Muchun Zhenren had taken it for granted that his decision was perfect – his first apprentice was highly fickle although he always looked on the brighter side of things; while the little apprentice was prone to split hairs despite his calmness. It couldn’t be better if the two busters could complement each other.
Unfortunately, it turned out they were going to explode before complementing each other.
Muchun Zhenren had no choice but to separate them by force. He asked a Taoist child to take Cheng Qian to have a bath and change his clothes, for he was sweaty from practicing swordplay. Then he zeroed in on his tough first apprentice by droning dully the Scriptures on Clarity and Stillness again.
Their master’s chanting was the living representation of an “eyesore and earsore”. With the figure of a weasel and the voice of a duck quacking, he resoundingly stilled the running sandglass, and irritated his first apprentice who almost rose to bite his master murderously.
Yan Zhengming’s forbearance was driven beyond its limits. He threw the graver onto the desk and raged, “Master, what are you doing?”
“You are uncalm. I am chanting to rest your mind.” His master answered without even lifting his eyelids.
When the chant was paining Yan Zhengming, Cheng Qian returned. Yan Zhengming finally got an opportunity to unleash his vexation. He sniffed and shouted, “You incensed his clothes with sandalwood? What’s wrong with you? Is he going to become a monk?”
The Taoist child meekly mumbled “yes, yes”. He was too afraid to say Cheng Qian wanted that incense.
“Change the incense to hibiscus –” Yan Zhengming yelled at him.
“– the heaven is active; the earth is calm…” Muchun Zhenren’s voice grew even louder.
His voice was like the crunch that sew the timber, which made Yan Zhengming go hot under the collar. “Master! I am not uncalm!”
Muchun lifted his eyelids and said in a placid manner, “You’re uncalm so you will be disturbed by external things, and care about whatever the incense. Don’t take your third junior brother as a censer. – How about this? To assist you with your cultivation, I move to your Land of the Tender today and chant all night for you.”
Yan Zhengming: “…”
The old weasel had an addiction to chanting, so he definitely meant it. Could he possibly live to see tomorrow if the weasel really chanted all night long?
Yan Zhengming was forced to swallow his anger and sat back. Enduring the incense of sandalwood which smelled like rotten wood to him, he picked up the graver indignantly and began carving vertical lines in the wood as though whipping a corpse.
The “censer” Cheng Qian sat down silently to continue his homework, with the feeling that he was sitting next to an irritable big rabbit.
Their master had assessed Han Yuan as flighty and impulsive, but he definitely proved no match for Yan Zhengming. At least Han Yuan’s being flighty affected nobody else, while Yan Zhengming would always involve everyone around him.
Cheng Qian started to see the benefits of being with first senior brother – there was a distinct contrast.
Once Cheng Qian got serious, he could break away from the external disturbance. He carefully imitated the calligraphy from his memory, and soon became engrossed in the fun of writing. Bound in the smell of sandalwood, which seemed to have the effects of smoothing the nerves, Cheng Qian gradually brushed aside his composure-lacking first senior brother.
Yan Zhengming was holding in a bellyful of sulks. He clamored for desserts, but felt over stuffed after that. So he stood up and walked around the pavilion.
But soon he found he was left out. His master was sitting upright on a hassock absorbedly in meditation while chanting quietly; he was persistently immersed in scriptures. And his junior brother was writing his ugly characters carefully as if doing embroidery, without once lifting his head.
With the two, the atmosphere in the pavilion became so serene that it almost stilled, even the Taoist children standing in attendance couldn’t help but hold their breath.
The serenity gave young master Yan some embarrassing boredom. He resigned himself to sitting back in front of the sandglass. After chilling out for some time, he had no alternative but to pick up the graver again and got down to the monotonous routine practice.
Amazingly, he didn’t rock the boat this time. It was the abrupt ringing of the sandglass that brought Yan Zhengming back to senses. He unbelievingly found today’s practice actually ended prematurely.
The next few days followed the routine. Every morning, the four apprentices would suffer the torture of listening to their master chanting.
They were unclear about where their master managed to find so many scriptures. He read one book per day with no repetitions. After Taoist scriptures there were Buddhist scriptures, and following Buddhist scriptures came his self-composed ones, whose content was unstrained and not limited by the sect, leading to frequent self-contradictions.
After chanting was the swordplay practice.
Yan Zhengming shamelessly pretended to be well versed in the first three forms in spite of a superficial understanding, and asked his master to teach him the fourth. Li Yun restrained himself a bit and stopped making trouble all over the mountain as he learned some new moves. And there was no need to mention Cheng Qian. Only Han Yuan was firm in being a drag on his senior brothers and destroyed every bird nest around Mission Hall heartlessly.
