...It occurs to me that I should probably apologize for screwing around with actual historical figures, and I'd like to remind everyone that interpretations of their characters are entirely fictitious and mine alone. I mean no disrespect. Especially not to the virtuous Confucius and his esteemed disciples.
That said—holy crap this last chapter ran away from me. Over twice as long as any of the others! And this was all originally going to be part of chapter four? Bad planning on my part.
As always, further notes at the end for those interested. Enjoy!
479 BC: northern bank, Si River, Feudal State of Lu
The Duke of Lu came to visit the grave.
He swept in on the breath of his own lofty sighs, decked in silk robes and false dramatics. The Middle Kingdom was not amused. Duke Ai had ignored Kongzi for years, had turned down his every request and offer—what right did he have to pretend otherwise?
The Duke was in the middle of a particularly maudlin soliloquy when Zigong interrupted. The former disciple's words were so smooth and quietly disparaging that the Duke turned a downright amusing shade of red and hastened to leave.
After that, the Middle Kingdom began regarding Zigong somewhat more appreciatively.
476 BC: riverbank settlement, Si River, Feudal State of Lu
They had built huts. Perhaps a hundred of the squat, wooden homes decorated the land by the riverbank. A testimony to all the lives Kongzi had touched with his wisdom.
Some were packing their things, preparing to leave. They had mourned for three years, as was customary for the death of a parent, and now they had lives to return to. Families to return to.
"I see you're still here."
The Middle Kingdom glanced up from his brushwork. "Oh. Hello, Duanmu Ci. Go away, I'm busy."
Unfazed, Zigong leaned over his shoulder. "Your penmanship is atrocious," came the pleasant observation.
The boy tossed him a sour glance before plunging his brush back into the well of the inkstone. "Why are you still here? Three years is over, isn't it?"
Zigong didn't answer at first. Silently, he took the calligraphy brush from the Middle Kingdom's hands and completed the half-written phrase. A proverb. One of Kongzi's favorites.
"I think I'll stay for another three years," Zigong said quietly. "We've still an entire book to write, don't we?"
473 BC: Confucius Village, Si River, Feudal State of Lu
They did not finish their book within three years, of course. The Lunyu was an ambitious project, and would take at least decades more to see through.
The Middle Kingdom knew this and did not mind. But then again, he was a nation, and old in his own way. Time moved at a different tempo for him than for others.
Which was also why he was somewhat caught by surprise when the time came for Zigong to leave.
"Perhaps I will go to Qi," Zigong mused as he organized his small number of belongings. "The political air there has festered as of late. Ever since the Tian family…well. Some moral counseling is in order, I think."
The Middle Kingdom averted his eyes and shuffled his feet. He opened his mouth a few times, but was unsure of just what he wanted to say.
He eventually settled on, "You know I don't really mean it when I tell you to go away."
Zigong paused and gave him an assessing look. "And you know that Master Kong would not have approved of misleading words. Avoid duplicity and ambiguity, it's unbecoming in one such as you." His expression became wry. "It is, after all, my specialty."
He continued to pack in silence, and the Middle Kingdom continued to frown at the floor.
"Twelve," Zigong offered conversationally, when he had swept the last of his things into his traveling bags.
The Middle Kingdom looked up, uncomprehending.
"You looked about twelve when I first met you. Six years later, and you still look about twelve." He hefted his bag on his shoulders. "Now, if I am to return to visit in, let us say, a decade or so. Will you still be twelve?"
Silence. Then, a slow smile.
"Of course not," he said. "I'll be sixteen hundred and seven."
469 BC: Temple of Confucius, Qufu, Feudal State of Lu
He stood outside red walls and green pines, holding an ugly brown sack. His body ached all over. He was unsure of what to think.
On one hand, Duke Ai's intentions were no doubt well-meaning. On the other, he wasn't sure Kongzi would have appreciated the ostentatiousness of such a gesture. Never mind that the Duke had transformed his house into a giant temple.
The Middle Kingdom paused at the name carved upon the first gate. Lingxing Gate. Ling, window lattice. Xing, star. Lingxing, the star that controlled all the heavens. He swallowed past the lump in his throat and entered. It seemed that the Duke did get some things right, after all.
