The courtesan and poet Zuo Fen had two cats Xe Ming and Xi Ming. Living in her distant court with only her maid Hu Yin, her cats were often her closest companions and, like herself, of a crepuscular nature.
It was the very depths of winter and the first moon of the Solstice had risen. The old year had nearly passed.
The day itself was almost over. Most of the inner courts retired before the new day began (at about 11.0pm), but not Zuo Fen. She summoned her maid to dress her in her winter furs, gathered her cats on a long chain leash, and walked out into the Haulin Gardens.
These large and semi-wild gardens were adjacent to the walls of her personal court. The father of the present Emperor had created there a forest once stocked with game, a lake to the brim with carp and rich in waterfowl, and a series of tall structures surrounded by a moat from which astronomers were able to observe the firmament.
Emperor Wu liked to think of Zuo Fen walking at night in his father’s park, though he rarely saw her there. He knew that she valued that time alone to prepare herself for his visits, visits that rarely occurred until the Tiger hours between 3.0am and 6.0am when his goat-drawn carriage would find its way to her court unbidden. She herself would welcome him with steaming chai and sometimes a new rhapsody. They would recline on her bed and discuss the content and significance of certain writings they knew and loved. Discussion sometimes became an elaborate game when a favoured Classical text would be taken as the starting point for an exchange of quotation. Gradually quotation would be displaced by subtle invention and Zuo Fen would find the Emperor manoeuvring her into making declarations of a passionate or ****** nature.
It seemed her very voice captivated him and despite herself and her inclinations they would join as lovers with an intensity of purpose, a great tenderness, and deep joy. He would rest his head inside her cloak and allow her lips to caress his ears with tales of river and mountain, descriptions of the flights of birds and the opening of flowers. He spoke to her ******* of the rising moon, its myriad reflections on the waters of Ling Lake, and of its trees whose winter branches caressed the cold surface.
Whilst Zuo Fen walked in the midnight park with her cats she reflected on an afternoon of frustration. She had attempted to assemble a new poem for her Lord. Despite being himself an accomplished poet and having an extraordinary memory for Classical verse, the Emperor retained a penchant for stories about Mei-Lim, a young Suchan girl dragged from her family to serve as a courtesan at his court.
Zuo Fen had invented this girl to articulate some of her own expressions of homesickness, despair, periods of constant tearfulness, and abject loneliness. Such things seemed to touch something in the Emperor. It was as though he enjoyed wallowing in these descriptions and his favourite A Rhapsody on Being far from Home he loved to hear from the poet’s own lips, again and again. Zuo Fen felt she was tempting providence not to compose something new, before being ordered to do so.
As she struggled through the afternoon to inject some fresh and meaningful content into a story already milked dry Zuo Fen became aware of her cats. Xi Ming lay languorously across her folded feet. Xe Ming perched like an immutable porcelain figure on a stool beside her low writing table.
Zuo Fen often consulted her cats. ‘Xi Ming, will my Lord like this stanza?’
“The stones that ring out from your pony’s hooves
announce your path through the cloud forest”
She would always wait patiently for Xi Ming’s reply, playing a game with her imagination to extract an answer from the cinnamon scented air of her winter chamber.
‘He will think his pony’s hooves will flash with sparks kindling the fire of his passion as he prepares to meet his beloved’.
‘Oh such a wise cat, Xi Ming’, and she would press his warm body further into her lap. But today, as she imagined this dialogue, a second voice appeared in her thoughts.
‘Gracious Lady, your Xe Ming knows his under-standing is poor, his education weak, but surely this image, taken as it is from the poet Lu Ji, suggests how unlikely it would be for the spark of love and passion to take hold without nurture and care, impossible on a hard journey’.
This was unprecedented. What had brought such a response from her imagination? And before she could elicit an answer it was as though Xe Ming spoke with these words of Confucius.
“Do not be concerned about others not appreciating you, be concerned about you not appreciating others”
Being the very sensible woman she was, Zuo Fen dismissed such admonition (from a cat) and called for tea.
Later as she walked her beauties by the frozen lake, the golden carp nosing around just beneath the ice, she recalled the moment and wondered. A thought came to her . . .
She would petition Xe Ming’s help to write a new rhapsody, perhaps titled Rhapsody on the Thought of Separation.
Both Zuo Fen’s cats came from her parental home in Lingzhi. They were large, big-***** mountain cats; strong animals with bear-like paws, short whiskered and big eared. Their coats were a glassy grey, the hairs tipped with a sprinkling of white giving the fur an impression of being wet with dew or caught by a brief shower.
When she thought of her esteemed father, the Imperial Archivist, there was always a cat somewhere; in his study at home, in the official archives where he worked. There was always a cat close at hand, listening?
