Sword of the Yue Maiden by Jin Yong was first serialised in newspapers in 1970.
This short story was the last of Jin Yong’s works. It revolves around the Yue Maiden, who lived during the reign of King Goujian of Yue (496-465 BCE).
The novel was based on the legend of The Yue Maiden, and the war between the Kingdoms of Wu and Yue during the Spring and Autumn Period.
The real name of the Yue Maiden is unknown. She is simply referred to as Yuenü, which can be translated as the Lady of Yue or, more commonly, the Yue Maiden. She was bestowed the title of Yuenü by the King of Yue, who was impressed by her exposition on the art of the sword. He decreed that his army adopt her style of swordsmanship and appointed her to train his army officers, who in turn instructed his army. Hers is the earliest known exposition on the art of the sword, and influenced Chinese martial arts for generations.
The war between Wu and Yue was the last major conflict during the Spring and Autumn Period. Yue defeated Wu at the Battle of Zuili (槜李之战) and King Helü of Wu was mortally wounded.His son, King Fuchai of Wu, defeated Yue three years later and King Goujian of Yue was captured. Goujian served as Fuchai’s servant for three years before he was allowed to return home.
Upon his return to Yue, Goujian plotted his revenge against Fuchai.
The two swordsmen turned the point of their blades downward. Their right palm holding the sword hilt, their left palm covered their right palm, then they bowed deeply to each other in a warrior’s salute.
Even before the two straightened, a sudden flash of white, then the sound of clanging. The two swordsmen each retreated one step. The audience gave out a soft cry.
The swordsman in blue cut three times. The liveried swordsman blocked each cut. The swordsman in blue shouted and slashed his sword from the upper left corner straight downward. The slash was powerful and fast. The liveried swordsman was too agile to be caught. A simple jump got him out of the way. His body bounced barely after his left feet touched the ground. He returned two slashes. The swordsman in blue stood still with a grim smile. He moved his sword lightly and blocked the attack.
The liveried swordsman suddenly began running around the swordsman in blue. He ran faster and faster. The swordsman in blue merely stared at the point of his enemy’s sword. He was ready to strike any time that point moved to attack. The liveried swordsman at first ran one way, then the other. The swordsman in blue started to feel a bit dizzy and said, “Are you fighting, or running for your life?” The liveried swordsman continued running. The swordsman in blue attempted to cut him down a few times, but his sword always fell short.
The swordsman in blue pulled his sword back to the side of his body and bowed his right leg slightly. The liveried swordsman thought he saw an opening and lounged at his left shoulder, the swordsman in blue was merely luring his enemy. His sword circled into a direct thrust at the liveried swordsman’s throat. The thrust was too fast to be avoided. The liveried swordsman was surprised. He threw his sword toward the heart of his enemy. The liveried swordsman hoped to force the swordsman to abort the thrust in order to save his own life.
Unexpectedly, the swordsman in blue didn’t attempt to defend himself. With a move of his arm, the point of his sword entered the liveried swordsman’s throat. Then the liveried swordsman’s thrown sword hit his chest with a loud clang and fell to the ground. The swordsman in blue laughed coldly and pulled his sword back. He was wearing a round plate of iron in front of his chest, just under the garment. That’s why the sword did him no harm. The liveried swordsman’s throat spurted blood and his body convulsed. The servants stepped in to remove the body and began to wipe up the blood on the ground.
The swordsman in blue sheathed his sword. He stepped forward and bowed toward the north of the hall where the king sat. The king wore a purple robe. He is of strange appearance. His neck was excessive long and his mouth was sharp as a bird’s beak. He smiled and said in a croaking voice, “The strong one has wonderful sword skill. Award him ten pounds of gold.” The swordsman in blue knelt down on his right knee and bowed, “Thank you for the award.” The king waved his left hand. An official on his right shouted, “Swordsmen of Wu and swordsmen of Yue,second contest!”
From the east end of the hall, another liveried swordsman walked out from his group. This man was tall of stature and held a great sword. The sword was nearly four feet in length. The blade was extremely thick and was obviously quite heavy. From the west of hall, another swordsman in blue walked out. He was of medium height. His face was criss-crossed by at least twelve or thirteen sword scars. The face seemed no longer human. He must have fought hundreds of battles with countless swordsmen. The two knelt to the king, then they saluted each other.
The swordsman in blue straightened his body and smiled. His face made the smile seemed ugly and cruel. The tall swordsman shivered. Then he sighed deeply and held his sword with both hands.
Suddenly the swordsman in blue howled madly like a wolf and thrust his sword. The tall swordsman cried, lifted his great sword and cut down toward his opponent’s head. The swordsman in blue dodged while his sword made a slash from left to right. The tall swordsman lifted the great sword and whirled, making the sounds of a great wind. The great weight of the sword didn’t slow him down in the slightest.
The two made thirty passes at each other. The swordsman in blue couldn’t oppose the weight of his opponent’s sword. He kept retreating. All the other liveried swordsman began to show hope on their faces as they anticipated their side to win at last.
Then the tall swordsman made a great cry like the sound of a thunderclap and made a horizontal cut with his great sword. The swordsman in blue couldn’t avoid it. He could only block it with his own sword with all his strength. Clang! The two swords met. The great sword broke and half of the blade flew away. The swordsman in blue wielded a far sharper sword. Then the swordsman in blue made a vertical cut which opened up the tall swordsman from throat to crotch. The tall swordsman howled and kept on howling as he felt to the ground. The swordsman in blue looked at his fallen opponent for a while before returning his sword to the sheath. Then he knelt toward the king. His face couldn’t disguise his joy of victory.
The official said, “The strong one’s sword skill is impressive. The award is ten pounds of gold.” The swordsman in blue bowed in thanks. There were only eight swordsmen in blue. Compared with fifty liveried swordsmen standing at the east side of the hall, they were badly outnumbered. The official said, “Swordsmen of Wu and swordsmen of Yue, the third contest.” Again, one swordsman from each walked to the centre of the hall. The sword of the swordsman in blue trembled and shone like bright silk. The official said, “Good sword!” The swordsman in blue thanked his praise. The official then said, “We have seen one-to-one contests twice. This time, two against two!”