Once inside, he burned sticks of incense and withdrew offerings from his sack. Fruits—oranges, apricots. Small, useless (precious) trinkets. A tortoiseshell oracle bone. A bamboo flute.
For a long moment he simply watched the sweet-sharp incense smoke drifting heavenward, a curl of white-gray against endless blue.
An acute, shuddering twinge in his arm brought him back down to earth (another war—where was it this time? Qi? Wei?) and he gathered his empty sack to leave.
He still had an entire sky to chart.
463 BC: Confucius Village, Si River, Feudal State of Lu
The ensuing years had transformed him into an odd, nocturnal creature.
He spent his days asleep, dreaming of constellations, sweetly oblivious to the wartime aches and bruises that would greet him in the evening.
Nights, though—nights were spent with his head to the sky, eyes tracing patterns of light, fingers tracing ink.
(If he could just immerse himself in the sky for long enough, perhaps his earthly scars would disappear, forgotten.)
And he wasn't alone. Even in this great expanse of night, there were companions. A dragon, a bird, a tiger, a tortoise. Blue, red, white, black. They gladly wandered with him along four of the five cardinal points, along east-south-west-north, and he watched with exhausted fascination as they danced to the rhythm of the moon.
A polite rapping on his door startled him awake. It was afternoon, but it might as well have been the average person's midnight for all the wakefulness it afforded him.
Opening the door cast stabbing rays of sunlight all around his little hut of a house, and he half-deliriously wished for a bow and arrow. Shoot it down! Shoot down that stupid, preening firebird of a sun. He much preferred the Vermillion Bird of the South, anyway.
He was so busy plotting the murder of a celestial body that he almost didn't recognize his visitor.
"Liar," said Zigong, wearing one of his irritating golden smiles. "You're still twelve."
And then, as the Middle Kingdom gaped at him, Zigong raised his hands together in a salute of greeting.
Zigong's hair was thinning and streaked with white, and the Middle Kingdom realized that he had let time fly away from him again.
The Middle Kingdom hastily prepared and invited him to dinner, and as they ate he learned that Zigong had been journeying all across the land, doing what he did best—talking. The man had talked his way up and down the tattered kingdom, and had been passing through Lu from Song to Wei when he'd decided to stop by Qufu for a visit.
"And I find you here with little difficulty," Zigong said, raising an eyebrow. "You are quite the homebody, hmm? No traveling, none at all?"
The words were meant to be provocative, he knew, but he was too tired at the moment to argue with Zigong.
"I don't need to see the wars to know they're there," the Middle Kingdom said blankly. "I don't want to see them, anyway."
Zigong's expression softened. "Wait here. I've something here for you."
He knelt by one of his traveling packs and, to the Middle Kingdom's surprise, began withdrawing roll after roll of bamboo scrolls.
"For the Lunyu," he said, passing them to the boy's wondering hands. "I did my best."
He could barely speak, but Zigong seemed to understand.
"Duanmu Ci," he said a week later, when Zigong was leaving for the last time. "No, Duanmu Zigong. Thank you for everything. You…you have been a good friend to me."
Zigong gave him an easy smirk, but the Middle Kingdom knew him well enough by now to see past the insincerity. Not easy, not a smirk. Behind the smirk was a smile, fond and painful and a little bit sad.
"Anything for Master Kong," Zigong said, "and for my nation."
453 BC: Confucius Village, Si River, Feudal State of Lu
Books, maps, ink, poetry. Everything and anything to keep his hands busy and his mind occupied.
It distracted him from the ribbons of pain that ghosted down his spine and fanned out along his sides. It quelled the shivers. It kept the fevers at bay.
(He had nightmares when the Zhi clan fell. Blood wine and grinning skulls. He couldn't drink out of a cup for weeks.)
His little home had become a library, complete with treacherous towers of bamboo scrolls and haphazard charts pinned to every available surface. The people of Qufu whispered about him—the eccentric boy-scholar of Confucius Village, they called him. Sometimes a passing intellectual would ask, reverently, for a book to study. He'd always oblige, because that was what Kongzi would have done.
