Further ReadingThis month, the best supplemental resource is the Cha Jing from September 2015, which is now up on the Past Issues page here! We also have included a story of Wu De’s, which presents an alternate ending to the emperor's story, one born of spirit!
An Alternative Ending
The palace spires turned through ornate colors and patterns until they suddenly splayed out towards the sky like the swift turn of a brush stroke. The great red roof peaked above the whole complex, crowning the Lord of Heaven and Earth that resided within. Every detail of every building, garden and fountain had been perfected through the centuries. It was a great worship of Dynasty. If it was possible for man to be divine on Earth, it was possible for him to hope his way through the drudgery of a poor, rural life not miles away from this luxury. In fact, the farmer didn’t even mind sharing half of his all-too-meager income in order to pay for one of the small stones used to ornament but one of the many fountains that he and his kin would never see. Why? Because the proximity of possibility brightened his world, gave luster to his clouds and dreams to his sky. Having a man of flesh and blood between the Earth and Heaven balanced things and assured the people that the Sky would hear their prayers. Sometimes when the sun was setting, the farmers would lean on their hoes, wipe the toil from their brows and smile at the shinning buttresses, towers and sweeping wings of the palace roofs. They were grins of contention. Heaven wasn’t that far away after all.
Amazing that millions of such farmers would all be forgotten, endlessly so. The craftsman and artists whose great passion and patience had crafted all the glorious inspiration in the palace would also be lost. All the servants and cooks who orbited the Emperor like lesser moons, the counselors and administrators that discussed matters of state, the eunuchs, wives and mistresses to fulfill his paradise—all would be eclipsed and erased in times to come. For the only one that mattered in this world was the one that walked barefoot across the strewn flowers that the nameless servants had spent all morning gathering; the one and only one permitted to wear the yellow silk that had been so cautiously woven and stitched to perfectly fit his golden and divine form. Thousands of hours and tetra-watts of power had all been channeled into the effort to make bliss of his reality. Was it possible for such a man to see beyond the walls he wasn’t permitted to cross? Could one bathed in milk and stuffed with delight ever realize that he and the dirty farmers he’d never seen both came into the world in the same kind of bloody spasm, and that they’d surely leave it the same too?
For most of the Emperors that came before and after His Highness the eighth Song, Zhaoji, the detachment brought on by a life in the palace only brought forth the desire for political power, expansion, conquest and glory at best, and decadent waste at worst. The monks taught that attachment to material things led to suffering. None of the emperors had ever had any issue with that lesson. It is difficult to have desire for material wealth when you’re surrounded by paradisiacal beauty that appeals to all the senses. And what does it matter when anything given, taken or broken is always replaced in kind; often with a newer and more beautiful replacement? Most emperors embraced their terrific power and reveled in their ability to move great forces with but a word. They relished in victory over foes they had never met, increase in wealth and land that they would never spend or visit. It was the power itself surging through their very veins that enthralled them, not the property. Other kings, like his father, ignored the world and grew fat and drunk as they more and more spread their arms and crashed backwards, adrift in the great sea of hedonism that everywhere surrounded them. They seemed happy and carefree, but where hardly alive. History often dispatched of such kings, as they didn’t fit the illusion needed to gratify the great expense necessary to make the divine city. His father had been fortunate, though, and had lived all his days in peace, dying suddenly in middle-age from what everyone knew was just his vices catching up to him. It had seemed almost surreal when he had sat, but a young man, and watched the great ceremony that ordained him as Heaven’s representative on Earth.
He had tried to be just and wise and rule his people with their interests at heart—to be everything his father had not been. But much of his power was just ceremonial. There were administers, councilors and governors that controlled much of the world with little more than reverence and symbolic gesture to him. He probably could have swept up all the power if he had the initiative. His heart just wasn’t in the venture. He couldn’t work himself into the frenzy needed to care enough to seize power and crush any obstacles and opponents. His disposition was far too distant.
