Science Fiction & Fantasy

CHOSEN ONES

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The Virtue of Unfaithful Translations

The Grand Philosopher Ancient Leaf once expounded that a man who kills another out of passion or greed is condemned as a murderer, and one who kills ten people is reviled as a maniac, but one who causes the death of hundreds of thousands in pursuit of personal glory is often revered as a great personage. The Grand Historian Silver Mirror utilized the quote in describing the senseless nature of the Wars of the Four Princes and the Six Grand Lords, how the acts of all the kings, ministers, and generals throughout the long conflict achieved nothing in the end. The cycle of events from unity to disunity to chaos, then chaos back to disunity and finally to a new unity, only resulted in countless cities, towns, and villages falling into ruin. And the corpses of ambitious leaders, obedient soldiers, and powerless civilians lay in numbers like grains of sand upon a blood-soaked shore. Silver Mirror opined that a country that has reached the age of wisdom would stop building monuments to the warmongers of its history, but rather erect them for its peacemakers, those who saved lives by preventing the course of events from descending into a time of sword and fire.

One could point to such a monument that actually exists, namely the great mural painting known as “Peace of Five Peaks Island,” which can be found on the southwestern side of the Phoenix Tower in West Capital of the Empire of the Grand Circle. When General Heavenly Whirlwind brought down the Radiant dynasty to ascend the throne as the first emperor of the Pure dynasty, he justified his coup by claiming, based on specious evidence including forged clan records, to be a descendant of the imperial family of the previous Primal dynasty. By asserting that the founders of the Radiant illegitimately usurped the authority of his ancestors, he portrayed himself as an avenger who was reclaiming what was rightfully his. He then moved the center of the Grand Circle to West Capital not only to force the surviving members of the Radiant aristocracy to abandon their feudal lands in the east but also to establish a historical connection between the Primal and the Pure. He also summoned the best artists of the realm to decorate the walls of the rebuilt imperial palace with pictures in the grand proto-elaboratist style depicting the glories of the Primal dynasty. Most of them portray scenes of military victory, including the unnecessary, unjustifiable, and unrighteous slaughter of the pacific people of the southeast plains, which is falsely pictured as a defensive action against bloodthirsty barbarians.

“Peace of Five Peak Island” is a remarkable exception in that it celebrates the avoidance of what was certain to be a devastating war that would have cost the lives of hundreds of thousands. It depicts the meeting of the Sixth Emperor of the Primal dynasty and the warlord of South Ocean known as the Great Sea Dragon, on a hill that is magnificently illuminated by an auspicious sun at midday. The Lord of the Grand Circle is in his gold and yellow splendor, surrounded by ministers in red robes and high hats, while the Master of the Endless Waves is in full armor and flanked by his sea lords. The former is grand and haughty and the latter is sturdy and proud, but they face each other with respect as they are there to establish peace rather than to challenge each other to war. Once they finish exchanging formal greetings, they will enter a splendid pavilion of many colors, pictured at some distance behind them, where they will sit and share precious liquor while their ministers and generals finalize the treaty between the empire and the fleet. On the far right side of the picture, a flock of seagulls dance above a luminous sea, as if in joy over the event.

The achievement of peace on Five Peaks Island has baffled historians for centuries as a miraculous last-minute aversion of a war that appeared inevitable to everyone concerned. The Great Sea Dragon, who began his life as a kidnapped child slave, then a galley rower, then a pirate, and then a pirate captain, emerged as an unprecedented genius of naval warfare as he battled and slaughtered his way to dominance in South Ocean and all its islands. With his fleet of ten thousand ships and an ambition that knew no bounds, he meant to take the greatest prize of them all, the Empire of the Grand Circle. But the Sixth Emperor was a man of war himself, as he was raised on the rugged northern frontier where he also served as the lord commander of fortresses. Even after his ascendance to the imperial throne, he was happiest on the campaign trail, extending his domain, punishing his recalcitrant subjects, and delighting in the destruction of those who defied him. In his endless greed for military glory, he left much of the running of the state to a group of eunuch secretaries, which led to what would later be referred to as the Rule of Fifty Half-Men. By all accounts, he was eager to face the barbarian upstart of South Ocean, whom he referred to as Pirate Fish Stink.

