strolling over unhurriedly.

Zhao Nuan was taken aback, he turned around and saw that Zhao Su was standing behind him smiling.

“Hey! You finally came out, I’ve been waiting here all day.” said Zhao Nuan whilst giving Zhao Su a firm punch on the shoulder.

Zhao Su just continued to smile, his face unchanged.

Although he looked weak, in reality, he had taken care to train himself up. Since that year when he had suffered a great illness, he did taichi every day, and when he had freetime, he’d run a few laps up and down the mountain. In terms of military skills, during the Ming dynasty, archery was favoured. All students were required to learn archery. Fortunately, Dai Gongwang was a skillful equestrian archer, over time, Zhao Su was able to acquire the ability to ride and shoot, which was a rare skill indeed in the Fujian and Zhejiang region as these regions bordered the sea, the people here were more adept in water.
It’s just that Zhao Su’s had inherited Lady Chen’s delicate and elegant appearance. After a few years of recuperation, his appearance was nothing like the frail and dark child back then.

Once he put on the robes of a scholar, it was easy for people to be deceived by his appearance.

“How was the exam?” Zhao Nuan hurriedly asked.

“Not too bad.”

Zhao Nuan wasn’t satisfied with this response: “If it wasn’t for Yuan Shu, you would have been on the pass list ages ago…”

Zhao Su cut him off, he put his hand on his shoulder and dragged him to leave: “Yeh yeh, let’s find something to eat fast, after eating I need to take a shower. I’ve been in there for several days already, mushrooms are starting to grow! How did you get here?”

“Did teacher come?”

“He said that he had to go to Fuzhou to see a friend, and see you so I decided to come with him, but right now he’s probably napping.”

“Over there is a noodle stand, let’s go, he’ll probably be awake after we finish eating.”

“We’re not eating at a street stand, I’ve brought enough money for you to eat to your heart’s desire over the next few days. You suffered these last few days, if you’re going to eat, eat something good!” Zhao Nuan didn’t say anything else and just pulled Zhao Su towards a restaurant.

The restaurant was close to the Provincial exam hall. It was bustling with activity, full of students with money to burn. Waiting impatiently to treat themselves after a grueling few days of examination.

The two took a seat at a three-person table, which happened to overlook the Minjiang River from a distance, taking in the panoramic view of Fuzhou. Zhao Su suddenly felt that the boredom that he had been suffocated with for the last few days had been finally wiped out.

Zhao Nuan ordered some dishes then turned around to sit: “Shao Yong, why didn’t you let me talk about him earlier. Yuan Shu, this idiot, he’s so ungrateful, he deserves a good telling off!”

Shao Yong was Zhao Su’s courtesy name that Dai Gongwang had given him because of his steady and earnest nature.

Zhao Su smiled: “How is he ungrateful?”

“If he wasn’t running to the East of the city, would he have nearly drowned? No, he wouldn’t have drowned and you wouldn’t have had to save him – which made you so sick you missed the exam. After he passed the court examination, he hasn’t come back once, he hasn’t even written you one letter!”

Zhao Nuan was talking about an incident that happened three years ago, during the 37th year of Jiajing.

At that time, an endless rainstorm had poured down for nearly a month, Fujian was almost completely flooded, Changle had a lucky escape. A lot of inhabitants had moved up the mountain, Yuan Shu left a book in the East of the city, and had to go back to get it. In the end, halfway he fell into the water and Zhao Su had to save him. He fell ill after this incident and missed out on that year’s Provincial exam, so obviously the Metropolitan exam was out of the question.

“I went with him and saw him fall into the water. There was no way that I wouldn’t have saved him. He passed the court examination and received an official position, we don’t know what remote and desolate place he has been assigned to. He might not even have the time to write to me, even teacher hasn’t heard from him so how is he ungrateful. If he heard you scolding him behind his back, he’d definitely have something to say about it!”

Compared to how worked up Zhao Nuan was, the person involved was wholly unaffected and even turned around to comfort him back: “It’s alright, I have just finished taking the examination now. If I didn’t have the abilities then I wouldn’t have been able to pass the exam back then anyway.”

Zhao Nuan resentfully: “Shao Yong, you’re good at everything but you’re just too nice!”