Every afternoon, Yan Zhengming would be trapped in the Mission Hall, carving charms with dark clouds of discontent overhead. Cheng Qian either did homework next to him, or helped his master prune the flowers and grass. It seemed like his master had the intention to make up for the love he didn’t enjoy in his earlier ages. He always saved for him some snacks that children liked; and while Yan Zhengming was carving the wood resentfully, he would deliberately ask Cheng Qian to take a break, and tell him several eccentric folk tales.
Yan Zhengming sometimes felt that the short kid was here to compete, against him, for their master’s love. However, it was undeniable that with Cheng Qian by his side, he could sit for a little bit longer due to his influence.
Yan Zhengming fell into a daze when the sand ran out today, the numbness lingering in his hand. Just now, he felt a mysterious power developed from the friction of the graver against the wood.
“Concentrate. Absorb Qi into your body.” A hoarse voice rang out in his ears. “The great I call the departing, and the departing I call the beyond. The beyond I call home… Around it moveth, and it suffereth not –”
Cheng Qian had an ability to take stock of the situation. He stood up and stepped backwards spontaneously before his master asked him to. In the meantime, he felt an inarticulate current of air hovered around his body for a moment, and then flowed over into first senior brother’s body like the rivers running into the sea.
It was his first contact with the subterranean area behind the depressing world. Cheng Qian didn’t have a clue to Yan Zhengming’s feelings at that time, but he heard an indistinct voice as well. Right now, the sun had set to the other side of Fuyao Mountain; the dimly discernible echoes reached every corner of the mountain teeming with spiritual energies. Countless different sounds converged as one and engendered a strange feeling in Cheng Qian. They sounded like the remote past and the vague future were whispering to each other across the time present. He desperately tried to make out what they were saying, but their words just flowed by him gently like quicksand in the river of time.
Cheng Qian was practically obsessed.
Suddenly, a hand grasped his shoulder and Cheng Qian got startled, as if he jolted out of a bizarre and motley nightmare. He looked behind and saw Muchun Zhenren dimly.
Muchun’s stare fell upon him from above. Cheng Qian felt his face coolish. He reached his hand to wipe his face, only to find that tears were streaming down his cheeks.
He felt awkward, and was at a loss as to what had happened, so he looked at his master blankly.
“The five colors combined the human eye will blind. The five notes in one sound the human ear confound. The five tastes when they blend the human mouth offend.” Muchun Zhenren’s voice thinned into a thread and pierced into Cheng Qian’s ears. “How can you be ‘free and easy’1 when you see too much, hear too much, think too much, and wish too much? Wake up! Now!”
His words were like a wake-up call. There was a buzzing in Cheng Qian’s head, and after a blink, he recovered his sight and saw first senior brother sitting rooted in place rigidly. It looked like he was deep in meditation. The wooden blocks inscribed with messy lines lay scattered across the desk.
Cheng Qian sat there in a daze as Muchun Zhenren ruffled his hair. He asked, “Master, just now I heard people talking…”
“Oh, they are all forefathers of our sect.”
Cheng Qian was shocked.
“Our sect has a history of over one thousand years, is it strange that we have a bunch of forefathers?”
“Where are they now?”
“Of course they are all dead.”
“Didn’t they ascend to the heaven?” Cheng Qian goggled.
Muchun lowered his own head. Looking at him kindly, he asked in reply, “Is there any distinction between ascending to the heaven and being dead?”
“There is, of course. Doesn’t ascending to the heaven mean immortality?”
Muchun froze temporarily, and then he seemed amused by him. He didn’t give a straight answer, instead, he said, “Ah… You are still a little kid, don’t keep talking about death. Those are things you will understand when you grow up.”2
With that, he walked back to the seat of the host and sat down. He looked at Yan Zhengming, wearing a woebegone face. Cheng Qian heard him mutter, “Why must he get into meditation now? He really chose a terrible moment. Where shall I have my dinner?”
Cheng Qian: “…”
Consequently, the dinner was moved to the Mission Hall, which should have been a place to transmit wisdom, impart knowledge and resolve doubts. Amid scattered charms and scriptures lay a toasted chicken, surrounded by other dishes and the unconscious first senior brother.
Muchun asked Cheng Qian to sit on the floor with him. He picked up a chunk of meat for Cheng Qian lovingly, and dragged over a piece of paper covered with scriptures and placed it on the desk. Then he urged, “Have some more, and you will grow taller – spit the bones on the paper.”