The initial meeting of their envoys was not an opportunity for a serious negotiation but for the ritualized issuance of challenges as a prelude to war. To the surprise of everyone, however, the talks on Five Peaks Island became protracted, as the emperor and the warlord communicated via numerous letters that were written, translated, and transported over the course of weeks. It ultimately resulted in the Great Sea Dragon receiving the imperial title of the Grand Guardian of the South Ocean with the responsibility of overseeing the affairs of the southern seas. In return, the Great Sea Dragon recognized the emperor’s authority and swore to safeguard all merchant ships under the protection of the imperial monopoly. It culminated in the personal meeting of the two on Five Peaks Island, which the mural depicts, in which the warlord ceremoniously received the jade tablet of officialdom, acknowledging his status as the emperor’s subordinate. And the emperor, in turn, granted him the singular honor of submitting on his feet, rather than prostrating himself on the ground. The peace treaty was duly agreed upon, stamped with great seals, and a celebration of feasting, dancing, and musical performances followed. Then the Sixth Emperor and his ministers returned to West Capital, the Great Sea Dragon and his ships sailed back to South Ocean, and the war that was thought to be inevitable never happened.

In recent decades, new discoveries made by junior historians at the Hall of Great Learning have provided startling insight into the event. Through their painstaking search in many archives across the country, they have unearthed documents of disparate natures that have revealed a hidden history of the Peace of Five Peaks Island. They include some discarded source material for the True Records of the Primal Dynasty, an early draft of the incomplete Preliminary Discourse on the Fall of the Primal Dynasty, a batch of official correspondences that was housed at the Hall of the Imperial Secretariat that were thought to have been destroyed during the burning of the palace by the Radiant army, and, most revealing of all, some personal writings of the two translators who worked on behalf of the emperor and the warlord. In addition, findings from a secret storehouse at the Temple to the Primordial Nothingness in Sundown Archipelago, relating to the events from the perspective of the advisors to the Great Sea Dragon, have provided support for the newly revealed narrative.

The mural of “Peace of Five Peaks Island” depicts some fifty people, most of whom can be identified as important personages whose presence at the event is verified in the historical records. Immediately behind the emperor are the high minister of military affairs and the chief imperial secretary, and at a little distance to their left is a noticeably tall official whose sharp-eyed attention is on the Great Sea Dragon, not his sovereign. While the red robes of all other officials are decorated with the insignias of a pair of cranes or a pair of turtles, his is the only one with a pair of flounders, marking him as a temporary appointee to a position at court. The figure represents the scholar given the honor name of Diviner Supreme, a grand master of learning at the Forest of Brushes Scholastic Academy who acted as the imperial translator and interpreter during the negotiations.

Diviner Supreme came from an illustrious family of scholar-officials, his father attaining the position of the high minister of rituals, but he was somewhat of a wayward younger son in his early life. He passed the civil examinations at a young age, but before he could receive a government appointment, he had to go into mourning period as his father died from falling off a horse. At its completion, he not only declined to pursue a career in officialdom but left West Capital to travel the world.

In the course of his many adventures, he proved to be a veritable genius in the learning of languages, as he ultimately mastered no less than twenty-four living tongues and the reading knowledge of twelve defunct ones. After wandering the world for over twenty years, he finally returned to his family home in West Capital barely alive, after suffering a near fatal wound in a pirate raid in Middle Ocean. He eventually recovered, but the permanent damage done to his right leg made him unfit for prolonged travel. He was subsequently appointed as a master at the Forest of Brushes, becoming the greatest scholar of languages and linguistics of his time.

Although the exact origin of the warlord known as the Great Sea Dragon is obscure, he spoke a dialect of the language of Sundown Archipelago used in the southernmost islands. He forced all the sea lords of his fleet to adopt the tongue, even those who did not come from the archipelago. When he achieved dominance in South Ocean, the obscurity of the language became a major problem for the imperials in trying to assess his threat. It turned out that in the entire officialdom of the Grand Circle, Diviner Supreme was the only one who had knowledge of the Sundown tongue from his sojourn on the islands. Consequently, when the negotiations on Five Peaks Island was set to begin, he was given a temporary appointment as the imperial translator and interpreter.

In the painting “Peace of Five Peaks Island,” standing to the right of the Great Sea Dragon, half hidden in shadow, is a slight figure in a nondescript gray robe, a young woman who is the one and only female figure in the picture. Despite the important role she played in the event as Diviner Supreme’s counterpart who interpreted for the warlord, very little can be affirmed about her identity due in great part to the deplorable lack of information about women from that particularly sexist era. Even her original name is unknown, as Upright Lotus is an amity cognomen given to her well after the event. What can be reasonably theorized from the historical context is that she was probably a member of a prominent merchant family of the south, one who likely worked as an assistant to her father or some other patriarch of the clan after demonstrating a talent for languages.