Two more swordsmen entered the arena. The four again saluted the king first before saluting each other. Then the swords flashed as the combat began. This time, each of the two swordsmen on the same side must reinforce each other. After a few passes, a liveried swordsmen’s sword was cut into half by his enemy’s sword. This liveried swordsman was very courageous. He carried his broken and jumped toward his enemy. His opponent’s sword flashed and cut away his right arm together with his right shoulder. Then the sword impaled his heart. The other pair was still fighting. The victorious swordsman in blue watched for a while, then his sword moved. Again, the liveried swordsman’s sword was cut into half, leaving him wide open. His opponent’s sword entered his chest and exited from his back.
The king laughed and clapped, “Excellent swords! Excellent sword skills. Award them wine and gold. Let us see one contest of four against four!” Four swordsmen from each side began combat. The swordsmen from the east side had already lost three contests. These four fought desperately with all their skills. Even if they lost their lives, they meant to win at least one contest. Two swordsmen in blue concentrated on one liveried swordsman. The other two swordsmen in blue defended them against the other three liveried swordsmen. These swordsmen in blue only defended. Their skill of defence was impenetrable. They also made no attempt to attack, all they did was preventing the three from aiding their comrade. The other two swordsman in blue easily killed their lone opponent. Then they repeated their tactic again and killed another liveried swordsman.
The other liveried swordsmen saw the death of their comrades. They drew their swords and was ready to aid their comrades and chopped the swordsmen in blue to bits.
The official cried out in a clear voice, “Those who learned the way of the sword, must obey the laws of the sword!”
His voice was authoritative. The liveried swordsmen quieted down. By now everyone could see that the swordsmen in blue used completely different sword skills. The two who defended were specialised in defence. The two who attacked specialised in attack. The attackers always outnumber their victim because the defenders watched their back. They could win even if their opponents numbered six or even eight. The swords of the two defenders formed a sword net which could handle five or even six swordsmen easily.
The two defenders had cornered a liveried swordsman so he was virtually neutralised while the two attackers already killed the third liveried swordsman. The two defenders moved left and right and watched for more enemies while the two attackers began on the lone swordsman. Even though the liveried swordsman had no hope of winning, still he didn’t throw down his sword to admit defeat. Suddenly the four swordsmen in blue shouted loudly and their four swords impaled the liveried swordsman from four directions.
The liveried swordsman died immediately, but his eyes were opened like round saucers. His mouth opened widely. The four swordsmen in blue pulled out their swords at the same time. The four wiped their swords at the sole of their shoes, then they returned their swords back into the sheath. The movements were completely synchronised.
The king laughed and clapped his hands together again, “Excellent sword skill! The swordsmen of the great kingdom were truly invincible. It’s only today that we’re treated to such a spectacle. Award each swordsman ten pounds of gold.” The four bowed in thanks. They bowed at the same exact angle. No one knew how long they practised to achieve such precision.
A swordsman in blue turned, picked a long box covered in gold paint and said, “Our king thank the generous gifts of Your Majesty. His Majesty ordered us to return the favour with one precious sword. This sword is newly forged in our kingdom for the enjoyment of Your Majesty.”
The king smiled, “Thank you. Minister Fan Li, bring it over here.”
The king was Goujian, King of Yue. The official was Fan Li, the royal advisor. The liveried swordsmen were the Royal Guards of Yue. The eight swordsmen in blue were the messengers sent by Fuchai, King of Wu. Goujian was defeated by Fuchai and he waited for a chance for vengeance. While he was submissive to the Kingdom of Wu on the surface, he secretly trained soldiers in preparation for an attack on Wu. In order to test the skill of Wu warriors, he sent out the best of his swordsmen. He could not expect that the Wu swordsmen easily killed eight of his finest swordsmen. He was surprised and angry, but he showed none of it. Instead, he praised the sword skills of the Wu swordsmen and showed his heartfelt admiration.
Fan Li took the golden long box. The box felt very light, as thought it was empty. He opened up the cover. Before the other people in the hall could see what’s in the box, Fan Li’s face was illuminated by a faint blue light. Everyone cried in surprise.
Fan Li took the box to Goujian and bowed, “Please look, Your Majesty.” Goujian saw that the box was lined with red silk. The sword inside it had a very thin blade. The light it reflected flowed on its surface like water. He said, “Excellent sword!” He took the hilt and lifted up the sword. The blade trembled slightly, almost as though he could break the blade with a flick of his wrist. He thought, “The sword blade is too thin. It might look good, but it has no practical use.”
The leader of the swordsmen in blue took out a piece of gauze from his pocket and threw it into the air. “Please, Your Majesty, point the edge of the sword upward so it will meet this falling gauze. You will see that this sword is different.” The thin gauze fell upon the edge of the sword, but the gauze didn’t stop falling. It kept falling, as two separate gauzes. The people on the hall cheered.
The swordsman in blue said, “This blade might be thin, but it will not break even if it blocks a heavy weapon.”
Goujian said, “Minister Fan Li, try it.”
Fan Li said, “Yes.” He walked in front of a liveried swordsman, took out the sword and said, “Draw, let’s try it.” The liveried swordsman bowed, drew his sword, but he didn’t dare to strike. Fan Li cried, “Strike!” The swordsman cut downward. Fan Li met it with his sword. The two swords met. The sword blade of the liveried swordsmen was cut into two pieces. Before one of the pieces flew into him, Fan Li dodged wit great agility. The people inside the hall cheered. Were they cheering the sharpness of the blade, or the agility of Fan Li?
Fan Li put the sword back into the box and put the box next to the feet of the king. Goujian said, “Swordsmen of the great kingdom, you are invited to the next hall for a feast and be awarded for the contest.” The eight swordsmen in blue bowed and left the hall. Goujian waved his hand, all the swordsmen, servants and ministers left, except for Fan Li.
Goujian looked at the sword and the blood on the ground and said, “What you do think?”
Fan Li said, “Not all the Wu soldiers are as good as these eight. Not all swords wielded by them are as sharp as this one. But from this small example, we can see the rest. The most terrifying aspect is their technique of group fighting, they used the methods of Sunzi. I believe that they currently have no match in the world.”
Goujian said, “Fuchai sent these eight just to give me this sword. What does he have in mind?”
Fan Li said, “He wants us to know the difficulty of vengeance.”
