Chapter 2

Empress Dowager Cixi was born in a government official’s family. Her father was appointed a position as a general, though he had never fought any battles. It was said that when Empress Dowager Cixi was born, there was the scent of the orchid in the room. So her given name was LanEr (meaning the Child of Orchid). She had two brothers and a younger sister, but she was the favorite child of her parents, the apple of their eye. She was beautiful, clever and talented. When she was eleven, her father was transferred to Wuwu, which is a big city situated near the Yangtze River, and later was transferred again, this time, to Canton, a bigger city facing the sea.
“Your opium is ready, Dad.” LanEr called to her father, who stood at the window, looking at the front yard where a cock was bullying some hens.
He was proud of her. She could load opium for him now. Since China had been defeated in the Opium War in 1840, opium trade became open and many government officials and officers formed the habit of smoking it. Even Empress Dowager Cixi herself smoked it when she was in power. Someone had recommended opium to her when she had a stomachache. And it was said that when she smoked some opium, her stomachache ceased.
“Um.” Her father ummed as a reply. In China at that time, parents never said THANK YOU to children. It was taken for granted that children should do things for parents. It was their filial duties.
Many aristocrats of the Mandarin Clan loved to watch operas. So did her father. And her father often brought her to wherever an opera was performed. Therefore, LanEr loved to watch operas, too. When she stayed in power, she watched a lot of operas, specially performed for her in the Forbidden City.
LanEr was sixteen now with an oval face, a straight nose, crescent-shaped eyebrows, almond-shaped eyes that were as clear as crystal, peach-colored cheeks with two dimples when she smiled, ebony-black hair in a tress, looking so oily and smooth that if flies had halted on it they would have slid down. Now she sat at the table in the center of the room, sipping tea and looking at her father lying on the bed and smoking opium, and sighing deeply at intervals.
“What’s wrong?” LanEr asked. Her father put down the long-stemmed opium pipe on the lacquer opium tray and looked up from the bed at his daughter. “The situation in Guangxi Province is getting worse. The rebellion, I mean.”
“Yeah, they are fighting their way eastward and will soon reach here.” The daughter agreed, but didn’t look worried. Hers was a worriless age.
“They will kill us. Everyone of the Mandarin Clan.” Her father could not suppress the anxiety in his voice. That he was appointed a general was because his destiny would have it, not because he was talented as a fighter. He was really no fighter.
“Then, what should we do?”
“I don’t know. Perhaps waiting to be killed.”
“Why not ask for a sick leave? We can go back to Peking.”
“Good idea.” Her father said in approbation.