Due to the highly restricted nature of the imperial trading monopoly in the seas under the control of the Grand Circle, merchants of South Ocean were effectively shut out of the area. As they had little choice but to deal with intermediaries of Middle Ocean, few of them bothered to learn the imperial tongue. What must be remembered is that the Great Sea Dragon’s ascendance from the pirate captain of a single ship to the master of a fleet of ten thousand was remarkably fast, the speed with which he dominated South Ocean taking everyone by surprise. When he decided to take his fleet north, he had limited time to look for someone who could act as his interpreter and translator. It is unknown how Upright Lotus came to serve him, but the fact that she was one of precious few in the south who could speak the imperial tongue must have come to his attention under some particular circumstance.

What the newly unearthed documents reveal is that Diviner Supreme and Upright Lotus systematically mistranslated all essential communications between the imperial court and the leadership of the Great Sea Dragon’s fleet, and in all likelihood did the same in their interpretive work. The documents also show that this was not the result of ignorance or incompetence but a deliberate act, pointing to the remarkable fact that the two translators colluded in the production of unfaithful renderings. Some examples of such mistranslations follow.

In the True Records of the Pure Dynasty, in the entry to the fourth day of the fourth lunar month in the nineteenth year of the Sixth Emperor’s reign (Year of the Snake), it is written that on the occasion of the first round of negotiations on Five Peaks Island, the emperor sent a letter of admonishment to the Great Sea Dragon. While it is described as a “stern warning” to the warlord to refrain from challenging the Grand Circle and to submit himself to the authority of the emperor, its exact contents have been unknown until the recent discovery of a batch of imperial correspondences. What is immediately apparent from perusing the letter is that the Sixth Emperor did not assign the Office of the Imperial Secretariat to write an appropriate letter but rather composed it himself, as is apparent from his eccentric calligraphy in red ink. Far more than a “stern warning,” it was an insulting missive designed to provoke certain war, as the Great Sea Dragon is addressed throughout as Pirate Fish Stink. In addition, there is no way to describe its nature other than as the ravings of a madman. The Sixth Emperor promises not just defeat and annihilation in battle but the sexual violation of corpses, the magical tearing apart of souls, and the mass execution by extended torture of all the women and children of Sundown Archipelago as sacrifice to the god of war. He describes the entirety of South Ocean turned red with blood, the sinking of the southern islands by means of geomantically raised earthquakes, and the descent of all his defeated enemies into an underworld realm of eternal rape. The original letter was kept at the Hall of the Imperial Secretariat while a clean copy was sent to Five Peaks Island where it was delivered to the envoys of the Great Sea Dragon.

At the secret archive at the Temple to the Primordial Nothingness in Sundown Archipelago, a text has been discovered with a note indicating that it is the translation of that letter from imperial ideograms into the phonetic script of the south, rendered by the Great Sea Dragon’s interpreter Upright Lotus. While it contains the gist of the Sixth Emperor’s admonishment, it takes such liberties with the contents of the original that it can hardly be considered a proper translation. Its tone has been moderated and formalized to such an extent that the “stern warning” became more of a “respectful caution,” with no mention of the name Pirate Fish Stink. The crazed quasi-religious ravings have all been cut out, replaced with a reasoned discourse on the sheer military and logistical difficulties the Great Sea Dragon would have to face should he dare to attempt an invasion of the Grand Circle proper. What is especially striking about the text is the insertion of numerous references to and quotations of the Grand Strategists, from such classic works as Rules of Warfare, Expanded Rules of Warfare, and New Rules of Warfare, with detailed expositions on why victory would be practically impossible to achieve for the Great Sea Dragon, and how even if he managed to initially take over significant territory through a number of victories on the battlefield, he could not hope to hold on to it in the long run with the limited resources as his disposal. Since it is implausible that the daughter of a South Ocean merchant would be so familiar with such military texts, this almost certainly points to collaboration with an imperial official.

After the Sixth Emperor’s initial letter was dispatched, the Great Sea Dragon sent a number of his own missives to the imperial court, all of which have survived along with Diviner Supreme’s translations. The messages in the original southern phonetic are aggressive, confident, and proud, declaring the warlord’s intention to conquer the Grand Circle as he conquered the entirety of South Ocean. Diviner Supreme’s translations are generally faithful, except for a glaring and mysterious alteration that appears in almost every fifth or sixth sentence, which is the mention of the color green. The waves upon which the Great Sea Dragon’s fleet rides are described as green, the light emanating from his great curved sword is green, his green cape flies in the wind as he speeds forth toward the Grand Circle (he did not wear a green cape but a red one), and so on. He is even made to describe himself as the Great Green Sea Dragon and the Green Master of the Endless Green Waves who is destined to establish the Green dynasty after the downfall of the Primal. In the original letters, the word “green” does not occur once.