Libraries grew, but makeshift huts did not. One day, his poor house decided that it was time to collapse. It was embarrassing. He probably should have foreseen it.
"This is marvelous," commented the carpenter who was helping him rebuild his home. The Middle Kingdom liked him. He had friendly eyes. "Er, the books, I mean. Not your house. A pity about the house."
"You know of books?" the boy asked, curious. Not many were literate, and this man was still young. Barely a man, actually. Maybe seventeen.
The carpenter's expression glowed, and the Middle Kingdom had his answer.
When the house was no longer a pile of rubble, the carpenter returned to his home in Tengzhou with a few more books than he came with.
403 BC: Court of Duke Mu, Qufu, Feudal State of Lu
The Duke of Lu spoke quickly, anxiously.
"…dissolution of Jin, and that King Weilie recognized the states of Wei, Han, and Zhao…"
Of course he did. King Weilie was a puppet, dancing to the hundred tangled strings of his own feudal states. The Middle Kingdom scoffed and turned. He'd heard enough.
"You should leave," said a gentle voice. It came from one of the old men standing by the banisters. Mozi; the Duke had called him Mozi, right?
"I am leaving," he said politely.
"No, no. I mean really leave. You've been in Lu for a long time, haven't you?"
He looked up, startled.
"There's more than just war out there, you know," Mozi said pensively. "People are writing. Thinking. Flourishing. If you always avoid the mud, you'll never see the lotus bloom. I think you should leave. Travel a bit. Get to know yourself."
He stared. Was the old man really advising him—centuries old, perhaps, but still a child in his eyes—to wander around the war-torn country, unsupervised? When had this sort of thing become common?
"I'll…think about it," he said, puzzled.
Mozi smiled. He had friendly eyes. "Thank you for the books," he called as the boy descended the steps.
The Middle Kingdom nearly tripped over himself in realization.
364 BC: The Middle Kingdom
It was horrible. It was wonderful.
Years fell away like sand, and he could feel himself fracturing into five, six, seven. He cut himself on warfare and stitched himself back together with philosophy. The hundred schools of thought running through his mind were the only thing keeping him sane.
In Wei, he met a man named Shi Shen, and together they counted the stars.
When Qin soldiers came marching into Wei, he and Shi Shen packed their star charts and moved to Qi.
Qi was nicer, anyway. Lord Gan was an astronomer himself, and very hospitable. The three of them made quite the team.
320 BC: Linzi Cemetery, Linzi, Feudal State of Qi
Humans never lived very long.
They fell like flowers and left scars in their wake.
Touch and go.
The Middle Kingdom visited Shi Shen and Gan De and laid flowers on their graves. Fresh graves, fresh scars. It occurred to him while whittling out epitaphs that, of all the things he owned, the scars were at once the most terrible and most precious.
312 BC: Jixia Academy, Linzi, Feudal State of Qi
The Middle Kingdom withdrew inside himself for a while. He rolled up his star maps, locked himself in the empty rooms of the Jixia Academy, and returned quietly to the Lunyu project. The days trundled steadily by, characterized by dusty memories and feverish scribbles.
At the Jixia Academy, a scholar named Mengzi took great interest in his work. The Middle Kingdom was wary of Mengzi at first—the elder's inordinate fascination was slightly off-putting—but when he learned that the man had known Kongzi's grandson, all caution flew out the window.
Mengzi was simply very earnest, as he soon learned. And very passionate about the teachings of Master Kong. They were actually quite similar, the two of them.
With Mengzi's help, he finished the Lunyu.
They left on rushed terms. Mengzi's mother had fallen ill, and the man immediately hurried south to see her. The Middle Kingdom, for his part, decided to travel north to Yan.
Because Mengzi's blind devotion to his mother had eased open a hole in his chest he thought he'd long since mended.
Because he, too, had family that he wanted to see.
311 BC: Liaodong Peninsula, Feudal State of Yan
Gojoseon's eyes were dark, fierce. Beneath the stormy expression, he looked absolutely haggard.
The Middle Kingdom stood on the shores of Liaodong and stared at him, teary-eyed.