Goujian became angry. He took up the sword and made a backhand stroke. The stroke cut up the half of the back of his chair. He shouted, “Even if the difficulty is one thousand, ten thousand times greater, Goujian will not retreat from his goal! One day, I will capture Fuchai, king of Wu and cut off his heed with his sword.” Another stroke of the sword cut the chair into half.
Fan Li bowed and said, “Congratulations, Your Majesty.”
Goujian said in surprise, “After seeing the ability of the Wu swordsmen, what’s there to congratulate about?”
Fan Li said, “As long as You Majesty have the determination, anything can be accomplished. Concerning this difficulty, I must discuss it with Minister Wen.”
Goujian said, “Good, summon Minister Wen.” Fan Li left the palace and ordered the palace servant to summon Minister Wen Zhong. In a while, Wen Zhong arrived on a speedy horse, then the two walked back into the palace.
Fan Li was originally a native of Wan, in the Kingdom of Chu. He was not a man concerned with the details of etiquette. Often, he did things beyond the expectations of other people. People of his homeland called him, “Fan Li the Crazy”. When Wen Zhong came to be the magistrate of Wan, he heard of the Fan Li’s reputation. He sent subordinates to summon Fan Li. The subordinates said, “That Fan Li is the famous crazy man of this land. Nothing he does makes any sense.” Wen Zhong smiled, “When a man try to do something different, other people always say that he is mad. When he has a superior opinion, the common of wit will call him stupid. How can you understand Master Fan Li?” So Wen Zhong went to visit Fan Li himself, but Fan Li avoided him. Fan Li expected that Wen would not give up so easily, so he borrowed some proper clothes from his brother. When Wen came back, Fan Li was ready. The two talked and found that they had much in common.
They both felt the kingdoms were weak. The kingdom of Chu was large, but chaotic. The only kingdoms which could rise to command the rest were located at south-east. Wen Zhong resigned his position and went to the kingdom of Wu with Fan Li. At the time, the king of Wu’s favourite was Wu Zhixu. The two lived in the capital for a few month and saw that Wu Zhixu was indeed a wise man. They were not necessarily better than him.
After some discussion, they decided that although Yue was a smaller kingdom, but they could put their talents to use there. Goujian received them warmly and gave them both high positions.
Then Goujian ignored the advise of Wen Zhong and made war with Wu. His army was defeated by the shore of Chiang Tang River. Goujian was surrounded at Kuaiji Mountain and almost died along with his kingdom, but he listened to the advise of Fan Li and Wen Zhong and bribed the Prime Minister of Wu. Fuchai then listened to the Prime Minister instead of the wiser Wu Zhixu and agreed to a peace treaty. Goujian lived in Wu as a hostage for a few years, but he was released later. Then Goujian slept only on beds made of thorny branches and tasted the bitter juice of beef gall bladders to remind himself of the humiliations he suffered. He used Wen Zhong’s Nine Methods to subvert Wu and strengthen Yue.
The Nine Methods were. One, pay respect to the gods and spirits. Two, give Fuchai vast amount of money so he will feel secure as well as becoming soft in luxury. Three, borrow food from Wu and return seeds which will not grow, causing famine in Wu. Four, give Fuchai beautiful women such as Xi Shi and Cheng Dang, so Fuchai would be paying more attention to the beautiful women rather than the affairs of the state. Five, give Fuchai engineers so he started building expensive palaces which drained the economy of the country. Six, bribe the ministers of Wu. Seven, distance Fuchai from his wise ministers. The wise Wu Zhixu was eventually forced to commit suicide as punishment of a false charge of treason. Eight, hoard food so the kingdom of Yue will have great reserve available. Nine, make weapons, train soldier and wait for the chance.
Eight methods have succeeded, but the ninth had run into great difficulty. Everyone could tell that the eight warriors of Wu were better than anyone Yue could produce. Fan Li told Wen Zhong the results of the contest. Wen Zhong frowned, “Brother Fan Li, the sharpness of their swords is a major problem, also the way their swordsmen worked together in groups in accordance to Sunzi’s Art of War.” Fan Li said, “Yes, decades ago, when Sunzi helped the King of Wu. They destroyed Chu, the most powerful kingdom in the world at the time. In his book, it’s said, “If I concentrate my forces and the enemy’s forces is fragmented into ten parts then I can use my unified one to attack his ten fragments. Then I will outnumber my enemy and the battle will be over.” Wu used this principle to achieve local superiority against our swordsmen.”
When they talk they arrived in front of Goujian. Goujian was staring at the gift sword. After a long while, Goujian lifted up his head and said, “Minister Wen. Years ago, Wu had the husband-wife team of sword smiths, Gan Jiang and Mo Ye. Yue had Ouyezi. Now, all three have died. Wu still have great sword smiths, yet we have no one to succeed Ouyezi.”
Wen Zhong said, “I have heard that Ouyezi had two students. One is named Feng Huzi, the other is called Xue Zhu. Feng Huzi is in the kingdom of Chu. Xue Zhu is still in Yue.”
Goujian became glad and said, “Summon him. And order someone to go to Chu with gold so we can get Feng Huzi here as well.”
The next morning, Wen Zhong reported that he already sent someone to Chu. Meanwhile, Xue Zhu was already here. Goujian granted Xue Zhu an audience and asked, “Your master Ouyezi once followed my father’s order and forged five swords. How do you grade those five swords?”
Xue Zhu said, “I have heard my master said that he forged five swords for the king. Three large swords and two small swords. They are Trembling Reed, Pure Edge, Defeater of Evil, Fish Intestine and the Great Tower. Now, the Trembling Reed is in Chu. Defeater of Evil and Fish Intestine are in Wu. Your Majesty still have Pure Edge and Great Tower.”
Years ago, the Prince Helu of Wu heard of the swords and asked Goujian’s father for some of the swords. Goujian’s father feared the might of Wu and gave Helu Trembling Reed, Defeater of Evil and Fish Intestine. Using Fish Intestine, Helu assassinated his cousin the king and took the throne. Trembling Reed fell into a river and was acquired by the King of Chu. King of Qin heard of this and asked for it. Even after a few wars, the King of Chu still refused to give it up.
Xue Zhu said, “My master said, of the five swords, Defeater of Evil is of the highest grade. Pure Edge and Trembling Reed are next. Fish Intestine is lower and Great Tower ranks last. When Great Tower was forged, the alloy was not pure, so it was only a sharp sword and not a truly precious sword.”
