Taking Up Residence in the Tiger’s Lair – Zhao the Orphan, Part 2


This time in the Literati Corner, I’ll finish my review of Ji Junxiang’s Zhao the Orphan (纪君祥(元)的中国古代悲劇故事-赵氐孤儿) and cover the last four chapters. Cheng Ying tries to decide how he should proceed with his plot to save Zhao the Orphan and thinks of an old man who used to serve at court. Gongsun Chujiu was an ally of Zhao Dun and even openly rebuked Duke Ling, but he was at an advanced age and decided to retire to become a farmer in Taiping Village with his wife after Duke Ling and his henchmen tried to frame him with criminal charges and get him dismissed from his post. He and his wife had no children, and they didn’t mind that fact or their shifting fortunes. After his wife died, the servants all left, and he was alone with one serving boy. Zhao Dun still kept in contact with him, and they were very alike in character.

Zhao The Orphan Drawing

Zhao The Orphan Drawing

What a perfect man for Cheng Ying to conspire with! Cheng Ying takes Zhao the Orphan to Gongsun Chujiu in his medicine bag, sticking with the most obscure path to his mountain village, with the intent that Gongsun Chujiu would raise the orphan and he himself would surrender his own son to the authorities. Once he meets with Gongsun and determines that he still hates Tu’an Gu, he reveals what happened to Zhao Dun’s family and the orphan’s plight. Gongsun is livid with rage and is elated to look after the child, but he sees a flaw in Cheng Ying’s plan once it is revealed that, in order to save the babies of Jin, Cheng Ying must give up his own son and let his entire family be massacred – wait a minute, Cheng Ying didn’t mention that minor detail to his wife and father-in-law, now did he? Didn’t he just tell them the baby would die?

Gongsun is sure that he would never be believed as the accuser of Cheng Ying having Zhao the Orphan because he is known to be of a righteous disposition from his time serving in the palace, plus he is already in his seventies. Cheng Ying, he points out, is only 45 and has a lot of years ahead of him, and he never served at court, so the better plan would be for them to swap babies and have Cheng Ying act as accuser of Gongsun. Cheng Ying’s family will then be free to raise the orphan, and Cheng Ying will still be young enough to see the boy to adulthood safely. They agree on this plan and travel back to Cheng Ying’s house to switch the babies under the cover of night. Gongsun pauses in the mountains to think about Zhao Dun as he lets Cheng Ying continue on the journey alone:

These old memories stirred a flood of noble sentiments in the breast of Gongsun Chujiu. He looked up at the waning moon. It looked like a sharp curved dagger. The fancy came into his head of plucking it out of the sky and plunging it into the breast of Tu’an Gu. The wailing of the wind in the pines seemed to become the roar of a lion shaking the forests and the gorges, and gradually become a fire of hatred blazing in Gongsun Chujiu’s heart. He thought ahead to his thundering denunciation of Tu’an Gu, to his walk to death undaunted. This would be the way he would vent his rage, and leave behind a heroic name for all eternity. [p.242]

Here’s one example of the vivid, beautiful language this adaptation uses. But things are not going to go as smoothly as their slick plan would have one believe, and the story shamelessly wrings every drop of emotion out of the reader as the plot twists again! You have been warned.

Cheng Ying returns with the baby to make the switch and finds Gongsun outside playing the zither, which is the occasion for this worthwhile observation:

闻弦歌而知雅意
The sound of the zither arouses elegant thoughts. (p.246)

I love that description. How often do you hear about thinking “elegant thoughts”? These kinds of references are one reason why traditional literature from the region has such character.

They switch the babies, and before long, Tu’an Gu has been notified. Cheng Ying denounces Gongsun to Tu’an Gu when he returns to the capital, but Tu’an Gu smells a rat and wonders if the men are in cahoots. When Tu’an Gu threatens to kill him on the spot, Cheng Ying points to his own self-interest in the situation to save his family line and his newborn son. This satisfies Tu’an Gu, but he forces Cheng Ying to go with him and ultimately makes him beat Gongsun and slaughter his own infant son to prove that the baby is truly Zhao the Orphan. Gongsun takes an opportunity to kill himself before Tu’an Gu can get any information out of him.