His brother was yelling. Calm, quiet Gojoseon was yelling at him.
"You! Tell me, what did I ever do to you? Tell me!"
A million stuttering excuses flit through his mind. He honestly didn't know, honest, swear to the sun and moon and All-Under-Heaven, he didn't know, Yan was on the outermost margins of his kingdom—Liaodong was even further—and it was so very easy to lose track of himself when all the fighting was tearing him into seven, when everything blurred together and it was one war lost among thousands, among thousands—
None of it made it out of his mouth. Which was just as well. They sounded weak even to his own ears.
"I'm sorry," he finally said, moving a half-step forward and cringing when Gojoseon took a prompt half-step backwards. "Brother, I am so sorry—"
"No," Gojoseon said curtly. "No, you're no brother of mine. Brothers don't do this. Brothers don't stab one another in the back. Goodbye, Zhongguo, and take your apologies with you. I don't want to see you again."
He stalked away, and the Middle Kingdom was left standing wide-eyed and statue-still on a conquered land that he'd barely wanted. Land that he barely even knew he now possessed.
(Perhaps, ages from now, a different younger brother would rise to seize the Liaodong Peninsula from his unsuspecting elder.)
(Sometimes, history had a very cruel sense of humor.)
229 BC: streets of Xinzheng, State of Qin
Qin had won. The first of the Seven had fallen.
The Middle Kingdom watched the triumphant procession from the perch of a slanted rooftop, in a city that used to belong to the Han. Ying Zheng, the King of Qin, was shouting something down to the people. The crowd roared back, wild with energy.
"You don't look very happy."
The Middle Kingdom very nearly lost his balance. His head snapped to the side just in time to see the undulating body of a dragon settle beside him.
"Tian—don't scare me like that!" he said indignantly, flapping large sleeves for emphasis. "I almost fell off the roof!"
"I would have caught you," the dragon said, looking amused. The boy glowered at him until he rearranged his features into a suitably contrite expression. "…Nonetheless, I apologize."
For a while, the two of them watched Ying Zheng in silence.
"I don't like him," the Middle Kingdom spoke up suddenly.
The dragon, Tianming, gave him a sidelong glance. "I think he'd be good for you. You are falling apart, my friend. Ying Zheng will help you; he aims for unification."
"He's a bully."
"He's a leader."
The boy's face turned red. "He is not a leader!" he cried. "A leader is someone who respects his people, someone who rules with compassion! That is what Master Kong taught me, and I will stand by his words."
"Old words," Tianming mused, turning to peer at him with impassive eyes. "It's been a long time. I'm surprised you remember, even now—"
"Especially now," the Middle Kingdom cut in, chin high, gaze defiant.
A silence, punctuated with scattered cheers from below.
Then, at last, the Mandate of Heaven nodded.
"You'll be fine," he told the boy, before rising to depart just as abruptly as he came. In smooth, rippling motions, Tianming coiled toward the clouds. By the time the Middle Kingdom could think of a proper response, the dragon's silhouette was a mere blur of green among billowing white vapor.
He could feel the exact moment when the Mandate transferred favor from the Zhou to the Qin. The heavens churned, coughing thunder and bleeding rain. Crippling earthquakes ravaged the kingdom. An unforgiving famine sapped the land dry.
In the midst of all the chaos was Ying Zheng, King of Qin, who seized the opportunity to push forward his campaign of unification. Qin territory steadily grew, soaking up its surrounding states like a giant, merciless sponge.
The Middle Kingdom was going to have words with the dragon the next time they met.
221 BC: Court of Qin Shi Huang, Xianyang, Empire of Qin
The Zhou Dynasty was over. Now was the era of Qin. The Middle Kingdom wasn't sure whether he felt relieved or disappointed.
He wandered the streets of Xianyang in a daze. It was certainly quite the lavish city. All around were temples and statues, and every now and then he passed under the shadow of a soaring structure that arched overhead like the spine of a stretching cat. Ying Zheng had very grand tastes. Wait, no, not Ying Zheng—what was it that the man was calling himself now? Oh, that was right. Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor.
