Sunday, 29 May 2016

"The old lady waving her hand" - The Foundation 1984 fanfiction

After two decades of separation, Emperor Taizong of Tang finally met his lively sister again. This fan-fiction was requested by Tamuyen Truong (Tammy), and thus is dedicated to her. The Foundation 1984 and its characters are the copyright of TVB Hong Kong, no copyright infringement intended. Romanisation is a mixed of Cantonese Yale and Pinyin. 

"When you see an old lady waving her hand at you..."



The old lady waving her hand



"I don’t know where I’ll go. I only know that I want to go to a place
where no one has been to. Maybe tens of years from now, when you visit
the poor and the peasants, if you see an old lady waving her hand at you,
that lady might be me. May I have forgiven you by then.

~Lok Wan."



"I will die soon, Sik Sik," the elderly man whispered. "Will I see you up there? Will you turn me down for what I've done to you? Will they put me in hell for what I've done to you?" The old man swallowed. "I still wish I didn't have to do what I did... I'm such a wretched soul...If I have to experience a similar death with yours to pay my debt to you, I will do that in a heartbeat. Anything that will cleanse my bloody hands and wretched soul..."

The elderly man would still be kneeling in front of the simple, yet well-kept, tomb had an old officer not approached him gently. "Majesty, shall we resume our journey?" 



Li Sai Man, also known as Emperor Taizong, looked up and nodded. "Of course, Li Jing, of course." He got up and started to walk away from the grave. Before leaving the grave area, he turned back and looked at the grave again. "I'll visit you again after my journey, Sik Sik. You wait for me, please..."

As he turned towards his carriage, he caught a glimpse of Li Jing's expression. The Emperor sighed as he saw regret on his counsellor's countenance. Regret had been the main theme that enveloped both men every time they visited Chun Sik Sik's grave. That was one of the reasons why Li Sai Man preferred to visit her alone, for he'd like to savour the old love between him and the loveliest woman in his life. But today he couldn't do that. He had to have Li Jing with him today, for they were going on his bimonthly visit to the rural areas, and this time they were going to the west, to Tang's westernmost province. The Emperor's health had been deteriorating lately, but he insisted upon this journey, hence Counsellor Li found it necessary that he tagged along.

The Emperor nodded to acknowledge his faithful counsellor as he entered his palanquin. They would have a long journey ahead of them, but luckily, the weather along the road to Sichuan was predicted to be fine.

-xxx-

The green Western mountains framed the last village of their long visit to the Song Prefecture. Li Jing exhaled as he let his lungs being filled with fresh village air. Peace that he rarely experienced at the Capital enveloped and claimed his heart, and he had no wish to fight it back.

Eight years ago, the region was almost wrecked in a war between the Tang and Tibet. Yet, peace reigned again as Li Sai Man secured a peace treaty with his Tibetan neighbours at the same year. Now the Imperial envoys could witness the fruit of goodwill between two countries in the smiles of their people and the smiles of the travellers that happened to pass by the municipality. Just two weeks ago, Li Sai Man received some Tibetan envoys in the prefecture capital town. The meeting was friendly; both parties ensured each other that peace was something they both preferred. Some trade agreements were made between the two nations, and for his part, Li Sai Man wanted to ensure that this trade agreement was a success. 

That was one of the reasons for them to visit this bucolic town. Perhaps ‘town’ was a exaggerated term for the Pear Village that served as the main trading and farming hub of the region. The region was hardly of any importance except for its tea produce, which happened to be one of the main goods Tang and Tibet had agreed upon. Despite having its own yak butter-infused tea called butter tea or po cha, Chinese tea drinking had been trending in the Capital Lhasa, hence the inclusion of white tea in the new list of agreed trade commodities. Blessed with the clear water from one of the upper sources of the Min River, the region had been modestly supplying the Tang Capital Chang’an with high quality tea for decades. Now it was time for the region to up the ante and establish itself in the trade map between Tang and Tibet.

At the moment, the Emperor was holding a discussion with tea planters from some villagers clustered in this remote municipality. As a ruler who always strived to achieve the balance between trusting his subordinates and fact verification, Li Sai Man wanted to ensure that this particular region truly had its potentials in fulfilling the new trade agreement. The reports from the Agricultural Minister certainly said so, but Li Sai Man prided himself for his thorough examination of any affairs. This visit was of no exception.

Now, Counsellor Li Jing found himself observing the Emperor from a respectful distance without sacrificing the possible need of defending his ruler from an unlikely event of attack. Li Jing had downgraded the security level around the Emperor after the trade agreement was reached, for clearly Tibet and Tang were at the same level of understanding these days, and both nations wanted peace more than anything else. Tea was but one of the token of peace, but it should be regarded seriously, as was anything concerning Li Sai Man's interest. 

