Chapter 05

In selecting beauties, he rigorously complies a list of names; 
For personal reasons, he leniently admits an older woman.

Poem:

Her girlish beauty’s on display;
How passionate? One cannot say.
In bed she oughtn’t to be shy,
For soldiers must not run away.
Once a mother, already old,
Until then, a simple maid.
Her sole desire, that beauty stay;
But graying locks can’t be delayed.

After parting from the Knave, Vesperus took up residence in a temple that was a secondary abode for the Immortal Zhang, god of fertility. It had few rooms, which normally were not rented to travelers. But because Vesperus was prepared to pay a very high rent – other places charged one tael a month and he offered two – the Taoist priests, in their eagerness for a paltry profit, made an exception in his case.

Why was he willing to pay such a high rent to stay at this temple? Because the Immortal Zhang was extremely efficacious and women flocked to him from far and wide to pray for sons. It was Vesperus’s idea to treat the temple as an examination hall, and that was his purpose in moving there. Sure enough, he found that every day brought several groups of ladies to the temple to burn incense, ladies who differed from the women attending other temples in that there were always one or two of them in every ten who were tolerably attractive.

Why should that be, you ask. Surely Vesperus had not posted a notice banning all ugly women and admitting only the pretty one? You must understand that every temple has its women visitors, who encompass the old, the middle-aged, and the young. Of these the old and middle-aged made up about two-thirds and the young one-third; thus the goodlooking women are outnumbered by the rest. But the women who came to this temple were all there to pray for sons. Now, old women are beyond menopause and cannot bear children, while middle-aged women are approaching it and have lost interest in child-bearing; thus the women who came there to pray for sons were all young. If any mature women did come along as companions, they were few in number. For the five or six years following the age of thirteen, all girls, goodlooking or not, have a certain bloom in their cheeks that men find subtly appealing. That was why, out of every ten visitors, there were always one or two who were tolerably attractive.

Vesperus rose early each morning and, dressed as smartly as the leading man in a play, paced endlessly back and forth in front of the Immortal’s throne. When he saw any women approaching, he would duck out of sight behind the throne and listen while the Taoist priests communicated the women’s prayers. He would watch as the women took incense sticks and knelt down, carefully observing their looks and demeanor and then dashing out when they least expected it.

At sight of his peerless looks and ethereal manner, the women would gasp in astonishment, assuming that the sincerity of their prayers had brought the Immortal’s statue to life to prove them with sons. Not until Vesperus came down the steps and swaggered about did they realize that he was a mere human being, by which time their souls had been captured by this living Immortal Zhang. So wild with desire did he drive them that they sent him loving glances and meaningful winks and could scarcely tear themselves away. Some dropped their handkerchiefs on purpose, while others left their fans behind. Vesperus could count on receiving several such tokens of admiration each day.

From this time on, his behavior grew quite irresponsible and his mind ever more depraved. He went so far as to proclaim, “I deserve to enjoy the most beautiful women in the world. A man as handsome as I am deserve to have women dancing attendance on him. There’s nothing strange about that!”

On moving to the temple he had put together a small notebook, which he kept in his pocket. On the cover were inscribed the words:

GARNER THE BEAUTIES OF SPRING FROM FAR AND WIDE

Any woman who came to the temple to pray and who possessed a degree of beauty would have her particulars entered in the notebook as follows: name, age, husband’s surname and personal name, address. Beside her name Vesperus drew circles in red ink to indicate her ranking: three circles for summa cum laude; two for magna cum laude; and one for cum laude. After each name he added comments in parallel-prose style like those written on examination scripts, to describe the woman’s good points.

Storyteller, what you’ve just said doesn’t tally with what you said before. When the women came into the temple, all Vesperus could do was stand aside and observe them. That way he wouldn’t have learned the women’s own names, let alone their husbands’ names and addresses! Are you trying to tell us that he stopped them and asked them their particulars?

Gentle reader, you’ve missed the point again. When a woman goes into a temple to pray, she invariably has a priest beside her to communicate her prayer. When she comes in, he always asks her, “What is your surname, please? Your personal name? Your age? Which believer’s wife are you? Where do you live?” Even if she doesn’t answer the questions herself, she’ll have a servant or a maid there to answer for her. As he listened, Vesperus made mental notes about each woman and then entered them in his book after she had  left. What’s so hard to belive about that?

Within the space of a few months Vesperus had garnered almost all the beauties in the district. There was just one problem, however. Although he was lenient about admitting people to the examination, he was extremely strict in his grading. Many names were entered in his book, but all in the second or third categories; there was not a single name to which he gave three circles.

My lifelong ambition, he thought, was to marry the most beautiful girl in the world. I used to think that the one I married was the most beautiful, but in the light of my recent experience I see that there are many others who are on a par with her. Clearly she doesn’t qualify as the most beautiful. But it makes no sense to have a Secunda and a Tertia but no Prima. Anyway, if a Prima does exist somewhere, I have yet to meet her. All those I see as I search and search are cum laude talent. I’ll keep this by me as an alternate list, and if I never meet the one I’m looking for, I’ll take it out and do the best I can with it. Meanwhile I’ll wait and see what the next few days will bring.