What texts did her father know by heart that she did not know? What about the Lu Yu – the Confucian text book of advice and etiquette for court officials. She had never bothered to learn it, even read it seemed unnecessary, but through her brother Zuo Si she knew something of its contents and purpose.
Confucius was once asked what were the qualifications of public office. ‘Revere the five forms of goodness and abandon the four vices and you can qualify for public office’.
For the life of her Zuo Fen could not remember these five forms of goodness (although she could make a stab at guessing them). As for those vices? No, she was without an idea. If she had ever known, their detail had totally passed from her memory.
Settled once again in her chamber she called Hu Yin and asked her to remove Xi Ming for the night. She had three hours or so before the Emperor might appear. There was time.
Xe Ming was by nature a distant cat, aloof, never seeking affection. He would look the other way if regarded, pace to the corner of a room if spoken to. In summer he would hide himself in the deep undergrowth of Zuo Fen’s garden.
Tonight Zuo Fen picked him up and placed him on her left shoulder. She walked around her room stroking him gently with her small strong fingers, so different from the manicured talons of her colleagues in the Purple Palace. Embroidery, of which she was an accomplished exponent, was impossible with long nails.
From her scroll cupboard she selected her brother’s annotated copy of the Lun Yu, placing it unrolled on her desk. It would be those questions from the disciple Tzu Chang, she thought, so the final chapters perhaps. She sat down carefully on the thick fleece and Mongolian rug in front of her desk letting Xe Ming spill over her arms into a space beside her.
This was strange indeed. As she sat beside Xe Ming in the light of the butter lamps holding his flickering gaze it was as though a veil began to lift between them.
‘At last you understand’, a voice appeared to whisper,’ after all this time you have realised . . .’
Zuo Fen lost track of time. The cat was completely motionless. She could hear Hu Yin snoring lightly next door, no doubt glad to have Xi Ming beside her on her mat.
‘Xe Ming’, she said softly, ‘today I heard you quote from Confucius’.
The cat remained inscrutable, completely still.
‘I think you may be able to help me write a new poem for my Lord. Heaven knows I need something or he will tire of me and this court will cease to enjoy his favour’.
‘Xe Ming, I have to test you. I think you can ‘speak’ to me, but I need to learn to talk to you’.
‘Tzu Chang once asked Confucius what were the qualifications needed for public office? Confucius said, I believe, that there were five forms of goodness to revere, and four vices to abandon’.
‘Can you tell me what they are?’
Xe Ming turned his back on Zuo Fen and stepped gently away from the table and into a dark and distant corner of the chamber.
‘The gentle man is generous but not extravagant, works without complaint, has desires without being greedy, is at peace, but not arrogant, and commands respect but not fear’.
Zuo Fen felt her breathing come short and fast. This voice inside her; richly-texture, male, so close it could be from a lover at the epicentre of a passionate entanglement; it caressed her.
She heard herself say aloud, ‘and the four vices’.
‘To cause a death or imprisonment without teaching can be called cruelty; to judge results without prerequisites can be called tyranny; to impose deadlines on improper orders can be thievery; and when giving in the procedure of receipt and disbursement, to stint can be called officious’.
Xe Ming then appeared out of the darkness and came and sat in the folds of her night cloak, between her legs. She stroked his glistening fur.
Zuo Fen didn’t need to consult the Lu Yu on her desk. She knew this was unnecessary. She got to her feet and stepped through the curtains into an antechamber to relieve herself.
When she returned Xe Ming had assumed his porcelain figure pose. So she gathered a fresh scroll, her writing brushes, her inks, her wax stamps, and wrote:
‘I was born in a humble, isolated, thatched house,
and was never well versed in writing.
I never saw the marvellous pictures of books,
nor had I heard of the classics of earlier sages.
I am dimwitted, humble and ignorant . . ‘
As she stopped to consider the next chain of characters she saw in her mind’s eye the Purple Palace, the palace of the concubines of the Emperor. Sitting next to the Purple Chamber there was a large grey cat, its fur sprinkled with tiny flecks of white looking as though the animal had been caught in a shower of rain.
Zuo Fen turned from her script to see where Xe Ming had got to, but he had gone. She knew however that he would always be there. Wherever her imagination took her, she could seek out this cat and the words would flow.
Before returning to her new text Zuo Fen thought she might remind herself of Liu Xie’s words on the form of the Rhapsody. If Emperor Wu appeared later she would quote it (to his astonishment) from The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons.
*The rhapsody derives from poetry,
A fork in the road, a different line of development;
It describes objects, pictures and their appearance,
With a brilliance akin to sculpture and painting.
What is clogged and confined it invariably opens up;
It depicts the commonplace with unbounded charm;
But the goal of the form is of beauty well ordered,
Words retained for their loveliness when weeds have been cut away.