Ramblings: Ch. 9 is shorter than other previous ones so I had meant to post it with ch.10. However, I’ve been having a hard time staying awake at night (get really sleepy around 8pm) these past days… Probably have something to do with my fluctuating sleeping schedule. Have to get back on track soon.
T/N: Any notes at the end of relevant paragraphs that are indicated with an asterisk * are usually my own translation notes, unless I say otherwise in square brackets. Words in square brackets [ ] in sentences are also words I added for clearer meaning. Credits of this chapter also goes to Ari, my proofreader.
Chapter 9: I want to resign
The next day, I accompany Kumarajiva, his mother, the Wensu king and his ministers to the palace gates to greet the Kuchan king. Now that I know he is Kumarajiva, I finally figure out why Wensu sounds so familiar. Wensu is a county under the Aksu Prefecture and part of Xinjiang Province. Two thousand years ago, it was only a small kingdom that was dependent on Kucha.
The reason why I remember this small kingdom’s name is because of Kumarajiva. That debate he did was recorded in history as the ‘Wensu Debate’, and represented an important turning point in his fame as a youth. History books wrote that it was thanks to this debate that Kumarajiva’s fame “echoed throughout the Pamir Range and spread across the seas”, and he was then “greatly sought after by many kings”. That is why the Kuchan king had to come here himself to get Kumarajiva.
The welcome ceremony is very grand. A red carpet is laid down all the way to the palace. There are music and fresh flowers thrown everywhere. I recall that this [Kuchan] king is named Bai Chun. The Bai dynasty began with Ban Chao, who set up his Western Regions’ fortress at Kucha. From the times of Ban Chao to the end of the Tang dynasty, after which it was destroyed by the Uyghurs, in those eight hundred years, Kucha was always ruled by the Bai family.
This Kuchan king shares many similarities with Jiva: white skin, tall nose, big and deep-set eyes, long and thick eyebrows. Bai Chun is probably not yet in his forties. He must have been quite handsome in his youth, but now he is somewhat out of shape. The king doesn’t cut his hair shoulder-length like other men. He leaves bangs in the front and pulls the hair at the back into a top knot, which is wrapped in a colourful strip of cloth with ends hanging at the nape.
Interestingly, his forehead is also flattened [like Jiva’s]. Xuan Zang had written about this Kuchan practice in the Great Tang Records on the Western Regions. The Kuchan used a wooden board to press down a child’s forehead. However, this practice was limited to royalty only. Fortunately, Kumarajiva became a monk at a very young age, or else his handsomeness would have been destroyed by the practice.
I continue to observe the king’s clothes. Like other [Kuchan] men, he also wears a collared tunic with tight sleeves and knee-high boots, but added to the ensemble is a half-sleeve cloak embroidered with complex gold patterns. Fastened around his waist are a long sword and a two-edged dagger. The king seems to be fond of swords.
His eyes finally catch sight of Kumarajiva and his mother. The king immediately strides forward and grabs the two of them in a hug. Mother and son seem very emotional; after all, they have been away from home for four years. I can only understand parts of their conversation. The king congratulates Kumarajiva on his studies and victorious debate. He also tells them that everything has been prepared in Kucha to welcome them home.
When the king’s eyes fall onto me, he appears slightly surprised. I’ve been trying hard to listen to their Tocharian and fail to notice his gaze in time. Not knowing how to respond, I give him a dazed smile. My smile has not yet faded before a feeling of unease arises in me. I am done for. All the etiquette I’ve learned has been for naught.
The Kuchan king also stays in the palace but in a different residence. The evening banquet carries out as usual in the main chamber. I also get to join in. However, since Kumarajiva and his mother do not eat dinner [Buddhist rules], I only get to drink water. My mouth salivates at the sight of the two kings enjoying their grilled meat. There is no music or dancing, simply a family reunion meal. It soon becomes boring and I find myself jiggling my body to ease my muscles.
I catch a familiar gaze watching me—Kumarajiva’s. He is pressing his lips together to hold in laughter. I quickly sneak a look around to make sure nobody is watching, then I pinch my nose and stick out my tongue to tease him. The little monk presses his lips tighter, painfully trying his best not to laugh. He then turns to the two kings and mentions how late it is; the Kuchan king has had a long journey and needs to rest early. After that, everyone raises their wine cups (water for us) one last time and ends the banquet.
I return to my room with an empty stomach and blurry eyes from hunger. I quickly tell the servant to find something for me to eat. While waiting for the food, I lie down on the bed to reduce physical exertion and conserve energy. In my haze, a wonderful aroma suddenly wafts up my nose. I immediately jump up and find a pair of eyes like pools of water smiling at me. In his hands is a plate of grilled meat with a to-die-for smell!
I wrap my arms around his neck, “Rajiva, you are the best!”
I have thought hard about how to address him. His Sanskrit name is too hard to say and his Han name is too formal. A variety of documents that talked about him sometimes used Luó Shí [Rajiva], sometimes only Shí [Jiva]. Ancient documents used Shí while modern ones used Luó Shí. Strictly speaking, Jiū Mó Luó [Kumara] is his surname and Shí is his given name. However, calling him Shí only is too weird. So after much thinking, I decide to call him the modern way, Luó Shí, and he accepts it gladly.
*T/N: Just pretend you never read this paragraph and just know that she decided to call him Rajiva.
When I let go of him, I realize his face is as red as a tomato. He averts his eyes, unable to look at me. His embarrassment, so pure and innocent, is adorable.
Oh, but what have I done? I knock myself on the head. Startled, he asks me, “Ai Qing, what’s wrong?”