One of his ruler's interest is to have unobstructed communication with his subjects. Li Sai Man had long ago expressed his wish that any discussions with his people should be encouraged, particularly during such a field visit. Here, Li Sai Man could resemble someone he used to be before he became Emperor Taizong: just a person, happened to be a royalty, who cared about people. Li Jing respected that particular part of Li Sai Man; hence him staying a bit away from the crowd. Also, Li Jing realised that he looked more like a general than a counsellor. His presence had been, in several occasions, caused discomfort among farmers who wanted to share their woes and concerns with the Emperor. Thus here he was; standing a respected distance from his emperor, observing gratefully how Li Sai Man leaned forward to listen to one of the farmers. They had just finished a discussion on the strategy to stabilise the tea price (the Agricultural Ministry would purchase the tea at an agreed price directly from the farmers to reduce price increase for consumers and provide fair price for producers). Now it was time to discuss another topic.

Li Jing smiled. Emperor Taizong was always like that. Attentive to everyone. Most importantly to his people. As he used to be to the love of his life; the fair lady who was no more. Or to his dearest sibling; Princess Lok Wan, whose whereabouts was a mystery to everyone, including the Emperor and his most skilful counsellor.

Li Jing still remembered the day when the newly appointed emperor returned from his walk in the middle of the night. Li Sai Man’s eyes were devoid of spirit, his body devoid of energy. Upon reading the crumpled letter from Lok Wan that the Emperor gave him, the Councillor realised what had happened. The throne had not just cost Li Sai Man the love of his life (Miss Sik Sik) and his best friend Kong Fung. The abstract concept called ‘power’ had cost Li Sai Man his beloved sister as well.

Li Jing sighed. It had been two decades ago, but he still regretted what he had done. He regretted it that Sai Man followed his suggestion to get rid of Miss Chun Sik Sik. He did wonder if there was truly no other way to obtain the throne than sacrificing the young and kind lady. Yet, they were making up for it. Li Sai Man was making up for it by being a good emperor. Perhaps the best emperor the Central Plains had ever had. 

Li Jing returned his attention to a tea farmer complaining about something. Li Sai Man, as always, was listening attentively.


-xxx-


"So Milord, I'm not sure how to solve this issue. We need more land for the tea plantation, but these two villages still refuses to cut down their upstream forests to make room for new tea plants! They are being so unreasonable. What to do?"

Li Sai Man nodded. He turned to one of his scribes who was busy writing up the tea farmer's words as verbatim as possible. Li Sai Man always had two scribes around him: one to record the verbatim conversations he had with people, and the other to record the general flow and conclusions of the conversations. He knew he'd have to review the transcripts himself later, particularly to see if he missed anything. But so far, he had obtained the gist of the problem easily. Li Sai Man lifted one of his eyebrows to see if the scribe had obtained all the details, for admittedly the tea picker was flooding him with words after words just now. 

The tea picker was telling Li Sai Man of the latest conflict in the region. Apparently, aware at the need of increasing the supply, tea farmers in the region had planned to clear more forests to increase production. Of the twelve or so villages in the region that contributed to the tea production, ten of them had agreed to the clearing plan. However, two villages remained persistent in refusing to clear up their forests. 

After the scribe confirmed that he'd recorded the conversation faithfully, Li Sai Man opened the session of rebuttal by inviting the tea farmers from the two defensive villages. One of the tea farmers did speak up. He said that his tea was of better qualities than the tea produced elsewhere where the forests had been cleared up. He realised the importance of meeting the demand, but must it be met by clearing up the forests that were useful to the villagers in general?

“The forests are used by many villagers, Milord,” he further explained. “Children picked forest fruits during the summer, while our grannies picked the herbs for medicine all year long. We can’t just clear up our forest just to support us tea growers. True that we provide a lot of income to the village, but money is not all there is...”

Money is not everything. Li Sai Man squirmed. The throne is not everything...

The Emperor sighed and returned his attention to the farmer. After the tea farmer finished his defence, Li Sai Man gave his scribe some time to finish the recording. Absentmindedly watching his scribe diligently writing, Li Sai Man massaged the bridge of his nose. He realised the merit of both arguments. He also knew that the problem was of not insignificant, and a solution was needed soon. Regardless of whether the tea from the village would be exported to Tibet or not, a grass-root level conflict like this cannot be ignored, for it could turn into something nasty one day. Yet, he couldn't intuitively see a way out at the moment. He sighed again. He was getting old. Perhaps he needed an hour of break before coming up with a good solution. It was of course acceptable for him to not coming up with a solution right away; he could bring it home to the capital and think of it later. But his experience had taught him that the solutions of any farming problems were best found in the region, and while he was there, surely he could come up with something? 

