“A farce should be funny, but this one hasn't made me laugh even once.”
--The Laughing Man


Chapter Seventeen - A cup of wine and a song of life

The event proceeded thus; Cao Tianyun would pick a paper and read its contents solemnly. The author would stand; only to be shot down by the elder ladies. If the words were good, the writing style was not. If the writing style was good, the words used were not. If the composition was good, then the author was not flawless. By now, many of the prideful young men were crestfallen, their boastful and flowery words rang hollow in the face of direct and sarcastic questioning.


While the matrons were questioning another sweating young man, Huang Ming leaned over to his brother and asked, “What did you write? Something serious or selfish?”


Huang Lang kept his eyes on the three Cao ladies to avoid drawing attention. “What do you mean, serious or selfish?” he whispered back.


“Serious means you wrote something realistic, selfish means you wrote something idealistic in nature,” Huang Ming replied.


“What does it matter at this point? It’s not as if we can change what we wrote,” his brother responded.


“Mine is ambiguous, if you wrote one way then I’ll style my answers another way. That way at least one of us is getting out of this with his head held high,” Huang Ming stated.


Huang Lang couldn’t help but turn to look at his younger brother in surprise. “Are you so confident to interpret what you wrote in whatever way you wish?” he asked in astonishment.


“This isn’t confidence, its desperation. You see how the Caos are rejecting each candidate thus far. They surely already have a favoured choice in mind; they plan to elevate him by putting down the rest,” Huang Ming said.


His brother smiled and said, “And what makes you think we will be called?”


“We were invited here first,” Huang Ming reminded him, “They planned to lay their hands on us, but with so many witnesses today they can only try to insult us.”


Huang Lang’s expression turned solemn. “It was the scheme of Cao Shuang and Cao Yuan. I doubt the ladies have anything of the sort, perhaps they really want to find true happiness for Cao Tianyun,” he intoned.


“Whatever the case, I doubt we can escape their scrutiny. Even if we’re not called, we have to ask for their attention. We can’t disappoint mother,” Huang Ming cautioned.


Huang Lang nodded and then he said, “You are right. We have to proceed boldly. Indeed, I wrote something lofty to appeal to Cao Tianyun.”


“You didn’t write personal praises about her, did you?” Huang Ming asked, horrified.


“No, such a thing will be dismissed too easily. I described my ideals of a lasting relationship,” Huang Lang said in a lower voice, embarrassed by his admission.


“Good, good,” Huang Ming said in approval, glad that his elder brother was not the typical egoistical man. “You wrote about being together; then I’ll make something up about being single. That way we’ll be contrasts to each other and thereby invite their attention. If one of us is called, he should ask for the other so that we’ll face them together.”


Huang Lang nodded, amused by his brother’s quick thinking. How did this prodigal younger brother become so sage-like? Huang Ming did not say it, but Huang Lang could hear the reasoning behind the words ‘good, good’ earlier. It was as if the younger brother was praising the older for having harmonious ideals for a relationship. It was the height of irony, coming from the person who was notorious for being flowery-hearted and had frequented places of pleasure.


Then he saw Huang Ming snap to attention as Cao Tianyun uttered,
 

“One lifetime, one dream.”​


The audience was puzzled, wondering why she had stopped.


Huang Ming smirked, and his brother realized that those few words were the entirety of what his brother had submitted.


“That can’t be all of it, let me see that,” Lady Cao demanded. She glanced at the paper and her eyes widened. “It is all there is,” she said in disbelief.


The suitor candidates were thrown into uproar. Some were shocked by the author’s boldness, others ridiculed at the lack of substance when compared to others.


Huang Lang gave his brother a critical look. “You said you wrote something ambiguous, but this is almost nothing! Are you pretending to be someone mysterious who spouts off revelations?” he whispered urgently.


Huang Ming shrugged. “Yes, I am pretending! I’ll make you shine even brighter, so try to keep up!” he whispered back.


From another side of the room, Nangong Xie sneered, “Which one of us wrote such profound words? I pray that the lady enlighten us the name of the sage!”


“No need to trouble the lady, I’m the sage!” Huang Ming said and laughed as he stood up and bowed.


The commotion in the room increased. Except for his friends and his elder brother, even the suitors who were previously humbled took the chance to jeer at him. They may have lost face earlier, but at least they could say that they had produced substantial works worthy of critique. Their works which were disparaged by the Caos could still stand the test of time when taken out from the context of this particular event. What worth did that little phrase have, especially coming from someone whose reputation was as poor as Huang Ming?


Lady Cao raised a hand and the hall calmed down, like a teacher who had silenced her unruly students with a single gesture.