The palace of the Emperor glittered prettily at him as he entered, but he was too lost in thought to appreciate (or, indeed, condemn) the splendor. What would Master Kong think of all this? He missed Master Kong. He missed all the people he'd met and loved over the years, Zigong and Mengzi and Shi Shen and Gan De—
He came to a silk-smooth bronze mirror that extended along the wall, and paused to eye his reflection critically. A boy of twelve stared critically back at him. He'd been twelve for centuries now.
(Centuries…had it really been centuries since he'd met Kongzi?)
Slowly, he raised his hand and fisted it over his chest. The scars over his heart stretched uncomfortably, and he watched as his own expression fractured a little. Stars and scars, stars and scars…
He wanted to go back to Lu. Although he supposed it wasn't called Lu anymore. But surely Qufu was still there? Surely his library was still there? And his star maps, and his poetry, and Zigong's scrolls for the Lunyu? He missed them all, along with pondside pavilions and bamboo curtains, with apricot trees and verdant pines…
Dying rays of sunlight reflected off the polished bronze mirror, casting light-wrought imitations onto the adjacent wall. Tiny imperfections of bronze swam to the surface, suspended in a web of gold. Stars and scars. The Middle Kingdom stared, fascinated, before tearing his gaze from the sight.
For now, he'd rest in the Emperor's overly extravagant palace. But tomorrow was a new day. Tomorrow, he'd make his way back to Qufu.
When he happened to glance at the mirror the next morning, he fancied he looked thirteen.
And that's a wrap.
…I can't believe I actually went and skimmed through the entire Warring States Period. This was only supposed to be a four-year thing, I swear. But it was fun! Gosh, it was fun.
I've been toying with the idea of a sequel of sorts, something that would focus on China's relationships with other countries over the long, long years. I don't know if I'll do it. It's a pretty ambitious project, especially given how much research I put into this wee four-year (turned two-hundred-year) period. We'll see!
To conclude, I'd like to thank all of you lovely people who have taken the time out of your lives to give this weird, humble story a chance. Lurkers, thank you for your quiet support. Reviewers…thank you. Just, thank you. Every single review was like a little bundle of joy and wonder. If I melted any further I'm pretty sure I'd be a marshmallow.
Thank you, everyone, for reading. I wish you all the best!
1] Three year mourning: Customary for the death of a parent; three years represented the length of time that children were completely dependent on their parents. Common mourning practices? Rough clothes, messy hair, eating nothing but rice porridge, relinquishing music. A lot of Confucius' followers went through the three-year mourning period, but Zigong was the only one who kept going at it for an additional three years.
2] Confucius Village: When Confucius died, a lot of people set up huts by his grave. Some eventually left, but over a hundred people decided to hunker down and stay forever. The locals began calling the place "Confucius Village."
3] The Lunyu: The Analects. A collection of Confucian pearls of wisdom, as compiled by his followers. Believed to have been written and completed during the Warring States Era. Lun yu literally means "selected sayings."
4] Confucius Temple: After Confucius died, Duke Ai of Lu declared his house a temple. It was to be the first of many, many Confucius Temples. By the way, when China goes inside to burn incense and make offerings, it's not that he's some creepy cultist making sacrifices to his god Confucius. Those are common ritual practices to honor deceased family members.
5] Oracle bone, flute: Oracle bones hail back to the Shang Dynasty, and were used in divination as a method to communicate with one's ancestors. As for the flute, it was a nod to the fact that Confucius was crazy about music. If he lived in our era, he'd be that guy with headphones over his ears all the time.
6] Dragon, bird, tiger, tortoise: The Four Symbols. The Azure Dragon of the East, the Vermillion Bird of the South, the White Tiger of the West, and the Black Turtle of the North. Whereas we look up at the sky and see things like Aquarius and Gemini and Virgo, these Four Symbols were what the Chinese saw in the constellations.
7] East-south-west-north: In English, we have the convention of north-south-east-west, but the Chinese tend to say it in a different order; namely dong-nan-xi-bei, or east-south-west-north. They also have a fifth cardinal direction, the center, which is associated with the color yellow and represents China itself.