To give yet another significant example of such distortions, in the picture “The Peace on Five Peaks Island” the Great Sea Dragon holds the jade tablet of officialdom which he received from the Sixth Emperor, acknowledging his status as an imperial subject who rules over South Ocean in the name of the emperor. The color of the jade is red, which is the second to lowest of the six ranks of jade. Tablets in the two highest ranks, dark green and light green, were given on the extremely rare occasion that the emperor acknowledged a ruler to be his equal (tablet of brotherhood). For instance, the penultimate emperor of the Radiant dynasty gifted one to the Mountainous Father of the Golden Horsemen of the North in a futile effort to forestall their catastrophic invasion of the Grand Circle. Tablets in the next two ranks of jade, yellow and white, were given to rulers who were granted “subordinate but independent” status, kingdoms and lordly territories that were expected to pay tribute but whose internal autonomy was respected (tablet of honored lords). Tablets of the lowest jade ranks of red and black were granted to those whose dominion over certain territories were temporary, subject to review, and conditional upon pre-established imperial rules (tablet of officialdom). One who received such a tablet was expected to relinquish his power any time the emperor ordered him to.

During the final negotiation over the peace treaty, it is most certainly the case that Upright Lotus knowingly lied about the jade ranks. In the records of the Great Sea Dragon’s advisors, they express great pleasure after learning from the translator that the emperor has capitulated to their demand that he recognize their lord as his equal. The acknowledgement is to be affirmed through the granting of the highest rank of jade in red. In the imperial records, on the other hand, the ministers affirm that if the Great Sea Dragon acknowledges his subordinate status by accepting the tablet of officialdom, their sovereign will allow him to submit on his feet. In others words, through Upright Lotus’s lie, both sides came to regard the final outcome as a diplomatic victory.

There are many other examples of such deliberate mistranslations perpetrated by Diviner Supreme and Upright Lotus in apparent coordination with each other. They were able to do so without being discovered because Diviner Supreme was the only official in the Grand Circle who knew the language of Sundown Archipelago, and Upright Lotus was the only speaker of the imperial tongue in the leadership of the Great Sea Dragon’s fleet. No one, in other words, was capable of checking their work.

After the successful completion of the Peace on Five Peaks Island, the Sixth Emperor’s interpreter was granted the special honor name of Diviner Supreme, awarded with precious gifts, and offered a permanent position in the Imperial Secretariat. He humbly begged off officialdom with the respectable filial excuse that he had to take care of his ailing mother as his oldest brother was serving as the governor of the faraway province of Abundant Mountains and his second older brother had died in the previous year from an illness. Six months after, his mother passed away, and so he went into his mourning period. But after its completion, Diviner Supreme not only refused a position in the imperial court but he left the Forest of Brushes and West Capital, moving to a small town all the way in the southeastern plain, the last long journey he undertook. Not much is known about the life he led in this remote place, other than that he operated a school and produced some of the most important scholarly works on linguistics and cultural studies. For instance, his massive volume on his adopted homeland is still to this day the best source of information on the language, culture, and history of the region at the time. In particular, the record of his conversations with the survivors of the horrific massacre that was perpetrated on them by the Sixth Emperor in the early part of his reign provides a wholly plausible counter narrative to the official imperial account of the atrocity.

Toward the end of his life, he wrote what is his only known poem, a long narrative work in the neo-antique style, which may also have been his last writing. While many have marveled at the evocative beauty of its natural imageries, they have also found the work’s overall meaning utterly obscure. It tells the story of a traveler who is lost in a dark forest, who becomes prey to a fierce tiger on one path and a pack of wolves on another, while he is also chased by poisonous snakes. At his most dire moment, he comes across a pristine lotus flower of many changing colors that becomes personified as a beautiful young woman. The traveler and the lotus woman plot together to evade the beasts and to escape the forest. They employ a variety of magic spells and clever tricks to evade the tiger, wolves, and snakes. The woman then becomes luminous and lights their way as they walk out of the forest.

One scholar theorized that the poem is in the mode of the so-called “dark cloud lyrics” written by scholars during the time of the repressive Legalist Emperors. They employed coded language, especially in the use of specific imageries with hidden meanings, to communicate with one another under the scrutiny of the Imperial Censorate. That notion has been proven to be correct through the discovery of some letters at the site of Diviner Supreme’s final home. They were written in the southern phonetic script, on strips of bamboo that were tied together, sent to him by the interpreter for the Great Sea Dragon, to whom Diviner Supreme gave the amity name of Upright Lotus, which is also the title of his poem. The contents of the letters provide enough clues for decoding the work which reveals a remarkable account of what actually occurred on Five Peaks Island.