When the food arrived, Zhao Su was too lazy to argue, so instead, he buried his head in the food.

This had nothing to be with being soft-hearted, it was a matter of principle.

Since he’d saved him, there was no point in complaining about how the other party responded, because choosing to save Yuan Shu was his choice and by taking action he had already agreed to the consequences. He didn’t really think it mattered whether Yuan Shu felt indebted to him or not.
In the past, this society would indulge in a life of luxury, getting ahead by abandoning morals rather than suffering in poverty, in the end, wasn’t it just a dog eat dog world. Not just talking about friends, even married couples, father and sons would also quarrel. Zhao Su had been rolling around in the dirt for so many years now, what else could he not understand, he certainly wouldn’t take to heart – this kind of small matter.

The two ate and chatted at the same time, not noticing a band of people who had arrived next to them. These people were boisterous, talking and laughing loudly.

One of them said “Chen-xiong, you’re an extraordinary literary talent, I can only look up to you humbly. I reckon you’ll definitely get 1st place this round!”

This Chen-xiong replied with a few modest remarks and then said “This round of exams had a few weird questions, putting together the teachings of Confucius with the problem of the Wukou, I don’t have the utmost confidence. I heard that the exam questions were put together by the Inspector General of the Province and Provincial Education Commissioner.”

Someone else in the group piped up “The trouble from the Wukou is incessant, I think it’s probably because the Inspector General of the Province can’t think of a solution so he’s using us scholars to come up with a solution for him! Zhao-xiong, what do you think? Hey! Zhao-xiong, what are you looking at?”

“I’m looking at someone who knows himself he’s not up to scratch but still decided to take along and have a go at the provincial examination. Once he fails, a river of tears won’t be enough!” Zhao Jin said loudly.

Zhao Nuan, hearing this, turned his head to see the cold, mocking smile of Zhao Jin.

Zhao Nuan slammed his chopsticks on the table in anger, Zhao Su tried to calm him down without lifting his head.

“Eat your food, if a dog bites someone, would you bite the dog?”

Zhao Nuan smiled and his anger simmered down a bit hearing this.

His voice was not too loud but not too quiet but Zhao Jin was able to hear it. Zhao Jin’s face turned black and he was about to get up. Zhao Su lifted his head and looked over at Zhao Jin coldly.

“Watch yourself and don’t embarrass your ancestors.”

Zhao Jin stared blankly before turning around, having heard what Zhao Su had just said, he thought to himself, it would be damaging to his reputation to stir up trouble now, so he reluctantly sat back down.

The others in the group were so engrossed in conversation that no one noticed anything peculiar about Zhao Jin.

“Chen-xiong, I heard that Changle has two people who are students of a renowned teacher, the older student received jinshi in the 38th year of Jiajing. The younger student is called Zhao Su, he also participated in the exams this year right?”

Chen-xiong nodded and laughed “I heard this as well. I only know of him but I’ve never met him. Zhao-xiong, maybe you know this talented individual.”

He was also from Changle, and was also slated to be a top-scorer in this year’s exam. He came here with a large group of people, but Chen Zhu wasn’t arrogant, in fact he was modest and amiable which made people like him even more.

Before he had even finished talking, Zhao Jin added coldly: “He can’t be considered a talented individual, he didn’t even start learning to read or write until he was 13. He’s just a space filler.”

The others didn’t believe: “It can’t just be that, their teacher is a distinguished scholar so his students must not be bad?

Someone else added “You are both surnamed Zhao, and are both from Changle, are you relatives.”

Zhao Jin swept his hand across the table and said “No relation at all.”

Zhao Su didn’t care and continued to eat. Zhao Nuan couldn’t bear it any longer and nearly got up a few times but was stopped by Zhao Su.

He finished eating slowly, wiped his mouth, got up and then went over to their table, cupping his hand together to greet the group.

“Changle Zhao Su, courtesy name, Shao Yong, it’s nice to meet you all.”

The person that they were talking about unexpectedly appeared in front of their eyes. Everyone was not only astonished but felt a little embarrassed, so they got up one after the other to greet him whilst introducing themselves. There was only Zhao Jin who stayed seated, not moving.

