Chapter 6: Three donkey meat burgers
More than two hundred years had passed since the Jin people’s migration to the South. After the uprising of the five barbarians, the territory distribution of the North gradually settled.
The two countries, Qi and Zhou, occupied the eastern and western regions respectively. The Emperor of Qi, Gao Wei, was a rather absurd man whose negligence in regard to national affairs caused Northern Qi to gradually decline in power, with refugees scattered around the country. While at the same time, Northern Zhou became more prosperous day by day under the leadership of its Emperor, Yuwen Yong, increasing its stability and affluence as well.
There was quite some distance from Funing District to the country of Zhou, with a lot of refugees along the way. If one were to set off on the road without being fully prepared, that would surely be the definition of “the heavens and earth answered to no prayers”.
Northern Qi had been experiencing a severe drought in the past year. There wasn’t much snow even during winter, extending the drought from the previous year to this year. Refugees could be seen everywhere along the road extending southwards from Ye City all the way to the border of Chen. It was said that in some places, people even started to exchange children to eat. After mulling it over in his mind, Shen Qiao felt that he would probably be the first to be captured and thrown into a pot if the situation were to ever turn cannibalistic, due to his poor eyesight and lack of fighting ability.
Since Funing District was located in the northern region and was relatively close to Ye City, there had been no severe disasters nearby and the situation was comparatively stable despite the lack of rain throughout the past year. The district town was quite big; the temple fair  was under way, making the town extremely lively with many people coming and going.
The two countries of Qi and Zhou were both located in the north, and Xianbei  customs prevailed in their early years. After a long period of time, the customs were gradually sinicized and as a result, their clothing and accessories incorporated Xianbei elements on top of the Han people’s sophisticated style. The upper-class nobility sought after elegant and exquisite attire, thus their clothes were often adorned with long ribbons on the side that would flutter in the wind and dangling pearls and jades that would rattle as one walked. This kind of pursuit had also influenced the masses, so members of wealthy families would also wear long dresses that reached the ground, while some others would wear hats and flowing dresses that mimicked foreign designs. During the course of the temple fair, this variety of patterns in clothing painted the picture of a “Little Capital” in this district town of Funing District.
The Duke Jiang Temple where the temple fair was held was built at a later time in respect to no one else but the Duke Tai, Jiang Shang . The original Duke Jiang Temple was in the southern part of the city. It was said to have been first built during the Han Dynasty, however, after the damages caused by warfare, it had completely fallen into disuse, left with nothing but a dilapidated shell, and even the statue of Duke Jiang was nowhere to be found. This empty, shabby temple then became a shelter for beggars and paupers.
Recently, a new member had joined the group of people living here, a man named Chen Gong.
In the daytime, he worked a temporary job at a rice shop in the city, loading and unloading rice sacks off carts and doing other manual labor of this sort. Since the wage was low, he was unwilling to spend all of it on rent, so he would return to this shabby temple at night—a life quite free and pleasant for him. The only thing was that there were two other beggars living in the temple, making it unsuitable as a long-term dwelling; he had to carry his money on him all the time and even watch his food, so that they would not be snatched away when he let his guard down.
When he returned that evening, he immediately noticed an extra person inside the shabby temple.
A man in a greyish-white robe was sitting there.
Chen Gong subconsciously frowned at first. The space in the shabby temple was rather limited. With one more person here, it was like another part of his territory would be taken away.
Then he noticed that the person had something wrapped in paper in his hands. He was eating from it slowly, one bite at a time, with his head lowered. A tasty smell wafted out from the paper wrap.
It was the enticing smell of donkey meat burgers. He could tell with a mere sniff. When his father was still alive, Chen Gong had eaten them a couple of times. But after his father passed away, his step-mother joined forces with her own children and cast him out of the house. As for the few coppers  he earned everyday from carrying rice sacks, he already hated how cutting them in half could not double their value, how could he afford to eat something like this?
At a second glance, Chen Gong saw another bulging paper wrap next to the person.
This meant that there was still one more donkey meat burger.
Chen Gong was not the only one who had noticed, the other two beggars appeared to as well, as one of them was already shouting, “Hey! Have you even asked us about living here? This temple is too small for so many people. Hurry up and get out!”
Chen Gong knew that they were picking a quarrel with him on purpose. Without saying anything, he walked straight to the spot where he usually slept and started to gather up the heap of straw, while his ears remained pricked and his gaze stayed fixated on the donkey meat burger out of the corner of his eyes.
The grey-robed man said gently, “I have nowhere to go either. Seeing as this place still had some space, I thought about coming in for a rest. If this brother could kindly do me a favor, I’d be deeply grateful.”
The beggar said, “If you want to take a rest here, that’s fine too. Just give us everything you’ve got!”
Chen Gong sneered disdainfully, “I don’t need your belongings. If you can pay me with food, I’ll be willing to keep those two off your case!”
The beggar was enraged, “Eldest Chen . We have done nothing to you, why can’t you just stay out of our way!”
