This runs to 3,108 words.
Master Que stood to help her with her bag because she was, if not elderly, an older lady with grey hair piled up on the back of her head. If she had been a few years younger she might have refused Master Que’s help as she was taller than either of us by almost a head. I also stood so as to be polite and when Master Que, having introduced himself, introduced me as, “My student, Sung Nai,” I bowed.
“Thank you, I am Qun Shun,” she bowed to us in return and took the seat next to the compartment door that faced our direction of travel. “I believe we met briefly on our way to Bao Shung. I’m glad that you don’t have trouble with your seats this time.”
“So am I,” agreed Master Que as he settled himself opposite me, next to the window and facing away from the engine. “Young Nai here may be comfortable sitting on the floor all day, but I find the charm lapses after a while.”
“Indeed,” Qun Shun acknowledged as I opened my book to allow my elders to talk among themselves, “there are aspects of being young that I am quite happy to have put behind me but I do miss being limber and agile.”
“Ah, yes. I must agree with you on that point,” replied Master Que, and I think I managed to keep a straight face because if Master Que considered himself impaired in agility now, I hate to think what he must have been like when he was my age.
“And what are you reading, Miss Sung?” When I looked up in surprise, she added with a thin smile, “I’m sorry if I’m being intrusive, but as a semi-retired librarian I am interested in what books people choose to read, particularly when they don’t have to.”
I thought that sounded reasonable, so I answered politely, “Cho Ki, ma’am. Honour Among Horses has a chapter on hubris I thought it would be useful for me to review at the moment.”
Her mouth twitched in what I thought was amusement. “You did do very well in the provincial tournament yesterday,” she said. “I had tickets for the open women’s competition, so I got to see your last few bouts as well. I must admit that I didn’t recognise you until just now.”
“I was fortunate not to face Chang Siu Mao,” I admitted. “I think my results would have been very different if I had.”
“Maybe, maybe not.” She shook her head. “So, do you like Cho Ki’s philosophy?”
“He’s very good at people, ma’am,” I answered, “and very funny with it. You can laugh your way through a chapter and then realise that you’ve been taught three or four important things while you weren’t watching.”
“Indeed.” She nodded and then said, “You might like Lady Wen Cho as well. She’s best known for Notes Betwixt the Outer Court which is a collection of her letters and pure history resource these days but her other known works include Peony Missives and that’s philosophy, although everyone wants to file it next to Notes.” She sighed.
I pulled out a pencil and scribbled a note on the piece of paper I was using as a bookmark. “Do you recommend any of her other works, ma’am?”
“We only have one more book,” answered Qun Shun. “There are a substantial number of poems in various collections of Court poetry from the period, but aside from this novel, a mystery called The Guanzhou Affair, nothing of any length.”
“I think I remember seeing a movie of that name,” commented Master Que. “It must have been, what, thirty years ago?”
“That would be right,” agreed Qun Shun. “I found it more than usually faithful to the book.”
“I recall that the denouement was unsatisfying,” said Master Que. “Either the authorities should have arrested the conspirators or the conspirators should have killed the narrator character. Things staying as they were seemed…unsatisfactory.”
“It wasn’t written to our sensibilities,” pointed out Qun Shun.
“The views of the past often seem strange to us,” agreed Master Que and, as they appeared to be continuing their conversation without me, I made a note of the The Guanzhou Affair and carried on with my reading.
We arrived in the capital in time for an early breakfast the following morning. We helped Qun Shun get her luggage off the train and then, after wishing us the best of luck in the national championship, she took herself off to what she described as, “my nice little place in Quilong Park.” Once we had parted with our travelling companion, Master Que took us to a small establishment on the corner of two laneways a few blocks from the station where we had a sit down breakfast of rice, pickles and fish sambal, washed down with tea. After two pots of tea we paid our bill and headed for the hotel of Master Que’s choice.
This was another hotel aimed at business travellers, so it was large, plain, comfortable, centrally located and reasonably priced. We were, of course, far too early for ordinary check in but we were able to register and leave our luggage to be taken up to our rooms when they were clean and available. Master Que and I then sallied forth to take care of business, having arranged to meet for lunch. Master Que went off to hire us a practice room and I went to the post office to get my mail redirected.
Getting my mail redirected didn’t take the whole morning, of course, and I got directions from the postal officer who served me to a local stationery shop. The local stationery shop turned out to be the landmark, head office store of Hong & Sons, which is the biggest chain of such stores in the eastern half of the country. They were also completely out of blank red packets for New Year, although they did have beautiful sets of rice paper writing pads. I left Hong & Sons with a writing pad, matching envelopes, a calligraphy pen, black calligraphy ink, and directions to another stationery shop that might still have plain red packets left so I could write the greetings on them myself.
