The dark steel blade glimmered as it caught the sunlight. The young man feigned a thrust the sword at the left shoulder of his middle-aged opponent, then he struck at the man’s right shoulder. The man parried. The swords clashed loudly and hummed audibly as the blades vibrated from the force of the impact. The swords flashed again and three rapid moves were exchanged even before the hum faded. The older man suddenly swung his sword downwards at his head. The young man side stepped to the right to dodge the strike, and guided his opponent’s blade with his left hand towards his opponent’s thigh.
Their swordplay was fast and they fought with all their might.
Two persons sat on the eastern boundary of the practice ring. A Daoist nun about forty years old sat ashen-faced in the left seat with her lips tightly sealed. An old man in his fifties sat in the right seat. He stroked his beard with his right hand, seemingly pleased with what he saw. Around twenty male and female disciples stood behind each of them. The western boundary was lined by ten over guests sitting in a row of chairs. The attention of the spectators was focused on the duellists in the practice ring.
The duellists exchanged over seventy moves. Each move was faster and closer to hitting the target than the previous, but neither had the upper hand. The middle-aged man suddenly misjudged the force of his strike and appeared to lose his balance. A boy in blue sitting in the western guest seats could not help but chuckle. Realising he was being rude, he quickly stifled his laugh with a hand over his mouth.
The younger duellist struck with his palm at his opponent’s exposed back. The older man stepped forward and avoided the attack. His sword suddenly swung in a circle and he shouted, “Strike!”
The sword struck the young man’s left leg, making him stagger. He stabbed his sword into the ground and steadied himself to continue the duel. However, his opponent had sheathed his sword and smiled, “Zhu shidi[foot]师弟 – Shīdì. Male junior. Both of them were under different masters but were from the same martial arts school. Shī means teacher. Dì means younger brother.[/foot], thanks for going easy on me[foot]This phrase expresses humility in victory and is a sign of respect to the opponent. The victor claims to have won not because he is the better but because his opponent allowed him to. This can be used to indirectly mock the opponent, especially if it is obvious that the victor’s skills is far superior.[/foot]. Are you badly hurt?”
The younger man’s face turned pale upon hearing those words. He bit his lower lips and replied, “Thank you for being merciful[foot]This is to acknowledge that the opponent did not use his full strength and spared him from being more grievously hurt[/foot], Gong shixiong[foot]师兄 – Shīxīong. Male senior. Both of them were under different masters but were from the same martial arts school. Shī means teacher. Xīong means older brother.[/foot].”
“The Eastern Sect has won three matches. It appears that Jianhu Palace[foot]剑湖宫 – Jiànhú gōng. Name of a palace. Jianhu literally means Sword Lake. Sword refers to the residence being a palace to learn swordsmanship. Lake refers to the presence of a lake near the palace.[/foot] will house the Eastern Sect for another five years. Xin shimei[foot]师妹 – Shīmèi. Female junior. Shī means teacher. Both of them were under different masters but were from the same martial arts school. Mei means younger sister.[/foot], do we still need to continue the contest?”
The nun sitting to his left could barely suppress her anger. “Zuo shixiong has indeed nurtured capable disciples. But I wonder if Zuo shixiong’s has gained great insight from studying the Wuliang Cliff[foot]无量玉壁 – Wúlìang Yǜ Bì. Wuliang means infinite or limitless. It is the name of the mountain where the palace is built. Yǜ literally means jade and Bì means cliff. When combined, the compound word means a beautiful cliff. So a proper translation would be the Beautiful Cliff of Wuliang. I have chosen to simply call it Wuliang Cliff.[/foot] in the past five years?”
The old man stared at her and his tone became stern. “How can you forget the rules of our school, shimei?”
She snorted with displeasure and dropped the issue. The old man was Zuo Zimu[foot]左子穆 – Zǔo Zǐmù[/foot], head of the Wuliang Sword School’s Eastern Sect. The nun was Xin Shuangqing[foot]辛双清 – Xīn Shuāngqīng[/foot], head of the Wuliang Sword School’s Western Sect. They were on Mount Wuliang in the Dali Kingdom[foot]大理国 – Dàlǐ gúo. The Dali Kingdom was situated in modern Yunnan province, China from 937 until 1253 when it was conquered by the Mongols. Its kings continued to administer the area as Mongol vassals until the Ming conquest of Yunnan. See Wikipedia.[/foot] and it was the Yuanyou[foot]元祐 – Yuán yoù. The regnal era (1086–1094) of Emperor Zhezong of Song[/foot] era of the Song Dynasty[foot]The Northern Song Dynasty was an period of the Song Dynasty between 4 February 960 to 20 March 1127. See Wikipedia.[/foot].