Staring at his embarrassed face has me embarrassed as well. I take the plate from his hands and pretend to be starving as I gobble up the food to hide my chagrin. How to tell him how much I regret my thoughtless action? Even if he is young, I still cannot use such modern intimacy with him, for he has a special identity that can never be changed.
It takes a while before Rajiva resumes his normal expression. He tries to ask in a nonchalant voice, “What are we learning today?”
I sigh and stop eating, “You should find someone else to teach you, I can no longer do it.”
The redness that has just faded from his face has now turned ghastly pale. “Why? Did Rajiva do something wrong?”
“You did nothing wrong. It’s because I am not fit to teach you. You are Kumarajiva after all!”
When I teach him the Analects, I neither have the book nor remember everything. I only teach him what I remember, which of course means the order of the chapters are mixed up, and even in the chapters I do know, there are still some missing parts. He is a genius that can remember everything after hearing it once. If I continue with my sloppy teaching, I will fill his head with wrong things. Then how can he become the greatest translator monk in China? I cannot bear such a heavy responsibility. His Buddhist career in the Central Plains is still awaiting him ahead!
“But, but, you teach very well!” There is a slight tremble in his voice. “Your teaching is very interesting, so I can remember after hearing it only once.”
“That is because you are a genius, not because I teach well,” I look into those clear eyes and tell him seriously, “Rajiva, you are the smartest person I’ve ever met.”
In a voice as soft as a full-bodied wine, he replies in an equally serious tone, “Ai Qing, you are also the smartest woman Rajiva has ever met. You know so many things and most importantly, you understand Buddhist concepts very well. With a teacher like you, Rajiva has come to care about the Central Plains. Rajiva wants to set foot in that place, to see with my own eyes what kind of soil, water and air it has that gave birth to a woman as intelligent and beautiful as Ai Qing.”
Those warm words, spoken with so much sincerity, give me a small boost in confidence. A thought pops in my head. Could it be his interest in the Central Plains actually derived from me? But the truth is I am not smart at all. I had even stolen others’ works, including Rajiva’s translation. And yet he still praises me. In modern times, I would have already been sued for copyright infringement.
With such thoughts, I hang my head, unable to look at him squarely, “But…”
When I finally find the courage to look up, I see that he is trying not to laugh at my forlorn expression. He then says to me, “Well, if you don’t have that silly expression on your face all the time, you would appear much smarter…”
This brat, how dare he make fun of his teacher! I jump up and try to catch his neck, but fast as a lightning, he laughs and escapes my hands. I chase after him round after round. He has youth and long legs on his side, making it hard for my old legs to catch up. But I do not believe I cannot catch him, because if so, me being born ten years before him is meaningless!
I let out an “ouch” sound and fall onto the ground. As predicted, he hurries over and asks in an anxious voice if I’m hurt. Seeing his guard down, I quickly grab his neck.
“You brat, let me see if you can still call your teacher silly from now on! It’s not a ‘silly’ but an ‘honest’ face, you hear me? Even if you are Kumarajiva, in front of me you must still be obedient!”
I shake his neck and watch his face becoming redder and redder. Did I use too much force? I quickly let go and lean closer for a better look, “Hey, was I too strong? Are you in pain? I’m sorry!”
The eyes on that flushed face try to evade me again. He turns away and puts some distance between us. Then he mumbles in a tiny voice, “Ai Qing, continue to teach me please?”
I sigh and put a hand on my chin, “But I have no lesson plan or textbooks. The Analects that I taught you was from my memory, filled with many holes and errors. There is an old saying that goes like this: ‘If you are going to teach wrong things, then you are better off not teaching, else you risk ruining the student.’”
His face is still red but his bright eyes face me head on. His lips are curving into a blinding smile, “You worry about that? That’s not difficult!”
Oh, to teach or not to teach, this is a question [original in English]. I have no way of declining, but I’m still afraid of teaching him the wrong things. I should not have appeared in his life. Without me, he can still become a great monk in history. But what if it is the reverse? What role do I play in his life journey? Will I be a bad influence and inadvertently change history? At the very least, if it wasn’t for me, he would have not known any modern Han words.
Seeing my extended silence, Rajiva covers my hands with his. The warmth quickly transmits throughout my body. “Ai Qing, the Buddha has let me meet you. I value this fateful encounter greatly. I sincerely want to learn Han, but if you do not want to teach, that is fine. But at the very least, come with me to Kucha before returning to the Central Plains, please?”
In his shining gray eyes, I see a reflection of my dejected face. I am merely a passerby. Even though my time travel watch is currently broken, sooner or later I will have to return to my era.
But my time travelling and meeting Kumarajiva in his youth, besides the word ‘fate’, what else can explain it? Our two lines of footprints by chance merged into one, but it is only temporary. Soon, no intersection will be possible. Then why worry so much? I just need to be more careful from now on and not let my modern characteristics show, and history will thus be unaffected. But more importantly, I truly wish to stay beside this prodigy and continue to receive his warmth.
“That being so, I will continue to teach you,” I stand up and shake the dust off my bottoms, “Let us student and teacher review where we left off yesterday.” I must correct his modern Han into the classical way soon.
He appears both surprised and happy, perhaps not used to my formal way of speaking, but does not ask any questions. He quickly goes to find some paper.
The next day, I find him at my door carrying a copy of the Analects.
As always, if any reader knows Chinese or is well-versed in Chinese history/Buddhism, feel free to comment on any inaccuracies or suggest a better substitute name/word/phrase. Comments on grammar and spelling mistakes are also appreciated. Or any comments at all actually XD