Goujian said, “Are you saying my Pure Edge and Great Tower are not as good as Fuchai’s Defeater of Evil and Fish Intestine?”
Xue Zhu dare not admit that Goujian’s swords was inferior, but Goujian knew the answer anyway.
Fan Li said, “You have the skill of your master. You can forge a few swords of your own. They might not be inferior to those owned by Wu.”
Xue Zhu said, “I cannot forge swords anymore.”
Fan Li asked, “Why?”
Xue Zhu held up his hands. On both his hands, the thumb and the index fingers were gone. He said sadly, “Thumbs and index fingers are required for forging swords. I am a cripple.”
Goujian said, “Did you enemy cut away your fingers?”
Xue Zhu said, “No, my fellow student did it.” “Your fellow student? You mean Feng Huzi? Why did he doe it? Ah! It must be that you have greater skill than he. He became jealous and cut away your fingers.” Xue Zhu remained silent.
Goujian said, “I was thinking about inviting Feng Huzi from Chu, but now I see he won’t come because he fears your vengeance.”
Xue Zhu said, “Your Majesty is indeed wise, but Feng Huzi is no longer in Chu. He is in Wu.
Goujian said, “He…He’s in Wu? What’s he doing there?”
Xue Zhu said, “Three years ago, Feng Huzi came to my home and took out a precious sword for me to inspect. I was astounded. That sword was forged by my master for Chu. It is named the Flowing Fabric. The blade was full of runes that flowed like water. I heard from my master that he forged three swords for Chu. That was one, the others were Dragon Spring and Ching Ah.”
Goujian said, “Then the King of Chu must have given it to Feng Huzi.”
Xue Zhu said, “Indirectly. Feng Huzi said that after the army of Wu broke the capital of Chu. Wu Zhixu took the sword from the grave of the previous king. When he returned to Wu, he heard of the skills of Feng Huzi, so he gave the sword to him as a gift. He said the sword was a legacy from our master and that Feng Huzi was the rightful owner.”
Goujian said, “Wu Zhixu let the sword go? He is truly a great hero to let such a treasure go.” Then he laughed, “Fortunately, Fuchai has already taken care of him for me.” Then he asked, “What did Wu Zhixu wanted in return from Feng Huzi?”
Xue Zhu said, “Wu Zhixu merely said that he admired our master. Feng Huzi felt grateful after he received the sword, so he went to Wu and thanked Wu Zhixu in person. Wu Zhixu treated as an honoured guest.”
Goujian said, “That’s how he make people become loyal to him, even onto death.”
Xue Zhu said, “Your Majesty is wise, but Feng Huzi didn’t understand Wu Zhixu’s true intentions, so he asked again and again how he could repay the great favour done to him. Wu Zixu merely said he would not ask anything of an honoured guest.”
Goujian said, “The old fox!”
Xue Zhu said, “Feng Huzi finally said to Wu Zhixu that he had little skill except forging swords. In return for Wu Zhixu’s favours, he will forge a few precious swords for him.”
Goujian slapped his thigh and said, “Got him!”
Xue Zhu said, “But Wu Zhixu said the kingdom of Wu already had many precious swords and needed no more. Besides, the forging of a precious sword is a tremendous labour. Years ago, when Gan Jiang and Mo Ye were forging their sword, the sword refused to come into being until Mo Ye flung herself into the fire. Wu Zhixu had no intention of repeating that kind of tragedy.”
Goujian said, “He didn’t want Feng Huzi to forge swords for him? Strange.”
Xue Zhu said, “Feng Huzi was baffled too. Then Wu Zhixu visited him again. They said that the army of Wu was fully capable of fighting with superpowers like the kingdoms of Ji and Jin. Wu’s warriors were courageous, but their skills in chariot warfare were inferior. Moreover, their swords and spears were not sharp enough. Feng Huzi began to talk to Wu Zhixu about the way of forging swords. What Wu Zhixu wanted wasn’t a few precious swords with mysterious powers, what he wanted was thousands and thousands of sharp swords.”
Goujian understood and looked at Fan Li and Wen Zhong. Worry filled Wen Zhong’s face. He asked, “Minister Fan Li, what do you think?”
Fan Li said, “Even though Wu Zhixu is crafty, he is not wise enough to escape Your Majesty’s schemes.”
Goujian laughed, “I am afraid that I have never been Wu Zhixu’s match.”
Fan Li said, “Wu Zhixu is already dead. What more can he do to threaten Yue?”
Goujian laughed, “True. Xue Zhu. Did Feng Huzi finally started forging swords?”
Xue Zhu said, “Yes. He went to Mount Mogan. He saw one thousand sword smiths working there. He corrected and improved their techniques. After this, every sword in Wu is sharper than anything made in other kingdoms.”
Goujian nodded, “So that’s why.”
Xue Zhu said, “After one year, Feng Huzi became too fatigued to continue, so he told Wu Zhixu my name. Wu Zhixu readied lavish gifts and asked Feng Huzi to invite me to work for him as well. I remembered the hatred between Wu and Yue. If Wu’s sharp swords could kill the people of Ji and Jin, they could also kill the people of my home, so I counselled Feng Huzi not to return to Wu.”
Goujian nodded in approval, “You have foresight.”
Xue Zhu said, “Thank for your praise, Your Majesty, but he didn’t listen to me. That night he slept in my home. In the middle of the night, suddenly he put his sword at my neck, then he chopped off four of my fingers so I’ll never forge another sword.”
Goujian became angry, “If he fell into my hands, I would chop him into meat paste!”
Wen Zhong said, “Master Xue Zhu, even though you cannot forge swords by yourself, but you can teach our sword smiths. We, too, can make as many sharp swords as the Wu sword smiths.”
Xue Zhu said, “Minister Wen, both Yue and Wu produce the necessary iron needed for sword blades, but Yue produces copper and Wu produces zinc.”
Fan Li said, “Wu Zhixu is guarding the zinc mines and forbids any private mining, is that right?”
Xue Zhu showed surprise on his face, “So you knew already.”
Fan Li smiled, “No, I am merely speculating. Now that he’s dead, his order may not be followed anymore. We now can purchase zinc, if we’re willing to pay for it.”
