Chapter 16: Why should I waste my breath?
With Yan Wushi’s presence, they no longer needed to take the official roads which were safer. In order to take a shortcut, instead of passing through Chang’an, Yan Wushi went straight down south to Luo Prefecture, then went toward Yu and Sui Prefectures from there.
This road shortened the distance a lot, but because these places were close to the border between Qi and Zhou, they were not very peaceful. Since the disasters at the end of last year, lands that were affected by the drought expanded for thousands of miles, and every place was filled with refugees rushing toward nearby ration storages. Yan Wushi didn’t need to ride a carriage, so he didn’t even rent one. He simply walked ahead by himself, with much of an attitude of ‘If you can follow up, then you should, if you can’t, you still have to’.
They traveled like this for several days, with one person following the other. As they were about to enter the capital of Xiang Prefecture, they met another group of refugees outside of the city.
These people were originally from Guang Prefecture. Because of the famine there, they had to trudge through thousands of miles to the more affluent Xiang Prefecture. However, who would have thought that not only did the Regional Inspector here refuse to open the city gate for them, he even ordered the soldiers to be strictly on guard, not allowing even one refugee into the city.
The refugees didn’t have the strength to try their luck at the next place, so they had to stop and settle on the spot — practically waiting for their slow deaths.
From the perspective of the regional government, it was totally understandable that the Regional Inspector of Xiang Prefecture would do so because the amount of food in a city was limited. If he let the refugees in, then he had to be responsible for settling them down. But these people should have been under the jurisdiction of other regions. By doing so, it would only add more pressure to his own Xiang Prefecture. Locals would end up being implicated the day that Xiang Prefecture no longer had enough food. Nowadays, the emperor of Qi, Gao Wei, was busy seeking pleasure and not in the mood to manage national affairs. Before the food allocated by the Imperial Court could reach its destination, it was already exhausted through layers of exploitation. Even if the Regional Inspector of Xiang Prefecture were to accept all of these refugees into the city, he would not get any reward or commendation from the Imperial Court
Xiang Prefecture was already very close to Mount Xuandu. If one traveled southwest for a few more days from here, they would arrive at Mount Xuandu that was located next to Mian Prefecture.
The closer they were to Mount Xuandu, the better Yan Wushi’s mood seemed to become.
He even slowed down his pace to wait for Shen Qiao to catch up while getting quite interested in pointing out the local sights and cultures to him. At first glance, people who weren’t aware of their relationship would probably think that they were a pair of old friends traveling together.
He told Shen Qiao, “In the Warring States period, Xiang Prefecture belonged to Chu, therefore it has kept a lot of Chu culture. The place could be regarded as a populous and affluent land, but unfortunately, Gao Wei wasn’t in the mood to operate it. The Gao family’s several generations of meticulous care would probably decline in his hands.”
Yan Wushi obviously didn’t have any respect for the emperor of Qi; he addressed him directly by name the moment he opened his mouth.
Shen Qiao squinted his eyes. He vaguely saw a lot of people gathering outside of the city — most of which were elders, children, and women. Fortunately, the weather was not very hot yet. Otherwise, there would probably be a large outbreak of pestilence because of it. He couldn’t help but shake his heads and sighed, “So many hardships in a peasant’s life!”
Yan Wushi commented indifferently, “In fact, these scenes can be found in other countries as well. Since the uprising of the five barbarians at the end of the Western Jin Dynasty, all parties have been engaging in power struggles, with countless bloodshed and lives thrown into them already. This kind of famine appears every year, especially around the borders. In order to avoid responsibility and divert the pressure, each country is rather eager to push refugees to other countries. When a prosperous year comes by, they would then declare wars and annex the cities of neighboring countries. Mutiny occurs frequently within countries, and political powers alternate easily, changing the country’s official name  every few years. Then of course, no one really puts their thoughts into ruling a country, and Northern Qi is just more so compared to others.”
Shen Qiao replied, “But I heard that Sect Master Yan holds some kind of high official position in Northern Zhou and their emperor relies heavily on you. I suppose in your heart, you must think that Northern Zhou is more likely to unify the world?”
With his hands clasped behind his back, Yan Wushi slowly said, “There is never much to choose from among the emperors, whether it is the wise ones or the incapable ones. The only difference is that some are able to restrain their desires while the others either can’t or don’t want to. Even though Yuwen Yong is addicted to war and killing, he banned both Buddhism and Daoism and is not fond of Confucianism either. He leans toward none of the parties, so there aren’t many choices left for him. I also need his help to unify the three sects. The Yuwen family has settled in the Central Plains for many years. Even though their ancestors were the Xianbei people, they were sinicized long ago. All of the systems in the Zhou Dynasty are the same as the Han systems . As an emperor, he’s not necessarily inferior to the one in Southern Chen.”
After so many days, based on hearsay, Shen Qiao more or less had a general understanding of the powers in this world.
Zen Master Xueting who tried to stop Yan Wushi that night at Beyond Cloud Monastery used to be a supporter of Northern Zhou as well. But he was supporting the ex-regent emperor, Yuwen Hu, instead of its current emperor, Yuwen Yong.