In the first days of negotiations on the island, the envoys of the Sixth Emperor and the Great Sea Dragon exchanged belligerent demands as both sides conducted their meeting as a prelude to war. Diviner Supreme, after spending an entire morning interpreting for the imperial officials, took a walk on a beach, filled with dread and melancholy at the prospect of the dark, violent times to come. There, he encountered Upright Lotus, who appeared to be in a similar mood. They walked together, spoke of each other’s lives, their work, and their concerns for the future. In the course of a single day, as the sun set and they rested at a beachside tavern to share liquor, Diviner Supreme fell in love with the southern woman. As he gazed at her luminous eyes that shone with sad intelligence, he could not bear the thought of never seeing her again after the conclusion of the fruitless meeting, and of her becoming lost in the bloody war that was coming. Without considering the matter, he found himself committing high treason by revealing to her vital information that would have given the Great Sea Dragon a crucial advantage if he became privy to it. Diviner Supreme told Upright Lotus that the Sixth Emperor was hopelessly insane.

For almost five years, the Lord of the Grand Circle had neglected the affairs of the state, spending his time running around the palace in bizarre costumes and raving endlessly at his appalled officials and servants. All those who tried to remonstrate with him to correct his behavior were dismissed from their positions, exiled, or executed, until none was left in court except for sycophants, cowards, and mediocrities. He sent his best generals on impossible military operations, and when they returned unsuccessful, he executed them all, leaving no experienced and competent commanders at the Ministry of Military Affairs. One day, he accused his queen and all twelve of his concubines of conspiring against him, and had them and all their attendant ladies strangled to death, their corpses mutilated, and their remains spread across the empire to be fed to pigs and dogs. He hardly slept, was drunk most of the time, and ate only the vital organs of rare animals. And he was anxious to go to war, to turn South Ocean red with the blood of Pirate Fish Stink and his people. The eunuchs who served under him would be much vilified later as the Fifty Half-Men who all but usurped the power of the throne, but recent revisionist historians have pointed out that they had little choice but to take charge of running the government in the mad ruler’s stead and actually did the best they could under the difficult circumstances. They were also successful in keeping the knowledge of their master’s lunacy within the palace, as they scrupulously and, in some cases, violently suppressed any possible leak of the information.

It was only after Diviner Supreme revealed this to Upright Lotus that he began to dread the consequences of having exposed the great secret. He knew that if the eunuchs found out what he had done, he would be immediately recalled to West Capital and executed. Three generations of his family would be eradicated as well, as was the punishment for a traitor to the throne. So he was both astonished and relieved when his counterpart returned his gesture by revealing crucial information as well. It was that despite the Great Sea Dragon’s bluster, he was wracked with doubt about the whole enterprise, as he had never conducted a major military campaign on land before. He was undoubtedly invincible on water, as he had never lost a naval battle since he took command of his own ship, but he had only lately begun to familiarize himself with the basics of large-scale warfare on land from mercenary officers whom he hired as advisors. He was as ambitious as ever and genuinely wanted to find out if he could be as good a strategist on land as he was on the waves, but that was not the main reason he was challenging the Grand Circle.

Once he successfully established dominion over South Ocean, he realized that many of his sea lords, fierce martial men who had known nothing but raiding and warring all their lives, were getting restless. In addition, those who did not come from Sundown Archipelago, which was most of them, had submitted to him out of necessity and calculation, but resented his authority over them. He knew that he had also exacerbated their discontent by ordering them to learn and use his native tongue, wear the costumes of his people, and follow the political and ritualistic ways of the archipelago. Many of them had been part of a loose confederation of pirates in which the highest leader was the first among equals, so they found it humiliating to kneel while paying fealty to the Great Sea Dragon as their supreme lord. He was certain, therefore, that they would conspire against him sooner or later, unless he directed their energy elsewhere, to an enterprise that was dauntingly difficult as well as long-lasting, but one that also promised rewards beyond measure at its successful completion. The invasion would also give him the opportunity to get rid of some of his most untrustworthy subordinates on dangerous missions. But all that would work only if he proved to be victorious, as failure would lead certainly to the loss of his authority.