Goujian said, “But a source of water far away cannot extinguish a nearby conflagration. By the time we gather all the materials, train the sword smiths and start production, at least two or three years would have passed. That’s not counting any setbacks along the way. If Fuchai died before we’re ready, wouldn’t that be the greatest regret in our lives?”
Fan Li and Wen Zhong bowed deeply, “Yes, we will find another way.”
Fan Li walked out of the palace, thinking, “His Majesty couldn’t wait two or three more years? Why, I can’t even wait one more day…” A dull pain came to his chest as he remembered the image of that unmatched beauty which could stun the world.
She was Xi Shi from the banks of Huansha brook. He found that woman who gathered all the beauty of the land of Yue into her person and he had to send her away into the palace of Wu.
The road from the capital of Yue to the capital of Wu was not long, only a few days by river, but that was long enough for love to grow beyond control. The white face of Xi Shi was full of pearl-like tears and her voice was soft as a whispering stream, “Young Sir, promise me that you will come and get me as soon as possible. I will wait for you, day and night. Say that you will never forget me, forever and ever.”
Vengeance against Wu could wait, as far as Fan Li was concerned, but Yiguang, was in the embrace of King Fuchai. Love and jealousy gnawed at his heart. He must find to way to make as many sharp swords as possible, even sharper than those wielded by the invincible Wu swordsmen….
He walked aimlessly on the street. Eighteen armed guards followed him faithfully. Suddenly someone was singing a Wu song, “My sword is sharp! My enemy has no courage! My sword is sharp! My enemy has no head!”
Eight men in blue, arm in arm, swaggered down the street, showing no concern for the pedestrians who were hurrying out of their way. They were the eight Wu swordsmen. They were obviously very drunk.
Fan Li frowned. He could feel his anger rising.
The eight swordsmen stopped in front of Fan Li. One of them looked sideways with his drunken eyes and said, “You… you are Minister Fan Li?” Then he broke into uncontrollable giggles. Two guards leaped in front of Fan Li and said, “Don’t be so rude. Make way!”
The eight swordsmen merely laughed and mimicked their words, “Don’t be so rude. Make way!”
Two guards pulled out their swords and cried, “By royal decree, those who dare to interfere with Minister Fan Li’s welfare is to be executed!”
One of the Wu swordsman’s body swayed as he said, “Execute you, or me?”
Fan Li’s mind was working. “They were the subjects of Wu. Even though they are rude. We cannot afford to fight them.” Before he could tell his guards to pull back, a bright sword flashed. The guards screamed. Then their swords dropped to the ground. One of the Wu swordsman returned his sword into the sheath, his face was full of gloating pride. The rest of Fan Li’s guards pulled out their swords and surrounded the eight Wu swordsmen.
The leader raised his head and laughed, “We never planned to return to Wu alive anyway. Let’s see how big an army you need in order to kill us!” With a shout, eight swords leaped out of their sheaths. Eight swordsmen stood back to back, forming a circle.
Fan Li thought, “If one could not endure small slights, then one would never achieve great things.” He shouted, “These eight are ambassadors from the Great Kingdom. Don’t treat them with ill manners. Back!” Then he retreated to the side of the street. His guards were angry enough to spit fire from their eyes, but they dare not disobey him. Reluctantly they retreated to the side of the street as well.
Then they heard the cries of a herd of goats. A young maiden dressed in pale green robe herded tens of goats down the street. The goats started to go around the eight Wu swordsmen. One swordsman was feeling cheated of a good fight, so his sword moved and a goat was neatly bisected. The cut was so neat that even the nose of the goat was severed into two precisely equal parts. His seven friends cheered. Even Fan Li could not fault his sword skill.
The young maiden’s bamboo stick moved and herded the rest of goats behind her. Then she said, “Why did you kill my goat?” The voice was feminine and clear, but it also contained anger.
The goat killer cut his sword into air a few times and laughed, “Little girl, I will cut you into half just like this goat!”
Fan Li cried, “Lady, please come over here. They are drunk.”
The maiden said, “Even if you are drunk, that’s no excuse to behave rudely.”
The swordsman’s sword circled above her head., “I was thinking of cutting off your head, but now I see you’re quite pretty, so I changed my mind.” His seven friends laughed again.
Fan Li looked at her. She had an oval face, long eyelashes and clear, white skin. Her face was pretty and her body was slender, even seemingly frail. He cried again, “Lady, over here.” The maiden said, “Of course.”
The Wu swordsman’s sword reached out toward toward her belt., “Why…” Before he could finished, the maiden’s bamboo stick flickered and stabbed into his wrist. The swordsman only felt a sudden pain on his wrist and dropped his sword. The bamboo stick raised upward, followed by another stab into the swordsman’s right eye. The swordsman screamed as he covered his blinded eye.
The maiden’s movement might be simple, but for some reason, the Wu swordsman could not block or even avoid her bamboo stick. The other seven swordsmen was much surprised. One of them pulled back his sword and thrusted it toward the maiden’s right eye. As the sword sped forward, everyone could hear a loud whoosh, signalling the strength behind the thrust.
The maiden didn’t even move her feet. Her bamboo stick moved again. This time she stabbed at the swordsman’s shoulder. The stab was so fast that although it started after the thrust, it arrived well before the thrust could reach her. The swordsman cried out in pain as all the strength went out of his thrust. Then the maiden’s wrist flicked and the bamboo stick went into his right eye. The swordsman screamed like a butchered pig as his two fists waved aimlessly.
Now, the maiden made four moves and two Wu swordsmen were disabled. The spectator only saw her making some movements with her bamboo stick. Even though she moved too fast to be seen clearly, but the technique she used was clearly derived from some sort of high sword skill. Fan Li was both surprised and gladdened, but now he saw that the maiden had to face six Wu swordsmen. He hurriedly said, “Swordsmen of Wu. It would be bad for the honour of Wu if the six of you gang up on a defenceless girl. Even you win with you superior numbers……” He clapped his hands together. His guards leaped into the street and surrounded the Wu swordsmen.
The maiden smiled, “Even the odds of six against one is not enough for you.” Her left hand lifted slightly. The bamboo stick on her right hand thrusted toward yet another swordsman’s eye. She moved her stick and stabbed toward another swordsman’s chest. Three swords sped toward her. She moved agilely and avoided all three sword, then she counterattacked. One swordsman was stabbed on the wrist and lost hold on his sword.
