Book 49 Chapter 12 – Crisis of Confidence
Led by Liao Nan, Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling entered the traversing public square, and came to the place where the horses were located. A captain of the imperial guards came up to greet them.
After introducing the two boys to him, Liao Nan said, “This gentleman is the Yu Ji Chang [chief of imperial riders] Cheng Mo Daren, he is in charge of the game.” Finished speaking, he asked to be excused and left.
Cheng Mo sized the two boys up and down, he laughed and said, “I hear two gentlemen’s fame in playing ball shook Taihang, you have rendered crushing defeat to famous Tubo players.”
And then, lowering his voice, he said, “Those four Tubo players have triumphed in every battle in here, who would have thought that when they returned to their country, unexpectedly they nursed a grievance under two gentlemen’s hands. Therefore, when Huangshang heard that two gentlemen came to Chang’an, he immediately sent people to summon you into the palace to perform your skill.”
Hearing that, inwardly the two felt their hair was rising on its end. It should be noted that in the Tang Palace, the martial art masters were as numerous as the cloud. Li Yuan himself was both the master of a clan, and was deeply addicted to such matters. His own skill in playing ball was exceptional, unexpectedly he repeatedly suffered defeat on the field. From this, it could be inferred that playing polo could not rely on martial art skill alone, but one must also speak of skill with the ball. Cheng Mo’s remark immediately shook their originally 100% confidence.
Cheng Mo spoke in friendly manner, “Playing ball in the imperial palace has its local rule. Someone has specific responsibility of calling out the score; obtaining one part is considered one score, so one flag is raised. Losing a score means pulling down a flag, so the red flags are used to keep score. Remember that if Huangshang scores a goal, you must stop and shout loudly ‘Wansui’ [long live, lit. ten thousand years (old)], if other people score, applauding or cheering is enough. Scoring three goals is one set, three sets for one game. At that time it depends on Huangshang’s mood, maybe a short break, or even go into the palace hall for a drink.”
It was only then that the two boys understood the function of the red flags on the perimeter of the field.
Cheng Mo pointed to the nearly a hundred bent sticks used in polo games, which were inserted into a wooden rack on the side, he said, “Those are highest quality polo sticks, specially provided for foreign guests to use, two gentlemen may choose any one you like. Ha! Two gentlemen have never thought that you’d come to the Palace to play polo, have you? Hence you did not think of taking your own sticks along. Two gentlemen may also take a pick from those horses. After making your selection, I will take two gentlemen to try out the field.”
Kou Zhong could not help asking, “What position are we going to play today?”
Cheng Mo cheerfully replied, “This time, playing against Huangshang’s team is the royal family team from Persia, the players are already selected. For the time being, you guys prepare yourselves on the sidelines, after the first game is finished, you go down the arena and do some demonstration. Qi Wang Mansion will send two of their most outstanding players to play with two gentlemen. All right! Two gentlemen may begin to make your selection, after I deal with some businesses, I will come back and take you to try out the field.”
Cheng Mo left to do his business, the two went over to the stick rack. Smiling wryly, Kou Zhong said, “Right now my heart is thumping wildly; what do we do? Looking at the situation, if the number of spectators is not in thousands, there will be at least several hundreds. Under thousands or hundreds of pairs of eyes watching us, these two newly hatched birds taking the field doing some his Niang’s demonstration, it won’t be much different from going up the execution ground to be slaughtered.”
From the rack, Xu Ziling picked a stick and weighed it in his hand; he said, “Very sturdy.”
Hearing that, Kou Zhong also picked one. The end of the stick was curved in half-moon shape, it was painted with gorgeous decorative design. Sighing, he said, “This ghost thing is harder to use than my Moon in the Well.”
Xu Ziling smiled and said, “Kid loses his confidence again! This is precisely the difference between great master level figures and ordinary martial art masters. An ordinary martial art master only specializes in one skill, using other weapon, he would have his hands and feet bound, unable to display his usual level of achievement, plus his horsemanship is limited. In the field, naturally he can’t compete with an expert who specializes in playing polo. A great master level figure, however, has the skill to touch base matter and turn it to gold [idiom]; any Moon in the Well or polo stick in his hand, he will be able to bring out its innate qualities to extreme saturation. Plus, with the man-and-horse-as-one, even if Fa Ming played polo, he could only eat the mud and dust that our horses kicked. Do you understand?”