Chen Gong was rather young. Being only sixteen, he did not have a very large stature, but his flexibility and endurance were outstanding, along with an almost cruel fortitude that was deeply rooted in the marrow of his bones. If not for these, he could not have gained the upper hand as a newcomer, seizing the largest “territory” within the temple.
“So what? Only you are allowed to talk, and I’m not?” Chen Gong replied lazily.
Even though the two were just beggars, the truth was that all of the beggars in the city had banded together while keeping in touch with one another. Counting on the fact that it was two against one, they figured that it might not be necessary for them to cower before Chen Gong.
The beggar did not bother with Chen Gong any further. Instead, he stood straight up and reached for the donkey meat burger by the grey-robed man. “Cut the crap! Just give me everything! You want to stay here? Well, it’s me, your Grandpa Lai, who gets to decide that!”
But before his hand could touch the food, someone had already grabbed him by the wrist. The beggar exploded with rage, “Eldest Chen! You’re poking your nose into other people’s business again! Is wanting to eat some food also getting under your feet?”
Chen Gong quickly picked up the donkey meat burger single-handedly. “I want to eat too. How come you didn’t ask me?”
Right after saying these words, he tore open the paper wrap and took a bite, then said triumphantly, “It’s my leftover already. Do you still want it?”
The beggar threw himself at Chen Gong, and the latter promptly tucked the paper wrap into his clothes. The two of them grappled with each other. The other beggar joined too, changing the two-person fight scene into a threesome. Chen Gong was neither more powerful nor any taller than the other two, but his secret to winning fights was that he fought at the cost of his life—in other words, very savagely.
After trampling ruthlessly onto the stomach of one of the beggars, Chen Gong clapped his hands. Then, with his hands on his hips, he spit, “I’ve had enough of you two, picking on me all the time just because you were here first! Don’t think that I never noticed you secretly spit in my food before! You want more fights? Then come on! I have nothing to lose anyway. If worst comes to worst, the only thing I have to lose is my life. Bring it on if you dare!”
This recklessness was exactly what his opponent was terrified of. After hearing Chen Gong’s words, he glanced at his companion who was still sprawled flat on the ground, unable to get up, and immediately chickened out. Supporting his waist with his hands, he turned around and ran away at once.
Seeing that his comrade had already escaped, the other beggar did not dare to continue the fight either. He covered his stomach with his hands and stood up with a stream of painful groans, then lamely fleeing with some threats such as “you dumbass, just wait for me!”
Chen Gong took out the donkey meat burger that he hadn’t finished eating from inside his clothes and took another bite, then said in perfect contentment, “Not bad! Did you buy this from Li’s Shop in the southern city? The meat is indeed chewy, and it’s still hot as well. It almost burned my chest!”
For the sake of this bite of donkey meat, he felt that everything about that fight just now was totally worth it. In any case, those two had been unpleasing to his eyes for a long time now. It would be great if he could have this place all to himself in the future just by seizing this opportunity that he happened to come across today.
Seeing that the grey-robed man was unresponsive, he asked again, “Hey! I was asking you a question. Are you dumb?”
The other person raised his head. “Since you fought them off, are you not afraid that they’ll come back for revenge?”
By this time, Chen Gong had finally realized that there seemed to be some problem with the other person’s eyes. There was a dull look within them, and as the man looked at him, it felt like his focus was somewhere else.
After his gaze shifted to the bamboo stick next to the person, it suddenly became clear to him: ‘So he was not dumb, but blind instead.’
With a click of his tongue, he snorted, “Afraid? I’ve never been afraid of anything! Just look at them! What can they be capable of?”
Chen Gong looked the grey-robed man up and down. He was wearing crude clothing, with nothing rare about the material nor the style; the only thing on him that was worthy of a glance was his face.
Frankly speaking, instead of a homeless person like him, the person resembled a traveling scholar more.
“What’s your name? You don’t look like someone in dire straits. Why did you come here then? Even rats aren’t willing to dig holes in this place!”
The grey-robed man nodded towards him with a smile, “My name is Shen Qiao. I ran out of money due to my sickness and was thus forced to come seek shelter in this place for a few days. I’ll head back home once I save up enough money for the journey. Thank you a lot for driving away those people for me just now. May I know how I should address you?”
What Yu Shengyan said was only a half truth, therefore he could not believe all of it. However, was it not for Mount Xuandu, Shen Qiao would have nowhere else to turn to. Hence, after thinking over it a few times, he still decided to first head to Mount Xuandu for a look.
Mount Xuandu was located at the border between Northern Zhou and Southern Chen. In order to get to it from here, there were two routes: one was heading all the way to the south and turning northeast after they entered the territory of Southern Chen, which was a very roundabout way, while the other was to travel directly south, which was closer and more convenient as well.
Shen Qiao chose the latter.
Although the world was in chaos, since Funing District had not experienced many disasters, it remained somewhat peaceful and affluent, a Pure Land that was hard to find in such a disordered world. Just like what Shen Qiao had said, he had no choice but to first straighten himself up a bit in this place due to the fact that he was now penniless.