Fan Li’s guard was ready to leap into battle, but they could not penetrate into the sword net formed by the Wu swordsmen. The maiden moved between the six swordsmen. Her long sleeves and long belt waved in the wind beautifully. Then the cries of pain came from one after another Wu swordsmen as their swords dropped to the ground. The fight was over. Each of the Wu swordsmen lost an eye. Some lost the right eye. Some lost the left eye.
The maiden pulled back her bamboo stick and said, “You killed my goat. Now compensate me.”
The Wu swordsmen were angry and scared. Some were roaring in fury. Some were shivering in fear. These eight were battle-hardened veterans. Ordinarily they would not lose control of their demeanour even if someone cut of both of their hands, but what happened to them was so beyond their comprehension that they had not idea how they should act.
The maiden said, “If you don’t compensate me for my goat, I will take your other eye.” The Wu swordsmen jumped back involuntarily.
Fan Li said, “Lady, I will give you one hundred goats, but let these eight men leave.”
The maiden smiled, “You’re a nice man. I don’t want one hundred goats. I only want one.”
Fan Li said to the guard, “Accompany the ambassadors from the Great Kingdom back to the palace. Summon the physicians to treat their wounds.” The eight Wu swordsmen left crestfallen, like cocks who had lost a fight.
Fan Li walked toward the maiden and said, “Lady, what is your respected surname?” The maiden said, “What did you say?” He rephrased the question, “What is your name?” The maiden said, “Oh, my name is A’qing. What is yours?”
Fan Li smiled and thought, “So she is just a simple country girl unversed in courtly manners. Yet she learned this godlike sword skill. I only have to learn who her master is, then I can invite her teacher to train Yue warriors. Wu will not be able to stand against us.” His heart warmed as he realised that he’s closer to bring Xi Shi back. Then he said, “I am called Fan Li. Lady, why don’t you have a meal in my home?” A’qing said, “No, I have to herd the goats to pasture.” Fan Li said, “I have a large lawn in my home. Your goats can feed there, then I will compensate you with ten fat goats.”
A’qing clapped her hands together and laughed, “You have a big lawn? Good, but I don’t want any goat from you. You didn’t kill this goat.” She knelt to the ground and petted the dead goat. Then she said sadly, “Old White, bad man killed you. I can’t save you this time.”
Fan Li ordered his guard, “Sew the body back together and bury it next to this lady’s house.”
A’qing stood up. Her face was stained by tears, but her eyes was happy. “Fan Li, you won’t let them eat Old White?”
Fan Li said, “Of course not. That’s your Old White. No one is permitted to eat him.”
A’qing sighed, “You are nice. I always hate to let other people kill my goats so they can eat the meat, but mother said that unless we sell our goat, we will not have money for rice.”
Fan Li said, “From today on, I will ask people to send your mother rice and good clothes. You don’t have to sell your goats anymore.”
A’qing became happy and embraced Fan Li, “You are a good man.”
Fan Li held her hand, afraid that she might disappear like some immortal from legend. The goats followed them back to his mansion.
As A’qing herded her goats into the mansion she said, “Your house is so large! How can you live here alone?”
Fan Li smiled, “Yes, I think this house is too big for me. Why don’t you come live here with your mother? Who else do you have in your family?”
A’qing said, “Just me and my mom. I don’t know if my mom wants to come. She always says that I shouldn’t talk to strange man, but you are a good man. You won’t harm us.”
Fan Li told A’qing to leave the goats in the garden and ordered his servants to pick out the best snacks for A’qing. The servants watched in shock as the goats devoured the expensive flowers in the garden. They were even more shocked when they observed their master watching the destruction with a happy smile. A’qing ate the pastries and drank the tea. Fan Li talked with and discovered that she’s innocent of the intrigues of the world. Finally he asked, “A’qing, who taught you sword skills?”
A’qing’s large, clear eyes opened wider and said, “Sword skill? No one ever taught me anything.”
Fan Li said, “The way you used that bamboo stick. That’s sword skill. Who taught that?”
A’qing shook her head, “No one. I always knew how to play with the bamboo stick.”
Fan Li saw that she was too innocent to lie and thought, “Did heaven finally send down a miracle?” He asked again, “Do you know how to play with this bamboo since you’re a child?”
A’qing said, “No. When I was thirteen, Grandpa White came to ride my goats. I wouldn’t let him and beat him off with my bamboo stick. He returned with a bamboo stick. I then fought with him. At first, he always score hits on me and I can’t score hits on him. I play this everyday. Now, I score hits on him most of the time and he can’t score hits on me. He isn’t coming back as often now.”
Fan Li thought he finally hit something and said, “Where does this Grandpa White live? Can you take me to him?”
A’qing said, “He lives in the mountains. You can’t find him. He usually comes and find me. I never tried to find him.”
Fan Li said, “I want to meet him. Is there a way?”
A’qing said, “Hmm. You can follow me to pasture. We will wait for him on the mountain side. I don’t know when he’ll show though.” She sighed, “I haven’t seen him for a while now.”
Fan Li said to himself, “This is for Yiguang and the kingdom of Yue. A little goat herding won’t hurt.” So he said, “Good, I’ll accompany you and wait for Grandpa White.” He thought, “Grandpa White must be the sword sage who taught this girl. He must have loved her youth and innocence, so he used play to teach her. He could make a young girl into the such a great master, then he could make our warriors destroy Wu.
After the meal, Fan Li followed her to mountain pastures to her goats. His subordinates didn’t understand the reason. They were all baffled. Day after day, Fan Li went with A’qing to herd goat and sang songs, waiting for Grandpa White.
On the fifth day, Wen Zhong came to Fan Li’s mansion and saw a very worried chamberlain. He asked, “I haven’t seen Minister Fan Li for a few days now. The King is worried and ordered to me to visit. Did Minister Fan Li come down sick?”
The chamberlain said, “Minister Fan Li is healthy, but… but..”
“Minister Wen is the best friend of Minister Fan Li. You can say things to him that are not appropriate for us to say. Why don’t you try to talk some sense into him?”
Wen Zhong was baffled, “Sense? What’s wrong with Minister Fan Li?”
“Minister Fan Li fell love with that little shepherdess. Every morning he leaves with her and don’t return until after sundown. He won’t permit any guards following him. He will not be bothered even when I have urgent affairs.”