Kou Zhong’s spirit greatly aroused, he said, “Xu kid’s lecture is right on, I have suddenly become a great master in polo. Come! Pick a stick.”
On the horseback, Kou Zhong took the polo ball that Cheng Mo fetched. Holding it in his hand, he felt that it was light as a feather, slightly finer than a fist, hollow, painted red and bound in colorful silk fabrics; he could imagine the scene as the ball was hit by the stick and moving around the field, and could not help groaning inwardly. This polo ball was definitely not easy to control.
Throwing it to Xu Ziling, Kou Zhong could see a flash of shocked expression, which quickly died down, as he received the ball; obviously he was having an identical feeling as Kou Zhong did.
Cheng Mo said, “While the guests have not entered the arena, two gentlemen are free to hit a few balls to familiarize yourselves with the field.”
Naturally Kou Zhong did not dare to show off his disgrace; musing that an amateur encountering a professional, any which way he put the ball might already let out their secret; it would be better to watch Li Yuan hit the ball a couple of times first. Thereupon he hastily said, “Huangshang has not started the game, how could it be our turn yet? We’d better just walk around and step on the field a little bit.”
Xu Ziling understood his thought. Tossing the ball back to Cheng Mo, without waiting for his comment he immediately urged his ride to rush toward the field. The imperial guards standing around the field immediately turned their attention to watch.
Xu Ziling deliberately showed off; injecting his true qi into the horse, he accelerated toward the edge of the field, and then had his ride leap vertically up, traversing nearly two zhang of empty air. By the time the sturdy horse landed on the ground, half of his body stooped down, using his ‘unique school’s technique’ he moved the stick to strike, it swept across very close to the ground, creating a whooshing noise.
The crowd of imperial guards have never seen such horsemanship, they cheered in chorus.
Chasing after him from behind, Kou Zhong’s confidence was greatly boosted. He also spurred his horse to leap into the air. When it appeared as if the two horses were about to run into each other, the two riders suddenly separated, like a pair of whirlwinds they rushed toward two opposite corners. Like flying, they rushed out of the corner lines, the two horses separately stood up, raising their heads and letting out long neigh, and then relying on their hind legs, which were still on the ground, they spun around until the horses were facing the middle of the field again, before the front legs fell to the ground again, and then like an arrow they galloped toward the middle of the field.
The two men were not idle either, with the stick in their hands, their body was rocking nimbly forward and backward on horseback, or leaning sideways, or performing other movements, sweeping across and striking forward, hitting the imaginary ball on the field. They were performing all kinds of fancy movements, so that the imperial guards watching around the field were as if they were drunk and stupefied, the applause was thunderous, the cheers were incessant.
This was the strategy that the two boys formulated to play polo, which was ‘a hundred-percent equestrianism, thirty-percent skill’. Man-and-horse-as-one was Ba Fenghan’s invention; merely this expertise, there was no other who could claim it. No matter how the horses’ performance reached perfection, no one would suspect that it had something to do with martial art skill.
From one side, they rushed toward the other side, their intention was no longer to show off the horse’s skill, but to master the stick.
The two boys flew off their horses at the edge of the field, the crowd of imperial guards were striving to be first and fearing to be last in scrambling to wait upon them.
Cheng Mo was clapping and calling out at the same time, “Cai Xiong, Kuang Xiong, please come here!”
The two looked at the direction of his voice, and saw Cheng Mo and more than a dozen imperial guards were crowding around and talking to a eunuch like the stars cupping themselves around the moon [idiom, from Analects] on the sideline. They noticed Cheng Mo’s respectful manner toward the eunuch, and knew that this person must have a high position in the palace.
The eunuch was of a medium build, his age was around fifty, his appearance did not stand out at all, but his clothes were extremely tastefully chosen, his head was wearing a black crown cap adorned with golden flowers, his body wearing vermilion-colored broad-sleeved jacket with dark green decorative linings, his waist was wrapped in leather belt inlaid with jade and a white skirt, and his feet wearing black and white double-ruyi shoes, giving up the impression of neat and clean, as if from head to foot he was not infected by a speck of dust at all.