Chen Zhu was happy to bump into Zhao Su and said “Shao Yong-xiong would you like to sit down and have a few drinks with us?”
Zhao Su also had a positive feeling towards this young man and replied “My teacher is waiting for me so I’m going to leave first. Hopefully, we may be able to catch up another day, my apologies!”

He paused and then pointed at Zhao Jin smiling “this is my younger brother, he’s been naughty since he was a child, I hope all of you esteemed ones will take good care of him!”

The group was astonished.

Zhao Jin had only just said that they were not related at all, now at a turn of a hat Zhao Su was saying that they were actually related and were brothers, why did Zhao Jin pretend he didn’t know him?

Zhao Jin finally reacted, shaking from anger : “Who is your younger brother?!

Zhao Su’s face didn’t change, and just smiled to the others explaining “I am the concubine’s son, my younger brother is the legitimate son. If he doesn’t want to be recognized in public that’s perfectly normal. As his older brother, I can’t not take care of him but since he doesn’t want to see me, I can only take my leave now!”

After he finished speaking, he cupped his hands together again and then threw a final look over at Zhao Jin, and then left, leaving behind a tumultuous commotion.

Everyone looked at each other, then looked at Zhao Jin whose eyes became more and more disapproving and condemning.

The status between the legitimate son and the concubine’s son was clear during the Ming dynasty; the concubine’s son didn’t have any legitimate right to any inheritance. Even if he was the older brother, to lower his head in front of his younger brother was a normal thing. But if the concubine’s son was able to achieve scholarly honour then this was different. Like Zhao Su, even though he came from a lowly background, he was now the student of Dai Gongwang, and he was also a candidate of the provincial examinations. In terms of reputation, he wasn’t worse off than Zhao Jin. Plus, he had grown into an elegant and graceful young man. And what he had just said wasn’t unreasonable, so naturally everyone understood his viewpoint.

Chen Zhu even said with disdain to Zhao Jin: “Zhang-xiong is your elder, how can Zhao-xiong be so rude?”

Zhao Jin’s face went white.

Not far from the restaurant, Zhao Nuan couldn’t hold it in any longer so he laughed out loud.

“I can’t believe it, you didn’t see Zhao Jin’s terrified face just now, it looked like he had swallowed a fly, he couldn’t even speak. Ahhh! That was so satisfying! Hey, you little rascal, when did you learn to be so bad!”

Zhao Su smiled “He’s embarrassed to death by me, that’s a much more useful trick than using your fists, you should learn from me.”

By the time they arrived at the rental house, Dai Gongwang was already up and he was reading in the courtyard.

“Teacher!” Zhao Su exclaimed whilst going up to greet him.

He felt a great gratitude towards Dai Gongwang that was deep from the bottom of his heart. If it wasn’t for his teacher, he didn’t know how he would have ended up. Even if he had the knowledge of the future, he had no status nor authority, so without Dai Gongwang, Zhao Su would have never had the opportunity to get out of this predicament.

It was because of this teacher that he went from being a concubine’s son to becoming the student of a renowned scholar. It was also because of him that Zhao Su could take part in the provincial exam. It was also because of him that Zhao Su was able to fully understand this time period and become a real person of the Ming dynasty.

“You’re back.” Dai Gongwang turned and smiled at him. Dai Gongwang had previously lost his wife and son. He now only had a concubine, he never remarried and had no heirs. As Yuan Shu was no longer by his side, he evidently treated Zhao Su with meticulous care and attention. It was with great relief that Zhao Su was a bright child and in a few short years, he had lived up to his expectations.

“Why has teacher come to Fuzhou?”

“I came to visit a friend as well as see you. I also wanted to let you know something.” Dai Gongwang said slowly “My friends in the capital sent me word to let me know that that I will be reinstated soon. So today is the last time we will see each other.”

Zhao Su knew that someone like Dai Gongwang, wouldn’t be put in the sidelines for all his life, but he would never have thought that it would be so sudden.


Dai Gongwang waved his hand and led him out of the yard. The afterglow of the evening dusk shone through the foliage shining on to them, creating a long shadow.

“Do you know why I took you as my student back then?”   
24/09/21 – Re-phrasing edits
28/12/21 – Zi Yang -> Ziyang

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