In this post we continue reading volume 1 of Yi Huang’s Dragon War in the Wilderness (黃易的“龍戰在野”). Chapter 2 continues the scene we ended with in chapter 1 with Longying in particular waiting for an old friend, Huang Yuanwu, when the man comes into the fortress’ main hall. Huang has news from the battlefield that Gongying is smashed. Other people are around, including a few that Longying was speaking with in the last chapter, and they discuss attacking Suoge under specific conditions, as well as the Xueyantuo people who may or may not be connected to their target. They consider how many people they need and whether they should bring the Turks in to help them with their attack. Some of the discussion analyzes the geography and weather conditions. Another fortress named Nadasi comes up that they want to capture. There’s a long list of new characters introduced in this chapter, too. We see the whole group of soldiers wake up the next morning, have breakfast and prepare their packs to leave on their journey into the desert. They decide to set fire to the fortress when they leave as a precaution.
Chapter 3 opens with the fortress burning in a raging bonfire at dusk. Longying and his friends leave the fortress very early with their army, and Longying discusses a woman named Hua Xiumei with Huang Yuanwu. Xiumei is from Guizi and is somehow very attached to Huang to the point that she would be upset by his death; she was noted in the previous chapter as being part of a female intelligence network in their fight against Bianao. The story describes all of the government seats in the region and their various boundaries, particularly Anxi, which has four garrisons: Guizi, Shule, Yutian and Yanai (龟兹,于阗,疏勒,焉耆). I have a few links discussing the area along with maps, now that we’ve really broken it down where the action is taking place:
Map of the Tarim Basin in the 3rd C AD, by Schrieber
Map of the Xiyu City States of the Tarim Basin in 1st c BC, by トムル
Suddenly, our protagonists are faced with a stealthy army of foot soldiers and cavalrymen appearing out of the dark like ghosts, attracted by the burning fortress Longying and his men had abandoned. They see footprints and track Longying. It comes out in the conversation among Longying and his comrades that the name of the wicked king, which also can perhaps be translated the bandit king though the flyleaf description of the story is less ambiguous in labeling him an evil emperor, is Bianao, one of the people they’ve been plotting to kill. Longying fought against Bianao out at the Peacock River previously, against thousands of bandits on horseback. One of the bandits is also referred to as Wolf Man, but the author tends to just mention names without much other detail about the character. The outcome of this battle was that there were more than 700 soldiers engaged in battle, and more than 100 were captured. Longying’s side had very few injuries, so they were the overwhelming victor, causing Bianao to retreat. One man whose family was murdered by Bianao consults with them, and at dusk, they enter a forest.
Chapter 4 starts out at a stronghold where more than 100 war horses have been left behind. Longying takes control of the stronghold, and they continue traveling through the desert and plains region. There is an extended description of the geography, such as a few details about the grazing ground for the Huihe, their village and campsite, the bandits themselves. Longying’s men do reconnaissance, estimating the number of Huihe who were there. They plot to kill Bianao and discuss attacking the city of Gongyue and some fortress near Manasi Lake. Longying thinks a snowstorm is coming that night, and his men are concerned that the raiders will drive them into the desert to slaughter them.
This part mentions that the desert has five green oases, some of which they name. The one that becomes significant is called the Maiden or Widow. A few of Longying’s men have connections to these areas, and they tell him what they know about the region. As they plan to enter these regions, someone wants to make a man named Huyi king. They also speculate that Bianao’s raiders were part of the Xueyantuo people.
In chapter 5, a man named Guan Yifu comes forward and explains growing up among the Xueyantuo, whom he thinks are quite evil. Guan Yifu left the raiders when he was 15, so he has very helpful information for Longying. Longying asks if the raiders have sentries in the oases, but the raiders don’t have any extra men to patrol that way. They speculate that the raiders want them to enter the Maiden Oasis first, and they try to plan their attack, though the desert will make that difficult. The raiders have a technique where they bury themselves in the sand to hide using a special type of basket that Guan Yifu learned about when he was 12. He can get Longying 7 or 8 baskets like these to use since they want to seize the oasis.
The snowstorm arrives as Longying had anticipated. It is quite fierce and covers the plains with snow. Longying is waiting with 40 cavalrymen, but Huang Yuanwu wonders if they’ll have to turn back if the Turks don’t appear. Longying shoots a few arrows, asking about the queen. I like this description here, so let’s look at that a moment:
Unfortunately, I don’t have time to translate that with my schedule right now, but it is basically describing Longying shooting three arrows into the snow while his men look on. Longying and his men return to the desert border near the banks of a dried up riverbed under the hot sun. He has more than 200 tents and 2,000 war horses. Guan Yifu has also brought along enough material for the men to weave the baskets to hide in the sand. I wish I could find something on the internet about this technique, which I saw in that Heath Ledger movie “The Four Feathers” quite a few years ago, but I’m coming up with nothing. I wasn’t aware of the basket technique until I read this, but the method seemed effective in that movie.
Because I need more visual stimulation, let’s look at this blog post about visiting the modern area of the Taklimakan Desert, which is near enough to where our protagonists will be traveling to be useful:
Anyway, they have tents that are turning into steamers in the hot desert sun, and Longying is waiting for a certain hour when night falls and a cool breeze blows across the desert, which they announce has arrived. They do intend on going to the Maiden Oasis, and the rest of this chapter is a continuation of strategizing that attack. This segment of the novel is mostly a lot of discussion, but I anticipate the rest of this volume will move more quickly now that a certain amount of background has been established.
The chapter ends with the men being presented with a sample “sand depository,” one of the baskets they will hide in under the sand. They open the lid for everyone to see how it’s big enough to fit a man and explain that they will use a breathing tube when hiding inside. However, Longying thinks he will not use the breaking tube but instead will use some special technique that will suspend him in a state between sleep and consciousness. He just doesn’t know how long he can make that state last, and it ends with him thinking about jumping out of the basket during their surprise attack. I liked this chapter a lot. I think it was more dramatic and interesting than the earlier chapters so far.
That’s a wonderfully dramatic moment to stop at for now. Next time we’ll continue with the story.
Part two of a five part series.