Wen Zhong laughed and thought, “When Brother Fan Li was living in the kingdom of Chu, everyone called him Fan Li the Crazy. He never does things like other people.”
At that time, Fan Li was sitting on a mountain side grassland and telling A’qing the story of the goddess Consort Xiang. A’qing was sitting close by his side and listened to him intent, her large bright eyese never left his face. Suddenly she said, “Consort Xiang is really that beautiful?”
Fan Li said, “Her eyes are clearer and brighter than the water in this mountain stream…”
A’qing said, “Does she have fish in her eyes?”
Fan Li continued, “Her skin is like the clouds, but fairer.”
A’qing said, “Are there birds flying in those clouds?”
Fan Li continued obliviously, “Her lips are softer than the petal of this flower and redder. Her lips are moist, even more than the dews on this petal. When Consort Xiang stands next to the river, the beauty of her reflection made all the riverside flowers wilt in shame. Even fish dare not swim in water for fear of rumpling her reflection. When her white hand is dipped into the river, it was so soft that it could almost melt into the water…”
A’qing said, “You saw her, didn’t you. How else can you describe her so clearly?”
Fan Li said, “I saw her. I saw her very, very clearly.”
Of course, he was referring to Xi Shi, not the goddess Consort Xiang.
He looked at the north. His eyes looked beyond a wide, roaring river. Is the beauty in the royal palace of Wu. Is she with King Fuchai? Is she thinking about me?
A’qing said, “Fan Li! Your beard is strange, can I touch it?”
Fan Li thought, “Is she weeping, or laughing?”
A’qing said, “Fan Li, you have two strands of white beard, just like my goats.”
Fan Li thought, “When we’re separated, she wept on my shoulder. Her tear soaked half of my robe. I never washed that robe. My tears were mingled with hers on that robe.”
A’qing said, “Fan Li. Can I pull out one of your beard? I will pull gently. You won’t feel a thing.”
Fan Li thought, “She said she loved riding in a boat and float with the currents. After I take her back, I will not be a court minister anymore. I will ride a boat with her, floating in rivers and lakes, for the rest of my life.”
Suddenly, he felt a sharp pain on his chin. A’qing pulled out a strand of his beard. She laughed prettily. Suddenly the laugh was cut off and she said, “You’re here again!”
A green shadow flashed as A’qing shot forward. A green blur and a white blur was moving quickly around each other.
Fan Li cried gladly, “Grandpa White’s here!” It’s a while before the two combatants slowed down enough for him to get a good look. Then he got a great surprise.
The one fighting A’qing wasn’t human. It was a white ape.
The white ape, too, was holding a bamboo stick. The white ape performed intricate sword forms. The whooshing sound of the stick signalled the great strength it put into each form. But every time he attack, A’qing was always able to block or redirect each blow and counter attack using even more intricate sword forms.
When A’qing fought the Wu swordsmen, the forms she used were minimal. Only now Fan Li witnessed the vast skill A’qing wielded. He was no expert in swords, but he had looked at the Yue swordsmen train for many years. Now, he realised that the best swordsmen of Yue were but children playing with toys when compared to A’qing and Grandpa.
The white ape’s attacks sped up faster and faster. A’qing slowed down instead. She stood still, but each time she thrust with her bamboo stick, the white ape was forced to jump back.
A’qing forced the white ape three steps, then she pulled back her stick and stood still. The white ape held his stick in two hands and jumped to attack. Fan Li saw the strength of the attack and cried out, “Watch out!” A’qing’s stick moved too fast to be seen. There were two muffled sounds of impact, then the white ape’s bamboo stick dropped to the ground. The white ape howled and jumped up to a tree. Then it leaped away. The howl was intense, but became muter as the it went farther away. The howl reverberated long after the white ape was gone.
A’qing turned back and sighed, “Grandpa broke both of his arms. Now he won’t come play with me anymore.”
Fan Li said, “You broke his arms?”
A’qing nodded, “Grandpa is very angry today. Three times, he tried to leap over and kill you.”
Fan Li said in surprise, “Kill me? Why?”
A’qing shook her head, “I don’t know.”
Fan Li became scared in secret, “If A’qing didn’t stop it, that white ape can kill me, easy as blowing away a pile of ash!”
The next morning, A’qing faced twenty of the best swordsmen of Yue alone. Fan Li knew that A’qing could not teach other people how to use the sword the way she did, so the only way was for the Yue swordsmen to imitate her.
The problem was no Yue swordsmen could last three passes from her. Whenever A’qing’s bamboo stick moved, her opponent either lost his sword, or got stabbed in some delicate area.
The next day, she defeated thirty swordsmen. The third day, thirty more lost.
The fourth day, Fan Li went to ask her for another lesson, but he could not find her. He went to her home, but the house was empty. Fan Li sent hundreds of his servants and guards into the mountains to look for her, but no one could find any trace of her.
The eighty Yue swordsmen didn’t learn the true sword skill from A’qing, but they saw the smallest portion of the ultimate sword skill. All the swordsmen now knew the true height sword skill could go. The eighty swordsmen tried to teach the small portion they could understand to their comrades. Even this pale shadow of a pale shadow of the ultimate skill was enough, Yue swordsmen became invincible.
King Goujian ordered Xue Zhu to forge thousands of sharp swords.
Three years later, Goujian attacked Wu. The armies of Yue and Wu met next to a lake. Five thousand Yue swordsmen marched forward. Wu swordsmen met them. Yue swords flashed and the Wu army was shattered.
King Fuchai retreated to Yu Hong Mountain. The army of Yue followed. The second battle ensued. The Wu army was again defeated. Fuchai committed suicide in order to avoid the cruel fate Goujian had in store for him. Yue took the capital of Wu.
Fan Li led one thousand swordsmen and rushed to King Fuchai’s resort palace. That was where Xi Shi lived. He ran into the palace, shouting, “Yiguang! Yiguang!”
He ran past a long corridor, his footstep echoed clearly. The corridor was hollow underneath. Xi Shi walked lightly, the rhythm of her steps was more enchanting than any music. Fuchai built this palace, this corridor in order to listen to the melody of her footsteps.
At the other end of the corridor, music came, like the sound of a happy mandolin, like the clear sound of a zither. A soft voice said, “Shao Bo, is that really you?”