Or perhaps it was time for lunch already?

"Milord, if I may..."

The soft voice of an old lady brought him back to the present. Old lady... As if he wasn't old yet. Li Sai Man looked up to see an old lady, wrinkled was her skin, standing up timidly. In her hands was a tray of two tea pots and cups. 

"Yes?" said the Emperor.

"If I may, I'd like to present you with something to guide us all in our quest for a solution." The old lady was frail, but her voice was steady, now that she had been given access. Li Sai Man glanced at the tray she was carrying. The two tea pots intrigued him.

"With me, Your Highness, are two tea pots containing tea produced by two different plantations." As she spoke, she poured the content of one pot into a simple cup. She swirled the cup to wash it first, threw the water away, and then refilled it with the tea from the same pot. She then respectfully offered the tea cup to Li Sai Man. "Your Majesty, if you wish."

Li Sai Man took the cup. Instinctively, he then looked at Li Jing who had arrived next to him. Counsellor Li nodded and produced a silver needle. He tested the tea with the needle, satisfied that it wasn't poisoned, and offered the cup to his emperor. Li Sai Man inhaled the tea fragrance before slowly drank it. The tea was refreshing, as always the case of good tea. He nodded and returned the cup to the old lady. He had a hint of what she was doing, and he was gladly playing along. The old lady took the cup and then offered her emperor another cup of tea, from the second pot, with a different cup. After letting Li Jing test for possible (but unlikely) poison, Li Sai Man took the cup and inhaled the fragrance. He detected a subtle difference in the fragrance that told him that this tea was of a better quality than the first one. He continued to sip the tea, letting its golden water played in his mouth before swallowing it. His eyes lit in surprise. The tea was fresh and invigorating. It was as if heaven had descended upon him in the form of the tea, bringing him immense peace he'd been searching for.

"This tea..." The Emperor lost his words. "It's...very refreshing." He studied the simple cup as a thought appeared in his mind. "Was it prepared differently from the first one?"

The old lady bowed. "Milord is very perceptive. I boiled the second tea with the water from the spring way up at the mountain where the forests are still intact. The forests, as Milord surely understands, secure us with high quality clear water for drinking and farming.”

"So, you're saying, the water quality is important?"

The old lady bowed again. "Indeed, Milord."


-xxx-


Li Sai Man could almost feel the wet grass under his shoes. After a long day of meeting with the farmers, he had been savouring the walk he had this afternoon. They had finally agreed to have a zoning plan for the tea plantation and the forests and to leave the remaining forests intact. Some farmers have also suggested to plant trees in other tea plantations to make up for the cleared forests at those sites. The Emperor welcomed this idea and thus he had asked his minister of agriculture to set aside some funding for forest rehabilitation. 

Now, the tired but relieved Emperor was taking a time off before dinner to see the forested tea plantation. Counsellor Li Jing and several Imperial Guards walked a few steps behind him to give him privacy. Many tea farmers dotted the tea plantation, bowing in respect to the Emperor. He smiled and waved at them. Now he finally arrived at the forest that protected this particular tea plantation. Li Sai Man looked up to see the tall, grandeur trees covering him from the scorching hot summer sun. It was halfway between lunch and dinner now, but the sun was still rather unbearable. He could see why the villagers were adamant in protecting this forest.

“Your Majesty, would you like to take a rest?” Counsellor Li Jing gently asked him. At the Emperor’s consent, a short chair was placed under a large tree for the Emperor to sit. Sitting comfortably, Li Sai Man made a small chit-chat with some farmers that flocked around him, like a teacher would converse with his students.

The farmers, men and women, narrated how the trees had been protecting them from the sun as they rested from their hard work in the plantation. The trees also produced fruits that they could eat during break time or ‘if my wife’s cooking wasn’t particularly interesting that day’, said one farmer, which invited a wave of laughter. Amidst the laughter, one of the farmer women waved her right hand to the Emperor.

At first, Li Sai Man didn’t notice the farmer woman. He had many peasants randomly waving at him for no other reason than conveying their gratitude and fondness. In the past, this attitude of random (and unsolicited) waving would have been a breach of decorum, which might have brought the waver death if one of Li Sai Man’s brothers was the emperor. But Emperor Taizong had been known to relax decorum around the Palace in favour of to-the-point, honest conversations and constructive critiques. That attitude had also affected the way he interacted with his people. Li Sai Man favoured honest discussions, and that was why he was encouraged with the result of the morning discussion.