Diviner Supreme realized that if the Great Sea Dragon knew of the Sixth Emperor’s madness and the empire’s current lack of competent commanders, his self-doubt would disappear and he would launch an all-out assault as soon as possible. It was Upright Lotus who first suggested that the two of them were the only people who could stop the war. And so the conspiracy of unfaithful translations was born.

When Upright Lotus received the Sixth Emperor’s raving letter to the Great Sea Dragon, she essentially rewrote the entire text as a polite warning from a calm and intelligent sovereign who was so supremely confident that he deigned to gently lecture the upstart on the foolishness of his course, providing a detailed and reasoned discourse on the many insurmountable difficulties he would face in taking on the Grand Circle. It was undoubtedly Diviner Supreme who provided her with the appropriate quotations from military classics. The profuse use of passages from the works was designed to intimidate the Great Sea Dragon by exposing his lack of knowledge on conducting a large-scale campaign on land, so further undermining his confidence. The letter gave the impression that the Sixth Emperor was surrounded by learned generals who provided him with such expertise, which they would deploy against the warlord in battle.

As for Diviner Supreme, the inclusion of the word “green” in his translations of the Great Sea Dragon’s letters was inspired by his knowledge of his sovereign’s early life. The emperor was born and raised in the northern frontier where his father, a member of a tertiary branch of the imperial family, was the lord commander of fortresses, a position his son inherited following his graduation from the Forest of Spears Military Academy. Given the large number of possible candidates to the throne, he had no expectation of attaining it when the sickly and impotent Fifth Emperor died without naming his successor. So he was taken completely by surprise when officials from the High State Council came to his headquarters to announce that they had designated him as the next ruler.

In that harsh region of frigid winds and rocky hills, there was a folk tradition about a figure who was called the Green Visitor. Parents of disobedient children would leave a window open for the creature, a macabre monster with rotting skin and bladed fingers, to come in at the darkest hour of the night. It would sneak over to the side of a sleeping child, rip off the skin on their face, and gobble it up. His coming was announced by the stench of fish, and he was sometimes depicted as having the head of a fish. Parents in the region corrected the behavior of recalcitrant children by threatening to invite the Green Visitor or by claiming to smell rotten fish in the air.

The Sixth Emperor was apparently subjected to such warnings during his childhood. With the onset of his madness, he became tormented by the recurring appearance of the Green Visitor in his dreams. The emperor became so terrified that he avoided sleeping as much as he could, so worsening his condition. He also banned fish from the palace, forbade the presence of green objects, and ordered that all things painted green be covered up with a different color. His reference to the Great Sea Dragon as Pirate Fish Stink made Diviner Supreme think that his sovereign harbored the suspicion that the warlord was the Green Visitor incarnate.

In the last letter Diviner Supreme translated with the numerous additions of the word “green” to frighten the Sixth Emperor, he added one original sentence at the end, promising that the Great Sea Dragon would go away without eating his skin if given the three gifts of title, jade, and liquor. The successful conclusion of a peace treaty with a foreign ruler usually ended with the emperor granting an official title, a jade tablet of the appropriate rank, and finally, precious liquor that they shared.

The Sixth Emperor surprised everyone with the order to offer the Great Sea Dragon peace. And they were surprised anew when the warlord agreed, on the condition that he was given the highest official title possible. A problem arose when the emperor refused to grant the jade tablet in the rank of green, as he would have nothing to do with something of that color. So his officials offered red jade, with room to negotiate up to white or yellow. The counter offer they received was that the Great Sea Dragon would accept red jade if he was allowed to submit standing up rather than having to prostrate himself on the ground, as was required of those receiving anything below the green. This was agreed upon. The negotiation over the jade color was entirely a play put on by the two translators. Diviner Supreme made it seem as if the Sixth Emperor got the better of the Great Sea Dragon by getting him to acknowledge his subordinate position in accepting the low grade of jade. Meanwhile, Upright Lotus told her master that the tablet of red jade was the mark of the highest recognition of equal status demanded by him, as demonstrated by the fact that he was to accept it on his feet.

And so the war was averted, with the Sixth Emperor relieved that he had appeased the Green Visitor, and the Great Sea Dragon thinking that he had avoided what was sure to be a disastrous land invasion against an able opponent. Within three years, both of them fell precipitously from power.

What the Great Sea Dragon thought was the Sixth Emperor’s recognition of his equal status brought him no honor among his sea lords and led to a crisis of confidence. As he had feared, many immediately conspired against him, as they considered the peace he had made with the Grand Circle an act of cowardice. In the ensuing war in South Ocean, his nephew, whom he was grooming to be his successor, was bribed by rebellious sea lords into assassinating him. The Great Sea Dragon managed to escape the attempt and kill his beloved nephew, but his spirit was broken. In the next naval battle, he jumped into an enemy vessel by himself and fought a multitude of soldiers until they brought him down. South Ocean then fell into bloody chaos for the next five years, until the Peace of the Sixteen Sea Lords brought a measure of order back.