Fan Li felt blood rushing upward from his chest and shouted, “It’s me. It’s me. I have come for you.” His own voice seemed like the voice of a stranger, speaking from far away. He ran forward with uneven steps.
The music came down the corridor, a soft body entered his embrace.
The spring night was meltingly warm. Flower fragrance floated through the curtains, entering the chambers of the resort palace. Fan Li and Xi Shi talked about their longing for each other.
Suddenly the sound goat penetrated into their awareness.
Fan Li said, “You can’t forget you homeland? You have goats here?”
Xi Shi shook her head. She wondered about the goats, but she couldn’t think of anything else in the presence of the man she loved. She held Fan Li’s hand, and fiery blood flowed faster through their arteries.
Suddenly, the voice of a woman sounded, “Fan Li! Bring out you Xi Shi. I’ll kill her!”
Fan Li stood up. Xi Shi felt his palm suddenly turning cold. Fan Li recognized A’qing’s voice. Her voice came from outside of the resort palace.
Fan Li was fearful and puzzled. “Why does she want to kill Yiguang? Yiguang had never wronged her.” Then he understood, “She’s not really a simple village girl. She always liked me.” The understanding only made him more fearful.
He had gone through many, many difficult decisions as well as dangerous situations. The fear he felt when he was trapped with Goujian in a Wu siege was far less than what he felt now. Xi Shi felt his palm trembling and covered with cold sweat.
Fan Li was not afraid of his own death. He feared for Xi Shi.
Fan Li pulled himself under control and said, “I will go see this person.” He released Xi Shi’s hand and walked out of the palace.
Eighteen swordsmen followed him. They all heard A’qing’s cry. They were baffled and curious. Fan Li only saw the clear moonlight outside, but no one was visible. He cried out loudly, “Lady A’qing, please come here. We have things to talk about.” But he heard no reply. He waited, but A’qing did not come. He ordered one thousand armored soldiers and one thousand elite swordsmen to be moved to the resort palace.
He returned to Xi Shi and held her hands again. He didn’t say anything. He was planning as he never planned before, “Should I let one of the servant maids pretending to be Xi Shi and let A’qing kill her? Should I commit suicide before A’qing so she will spare Xi Shi? Should I order two thousand archers surrounding this place and shoot A’qing full of arrows if she tries to force her way in?” Every plan he had was flawed. He also didn’t want to kill A’qing, who had made the destruction of Wu possible. He stared at Xi Shi. Suddenly he felt warmth in his heart, “It’s good that we’ll die this way. At least we spend sometime together before we die together.”
Hours passed. Xi Shi felt that Fan Li’s hand became warmer. He lost his fear and began to smile.
The rising sun cast its rays through the window.
Suddenly the the sound of a fight came from outside the palace door. Then the incessant sound of weapons dropping to the ground. The sound drew closer and closer, like a giant serpent worming its way into the palace. Then the sound of dropping weapons came from the walkways just outside the room they were in. Two thousand warriors were not enough to stop A’qing.
A’qing’s voice said, “Fan Li, where are you?”
Fan Li said calmly, “A’qing, I’m here.”
Before he even finished the word, “here”, the curtain parted and a green shadow came flying in. A’qing, dressed in her usual green stood before them. She pointed her bamboo stick at Xi Shi. She stared at the face of Xi Shi, the killing rage on face gradually disappeared, replaced with disappointment and self-pity, then it changed to surprise, admiration and finally worship. She whispered, “There… there really is such beauty under heaven! Fan Li, she is even more… more beautiful than you described.” Her slender waist turned. With a cry, she flew up through the window. The cry went farther and farther until its reverberation was left.
The surviving guards ran inside the room. One of them bowed, “Minister, are you all right?” Fan Li merely dismissed them with a wave of his hand. Then he held Xi Shi’s hand and said, “Let’s change into the clothes of commoners. We’ll go rowing a boat upon Lake Tai and never return to this place.”
Happiness shone from Xi Shi’s eyes. Suddenly she frowned and she reached toward her heart. A’qing’s bamboo stick didn’t touch her, but the pure chi from the stick had reached into her body and did her some slight harm.
In the next two thousand years, all people know that the most beautiful image in the world was Xi Shi holding her hands in front of her bosom.
Where are they now?
King Goujian finally got his vengeance, but something had happened to him during all those years when the only emotion he could feel was hate. Fan Li must have sensed it. He resigned his post and told his buddy Wen Zhong to resign with him. He said, “Goujian is someone who you can depend on during hard times, but it will be impossible to share good times with him.” Wen Zhong didn’t believe his old friend. He believed that he could finally enjoy the rewards he deserved.
Fan Li disappeared from history. Some said that he became a hermit. Some said that he became a merchant prince who owned the wealth of kingdoms. Xi Shi became the Chinese version of Helen, the beauty who destroyed a great kingdom. Some said that Xi Shi went with Fan Li and they lived happily ever after. Some said that Xi Shi died when Goujian’s wife, fearing losing her husband, tied a rock to the woman’s back and sank her in a lake, gloating, “Now, you never have to grow old.” You can pick the ending you prefer.
Goujian became as Fan Li predicted, cruel and merciless. Wen Zhong was forced to commit suicide when he was wrongfully charged with treason. The end he inflicted upon Wu Zhixu became his own end. Goujian became full of pride. He made war with the great powers of northern China. The wars brought no decisive victory. Then he died. After his death his kingdom fell apart. Eventually, Chu absorbed the territories of Wu and Yue. The Yue people fled south. Over the centuries, they were pushed farther south by the expanding Chinese empire until they entered present day Vietnam. They are there still.
Recently, an archaeological excavation in Hunan uncovered two bronze swords. One of them was thought to be the sword of Fuchai. The other was attributed to be the sword owned by Goujian. The legends of the precious swords have some basis in fact. If anyone know more about the archaeological findings, please e-mail me. The swords Fish Intestine and Defeater of Evil were buried with King Helu, Fuchai’s father. The locals swore that they periodically saw a white tiger standing upon the tomb of Helu. The white tiger was the symbol of metal, so the locals believe that the tiger was the personification of the magic swords under there. Believe it or not.
As for the Yue Maiden, she never existed in real history. She always existed in the land of legends and there, presumably, she roams still. Doubtlessly she has performed many great deeds there, deeds which will remain unknown until some scribe comes and tell the tales as they deserve to be told.