8] Firebird sun: If you actually read these footnotes (thank you, by the way), you might recall my mentioning of "ten suns" in chapter three. Well, in Chinese mythology, the Sun was actually a three-legged bird. And there were ten of them. They took turns sailing across the sky, until one day when they decided that, YOLO, let's all bust through the sky at once! So they did. And life on earth became hell. Mankind was saved when Houyi, an archer, figured that enough was enough and shot nine of those firebird punks down.
9] Zigong's salute: Ancient China had all sorts of complicated meeting rituals. Generally speaking, a subordinate was supposed to salute first, and then the superior would salute back. When two normal people met, the younger person saluted first. Zigong's salute is a pretty big deal; he's finally acknowledging China's seniority in age. China returns the gesture of respect with the use of Zigong's courtesy name.
10] Blood wine and grinning skulls: The Partition of Jin was a tug-of-war between four clans, the Zhao, Zhi, Han, and Wei. In 453 BC, Zhao, Han and Wei banded together and completely annihilated the Zhi clan. Charmingly, they then proceeded to turn their fallen enemy's skull into a wine cup.
11] Era of the Warring States: A terrible, bloody period during which everyone was trying to conquer one another. The actual commencement of this period is up to interpretation, ranging anywhere from 481 to 403 BC. The significance of 403 BC? King Weilie officially recognizes the Partition of Jin. Up until then, Zhou's dwindling authority had simply been a big, fat elephant in the room. The recognition of Wei, Han and Zhao was akin to Weilie announcing to everyone via megaphone, "Hey, guys, I'm powerless! Nothing I do really matters anymore!"
12] Hundred Schools of Thought: The Warring States period was not all bad, though. It was also known as the Golden Age of Chinese philosophy, and it's my humble amateur's opinion that this particular Golden Age flourished not only in spite of the corruption and violence, but because of it. As well as Confucianism, we also have Mohism, Daoism, Legalism, the School of Naturalists, the School of Names... There were so many schools and philosophers that they became known as the Hundred Schools of Thought.
13] Astronomy: Star inscriptions can be found on Shang oracle bones—proof that young China has been obsessed with the stars for a very long time. It was during the Warring States, however, that detailed astronomical records began. Shi Shen and Gan De are both astronomers from that time period.
14] Mozi: The hippy of ancient China. He founded Mohism, which preached pacifism and universal love. (Admittedly, with more emphasis on universal than on love.)
15] Liaodong and Gojoseon: Circa 300 BC, the state of Yan invaded Gojoseon and won the Liaodong Peninsula. This very same peninsula would be a spot of contention in the First Sino-Japanese War over two thousand years later. Japan won, and China was forced to cede control over Liaodong, as well as Taiwan and Korea. (For those who haven't seen the comic strips, the First Sino-Japanese War is believed to have been referenced in Himaruya's "The Story about the Early Days of China and Japan." It was omitted in the anime adaptation.)
16] Bronze mirror: Yup. Western glass mirrors would not be introduced until the Qing (not to be confused with Qin) Dynasty. There's this awesome technique called "Chinese magic mirror," in which the back of a bronze mirror is crafted with little patterns and designs. When light hits the mirror just so, it projects an image of that very pattern on whatever surface it's reflected upon. Spiffy, yes? Unfortunately, Chinese magic mirrors didn't exist until the Han Dynasty, so I couldn't use it here. I did, however, try to allude to the general phenomenon.
17] Qin Dynasty: Lots of mixed feelings about this dynasty. By all means it should be glorious. First Emperor, right? Plus, unification of China! Unification of writing, of currency, of weights and measures. The Terracotta Army. Heck, the Great Wall. Unfortunately, the First Emperor was a…not-so-nice-word, and his dynasty was pretty much the 221 BC version of 1984. Or at least Fahrenheit 451. Book burnings, massacre of scholars, suppression of free thought, totalitarian dictatorship, etc. A complete turnaround from the Golden Age of philosophy. Luckily for China, the Qin Dynasty only lasted for fifteen years. With the arrival of the Han Dynasty came the resurgence of everything anti-Qin. Confucianism, among other things, made a huge comeback.