The Wuliang Sword School[foot]无量剑派 – Wúlìang Jiàn Pài. Wuliang refers to Mount Wuliang, where the school is located. Wuliang means infinite or limitless. Wú means no or without. Liàng means limit or measure.[/foot] was split into the Northern, Eastern and Western Sects. The Northern Sect has been in the decline in the past decade, while the Eastern and Western Sects flourished with talent. The Wuliang Sword School was founded on Mount Wuliang, Nanzhao[foot]南诏 – Nán zhào. A kingdom that flourished in what modern day southern China and Southeast Asia during the 8th and 9th centuries. It was centred on present-day Yunnan in China. See Wikipedia[/foot]during the reign of the fifth Tang Emperor. The head of the school resided in the Jianhu Palace on Mount Wuliang. Since the splitting of the school into three Sects during the Song Empire, these Sects held a duelling contest in the practice arena of Jianhu Palace every five years. The winning Sect would reside in the palace for the next five years. When the sixth year comes, the Sects would meet again to compete for the right of residence in the next five years. The best of five round was the winner. During the five years between the contests, the defeated sects would train hard in hope of erasing the shame of their previous loss in the next contest. Likewise, the winners did not dare to become complacent.
The Northern Sect won forty years ago but was evicted from the palace after their defeat five years later. The furious head of the Northern Sect led his people to the western face of the mountain, ending their participation in the contest and severing all communications with the other sects. In the thirty-five years since the exodus of the Northern Sect, the Eastern and Western Sects each had their share of victories and defeats. The Eastern Sect was the champion of four contests, while the Western Sect had two wins to their name. This was the ninth contest. The duel between Gong and Zuo was the fourth match. Gong’s victory gave the Eastern sect three wins. Thus, a fifth bout was unnecessary.
Guests from other schools sat along the western boundary of the practice ring. Some of the visitors were witnesses invited by the heads of the Wuliang Sects, while the others came to watch the competition. They were notable individuals from the martial arts scene in Yunnan. The exception was an unknown youngster dressed in cyan sitting at rightmost end of the boundary. It was him who laughed when Zuo appeared to lose his footing during the duel.
The youth arrived in the company of the elderly wushi[foot]武师 – Wǔshī. A person practising martial arts and is involved in the matters of the martial arts scene.[/foot], Mawu De, from Pu’er, southern Dian[foot]Pu’er (普洱 – Púěr) is a city in the southern part of Yunnan (云南 – Yúnnán). Dian (滇 – Diān) is another name for Yunnan.[/foot]. As a successful tea trader, Mawu was rich and influential. He was known for his hospitality and his easy-going nature. When any wushi in the jianghu[foot]江湖 – Jiānghú. The world of the martial arts. It is akin to the underworld of the mafia and triads. Another way to translate it is the martial arts scene. Often literally (and badly) translated as rivers and lakes.[/foot] was in dire straits, they count on his unrestrained assistance. This made him very popular. However, his martial arts skills were mediocre. When Zuo Zimu welcomed Mawu De[foot]马五德 – Máwǔ Dé[/foot], the latter introduced the youth with the family name Duan. That was the royal family’s name of the Dali Kingdom. Countless individuals bear the Duan family name within the boundaries of the kingdom, so Zuo Zimu did not think much of it. He assumed that he was probably Mawu’s disciple. Since Mawu’s martial arts skills were average, his apprentice would be no better. Zuo did not bother to say “I’ve long admired you”[foot]This is a courtesy phrase used when meeting someone for the first time. The literal translation is “long admired”.[/foot], but simply raised his hands with his left palm over his right fist in greeting before leading them into the guest seats. Zuo did not expect the youth to have the nerve to mock when his favoured disciple feigned a move to create an opening.
“The four disciples fielded by Xin shimei this year made impressive advancements in their swordsmanship. Especially in the fourth match, which we were lucky to win. Zhu shizhi[foot]师侄 – Shīzhí. Disciple of one’s senior or junior. In this case, Zhu was the disciple of Xin, who was Zuo’s shimei. Shi means teacher. Zhi means nephew or niece.[/foot] is young but has made such progress in his training. With such potential, his future is bright indeed. Perhaps the Eastern and Western sects will have to swap places five years from now.”
Zuo let out a hearty laugh, before abruptly turning to stare at Duan. “Young Brother[foot]世兄 – Shìxīong. A friend or acquaintance who is two or more generations younger. I chose to translate it as young brother to avoid confusion with shixiong (male senior).[/foot] Duan seems to disapprove when my second-rate disciple used the Staggering Step feign to win. Could Brother Duan please step into the ring and give my disciple a pointer or two? Brother Mawu has a resounding reputation in southern Dian. As the saying goes, there is no weak soldier under the command of a strong general. Brother Duan must be highly skilled.”
Mawu De flushed as he hurriedly said, “Brother Duan is not my disciple. How can I take in a disciple with my superficial skills? Please don’t tease me, young brother Zuo. Brother Duan came to my humble abode in Pu’er and discovered that I was going to Mount Wuliang. He has heard of the peaceful and scenic Mount Wuliang, hence he came along to enjoy the sights.”
Zuo Zimu thought to himself, “If Duan were Mawu’s disciple, I would have gone easy on the former out of respect for the latter. Since he was just an ordinary guest, there was no need to be tactful. When someone ridicules the gongfu[foot]功夫 – Gōngfu. Martial arts.[/foot] of Wuliang Sword School’s Eastern sect, how can I maintain my credibility if I don’t teach him a good lesson and chase him off the mountain?”
Zuo Zimu sneered, “How do I address you, Brother Duan? Who is your esteemed master?”