The two boys hurriedly came forward and saluted, but suddenly they felt warning sign at the bottom of their heart, a feeling of cold air seeping and invading their body.
Even with Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling’s ability, they were still shocked inwardly, knowing that this person has reached the martial art realm of being able to probe what is true and what is false in other people across an empty air; quite possibly his martial art skill was above Li Yuan’s. Hurriedly they restrained the true qi within their body.
They both thought of a person at the same time.
Sure enough, Cheng Mo respectfully said, “This gentleman is Da Gong Jian [great palace supervisor] Wei Gonggong [reminder: ‘Gonggong’ is a term to address eunuch]. All Huangshang’s affairs are done according to Wei Gonggong’s arrangement and direction.”
The two boys shivered inwardly, musing that no wonder Hou Xibai was so afraid of him; he certainly had real skill. The imperial palace was teeming with crouching tigers and hidden dragons, like Wei Gonggong, this kind of martial art master who was waiting upon the emperor all year long. Although their name did not appear in Jianghu, the fact was that they were not inferior to any ordinary sect leader of famous school. They could not help paying special attention to him.
Wei Gonggong’s pair of eyes appeared to be listless, dark without any light; it did not matter whatever he was looking at, there was not the slightest bit of variation, as if he was completely indifferent to anything in the world, it did not seem to belong to a living person, its only function was to fill the black hole of his eye sockets. However, his eyesight was as brilliant as Xu Ziling and Kou Zhong, yet from his unfathomably mysterious expression showing in his eyes, his constant cool-headedness, they were able to see through that this was due to some kind of special gongfa, hence he was able to completely hold back and hide the expression showing in his eyes without revealing it at all. In short, he had already reached the supreme realm of the sage presented as an ordinary person.
Wei Gonggong appeared to be looking but not exactly looking, as he swept his eyes over the two boys. Putting on a fake smile, he said, “Two gentlemen’s riding skill is very outstanding, it really made people broaden their horizon very much. Later on, if you are willing to put on a show with all your heart and all your strength, Huangshang will definitely confer a reward.”
He spoke four sentences in total, but the intonation was exactly the opposite to his gaze; it was full of changes. From dark, hoarse, deep and low, it became shrill and sharp, suddenly it turned sluggish and muffled; it sounded intermittent but also continuous. The peculiarity was guaranteed to be unforgettable.
Kou Zhong bowed down and replied, “We, two brothers, will definitely do our best. We ask Wei Gonggong to give us more pointers.”
Cheng Mo laughed and said, “Wei Gonggong has always talked less with people from outside the palace, he is viewing two gentlemen in a new light already!”
Wei Gonggong revealed a rarely seen smile, he spoke indifferently, “As a man of lower position, I only have the heart to value talent on behalf of Huangshang. Later on, when Huangshang sees your astonishing horsemanship, I am sure he will be extremely happy. It will depend on you, whether you can grasp this opportunity or not.”
And then his pair of eyes slightly opened, refined light suddenly flashed but disappeared just as quickly, as he cast his gaze in the direction of the imperial city. He spoke calmly, “The first pair of guests has arrived!”
The two turned their head to look, entering their vision were surprisingly Li Mi and Wang Bodang, accompanied by a petty official, walking into the traversing public square. A peculiar feeling welled up in their hearts at the same time.
From Wei Gonggong’s unusual expression showing in his eyes and his reaction, it was clear that in his heart, Wei Gonggong understood why Li Mi was coming into the arena. From this, they were certain that Li Yuan indeed had the intention to eliminate Li Mi.
Without Li Yuan giving a nod of approval, how could Li Mi have set foot in the public square even for half a step?
Wei Gonggong’s arrogance was enormous, he was no longer interested in talking with the two boys, he ordered Cheng Mo to wait by the two boys’ side.
After Li Mi, one after another the guests entered the venue.
A short moment later, the east and west spectator’s grandstands were like a banquet with no empty seats; clamorous, brimming with festive atmosphere.