It took me about fifteen minutes to get to the little calligraphy shop in a back lane behind the Central Law Courts. When I say ‘little’ I mean the place would have been crowded if three customers had been in there but it didn’t appear to be unfrequented – the entire shop was scrupulously clean and a man in tailored blacks was being served when I arrived. When he left I took his place at the counter and was served by a sweet faced old man who must have been in his eighties. When I explained that I was looking for blank red packets so I could write my own greetings on them, he bustled around and produced samples from different drawers and explained which type of gold ink would go with best with each type of paper. I made my selections of packets, ink and brush based on his recommendations of which would be most forgiving of my pitiful calligraphy skills, and he totalled up my bill then packaged up my purchases. While he was doing that I was gazing at the calligraphy samples up on the wall above the counter, as you do, and I realised that I recognised the signature chop on them.
“I think I have a piece of this calligrapher’s work at home,” I commented. “I bought it from someone’s garage sale – I think their mother-in-law was moving in with them or something and they had to thin things out. It’s about trees on mountains and rain.”
“Oh?” He looked pleased, “You liked it enough to buy it with your pocket money?” When I nodded he went on, “When you do these things and give them to friends, you’re never quite sure whether they’re pleased to have them because they’re from you or because the work is actually good.”
I realised the obvious, “It’s your work?” I really was pleased and I bowed. “It has given me a great deal of pleasure in the time I’ve had it.”
“It’s good to know my work has some merit in a stranger’s eyes,” he answered and bowed in return. Then another customer arrived, so I paid my bill, took up my parcel and went on my way thinking that the world was either not as large as it looked at first or rather more interconnected than it might appear.
There was still lots of time before I was supposed to meet Master Que for lunch so I wandered through the network of laneways in what I thought, or rather hoped, was the general direction of where I was supposed to meet up with Master Que. As I went I investigated the more interesting looking shops but didn’t actually spend any more money until I found a second hand bookshop. The two men at the counter playing go barely looked at me when I walked in and I managed to investigate the shelves completely unassisted. When I wandered up to the counter, still looking at nearby books to see if there was anything else I wanted, neither of the two looked up until I put my stack of books on the counter. That was when the one on my side of the counter, without looking up from the go board asked, “Are you sure you want all of those?”
I’d found all three of the books by Lady Wen Cho that Qun Shun had mentioned, another Cho Ki book called Love Without Rice, and two more books by Wu Jen – Sails Across the Eternal Sea and Starlight in the Darkness of the Moon. “Yes, please,” seemed the only sensible answer.
“You’d better serve her then, Jang,” he said to his opponent. “I’m going to beat you anyway, so you might as well make some money.”
“You wish,” retorted the man behind the counter, and he started ringing up my purchases. “Besides this one is a good customer – doesn’t make unnecessary noise or fuss, treats the books carefully and wants things that have been here for a while.” He smiled at me, showing a broken tooth repaired with gold, and said, “That’ll be twenty standard taels, miss.”
“Thank you.” I paid him and waited while he put my books in a bag, then went off to meet Master Que. The go game was back on before I reached the door.
It’s probably not surprising that I got lost. I had, of course, not been wandering in quite the direction I thought I was. This was complicated by our designated meeting place being not where I understood it was in relation to where I started, and it meant I’d probably actually been lost before I reached the book store. I did eventually manage to find the Startled Rooster Eating House, by dint of asking of asking both a street sweeper and a policeman for directions, but I arrived half an hour after I was supposed to and covered more ground than I needed to in order to get there. Did you have any idea that any idea that Twelve Diligences Street is divided by the gardens joining the Forbidden Palace to the Celestial Temple and that you have to go around one or the other to get to the other half of the street? I learnt that then and I would have liked to have taken the time to take a good look at the façade of the Celestial Temple but I was running very late…
When I arrived Master Que was already seated and eating. He seemed amused by my explanation of how I’d gotten lost and recommended the spareribs. He had finished his meal by the time my order arrived and he called for more tea so that he could keep me company. While I was eating he said, “I’ve secured a practice room for us in the school of Master Chu Man. Master Chu and I have had a…tense and dynamic relationship over the years but I have absolutely no doubts about his personal integrity. You will be scrupulously polite to him, and you will offer no opportunity for any of his students to take umbrage with you – not that I expect you to in the first place. It is, however, possible that some of his students may try to provoke you.”