* * *

LanEr’s family left Canton City in a ship they had rented with the crew on board. Actually, the word “rent” is not correct. At that time, such ships, or ferryboats, belonged to a family or an individual. The family or the individual was the sole crew on the ship or the ferryboat. The ship they were on belonged to a family, husband and wife with a teenage boy. The husband rowed the ship with the help of the teenager. The wife cooked for the passengers who paid the family who owned the ship. Their relationship was just like lodgers in an inn. Only this was a mobile inn. Their destination was Peking.
The ship had a cabin in the middle of the deck. The cabin was divided into two sections with a partition. The larger front section was for the passengers, the smaller back section for the owner’s family, including a cooking space. There were no railings all round the ship, which was not too big. The ship had a mast. When the wind was favorable, the husband would put up the sails and he only needed to handle the rudder. A lot of energy saved. Every time they reached a village or a town, the husband would get on shore for provisions and the passengers would also step on shore, but for sightseeing.
Everything was all right so far along the route till one night when the ship was at anchor for the night. It was already deep into the night when some robbers got on board with sharp swords in hand, reflecting the moonlight. Everyone in the cabin woke up in alarm and panic. They begged the intruders to spare their lives. The robbers took all the valuables from the passenger family, but didn’t touch anything that belonged to the ship owner. It was the unwritten rule among the outlaws. After these thugs left, no one could go back to sleep. The ship owner’s family were hiding in their back cabin while the passenger family were crying bitterly. How could they pay for their lodging and food on the ship since they had been robbed of almost everything. LanEr’s father was taken seriously ill after they were left alone.
Her family had been rich. Rich people generally got their daughters married early lest they should be selected to be the palace maids in the Forbidden City. Life in the Forbidden City as maids was not so desirable as imagined by the people who had never been in there. A slight mistake or offense would bring a severe punishment, or even a beating to death. It all depended on the mood of the emperor or the queen at the time of the offense. Only the emperor or the queen had the right for the infliction of such penalties in the Forbidden City. If her family hadn’t undergone the loss of wealth, LanEr would have been married already, at such an age.
When her father held his position in Canton City, an officer working under him offended a critique official. A critique official was in such a position by law that he could criticize anyone, including the emperor. The ancestors of Qing Dynasty had made such a law in hopes that their descendents, the future emperors, would have some people to look over their behavior and urge them to do things good and suitable as befitting them as emperors.
The officer detained the ship the critique official was on board and blackmailed him for three thousand taels of silver. The critique official was very angry and as soon as he reached the capital, he wrote a critique report to the emperor, who sent someone down south to investigate. The investigation revealed that her father had taken briberies, which was against law. To make his superiors go easy on him, he scraped all his means to bribe them. As a result, he was removed from his post before he could send in a request for the sick leave. At least, he didn’t need to go to jail. He sold some of his estates and bribed the governor of Anhui Province in the hope that he would be appointed another position there. But as a Chinese saying goes, misfortune never comes alone. The governor died from some kind of disease. So his money was like pebbles thrown in water, without even some ripples being seen. Now he was really sick. So he took a ship to go back to the capital with his family, where he still had at least a house and some farms to live on.
The ship got under way at dawn. When the wife served breakfast, LanEr’s mother promised her that they would pay her when they arrived in Peking. The old man was a government official, at the least. At that time, the fare for a trip on board a ship cost some ten taels of silver at most. It was not much money to a government official. The owner of the ship was not worried about that.
One day, they arrived at the Town of Qinghe. Their ship anchored at the third berth along the wharf. The ship at the second berth in front was a little bigger than theirs. The passengers on board that ship were escorting a coffin of an old friend of the mayor of this town to be back to their homeland. The mayor, by the name of Wu Tang, was a scholar.
In late Qing Dynasty, anyone who wanted to serve in the government had two ways to achieve his goal. One was to buy a title and wait for a vacancy corresponding to the title. For instance, if someone bought a title of mayor, he would get a mayoral vacancy. Briberies called donations could speed the process. The other was to take part in tests held by the government. First was the local test. Whoever passed it could participate in the test on the provincial level. After that, the testees who didn’t fail the provincial test should go to the capital joining in the final test, which held every three years. This test was very strict, because the winners would be made the government officials. The test system had originally begun in Tang Dynasty and had been adopted by all the subsequent dynasties.
For this test, several examiners were chosen by the emperor himself from the high officials of the central government, with one of them in charge. They would read and score the test papers. There were many attendants to do all sorts of jobs that needed to be done at the test site.
The site had been built long ago. There were rows of bungalows, which were partitioned into booths. Every testee was assigned a booth, the door of which was locked. The testee could leave only after he finished all the test papers. He slept inside the booth, for the test would take a couple of days. The testee would bring his own food in a basket, and also the brush, the ink and the blank paper to write on. All these things were examined before the testee entered the booth to prevent from cheating. If he wanted to go to the toilet, an attendant would be with him to and back, and locked him in again.
The test consisted of two parts. One was to write an article under a given title in a certain fixed style, which was literally translated as “Eight-Legged Style”. A testee, in preparation for this kind of test, must learn how to begin, how to carry on and how to end the article, which should have eight paragraphs, hence the name Eight-Legged. It had strict rules to follow. Anything inconsistent with the rules would fail the testee. In the second part, a testee must express his opinions about certain political ideas or about how to handle political affairs. His opinions carried great weight in his score.
When the examiners were reading and scoring the papers, the names of the testees on the papers were covered. Ten first best ones were carefully selected. Once the selection was over, the names were uncovered. Then the papers were handed in for the emperor to read and decide the order of the winners. But before he made any decision, the emperor would give an additional test, called the imperial exam, to the ten best testees in his palace. The best one (in the opinion of the emperor) would be conferred the title of Zhuangyuan, the second best Tanhua, the third Bangyan and the fourth Zhuanlu. The rest were called Jinshi. Next day, the first winner, Zhuangyuan, would go round on horseback through the main streets in the capital, a special honor. In the evening, the emperor would give a banquet to all those who had passed the final test. Generally the first three would be given jobs in the Forbidden City, close to the emperor, which would provide good opportunities for fast promotion. Others would be appointed officials, some working in the central government, some sent away to be mayors of small towns if there were vacancies.