Cheng Qian took up his bowl quietly, feeling that he could hardly have the least bit of awe of the Mission Hall from this moment on.
After dinner, Muchun had to keep guard over first senior brother. He commanded a Taoist child to wrap up a half Jin3 of desserts for Cheng Qian in case he went hungry in the night. Today was exactly the fifteenth day of the month, the day when going to the mountain cave was forbidden. But Muchun didn’t repeat his warning to Cheng Qian; he was confident that Cheng Qian wouldn’t go out to cause trouble and would write the sect rules instead.
Indeed, Cheng Qian wouldn’t, but someone else would.
No sooner had he entered the door of Qing’an Dwelling than Han Yuan followed in. Han Yuan made a big fuss over everything in the yard, after which he took up the desserts Cheng Qian left there, and praised profusely as he ate most of them. Splashing the scarps of the desserts, he said, “It’s no fun for you to stay with first senior brother all day – you’d better play with us. Today second senior brother taught me quite a few moves, I almost learned all the moves of the first form.”
Cheng Qian dodged all the scraps which were as many as snows. He smiled in silence at his idiot junior brother, and thought in mockery, presumably he should go up to the heaven in a few days since he learned the first form so quickly.
Pointing at the yard, Han Yuan said to Cheng Qian, “Your yard is so shabby, barely better than Master’s. You have to see mine tomorrow. My yard is ten times as large as yours, and there’s a pool at the back, we can go swimming in summer – can you swim? Ah, forget it. You domesticated kids wouldn’t dare go out of home, much less go swimming. I’ll teach you to swim. I promise you’re bound to be a good swimmer in one summer.”
Cheng Qian declined his kindness. The fact was he didn’t want to go around with dregs like Han Yuan.
The little beggar ate up the desserts during the time he chatted. At length, he stopped shooting the breeze pointlessly and got into the subject.
He burped and straightened up. Lowering his voice, he said, “Do you remember the cave… second senior brother mentioned?”
Cheng Qian had expected this, so he replied placidly, “Junior Brother, that’s violation of the sect rules – now that you have almost mastered the first form, can you read the characters of the sect rules?”
Han Yuan thought this senior brother who was even younger than him was literally unreasonable. So he lectured him with an air of superiority. “What’s the benefit of memorizing the sect rules? I’ve never seen someone that is as stubborn as you. Didn’t you hear what second senior brother said? Without energy feel, you are at best an acrobat even if you master the full set of swordplay. How long will it take if you cultivate step by step? You can’t always stay in th… the…”
“Stay in the rut.” Uttered Cheng Qian.
“Whatever. I’m going to the cave anyway, are you in?” Han Yuan waved his hand.
Cheng Qian showed plainly that he was a “honest and good” boy by saying, “I dare not.”
He rebuffed without a second thought. Han Yuan was disappointed at first, and then felt disdainful – kids like Han Yuan that were sturdily built but simple-minded always held in detestation “good kids” like Cheng Qian, who were obedient and adhered to rules.
“Domesticated.” Han Yuan grimaced and darted an unhappy look at Cheng Qian.
Cheng Qian, in turn, completely took his junior brother as a stupid mangy dog. He felt any like or hate towards him was a waste of his feelings. So he took up the teacup, showing no attitude.
Han Yuan took a few more looks at him. For the sake of that sachet of pine-nut candies, his temper gradually passed off. With kind of pity and sympathy, as well as the superiority of a stray dog viewing a domestic cat, he shook his head and sighed, “Domesticated kids are all porcelain.”
This afternoon in the Mission Hall, Cheng Qian had an impression of the spirituality of the mountain and its lurking mysteries. And he also knew what Li Yun was thinking about. Li Yun must be wondering what exactly was there in the cave in the evening of the first and fifteenth days of every month, but he didn’t want to risk breaking the rules. Assumedly he had already planned to get a fall guy for him.
Although Han Yuan failed to persuade Cheng Qian, he didn’t leave empty-handed. At least, he had a late-night supper at Cheng Qian’s place. “Porcelain” Cheng Qian saw Han Yuan out courteously and watched him leave, waiting to see what the sucker would end up with.
“What would happen if he breaks the rules?” Cheng Qian thought unconcernedly. “Will he get a caning? Have his palm beaten? Or be made to transcribe scriptures? – it’s not a big deal if the punishment is to transcribe scriptures.”
Unexpectedly, however, Han Yuan didn’t return that night.