From this point on, not only was his grading even stricter, his admissions policy was also tightened up. One day, in a state of mental exhaustion, he was taking anap in his room when one of his pages burst in and announced, “Master, come and see the beautiful girls! Come at once, or you’ll miss them.”

Vesperus promptly arose, put on a new cap and an elegant gown, and then stopped to check his appearance in the mirror, all of which took a little time. When he got outside, he saw two girls, one dressed in pale rose, the other in lotus pink. Their companion was also a beauty, although somewhat older. Having burned their incense, the three women were on their way out of the temple when Vesperus caught a glimpse of them form a distance. The two girls looked to him like the Goddess of Mount Wu and the Fairy of the Rive Luo – in a different class altogether from the women he had seen so far.

Now, the way to look at a woman is the same as the way you look at calligraphy or painting. There is no need to study a scroll brushstroke by brushstroke; all you have to do is hangi9t up at a distance and judge its power. If it shows adequate power, it is a masterpiece; if its power is blocked and the scroll lacks vitality, it is no better than a print; however fine its brush technique, it is mere hackwork and hence worthless. Now, if a woman’s beauty has to be examined close up to reveal itself, it will be limited at best. The qualities of a truly beautiful woman cannot be obscured, even though seen through a curtain of rain, mist, flowers, or bamboo. Even if she is glimpsed through a crack in the door or has hidden herself in the dark, a sense of her charm will emanate of its own accord and make the observer marved, “How comes it she is like a heavenly one, how comes it she is like a god?” If you think these qualities reside in her physical form, you are wrong; but if you think they lie outside of her physical form, you are also wrong. They are beyond explanation, hence marvelous.

At sight of the girls, Vesperus went out of his mind. Since they had not yet reached the gate, he flew after them and, kneeling down outside the threshold, began kowtowing non stop. His pages and the preist were struck dumb, terrified the women would make a scene. But there was a method in Vesperus’s madness, for he was calculating along these lines: if they are willing to go down this path with me, they will realize that I kowtowed because I saw how beautiful they were and was overcome with love; they can hardly return my greeting in public, but I doubt that they will ake much of a scene. If, on the other hand, they are proper, highly principled girls and do make a scene, I’ll just claim that I was visiting the temple to pray for a son and that, on noticing some women in there already, I knelt down and kowtowed outside to avoid mixed company. They can’t possibly know I’m staying in the temple and refute me. Only because he had this ingenious plan up his leeve and felt himself on safe ground did he dare kowtow.

Just as he had supposed, the three women knew nothing about him. Thinking he had come there to pray for a son, they withdrew to one side and waited for him to finish. As he kowtowed, the two younger women turned and gave him a look, but it was not clear to him whether it was a look of interest or indifference. The older beauty, however, faced whim squarely and put on a regular performance. With her hand over her mouth, she dissolved into giggles, nudging the two girls as if to get them to turn and acknowledge Vesperus’s kowtows with her. As she departed, she also sent him a couple of sidelong glances.

For a long time Vesperus remained stupefied, unable to utter a sound. Only when the women were half a mile away did he turn to the priest: “Those three just now – which household are they from? They’re so beautiful!” But the priest, who had seen Vesperus’s wilderness almost result in an incident, was still furious with him and would not tell him anything.

Vesperus considered following them home, but they were now too far away to overtake, so he returned to his room and sat there brooding. “How terrible!” he said to himself. “I know the names and addresses of all those women who don’t appeal to me, but not of these two who do. What a pity I’ve let such peerless beauties slip through my fingers! How will I ever get over it?”

He took out the notebook and placed it in front of him, intending to add the two women to his list. But then he realized, upon picking up his brush, that he did not know what names to put down. So he wrote a short introductory note:

On the _ day of the _ month, me two outstanding beauties. As their names are unkown to me, for the time being I name them for the colors of the dresses they were wearing. Apparent ages, temperaments noted below, to aid in search:

Pale Rose Maid. Age about sixteen or seventeen. Judging from emotional attitude, seems married only short time, with sexual desires as yet undeveloped.

Comment:
Graceful as a cloud in motion, elegant as a column of jade. With ruby lips apart, looks as pretty as a flower that understands speech. Walking with delicate steps, moves as lightly as swallow just able to fly. Brows constantly knitted, but not with grief – it’s true that Xishi was given to frowning! Eyes reluctant to open, though not from weariness – it’s a fact that Yang Guifei was fond of sleep.

Even more endearing is the way she offers others her heart rather than gifts; on parting she left no trinket behind. She showed me her thoughts rather than her actions; on leaving she cast no backward glance. Surely a hermit among women, a recluse of the boudoir! If I place her in the highest group, who will deny she deserves it?

Lotus Pink Beauty. Age in her twenties. From her expression, seems to have been long married but without exhaustion of original yin. 