At around the time of the Great Sea Dragon’s final battle, the Sixth Emperor expressed his desire to visit his original homeland in the northern frontier. He confided to one of his eunuchs that he did not fear going there to pay respects at the graves of his ancestors because the Green Visitor was no longer there. The monster had been pacified and sent far away, acting as his official in charge of South Ocean. It was also rumored that he meant to establish a North Capital and move his court there permanently. On the night after he arrived at the central fortress where he was born and raised, he used a secret passage to sneak out of his chamber in the middle of the night. He ventured outside and walked until he came to the house of a goatherd where he asked for directions to the path up a nearby mountain. When the goatherd suggested that he wait till daylight to travel, the emperor told him that he needed to get to the summit by dawn so that the first light of the new day would transform him into an immortal spirit. After he was shown the path, he granted the goatherd his cloak of radiant worm fabric and went on his way. He was never seen by anyone again.

The next day, when his eunuchs realized that he was missing, they kept it a secret at the fortress but mobilized the soldiers of a nearby garrison and sent them out in every direction to search for him. When the eunuchs were informed of the goatherd’s story, the soldiers were dispatched up the mountain, but they eventually returned without having found any sign of him. In their panic, the eunuchs fabricated an imperial order and activated the troops of the fortress to slaughter all the soldiers of the garrison as well as the goatherd and his family under the false charge of fomenting a rebellion. In what came to be called the Rule of the Fifty Half-Men, the eunuchs continued to run the state while hiding the emperor’s disappearance for almost a year, hoping in vain that he would show up somewhere.

They thought that they had killed every member of the goatherd’s family but one of the boys they had executed was actually a neighbor’s child who had come to the house to play. The real son was returning from an errand when he witnessed the killing of his family and hid inside a rotten tree. After the soldiers were gone, he begged all the way to the neighboring province where he was taken by some bandits and sold off as a slave. After a few months of working as a water carrier, he managed to escape and reach a town where an uncle on his mother’s side of the family lived. He told the uncle his story, and the uncle told a local official who brought the tale to the magistrate. It eventually reached the ear of the governor, who sent a letter to the Sixth Emperor’s nephew who was returning to West Capital from a pacifying expedition to the New Frontier of the far west where barbarians ate their food raw. He diverted his force to the town where he personally interrogated the goatherd’s son. Enraged by what he learned, he gathered more soldiers and marched to the north, where he arrested and executed the fifty eunuchs. Within a month he arrived at West Capital, got rid of the Sixth Emperor’s children by his murdered concubines, and ascended the throne as the Seventh Emperor. He also adopted the courageous and resourceful son of the goatherd, who went on to have an illustrious career as a military officer, eventually becoming the commandant of the Forest of Spears.

There is one last element of the secret history of the Peace of Five Peaks Island to be told, though it can only be related in a speculative manner. The recently discovered letters that Upright Lotus sent to Diviner Supreme show that in the aftermath of their conspiracy to manipulate events through deliberate mistranslations, they planned to reunite at some point in the future. They knew that they had to be extremely careful, since it would raise suspicion if they were seen together by someone who knew their identities. For that reason, Diviner Supreme planned to decline the offer of a position in the imperial court and leave West Capital as soon as possible to settle in some remote place in the southeast, as close to South Ocean as possible. But then his mother died and he had to go into mourning period during which he could neither receive nor send correspondences, which caused a delay in their plan. When he was finally able to leave the capital and establish a home far away from the scrutiny of government officials, it was Upright Lotus who met with difficulties as she tried to arrange a passage into the Grand Circle.

Despite the remoteness of Diviner Supreme’s last home, he did not lead the life of a hermit. He had his school, and many scholars who journeyed all the way there to meet and consult with the famed linguist reported that he led a rich social life surrounded by students and friends. The Seventh Emperor himself sent envoys to offer him a position in his court on no less than three occasions, but he declined each time, claiming to be too ill to travel, an apparent lie as he lived a very long life. It is most unfortunate that none of the visitors have written of the presence of Upright Lotus at his house. There is actually no reason to expect any of them to have done so, given the low status of women in this period. Men of the time would have hardly deigned to distinguish between a wife, a concubine, or a servant maiden who served them liquor and meals, but then withdrew to the women’s quarters. Consequently, we cannot know if Upright Lotus ever managed to make her way to him.