The farmer woman waved again. The Emperor blinked. Were his old eyes deceiving him? Despite wearing a simple earth-colour tunic, that lady looked like an older version of Li Lok Wan, his only sister, and also his beloved sibling. The Emperor shook his head slightly. It had always been like that. He’d go to the rural areas and talked with the villagers, then he saw an old lady slightly younger than him, and he’d thought of Lok Wan. He’d thought of her letter; of the possibility that she’d return to him once he’d proven that he was a good and kind ruler. Then of course, as always, the old lady turned out to be just another old farmer woman. Old, ordinary, farmer women, fisher women, or factory workers....Hard-working women, which made them very dear to him... but they were not Lok Wan. They were not his sister.

The Emperor coughed slightly before massaging his own chest. Counsellor Li Jing quickly approached him, asking if he needed to return to the camp for rest. Waving to dismiss his counsellor’s concern, Li Sai Man fleetingly remembered the words of his imperial doctor; that his days were numbered, particularly if he didn’t take care of his health. Would he not have the chance to see his long lost sister again before his final curtain?

The Emperor looked up at the crowd again. The old lady was still waving at him. That was a bit odd. For one, that seemed to be a bit of an over excitement. He got it that the villagers were often excited to see their emperor up close and personal, but the lady was waving like calling her relative or something. Even some farmers next to her started to look at her in a weird way. Also, there was something about this lady that seemed to be familiar. Unsure of himself, the Emperor waved back, half-expecting the woman to stop waving. But on the contrary, the woman actually slowly got up and approached him.

Confused, Li Sai Man looked around to see whether the woman was actually interacting with another farmer instead of with the Emperor of Tang. Yet, everyone else was also as confused as he was. Then, amidst the fading background of people gently reminding the old lady to behave herself (and duly ignored by the said lady), a flicker of recognition shone in the Emperor’s eyes.

Li Lok Wan. The stubborn, lively, cheerful sister of his. It was at least two decades ago that he last saw his sister, so the Lok Wan he remembered was the cheerful, youthful Lok Wan. Yet, the weary old lady looked slightly like her. Could it be her? Could it be his long-lost sister Lok Wan?

“Lok Wan...” Li Sai Man whispered, just enough for himself to hear it. Yet, perhaps through studying his lip movement, the old lady knew what he said. She smiled and nodded several times as she continued walking towards the Emperor.

“Lok Wan?” Emperor Taizong whispered again, loud enough his time that Li Jing noticed and looked towards the woman. A sharp inhalation from his Counsellor confirmed his suspicion. It was his sister, alright.

“Your Highness?” It wasn’t clear whether Li Jing was referring to Princess Lok Wan (if the woman was indeed her) or to the Emperor, but Taizong rose and took one step towards the woman. Yet, before he uttered that name again, the woman spoke first.

“Yi-gor.”

Second Brother. Uttered just the way his sister did, a life time ago.

“Sister...” he was too scared to say that, fearing that it was just a cruel joke. But then the woman spoke again.

“Yi-gor. Long time no see.”

Something within Li Sai Man broke as he tearfully ran towards his long-lost sister. Ignoring decorum, he embraced her in front of so many people.

“You’ve returned...” the brother whispered as tears streamed down his tired face.

“As you visit the old and the peasants,” crying, the sister replied.

“Just as you promised,” said the brother again, thanking Heaven that he could still see his sister before his time on Earth was over.


-xxx-


Early August 649

Princess Lok Wan kneeled in front of the double tombs in front of her. The first tomb on her right was an old yet properly maintained tomb. The one on the left was a new tomb. The tomb of her brother, Emperor Taizong. Or, just Li Sai Man, as inscribed on the tomb stone. Not many people remembered the personal name of the Emperor. Hence, no one would realise that the tomb was actually that of the Second Emperor of Tang.

Not many would suspect it either, for Emperor Taizong, also known as Wen Wu Dasheng Daguang Xiao Huangdi (文武大聖大廣孝皇帝), was known to be interred at the Zhao Mausoleum at the northeast Liquan County in Shaanxi Province, where the body of his loyal wife Empress Zhangsun was buried back in 636. Not many knew that, upon the Emperor’s own request, Lok Wan cut a portion of his hair and buried it here, next to the tomb of Chun Sik Sik, Li Sai Man’s first love.