It was only this moment that Xu Ziling and Kou Zhong began to understand why Li Yuan summoned them into the palace to demonstrate their skill. Because Chang’an’s upper classes needed fresh stimulation, and they, the two foreigners, happened to have the skill necessary to give these people their enjoyment. However, whether they could go down the arena to perform, they needed Wei Gonggong’s discerning eyes to approve first, hence Wei Gonggong encouraged them to perform with all their heart and all their strength, because if their show was not remarkable enough, Li Yuan would lose face, and then Wei Gonggong would certainly receive the blame.
In total, the east and west spectator’s grandstands held nearly a thousand people. Chang’an’s major figures in government, huge merchants, government officials, members of the gentry, all kinds of celebrities bringing their wives and children, were coming to watch the game. There were also Li Yuan’s royal relatives, imperial concubines who wanted to join in the fun, making it a place to try to gain friendship and climb the social ladder; therefore, the sound of greetings was flying across the arena like crazy, they were talking and laughing noisily. It was comparable to the liveliness of the Lunar New Year’s Eve banquet, only instead of in the evening, it was held in broad daylight.
Most of the upper-class women and court ladies were wearing the lively and colorful Hu [barbarian/non-Han] attire, which was popular at that time.
Among the guests of honor, they recognized not a few. In addition to Li Mi and Wang Bodang, the entire Sha Family, from top to bottom, all showed up. It was thus clear that they had successfully assimilated into Chang’an’s social life. Others like Hu Fo, Hu Xiaoxian, Chi Shengchun, Xue Wanche, Feng Liben, Chang He, Feng Deyi, Er Wenhuan, Qiao Gongshan, Xing Chang Long’s Bu Jie, Guanzhong Jian Pai’s chairman Qiu Wensheng, Li Jing, husband and wife, Pei Ji, Liu Wenjing, Xiao Yu, Dugu Feng [peak], Yuwen Shi and so on were all present, momentarily it was too numerous to mention one by one. The grandeur of this event could easily be inferred.
Their armor distinctive, wielding dagger-axe or halberd spear in their hands, the Yu Lin Jun [imperial bodyguards army] stood in formation on all sides. Red carpet, which extended as long as several hundred paces, was laid out directly from the Cheng Tian Gate into the field, with imperial guards standing guard on both sides along the carpet, forming a human imperial path for Li Yuan to get out of the palace, showing the Great Tang’s might and Li Yuan’s air to the fullest.
Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling withdrew to the corner at the west end of the field where the horses were being held, fortunately Cheng Mo was taking a good care of them, he had his men fetch two chairs, so that they did not have to stand for nothing.
This moment, Shang Xiuxun, accompanied by the Da Guanjia Shang Zhen, the Da Zhishi Liang Zhi, their good friend Luo Fang, and Li Dajie [I think it ought to be Fu Dajie], entered the arena. Wei Gonggong personally greeted them. She was wearing men’s attire, yet it was still unable to conceal her remarkable beauty the slightest bit; immediately she attracted the attention of everyone present.
Kou Zhong sighed and said, “Even though Meiren’er Changzhu came, it would be useless. Shen Meiren practically does not have any opportunity to attend. I wonder what excuse did Zhang Jieyu use not to let her participate in this grand occasion in the palace. According to reason, with Shen Meiren’s ability and wisdom, she should have a feeling that something is not right.”
Xu Ziling said, “Zhang Jieyu’s trace has not been seen, let’s talk again when we see her! On the contrary, I am not so worried now, it won’t be good for us to die together with Li Mi to prevent the Dugu Family from harming Meiren’er Junshi.”
Kou Zhong was muttering to himself irresolutely for a moment; showing his feeling, he said, “This is what being a slave feels like, hiding in the corner, sitting around in wait, and then later on performing a monkey show. However, in the midst of unlucky, we are actually very lucky, because at least we can watch first and steal from the experts. If from the beginning we had to go down the arena, we would certainly make everybody laugh that they hurt their belly, thinking that we are performing comedy as the sideshow! Ha! My old friend is here!”
The drums played a happy tune, it was Hu [see above] music to welcome foreign guests.
Applause and cheers exploded at the same time.