Zen Master Xueting was once a disciple of the Tiantai Sect. He was the martial brother of Tiantai Sect’s current Sect Master, Fayi. However, the original position of the Tiantai Sect itself leaned more toward Southern Chen. This matter was related to the internal turmoil within the Tiantai Sect, and narrating it would lead to another lengthy story.
After Yuwen Yong reclaimed the power that should have been his in the first place, in order to remove the remnants of Yuwen Hu’s influence, it was impossible that he would continue to put the Buddhist school in an important position. Therefore nowadays, Xueting and his disciples were actually in somewhat of an awkward position in Northern Zhou. They did not completely lose their status, but as long as Yuwen Yong was on the throne, Zen Master Xueting would not be able to reclaim his past honor and glory.
For Yuwen Yong, the Three Schools each had their own demands. Once involved with them, his own administration would inevitably bring about the color of one of the schools. This was something that he, an emperor with a strong sense of autonomy, detested to see. In comparison, even though the Cleansing Moon Sect also had their own objective, they were obviously a better partner to work with than the others; they would neither require Yuwen Yong to promote a certain school’s doctrine nor influence his way of thinking.
The two of them talked as they walked toward the city gate.
Ordinary people or traveling merchants often needed to find companions to travel together with to guard against harassment from the refugees. It would be the best to have a male guard with the group, because extremely starved refugees had the capability to turn into bandits. When they realized that begging was no use, they would then start to rob. In the most desperate situations, if a good-looking woman or child fell into the refugees’ hands, not only would they lose their chastity, they could even end up in pots as meat stew.
Under such a circumstance, Yan Wushi and Shen Qiao became a quite peculiar and conspicuous combination.
One of them was empty-handed while the other supported himself with a bamboo stick, appearing to have just recovered from a serious illness. They didn’t look like ordinary travelers no matter what.
From time to time, there would be refugees on the sides staring at them with yearning looks. One could tell from a glance that Yan Wushi was not someone to be trifled with. The refugees didn’t dare to walk up to him to beg for favors, so they could only turn to the seemingly mild and easygoing Shen Qiao.
Among them were a husband and a wife, dragging three to four kids as they walked along the road. They were practically nothing but bones, and one could hardly tell if they were still human. They seemed more like puppets or zombies — even their expressions looked dead. The oldest child was but six or seven years old, and the youngest one was at most two or three. She was tottering, but her parents had no strength to carry her. Hence, she only grabbed the corner of her mother’s clothes and followed after, shaking as she walked.
If the situation were to continue like this, the youngest child would ultimately be the first one to be traded for children from other families to increase her parents’ rations. Or perhaps she would be cooked and eaten by her parents directly. For people living in wartime, when the most desperate circumstances arose, even blood relations and familial love could be put aside for the sake of survival.
Seeing Shen Qiao pass by, the couple knelt down right away to beg him for some food. Shen Qiao thought for a moment, then fumbled around his bosom. He took out a pancake  wrapped in oil-paper and handed it to the youngest child.
The couple went into rapture. They kowtowed and thanked him again and again. The husband seized the pancake directly from the kid and immediately took a big bite. Seeing his wife and children all staring eagerly at him, after a long period of hesitation, he finally broke off a small piece and reluctantly gave it to his wife.
The wife didn’t eat the pancake herself after taking it. Instead, she broke it into a few pieces with utmost care and cautiousness, as if she was holding some kind of treasure, before distributing them to the kids.
The pancake was not big and was wolfed down after a few gulps. Other refugees on the side were envious after seeing it. They all glared covetously at Shen Qiao.
The husband begged Shen Qiao, “The children have been starving for many days. Could this noble sir please grant us one more cake so that they can make it to the city!”
But Shen Qiao refused, “I’m not rich either. I only brought two with me. After giving one to you, I have to keep one for myself too.”
After he heard that Shen Qiao still had food on him, the husband’s expression changed at once. As he saw that there were no lights in Shen Qiao’s eyes and how he had to support himself with a bamboo stick, a wicked thought sprouted from the husband’s heart. He threw himself at Shen Qiao.
Who would have thought that before he could touch the other person’s sleeve, he would already be flying toward the opposite direction — he fell hard onto the ground, letting out a miserable shriek.
As for Shen Qiao, he still appeared utterly sick and weak just like before. One would not be able to tell at all that he had just sent someone flying.
Apparently he never expected his momentary altruism to lead to such a result. He looked at the man’s wife and children. They had already huddled together into a lump out of fear.
After witnessing this scene, the other restless refugees naturally didn’t dare to act so rashly.
The man struggled to get on his feet. He didn’t beg for mercy but cursed back instead: “If you can beat me to death, then do it! People like you are the most hypocritical. You just want to exchange our kowtows and gratitude with charity, isn’t that right? Then why don’t you save us all the way to the end? You clearly have one more cake, why don’t you take it out then?! If you don’t want to then just don’t start it! Letting us taste sweetness but not making us full — how is it different from killing us?!”
Shen Qiao sighed. He shook his head, turned around, and left without a word.