I stopped eating and asked, “Master Que, what else should I know about you and Master Chu?” It was obvious that there must be something.
Master Que sipped his tea and answered, “The injuries I gave him in our bout during the fourth national tournament I won led directly to his retirement from the professional gi circuit. I have no reason to believe that he holds a grudge but it is possible that some of his students may have strong feelings on the subject. Despite the amount of time that’s passed.”
“If that could be an issue, then why take a room in his school?” I started eating again.
“A number of reasons,” Master Que was looking over my shoulder as he drank his tea. “As I said, I trust Master Chu’s integrity. If something were to happen to me, here or elsewhere, you could do far worse than appeal to him for help. A reason to introduce you seemed advantageous. Secondly, benefits of one’s success should flow downhill, and I think it behoves me try and make some of mine flow to Chu Man, whether he needs it or not.” He drank some more of his tea. “Not that I feel guilty about what I did, I’d do the same again in the same circumstances, but there were aftermath things that shouldn’t have happened and those made all the difference to Chu Man. Now, tell me about your shopping.”
“I got red paper packets to inscribe for New Year,” I told him, “and everything I need to do the writing with. Good writing paper, because I think it’s time I wrote home to my parents, and some books.”
“I fear you’re right about writing home to your parents,” Master Que sighed. “What will you say to them?”
“I’m not sure,” I admitted. “Aside from telling them that I’m going straight to university instead of going home.”
“New Year is next week and the university starts classes two weeks after that,” replied Master Que mildly. “You do really need to get to Xiamtian and arrange accommodation as soon as you can.”
“Exactly,” I agreed, “although I don’t intend telling them which university I’m going to, yet. Tell me, if I fight next year, once a week during semester and more often in holidays, do you think I could afford to buy a house to live in Xiamtian?”
“That would depend very much on house prices in Xiamtian,” said Master Que thoughtfully over his teacup. “Certainly I approve of paying off a mortgage rather than paying rent – you don’t have enough money to buy something outright in a city and pay your university tuition. If you wanted a nice house in a small village, well, that would be a completely different matter.”
“Would a bank give me a mortgage?” I was eighteen, after all, and I couldn’t see a bank considering me to be a sound financial risk. I had heard the conversations that my older sisters and their husbands had had on the subject at family gatherings.
Master Que looked at me very seriously. “Nai, without mentioning figures in a public place, you do know how much you’ve been earning in prize purses, don’t you?”
“Yes.” I did. The prize purses handed over at tournaments either contained golden taels or a representative number of standard taels accompanied by a cheque because of weight and size constraints.
“And you know how much our living and travel expenses have been and how much is left in your bank account?” Master Que drank some more tea while I nodded. “Now consider that two, two and a half thousand standard taels a fortnight is considered to be a very reasonable wage and a pay level many people aspire to.”
I was stunned. “But I have… I’ve been getting… I mean, I knew that the prize purses were large.”
“Exactly.” Master Que nodded now. “You have enough to pay for your university tuition and to stump up enough for a decent deposit on a reasonable house. Depending on your definition of a reasonable house and the state of the Xiamtian property market. I know an agent here in the capital that we can make enquiries through. I’ll introduce you.”
“The other thing I was wondering about, Master Que,” I raised it now because we were on the subject of Xiamtian, “would you be coming with me or returning to Jingshi?”
“Coming with you, of course,” said Master Que calmly. “You fight as my student at least until you have your professional name and possibly for several years after that. Your reasons for moving to Xiamtian are sound and so I will follow you there.”
“But what about your school in Jingshi?” Master Que had lived and taught in the same building all the time I’d known him, until we’d left on this trip.
He gave an embarrassed cough. “It hasn’t really been much of a school, has it? I mean less than ten pupils… Frankly, I’m not much good at teaching a class – one on one works better for me. I’m arranging to rent the place to Cao Liu Ho. He’s planning to announce his retirement from the professional circuit after the nationals and as Master Zhang he should do more with the place than I did.” Master Que chuckled and added, “I may make it a condition of his lease that he take on any stray six year olds who turn up on their own looking for a gi teacher.”
“Thank you.” Master Que was uprooting his life to help me and I appreciated it.
“I’m beginning to think I make a better manager/trainer than gi teacher,” he told me seriously. “You’re just giving me the chance to explore that more thoroughly. You might want to make sure the house you choose has at least two bedrooms.”
“More than that if you’re planning on building a stable of fighters,” I corrected him.
“Are you planning on being our patron?” He was teasing now.
“We can negotiate something when the time comes.” I gave him a smile. “But first we have this week to get through.”
This is followed by Getting Down To Business.