When he wrote the narrative poem Upright Lotus toward the end of his life, was it a celebration of how he came to first meet his beloved with whom he shared a long, happy life together? Or is it a work of melancholy remembrance, of the one who was never able to reach him, leaving him to lead the rest of his life in solitary longing? I confess that it pains me deeply that we will, in all probability, never know.

The great mural painting “Peace of Five Peaks Island” is indeed the kind of monument to peacemakers that the Grand Historian Silver Mirror dreamed of in a civilization that has reached the age of wisdom. Yet it was not the gloriously attired Sixth Emperor or the proudly standing Great Sea Dragon who were the true heroes of the event. What all people who value peace and humanity should celebrate is the secret but truly great achievement of their interpreters, barely visible in the background of the picture as well as of history itself, who quietly and subtly saved the lives of hundreds of thousands through the virtuous use of unfaithful translations.

• • • •

[Marginal Note: My true and dear beloved, how well you have weaved the story together from so many disparate documents across the ages, in different scripts and genres. How you have rendered the invisible visible, how you brought clarity to the obscure, and how you shed light on the hidden. Yet, I must express disappointment at one aspect of your narrative.

My true and dear beloved, could you really only have told the secret history of the unfaithful translators from the point of view of the man? I already know what your response to that will be. As you point out more than once, the events took place during a historical period that was a particularly low time for women, when they were subjugated, marginalized, and rendered invisible to such an extent that it is almost impossible for historians to gather much reliable information about their lives. This was true even for women of the highest status families, who were forbidden from learning, restricted to their quarters, and kept away from the social life of the larger community. Having made forays into research myself, I understand the difficulties involved.

But I must ask you, my true and dear beloved, have you tried hard enough? Or did your knowledge of the paucity of historical evidence on women of the Primal dynasty make you give up too quickly? Did you even attempt to read around the absence of information? To put it in another way, were you not bothered enough by the question of who Upright Lotus was to look further in search of her identity? Even her name is one that was given to her by a man.

For instance, you speculated that she might have been a member of a southern merchant family who worked as an assistant to her father. We know that indeed women played a greater role in South Ocean and its islands, a few even heading merchant concerns. Beyond merely theorizing about the origin of Upright Lotus, have you delved into that historical context? Even if you were not able to find any information about her before the Peace on Five Peaks Island, the research may have shed light on the life of such an intellectually gifted woman who worked for her family’s business and then for a powerful sea lord.

But, my true and dear beloved, what bothers me the most is your lack of a detailed analysis of the letters Upright Lotus sent to Diviner Supreme. You say that they provided the essential clues that allowed you to decode Diviner Supreme’s poem. How did they do so? Also, what exactly do the letters say, what is her writing style, what do they reveal about the character of the writer? You wrote, on that day on Five Peaks Island when Diviner Supreme fell in love with her, “he gazed at her luminous eyes that shone with sad intelligence.” How did he look to her? Did she also fall in love with him? Or did she have her own reasons for her actions? After they successfully averted war, did she really want to be with him? Would she have wanted to take the enormous risk of traveling by herself to the Grand Circle, just so she could live in a society where she would have to lead a restricted existence? Would she have indeed done all that just to be with him, or could she have made her own way and led her own life? Even if they were never reunited, leaving Diviner Supreme to lead a life of, as you say, “solitary longing,” that doesn’t necessarily make it a tragedy for Upright Lotus. She may have found happiness in a different world.

I assume, my true and dear beloved, that the letters do not provide direct answers to those questions, as otherwise you would have revealed them. But you must see how your neglect of their specific contents deprives the reader of what may turn out to be clues to another alternate view of the events. A secret history within the secret history of the Peace of Five Peaks Island, if you will.

You have done well, my true and dear beloved, but you can do better and you must do better. We all must, in our never-ending task of rendering the invisible visible, bringing clarity to the obscure, and shedding light on the hidden.

My true and dear beloved . . .]

Minsoo Kang

Minsoo Kang is a historian, fiction writer, and translator.  He is the author of the history books Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: The Automaton in the European Imagination and Invincible and Righteous Outlaw: The Korean Hero Hong Gildong in Literature, History, and Culture, the book of short stories Of Tales and Enigmas, and the translator of the Penguin Classics edition of the classic Korean novel The Story of Hong Gildong.  His stories have also appeared in F&SFStrange HorizonsAzaleaEntropy, and five anthologies.  He is currently a professor of European history at the University of Missouri, St. Louis.