Lok Wan lit the incense and bowed in front of the tombs. She then sat there for a while, contemplating the years that had gone by. At first, she felt a slight guilt of doing this; of duplicating his brother’s tomb. But it was his own request, and – knowing what had happened in the past – who was she to refuse his last request? Thus, here she was, almost a month after her brother’s passing, conducting a simple ceremony for him and Sik Sik.

Lok Wan and her brother had talked a lot after her return. She talked about her journey around the Empire where she, slowly but sure, saw evidence of her brother’s love for the people of Tang. He talked about his regrets, about his ever-lasting love for Sik Sik despite him eventually caring and loving the kind Empress Zhangsun as well. Sai Man told his sister that he was sick, that the doctors had predicted that he wouldn’t live long enough to see the fruit of his labour. That Li Sai Man managed to hold on for three years after meeting Lok Wan again was nothing short of a miracle. Both siblings attributed it to the joy that the Emperor felt after the reunion. Thus they enjoyed the three years of togetherness.

Of course when the Emperor died last month, just a week after the loyal Counsellor Li Jing’s death, Lok Wan was broken hearted. But she was still grateful that she had the three years’ chance to be with her brother. She was grateful that she had forgiven him after all her heart break, that she had been just at the right place at the right time that day at the Song Prefecture when Li Sai Man visited the tea plantations. She narrated the story of that day again when she held her brother’s cold hand in his final hours. He had smiled and thanked her for her forgiveness. Then he whispered, asking whether Sik Sik would deign to meet him in the afterlife. Lok Wan wasted no moment to say that she would have forgiven him by now. She doubted it, of course, for she wasn’t the lively peasant girl whose life was taken away by the love of her life for the throne. But she had hoped that Sik Sik had seen what Sai Man had been doing for the country, and thus had forgiven him for that. Lok Wan never regretted her white lie, for she saw how peaceful her brother was when he left his body.

“Yi-gor, I hope you’re happy here now. Sister Sik-Sik, if you can hear me, please take care of him. Please forgive him.”

She felt as if her nose caught a whiff of a perfume that Sik Sik used to wear. Lok Wan shivered. The cold wind blew from the ocean. Lok Wan looked at the cloudy sky. It might rain soon; she might need to pack and leave. Lok Wan turned to see her maid waiting at a respectful distance from the tomb. The maid had also noticed the changing weather and had prepared an umbrella. Lok Wan nodded. Good thing that the tombs were located so close to the Capital Chang’an, thus she could come as she pleased.

“Yi-gor, Sister Sik Sik, I need to go now. But I will come again soon to talk with you. I promise.”

Princess Li Lok Wan let her maid assisted her to the carriage. As the carriage left the place back to Chang’an, she turned once more to the double tombs. For a fleeting moment, she thought she saw her brother in his younger self holding hands with Chun Sik Sik.

Lok Wan smiled.


-xxx-

Author’s note:

Tammy, sorry the story took ages to finish, but hope you like it. Although you suggested for an earlier meeting (just a few years' separation) between LSM and LW, I thought two decades would be better, for the fruits of LSM's labour would be more obvious by then.

Again, the story of Li Sai Man and Chun Sik Sik is just a fiction. It’s true that perhaps once Li Sai Man did meet a young girl that he liked so much. But no record of this girl was ever known to us. Li Sai Man was instead a loyal husband to Empress Zhangsun, who was herself famous for being a virtuous wife and queen. Thus, honouring her and the real Li Sai Man, I still acknowledge their love here in this story. However, I still can’t help myself for making up the buried hair part, for I do love Michael Miu’s Li Sai Man and Barbara Yung’s Chun Sik Sik...

Just some Wiki facts: Li Sai Man’s reign started in 626; his wife the Empress Zhangsun died 10 years later. Emperor Taizong died on 10 July 649 (age 51), just eight days after Counsellor Li Jing’s death. Li Jing’s wife (Madame Li in the Foundation, played excellently by Lisa Lui) was actually called ‘the Lady with the Red Sleeves’ (Hong Fu Nu); she died in the year 640, nine years before Li Jing’s death. Hong Fu Nu or Zhang Chuchen was famous for her beauty, so at least TVB got that right.

I took the opening paragraph from my older cross-over fan-fiction (Karmic Connections) to make it more of a continuity.

2 comments:

Tofu said...

Hi. I usually don't like reading but maybe because I imagined it to be the original characters from the movie, it was able to keep me interested. I enjoyed your story. It brings a quite a bit nostalgia and a bit of heartache. Thank you for sharing your creativity.

Icha said...

Hi Tofu, thanks so much for reading this and sharing your comments. Yes, the reason that I don't do many MVs or fanfiction for the Foundation is because of the heartache. But I'm glad you like it..