All this time, Yan Wushi had been standing at a place neither too far nor too close to him, watching with cold eyes and his hands clasped behind his back. He did not interfere or leave. It was like he was waiting for Shen Qiao with a faint smile on his face.
Because of the skill that Shen Qiao had just revealed, even though the others knew there was food on him, they could only helplessly watch him leave.
Yan Wushi waited until he walked closer before saying, “‘A cup of rice is kindness, but a picul of rice leads to enmity.’  Have you heard of this saying before?”
Shen Qiao sighed, “That was reckless of me. There are lots of people who are suffering. It’s impossible for me to save all of them by myself.”
Yan Wushi satirized, “Even their father doesn’t care about his children’s lives anymore, but you actually went to help him take care of them. Sect Leader Shen sure has a heart for great love , but unfortunately, human nature and desires are a bottomless pit that can never be filled. He’ll never understand your kindness. If you hadn’t been able to defend yourself today, you might have been cooked into meat stew already.”
Shen Qiao thought about it seriously: “If I hadn’t been able to defend myself today, I wouldn’t have chosen this path. I would rather take a detour and walk a little farther just to avoid places with refugees. It’s human nature to seek advantages and avoid disadvantages. I’m not a saint, and therefore I am no exception. It’s just that I cannot find it in my heart to see people suffering.”
He chose what was good and held fast to it, while Yan Wushi believed that humans were inherently bad. They could not come to an agreement since their beliefs differed right from the get-go. It was true that Yan Wushi could have killed Shen Qiao in terms of martial strength, but even if he were to clutch Shen Qiao’s neck, he could not have changed Shen Qiao’s way of thinking.
With this little episode, the tense atmosphere between them which had finally quieted down had now fully returned.
A small, weak voice came from behind.
Shen Qiao turned around, but all he saw was a vague figure. It was petite and short — a figure that probably belonged to a child.
The child ran up and knelt before him, kowtowing three times earnestly, “Mister, thank you so much for granting us the cake. Dad was rude to you, I, I could only give you a kowtow! A great person like you must be generous as well. Please don’t mind him!”
How could he fuss about it with a child? Shen Qiao let out a sigh, then stepped forward to help him up. “I didn’t take it to heart. I heard that it’ll be Buddha’s birthday in a few days. People in the capital of Xiang Prefecture worship the Buddha. At that time, they will set up charity booths to give out congee, and they will also let a certain amount of refugees into the city. You still have a slim chance at survival.”
The boy’s eyes brightened. He kowtowed repeatedly, “Thank you for telling me, Mister. If there’s a chance in the future, I’ll definitely repay you. I’ll set up a longevity tablet  for you!”
Shen Qiao patted his head and gently replied, “There’s no need for those. You take good care of your mother and your younger siblings.”
The boy nodded vigorously. Then he whispered, “You may rest assured. Actually, I didn’t eat the cake Mom gave me. I secretly passed it to my little sister!”
Shen Qiao felt sad listening to him and sighed internally at how thoughtful the boy was. After thinking about it a little, he still decided to feel around his bosom and take out the last pancake. He handed it over to the boy. “Take this back to eat. Don’t let you father find out again.”
The child was malnourished and sickly from starvation, but with a strength that came out of nowhere, he refused to accept it no matter what. In the end, Shen Qiao had to force it into his hand. “If you continue to refuse, there will be more trouble when other people see it.”
By then the boy had no choice but to accept it. He then knelt down and kowtowed to Shen Qiao again, insisting, “Mister, please tell me your name!”
“My name is Shen Qiao.”
“Shen Qiao…” The child repeated it a couple times. He probably had mistaken the word “Qiao” as some other word with other meanings, but Shen Qiao didn’t specifically emphasize or correct him.
The boy left, looking back several times after each step.
Yan Wushi said, “It’s getting late, let’s enter the city soon.”
Shen Qiao was actually a bit surprised to see Yan Wushi not satirizing him this time. He laughed, “You don’t have anything to say?”
Yan Wushi replied coldly, “A certain someone just likes to do stupid things and won’t listen even if I tell him. Why should I waste my breath then?”
Shen Qiao simply smiled as he touched his nose, but he didn’t comment a word.
It was true that there was a lot of malice in this world, but he didn’t want to deny the existence of goodwill and kindness just because of the malice.
Even for only this little bit of kindness, he felt it had been very worthwhile to trade the pancake for it.
 Change in a country’s official name: means a change in country’s ruler-ship.
 Han systems(汉制 han zhi): Han refers to Han Dynasty, which is considered the “legitimate” Chinese people back then. Han systems refer to the various systems used by the Han dynasty.
 Pancake (煎饼 jianbing): Here is a picture of what these look like.
 ‘A cup of rice is kindness, but a picul of rice leads to enmity.’/斗米恩升米仇: It means if you give people a small benefit, they will be thankful, but if you give them too much, they will become jealous and hate you.
 Great love (大爱 da ai): A universal love for everyone in the world.
 Longevity tablet (长生牌位 changsheng paiwei): spiritual tablets are usually placed to worship and remember the dead, but this kind is set up for a living person to pray and wish them a long life.