Once they return to the capital, Cheng Ying falls ill for a few months because of the strain, but when he gets better and is able to finally go for a walk, he comes across a temple and encounters Gongsun’s ghost:

At the eastern edge of the village, he saw in the distance a dilapidated temple. The surrounding wall had crumbled in several places. There were also two neglected pavilions, which, as soon as he noticed them, reminded Cheng Ying of something that his father-in-law had told him. It seemed that the people of Guojiazhuang Village had erected a temple with two pavilions in honor of Jie Zitui, who had lived in the time of Duke Wen. They had not been repaired in many years, with the result that they now lay in ruins. This must be the place, he thought, and he quickened his pace. Entering the temple grounds, he startled a flock of a jackdaws, which flew away from the tangled grass which was their nesting place….His head swam, and his feet felt as heavy as lead. Turning to leave, he found that he could hardly put one foot in front of the other. He groped his way to a clean stone bench in one of the pavilions. But no sooner had he slumped onto it than he fainted.

In the blink of an eye, Gongsun Chujiu floated into the pavilion. In a stern voice, he addressed the doctor, “Cheng Ying, your mission has not yet been accomplished. What do you mean by dawdling in this place?”

Cheng Ying felt an urge to rise and greet his old comrade, but in a flash Gongsun Chujiu vanished. He tottered a couple of steps, when there suddenly appeared before him a faint vision of the naked form of his baby son, covered in blood and wailing….Then he awoke in a frenzy of terror.” (pp. 278-280)

When Tu’an Gu hears that Cheng Ying has recovered from his illness, he immediately sends for him, desperate for reliable ministers to help him take the throne and to finally lay to rest any lingering doubts about Cheng Ying’s role in the affair. Although Tu’an Gu has nine women in his harem, he has no children, and he determines to take Cheng Ying’s son as his adoptive son. Tu’an Gu requests Cheng Ying and his wife and baby move into his own palace so he can help raise the child. Cheng Ying knows he must say yes or be discovered, though such a move would mean they would have to be on their guard constantly. Tu’an Gu holds the baby and changes his name from Cheng Bo to Tu’an Cheng. Cheng Ying and his wife are moved into a secluded corner of Tu’an Gu’s mansion. They agree that Cheng Ying will teach Cheng Bo the military arts while Cheng Ying is entrusted with his literary training.

This turn of events angers the citizens of Jin, however. As the slaughter of Gongsun Chujiu and Zhao the Orphan are memorialized by bards in song and become widely known, the people hate Cheng Ying. No one wants anything to do with Cheng Ying ever again, and he is insulted when he appears in public.

When Cheng Bo reaches adulthood, he is admired by everyone and is very talented at his studies. Tu’an Gu plans on seizing the throne from Duke Ling’s successor Duke Dao to give to Cheng Bo. Cheng Ying plans on telling Cheng Bo the truth. His wife suggests a way to tell Cheng Bo that he is really Zhao the Orphan using paintings, and they recount the whole disastrous circumstances of his birth to a stricken Cheng Bo. Deciding to go to Duke Dao with the truth, CHeng Bo manages to get Duke Dao’s support and military backup. When they confront Tu’an Gu, he is too old and out of shape to really fight Cheng Bo, and he is surprised to learn that his beloved adopted son is the grandson of his old enemy Zhao Dun.

Tu’an Gu is executed by being nailed to a wooden donkey, was given 3,000 cuts, then beheaded. Cheng Bo is renamed Zhao Wu and is given Zhao Dun’s old rank at court. Cheng Ying and his wife are rewarded for their service and sacrifices, though Cheng Ying feels a bit guilty at this change in fortunes and commits suicide. Eventually, the Zhao clan flourishes again and sets up the state of Zhao during the Warring States period. I think the story is rather interesting in that Zhao the Orphan doesn’t take revenge in the expected way, killing Tu’an Gu or his family with his own hands, but lets Duke Dao prosecute and execute him. This version is a bit lurid, but it’s quite good.

Part five of a six part series.

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About Lady Xiansa

Lady Xiansa is a writer, linguist, artist, and dancer. She has been a core volunteer for the Silk Screen Asian Arts Organization since 2007 and has provided content for Pitt JCS anime events since 2011. She has taught both ESL and Beginning Korean. Her novel, The Haunting at Ice Pine Peak, won the Bronze Award for Young Adult Fiction E-book in the 2016 Moonbeam Children's Book Awards.
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