His eyesight was recovering rather slowly, but at least there was some progress. During the daytime, when there was adequate amount of light, he could see some vague outlines. In comparison to the pitch-darkness back when he had just woken up, it was way better already.
Chen Gong sat down. “Whatever you like. My family name is Chen, and my given name is Gong. You can just call me Eldest Chen. I ate one of your donkey meat burgers just now, which can be considered your fee for staying here tonight. Since I also helped you drive those two away, including tomorrow’s share, you’d better give me a total of three donkey meat burgers tomorrow!”
Shen Qiao laughed, “Sure.”
Seeing how quickly he agreed, Chen Gong felt a bit suspicious, “Didn’t you say that you were out of money already? Then where do you get the money to buy donkey meat burgers?”
Shen Qiao replied, “I can always earn more!”
Chen Gong laughed at his words, “You? I’ve heard that scholars can be accountants or write letters for others, but how can you write when you can’t even see? Are you going to carry rice sacks like me? I’m telling you. Three donkey meat burgers, and not one short! Don’t you think that you can cheat your way out of this. Feel free to go and ask around, you’ll find that even though I, Eldest Chen, am good at nothing else, even demons would be terrified of me when it comes to fighting! If you can’t give me three burgers tomorrow, then just get out and eat the wind!”
Shen Qiao’s temper was good. After hearing Chen Gong talking like this, not only was he not angry, he even agreed to it with a smile.
The shabby temple was truly shabby, with drafts leaking in from all sides and not a single one of its windows were in good condition. But fortunately, there were plenty of pillars in addition to several altars that could be used to block the wind, and some stacks of hay and firewood that Chen Gong had carried and piled here himself—the former was used as a blanket to fend off the wind and the latter was burnt to warm himself. But all of these were for his personal usage. Now, considering Shen Qiao was willing to “make offerings” to him, Chen Gong reluctantly spared him some of his hay and firewood.
Seeing that Shen Qiao was, to his surprise, fully prepared, even bringing with him in his personal bundle a thick piece of old clothing to use as a blanket, Chen Gong could not help but to harrumph.
The two beggars had not returned since, supposedly having found new places to stay already. Without a trace of politeness, Chen Gong brought the clothes that they had originally used as blankets over. He sniffed at them, but they gave off a sour stink so he threw them away with pursed lips, then moved his body closer to the fire.
At first, he wanted to snatch Shen Qiao’s clothes as well, but after giving it a second thought, he felt that it would not be too late if he waited to give him a hard time when the other person failed to bring him “offerings” tomorrow.
Having this thought in his mind, he fell asleep unwittingly.
Chen Gong was already awake early the next morning, planning to work at the rice shop as usual.
He looked around, but Shen Qiao was already out of sight, leaving behind only the heap of straw with the indent left by his bodyweight and a pile of black ashes that was what remained of the burnt wood.
Chen Gong did not care about it much and went to the rice shop to work as usual. He absolutely did not believe that Shen Qiao could really bring back three burgers today, since if he was to have the extra money, there was no need for him to live in such a shabby temple that even ghosts were unwilling to visit. Moreover, Shen Qiao was not only weak but also blind. What could he do to make money?
‘Don’t you come back empty-handed, otherwise I’ll beat you to the point where even your mom can’t recognize you anymore!’
Chen Gong thought to himself while walking towards the shabby temple in the evening.
Before he stepped through the gate, he smelt a familiar scent.
It seemed like the sound of his footsteps had attracted Shen Qiao’s attention, as the latter raised his head and gave him a smile, “You’re back.”
“Donkey meat…” With a grim face, Chen Gong was only able to let out two words before he stopped short.
Because he saw three donkey meat burgers wrapped in paper piled neatly on the heap of straw where he slept.
 Temple Fair (庙会 miaohui): Also known as temple gatherings, a religious gatherings held by fold temples around Chinese New Year or birthday of the gods enshrined. Activities usually include rituals celebrated in the temple, opera on a stage facing the temple, processions of the gods’ images on carts throughout villages and cities, performance of musical and ritual troupes, blessing of offerings brought to the temple by families, and various economic activities. [Source: Wiki]
 Xianbei (鲜卑): Proto-Mongols residing in what became today’s eastern Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, and Northeast China. Along with the Xiongnu, they were one of the major nomadic groups in northern China during the Han Dynasty and subsequent dynastic periods. [Source: Wiki]
 Duke Tai, Jiang Shang (姜太公/姜尚/姜子牙): Also known as Duke Tai of Qi or Jiang Ziya. A famous historical figure in Chinese history who also appears in some of the legendary stories and mythologies. For detail check the wiki page. [Source: Wiki]
 Copper: Refers to 铜钱 (tongqian), also known as copper coins, or wen, the cheapest currency in ancient China.
 Eldest Chen (陈大/陈大郎): Literally means Chen the Eldest Son, as he was probably the eldest son in his family.