Comment:
A beauty soft and graceful, a bearing as light as if dancing. Eyebrows that need no Zhang Chang to paint them, a face that requires none of He Yan’s powder. Flesh that is between sleek and spare, its beauty being that its spareness cannot be increased nor its sleekness reduced. Makeup that is between heavy and light, its beauty being that its heaviness looks shallow and its lightness deep. The affecting thing about her is that the melancholy of her feelings goes unrelieved, like a lotus bud overdue to open; and that the concerns of her heart go unexpressed, like a flower that dreads its fading. She deserves to rank with the first girl ahead of all other blooms and to merit the title of supreme beauty. Only the Oral Examination will determine the top candidate.

After finishing the comments, he remembered someone he had omitted. The beauty of these two goes without saying, he thought, but even the older one has not lost her youthful charm. To take just one feature, her eyes are pure germs; the pupils can positively speak. She sent me glance after glance, but because I was so intent on the others, I never responded – embarrassing thought! Her age may be rather advanced, her looks may have declined somewhat, and she may be a little too plump, but since she was with the others, she must be a relative of some kind. If only out of consideration for them I ought to be more lenient in my grading. Moreover, she was willing to join in the fun and try to get the others to look at me. Obviously she has a lot of savoir faire. If I can only find her, the others, too, will surely fall to my bow. The trouble is I’ve no idea where to start looking. For the present, I’ll just enter her in my notebook with a summa rating: First, as a reward for being so responsive; second, as an extension of my love for the other two; and third, so that if I do find her, I can show her this notebook and, after winning her over, gain her help with the others.

He changed the two of two outstanding beauties in the first line to three. Since she was wearing a dark dress, he named her

Black Belle: Age about thirty-five, but looking fifteen. From her bearing, it would seem that her desries have been long neglected and that her passions are incandescent.

Comment:
Of effervescent feelings and mercurial mood. Her waist may be thicker than a young woman’s, but the line of her eyebrows is as arched as any bride’s. Her cheeks are as rosy as ever, maintaining their flowerlike, original brightness; her skin still glows, showing its jadelike, pristine beauty. The most captivating thing about her is the way her glance, without any movement of the eyes, flashes as vividly as lightning amid the mountain crags; and the way, in her walk, without taking so much as a step, she wafts as lightly as clouds over the mountain tops. She deserves to be classed with those who express their feelings through their thoughts rather than their actions. Placed beside the other two beauties, she would not have to concede very much.

After completing his comments, he drew three large circles beside each of the names, then folded up the notebook and tucked it into his pocket. From that day forward he no longer cared whether he went to the temple to look at girls. He was preoccupied with the three beauties, but although he spent every daylight hour walking the streets with his notebook, he could find no trace of them.

The Knave has more experience than anyone else, Vesperus said to himself, and he knows this area well. Why not go ad ask him? There is one problem, though. He promised to find me a mistress, and since he hasn’t been around the last few days, I expect he’s gone off in search of one. If I mention this to him, he’ll assume I’ve found a suitable girl and give up his responsibilities. Moreover, without a name to go by, where would he start looking? I’ll keep the matter to myself for a few days. He may find someone and come and tell me about her. You never know. One can have too much of everything in life except beautiful girls. Even if he produces dozens of them, I’ll deal with his recommendations first and still have time for these three later. Thenceforth after rising each morning he either went out hoping to run into the Knave or else waited anxiously in his rooms.

One day while crossing the street he spotted his friend and hailed him. “Brother, about that promise you made me the other day. How is it I’ve had no response? You haven’t forgotten, by any chance?”

“It’s been on my mind every hour of the day. How could I possibly forget? The trouble is that there are plenty of ordinary girls out there but very few excellent ones. I’ve been searching all this time, and only now have I come up with one or two. In fact I was just on my way over to report when I ran into you.”

Vesperus’s face broke into a broad smile. “In that case this street is hardly the place to talk. Come over to my lodgings.”

Linking hands, the two men walked to his lodgings. Once there, Vesperus dismissed his boys and shut his door so that he and the Knave could discuss the happy prospect in private.

Whose wife will be so fortunate as to get the services of this eminently qualified lover? And whose husband will be so unfortunate as to arouse the attention of this devilish adulterer? There is no need, gentle reader, to remain in doubt, for the answers will be found in the next chapter.

Critique

Friction writers always confine themselves to narrative as distinct from discourse. Or, if they do write discourse, they develop a piece to serve as prologue to the narrative and then, after reaching the transitio, quickly wind it up, evidently fearing a hopeless confusion. How can they conduct a philosophical discussion while poised for the fray? The author of this book is the only one who can display calm amid the panic and cool and the heat. Into every tense passage of narrative he inserts a piece of leisurely discourse, posing and answering his questions in such an orderly fashion that the reader, far from finding it a distraction, is loath to see it end. When the author has finished his discourse and takes up the narration again, he is able to make it dovetail perfectly with what has gone before. A true master of the art.! Ever since he invented this mode, he has been the only one capable of practicing it. Those who imitate his technique merely earn the reader’s boredom.

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