From an early age he had loved one teacher above all his others. He was a senior accountant in the treasury and a Eunuch. He had long ago been the boy-prince’s arithmetic teacher. In between abacus lessons, they would sit and drink tea. The emperor had always had an interest in learning how to do the small things that emperors were supposed to have done for them. He immediately took an interest in the process of making tea. His teacher learned to award concentration during his math with lessons in tea preparation. He taught the boy which hardwood made the perfect charcoal. He showed him how to make the flame consistent with just the right amount of ash. Later, they would try different kettles of pottery, metal and then silver and gold, tasting just water to learn the differences each made. Though the boy wasn’t permitted to leave the Forbidden City, the old teacher described the mountains and springs the water came from in such detail that the boy could close his eyes, flare his nostrils and envision life there by the river, mountains and sky. He longed even then to lead an ordinary life, with an ordinary wife, children; perhaps a farm and some animals that would graze freely nearby. Of course his visions of pedestrian life were as celestial as the palace, but he was a boy and had never known hardship. He was caught serving himself tea at the age of ten, but the emperor, his father, only dismissed the issue. He told the court appointed nanny, a burly eunuch named Tung, whose only pleasure in life was the pride and honor he felt on the rare occasion when he was given permission to turn the royal buttocks red, to let the boy be. The emperor for the most part ignored his son, spoiling him the way he did himself. “Let the boy make tea like a servant. It’s quaint.” If he had only known that the dismissive waive of his hand would upset the whole empire in prophetic ripples, starting with his son playing with the royal teaware and leading to a time of turmoil followed by a complete change in dynastic power.
The boy’s teacher, Yang, had smuggled in a worn, old clay tea bowl from the nearby village and given it to the prince on his twelfth birthday. It was so ordinary, nothing like the ornate celadon served to him. He reveled in its simplicity. To him it was the most beautiful thing in the whole palace. It connected him to his dreams. He would stare for hours at the scrolls in his mother’s antechamber, the old yellowish ones with paintings of distant mountains and waterfalls. He had always been told that the palace was Heaven, but to him the mountains that danced down those scrolls were miles above the highest roof of the hall where court was held. At night when the last servant left his quarters, leaving behind a single lamp so the boy wouldn’t be afraid of the dark, he would creep over and reach under the cabinet on the wall to retrieve the hidden bundle of silk there. Forgetting the need to be quiet he would bound back to the bed and sit cross-legged, carefully unwrapping his treasure. He would rub the tea bowl and admire the gorgeous curves of its rim and simple, rustic glazing. He could notice the slight burnish that increased with each and every use, and cracks that slowly darkened with tea oils. He would rub it with the silk wrapping and smell the inside, longing for the rare breaks in his math classes when he was free to use it. His teacher would tell him of the craggy mountains near his distant home. He said they really did spin and turn, dancing towards the sky like they did in the paintings. The boy would sigh and dream of his little wooden house without any Tung, or court ladies, long dinners, lessons or endless occasion… He longed to gather tea leaves, collect water from a stream up a path that would start near his cottage. His life there would be so gloriously ordinary that in those brief visions he would come to believe that he was in fact closer to the gods than anyone else. To look on the boy as he closed his eyes and daydreamed of the mountains brought the old teacher great joy. He taught the boy how to taste the different teas, showing him the differences between the green leaves, the olive-colored cakes from the south and the elegant white tea cakes of his homeland. These were the boy’s favorite. He wondered why the court always drank the powdered tea with added flavors when there was such glorious tea as this in the world. Then again, his father had always favored the rice wine, even during the day when others were drinking tea. He vowed to change that when he was emperor. From then on, the tribute teas would be worthy of the throne.
When the boy reached his teens he still wanted to drink tea with his then very old teacher, even though they had finished school. He would often ask about Yang’s life before the palace. He wanted to know every detail about how the food was cooked in the village, what they did when the roof leaked, and what their beds looked and felt like—everything. The old eunuch loved the boy. His kindness had brought favor to the accountant within the palace staff and made his life easier. Everyone knew the boy would be king one day, and that his favorite teacher would surely have great power then. He also loved to reminisce about his family who he would never see again. He was more than happy to spend the afternoon drinking cup after cup and recounting all the details of life below the great spires of distant Ou and Min. After all, it would serve the emperor well to know just how his people were living beyond these walls.