“Young Master Huang Ming, was the time allotted to you insufficient?” she asked. While her husband Cao Yuan was at odds with General Huang, those were the matters of silly men. What concerned her was finding the best match for her daughter, thus she had no reason to be rude to the general’s sons. However, that politeness would only extend so far, her question still contained a trap. If the time was insufficient, didn’t that mean the Caos were wrong in giving too short a duration?


“More time is something we all need,” Huang Ming said and grinned at the Caos. Lady Cao was taken aback, her barbed query was so easily rebuffed. In the middle seat, Matriarch Cao’s ears twitched when she heard the emphasis ‘we all’. Surely this brat didn’t indirectly make light of her advanced age, did he?


Those suitors who had been jeering earlier now nodded in agreement. If only they had more time, they wouldn’t have submitted such poor quality poetry, they reasoned.


Cao Tianyun was surprised. This was the first candidate who did not wilt under her mother’s questioning. This Huang Ming was casual to the point of being flippant.


“One lifetime, one dream. Cao Tianyun asks for Young Master Huang Ming’s explanation,” she said.


Huang Ming smiled and bowed his head, as if gathering his thoughts. Since his brother had said he had written something about relationships, Huang Ming discarded his earlier intentions to paraphrase a certain love song that he had heard in a romantic film that he had seen on Earth. It starred an actor who would later play a genius billionaire playboy philanthropist.


Instead, he remembered another piece of fiction that seemed much closer to his current situation. Its main protagonist was a ne’er-do-well rogue with a glib tongue. A live action adaptation of it had a particularly catchy theme song.


“That phrase is just the last sentence of a song that I am composing for the next outing with my friends,” Huang Ming finally said. His friends were perplexed, when did Huang Ming ever express a desire to write a song?


“Brother Huang Ming, you must have kept your talents well hidden! I never knew this side of you,” Nangong Xie said, his lips curling in contempt. It seemed that he still bore a grudge over the incidents with the statuette and Liu Yuchun. Nangong Xie did not mind the looks of animosity from the rest of the Seven Stars. As far as he was concerned, he was done wasting time being with them, and it was time for him to step up to serious business relationships such as with Cao Shuang.


However, he did not realize that such behaviour had caused Cao Tianyun to look even more unfavourably on him, and by extension Cao Shuang followed his sister’s opinion. The governor’s son took a long hard look at Nangong Xie and remembered how he had been harmed by this flighty scholar’s schemes.


The Clouded Moon ignored Nangong Xie’s provocations. “Young Master Huang, can you tell us the rest of it?” she asked. Her interest was piqued, she had read about how groups of like-minded friends would compose works for each other in private gatherings and she had desired a similar experience. But alas, she never found bosom friends of her gender that shared her interests.


Huang Ming smiled. “Miss Cao had said earlier that we are all friends today. Then I’ll beg your pardon for my uncouth words.”


The distinguished people in the hall couldn’t help but crept a little forward on their seats as Huang Ming sang clearly,
 

“Don’t ask, what life you will discover,
Don’t ask, how many different lovers,
Fat, thin, handsome, clever, each will find their home,
Success and fame, so what, the winds and clouds will still roam.

Drenched by the rain, my heart feels no wrong,
A drink of wine, sing a song,
A strong wind blows away all the schemes,
One lifetime, one dream!”​


“Very meaningful!” Cao Tianyun uttered in praise. It fit the image of what she had thought about while she was younger, about literary persons not caring about what troubles lie in the world. With a cup of wine and a song of delight while embracing the beauty of nature, why should one be concerned with the plots of others?


Many of those in attendance nodded in agreement. Who did not desire a life free from troubles, to drink and make merry, to forget one’s worries?


Huang Lang had been worried for his brother when he heard the short phrase, but now there was a strange feeling when the full composition was revealed. Indeed, as his younger brother had promised, it was a startling contrast to his own submitted work.


Those in the hall looked at Huang Ming in new light. They had thought of him as a mere wastrel who indulged in the sensual, wasting time and money on fleeting pleasures.


Now he was like a man smiling at the rain, laughing at those who concerned themselves with worries of the material world.

 

With a few verses,
He dispelled the curses.​


---
Notes:
1. The film in question was 1994's "Only You", starring Robert Downey Jr. and Marisa Tomei. Michael Bolton had a song in its soundtrack called "Once in a Lifetime". Someone I knew enjoyed the film and the song a lot (no, not me). Incidentally, the actors reunited in the film Captain America: Civil War, with Marisa Tomei playing Spider-Man's Aunt May.
2. The other piece of fiction was the classic Jin Yong novel, "The Deer and the Cauldron" (aka "The Duke of Mount Deer"). It has been fully translated by fans as well as an official translation published by Oxford.
3. The theme song was for the 2000 adaptation starring Dicky Cheung, he also sang the theme song "一輩子一場夢" (One lifetime, one dream). The lines said by Huang Ming are paraphrased translations of the song lyrics.