A party of more than thirty Persian guests, accompanied by Chang He and Wen Yanbo, was urging their horses from the direction of the imperial city to enter the traversing public square. Among the Persians, only six were wearing light and comfortable attire to play polo, the rest seemed to be diplomats and Persian merchants. It is thus clear that polo was a means to build relationship between two countries.
Wei Gonggong and Cheng Mo came forward to welcome them and led them to the reserved seats at the front of the east spectators’ grandstand.
Kou Zhong said, “Our other old friend Yun Shuai must be an expert in playing polo, perhaps the game of polo was invented by him, at that time he was sojourning in Tubo.”
Xu Ziling laughed and said, “You are babbling nonsense again!”
Smiling bitterly, Kou Zhong said, “How can we not babbling nonsense? Seeing this group of polo experts from Persia, everybody’s spirit is trembling with excitement, the polo stick hanging on their horse is like divine soldier’s sharp weapon, I am really afraid we will make a fool of ourselves.”
Xu Ziling said, “In term of playing ball, we are a newly hatched bird, if you are still having a stage fright, it would be better to tell Wei Gonggong as soon as possible that we are having tummy ache and be done with it, so that we could avoid making an exhibition of ourselves.”
Kou Zhong laughed aloud and said, “How can I have a stage fright? His Niang’s! Later on we will use the Long-Life Qi to control the polo ball remotely; I don’t care how light and easy to use or how difficult to control, it will become obedient to our heart’s desire. Our Long-Life Qi is also a unique skill, there’s no other can claim it. I guarantee no one can see it through; they will think that our ball skill is exceptional. So exceptional that we could make the ball go round a curve. Ha!”
Xu Ziling nodded and said, “This proposal is a bit more constructive.”
Excited, Kou Zhong said, “I don’t know who said it, but the rumor in Jianghu says that if Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling join forces, no one in the world can match it. Although the victory of two against one is not glorious, but in the playing court, it is called team spirit. Ay! To turn Taihang Shuang Jie into a pair of the number one polo masters in the world, I really don’t know whether it’s luck or a misfortune.”
Xu Ziling said, “Later on, somebody must clean up this mess. Fortunately the area outside the pass is Li Shimin’s world; with him speaking to the boss of the Taihang Pai, I am not afraid he is not going to cooperate obediently.”
Kou Zhong still wanted to speak, suddenly the waist drum, the bronze drums, the shellfish drums, were sounded together, shaking the heavens; followed by pipa, traverse flute, deng an [no idea what it is, 等案], hole xiao, vertical mo, and so on playing together. The drum music rose up to the sky.
On the east and west spectators’ grandstands, everybody got up and stood respectfully to greet the team coming out of the Taiji Palace’s main gate, the Cheng Tian Gate.
With sixteen imperial guards urging their horses to open up a path, Li Yuan, wearing light and comfortable riding attire, a particularly fine polo stick for personal use by the emperor hanging on the side of his horse – rode into the arena.
Following behind his horse were Li Yuanji, Li Shentong and Li Nantian; all were wearing warrior outfit and boots to play polo, looking like sportsmen ready to come down the arena to compete. And then there were three beloved imperial concubines that Li Yuan most doted on; unexpectedly they were also wearing riding attire. Yin De Fei was beautiful but aloof, Zhang Jieyu graceful, Dong Shuni sweet and charming. The three women strived in gorgeousness and competed in beauty, they added the colors of spring into the arena.
Whispering in Xu Ziling’s ear, Kou Zhong said, “Turns out it is the Li Clan team against the Persian team; no wonder we have no share in it.”
Xu Ziling spoke heavily, “Shen Meiren Junshi is here!”
Kou Zhong cast his gaze behind the three imperial concubines, indeed he saw Shen Luoyan mingled among Yuwen Shang, Dugu Feng [phoenix], You Chuhong, and a group of various imperial concubines whose status was comparatively lower. Slightly in front of her was surprisingly Li Xiuning.
Xu Ziling said, “This move is even more top-notch; Shang Changzhu practically has no chance to speak to her in private.”
Amidst the cheers and applause, upright and unafraid, Li Yuan entered the arena.