As the boy grew older, his duties increased and he began to visit the old teacher less and less. He was there, though, when the old servant died. He held his hand and cried, thanking him for the tea. The old man smiled in understanding. He had been more of a father than his own had ever been. He was buried with all the honor of a regent…
The grown emperor stared down at the simple tea bowl. It was smooth and shiny in the moonlight, shades of purple smeared with silver glares that made it seem almost magical. It had always been so to him. Though his world since birth had sparkled with the brilliance of every shade of gem, it had all seemed to be nothing more than glass, as though the whole rainbow palace was painted on the surface of an eggshell that a single flick could shatter. Only the tea bowl had ever shown with true beauty. It was solid, earthy—and yet hollowed sky within. It had been used by some villager for years before being passed on to him. Hundreds of times had tea been gently placed within and whisked with water, the foamy broth steaming in peace as the aromas released their serenity and brought comfort to the villager, or so he imagined. Then he had treasured it and it had served him too, not with a sense of luxury, comfort or ease the way it had its previous owner. The bowl had been his wings; for it was on the gilded spirals of steam that he had flown over the palace walls to the secret cottage in his mind.
He gently held the robes in the drawer aside and placed the tea bowl below. Only the king was allowed to touch this dresser, these robes. He stood still and voiced a silent prayer that the bowl would continue on through time, bringing joy and peace to its next owner and all those beyond. He reached in his pocket and squeezed the metal there until it hurt his palm. He remembered his teacher. He remembered the hours in the sun drinking tea, the games of chess and dark aged tea cakes with the rain powering off the roof and drooping the flowers. He could see his master’s wrinkled hands turning the lids off the endless little ornate tins of ground tea he carried in his robes, and smell of the tea when he opened one. He laughed at his excited huffs of the tea. “Breath deeply and slowly, inhaling its elegance gently” his teacher would repeat each time. And each time he would revel in the reward of listening.
One afternoon, after a few hours of drinking tea quietly, the master would tell him how he had used his influence to get a copy of the key used to open the kitchen gates the foods were brought in through to be inspected on their way to the royal table. He said he had used half of his salary throughout the years to have unique teas brought to the palace to share with the boy. When the boy offered to compensate him, he only shook his head and said that one day he would pay him back and then some. The boy had promised to grant the old man any wish when he became emperor.
The emperor squeezed the metal in his pocket as the yellow robe slipped from his naked form and slithered to the floor in a soft pile. For the first time in his life, he allowed a coarse brown cloth to touch his flesh, passing over his raised fist that still held the metal shaft, its string thong dangling down his arm. He remembered squeezing the old teacher’s hand as he died. The old man had smiled and beckoned him near. In a raspy voice he had said, “When you’re ready, go to my room and find the jar with my best tea. You’ll know the one. Brew it once for me. That’s my wish.” Though he had died some time later, those had been his last words. The prince had declared that his rooms were to be left untouched for all time.
Swept up in duty, years had whirled by. He’d been married to a princess from the North, though she hadn’t yet borne him a child, he was thankful for that now. He had sat as the pomp and glory of his kingdom paraded before him. Even then he felt hollow. He had tried ruling for some time, using his visions of the mountains in distant Ou and Min, and the ordinary people there, to guide his decisions, but he was too easily steered astray into daydreaming by the advisers that coveted the power of the state. His greatest teacher had taught him too much about Heaven and too little about the ways of the Earth…
Years went by and he had all but forgotten his master’s wish. Then, one afternoon, as he sat whisking tea in his treasured bowl—it was now a royal edict that the emperor would make his own tea, cakes of which had poured into the city in tribute when it was found that he loved them—he sat admiring the foam and wondering where in Heaven his teacher was now drifting. Then he remembered his teacher’s last wish! He gulped down the creamy tea and quickly cleaned the bowl, running off to his teacher’s corridors. Servants had to drop things to make their observances as the emperor surprised them, dashing by. He found the rooms just as they had always been, though covered in dust. He grabbed a rag and cleaned off the shelf of jars that the teacher had kept all his ground tea powders in. There was row upon row of elegant silver and gold canisters, beautiful porcelain painted with hours of reds and blues and other fineries, many of which had been gifts from the emperor himself. He’d known which one held the best tea right way. It was a simple brown clay urn with a stone lid. No carving decorated its walls; no glaze or paint highlighted its curves. The emperor smiled and cleaned off the old tea table. He washed the old kettle as the charcoal heated up. When everything was ready he poured the last of the great, aged tea powder out onto the table. A glimmer of gold and a metal ding surprised him. He set the urn down and brushed the old powder aside. There, beneath the tea dust, was an old, worn brass key…
The emperor quietly pushed the last gate aside. He stepped out into the open air and smiled, even at the compost heap that jutted up against the nearby palace wall. He looked out towards the horizon, closed his eyes, sighed and flared his nostrils just as he had done as a boy. A lifetime of teaching. A lifetime of tea had paid off. The old master had his wish…