The final chapter of Yun Zhong Ge is often written as both chapter 59 (or chapter 21 in Volume 3), but also as an epilogue. I think its better referred to as an epilogue, as the real ending for the novel came in the previous chapter with Liu Xun returning to the tree where a group of young and carefree friends once made a wish and placed it in a time capsule. A lot of people have mentioned wanting to know more about Shang Guan Xiao Mei, and I can safely say she’s my favorite female character in YZG. I like Yun Ge because Ling gege likes her. But it’s Xiao Mei’s stoicism, grace, courage, and acceptance of her life that resonates with me.
She actually gets her own epilogue that is easily one of the best chapters of this novel. The epilogue is titled “Where Will The Phoenix Go?”, and includes one section on Huo Cheng Jun and one on Xiao Mei, since phoenix in Chinese history refers to an Empress (while the Emperors are commonly referred to as dragons). I’m skipping Huo Cheng Jun’s section, because she gets her just desserts even as we pity her in the end. But Xiao Mei’s section, titled “One Person’s Forever and Always”, is simply a sublimely wrenching piece to read.
Epilogue: Where Will The Phoenix Go?
Shang Guan Xiao Mei – One Person’s Forever and Always
When Cheng Er helped Xiao Mei do her hair, Xiao Mei saw in the mirror a streak of white hair. Xiao Mei gently picked up the handful of white hair, rubbing it between her fingers.
Cheng Er’s heart ached so much she felt like crying. Her majesty the Great Dowager Empress was actually not that old. She was at most a few years older than some of the Consorts in the Palace. But her majesty……….
Liu Shun the eunuch came inside to announce that some Consorts were outside to pay their respects. She lightly waved her hand and Liu Shun turned around and left. He didn’t even need to use a reason and ordered all the Consorts to leave and go home. She smiled. Liu Shun was also getting old. When he talked, he didn’t have his previous energy and strength.
Because of the Emperor’s respect and the Crown Prince’s filial love, her position in the Palace was untouchable. From the most favored Consort down to the least noticed Concubine, everyone wanted to get in her good graces. But there were very few people who even got to see her in person. Some Consorts, even when they have given birth to a prince, still didn’t know what the Great Dowager Empress looked like.
“The old lady in Chang Le Palace” became a whispered legend late in the night in Wei Yang Palace.
Some said she was crippled, so even if the previous Emperor didn’t have any other wives, she still couldn’t bear him a child. They even said the deposed Empress Huo Cheng Jun had the same affliction, which is why she wasn’t able to bear a child for her Emperor, and it was an affliction that all Huo family women were born with. Some people said she was a woman with internal organs as hard as stone, so she wasn’t even able to consummate her marriage to the Emperor. Some said she’s still a virgin because the previous Emperor actually secretly had another woman when he was alive. The previous Emperor didn’t make that secret woman a Consort due to fear of Shang Guan Jie and Huo Guang. Some said she was weak and pitiful, crying when she encountered any situation. Some said she was cold and emotionless, when every single member of both her families died, she didn’t even shed a tear.
When she heard all these rumors, it made her want to laugh. Time is such a scary thing. It turns a young woman’s hair white, it bends a young man’s waist low. It warps the truth that used to exist. But…..time could not wipe away or warp her memory. In the solitude of the long days in Chang Le Palace, she could slowly revisit her memory.
The first day she stepped foot into Wei Yang Palace, she was six years old.
She remembered the heavy phoenix crown she was wearing, it was so heavy she wobbled when she walked. She could hear joyful music all around her, but she was so scared she wanted to cry. She prayed everything would end soon and her mother would quickly come take her home.
She heard everyone call out “Your majesty”, but she didn’t see anyone approach her. She couldn’t resist and lifted the red cloth covering her face and looked around for the Emperor. She saw in the distance a figure who was restraining his own emotions. She was stunned and felt like she did something wrong, quickly dropping her red cloth over her face. She hid all her fear and uncertainty under her phoenix crown. In the compliments of the singer’s music, she awkwardly tried to bow as she remembered her mother’s words.
“Mother, what is an Empress?”
Her mother pushed her on the swing, pushing her higher and higher. She laughed, and in the sound of her laughter, she heard her mother reply “An Empress is the wife of the Emperor. The Emperor is the husband of the Empress.”
“Then what is a wife?”
“A wife is someone who will live an entire life with her husband.”
“Then what is a husband?”
“A husband is someone who will live an entire life with his wife.”
She got annoyed and said “So that means I have to live my entire life with the Emperor? That won’t work. Mother, I want to live my entire life with you.”
Her mother didn’t say anything for some time, only pushing her on the swing. When she turned around, she saw tears in her mother’s eyes.
She thought under her phoenix crown….so this is the person who will live his entire life with me? He doesn’t seem happy at all! But I’m not happy either, I want to go home!
Her mother never came to take her home. She stayed by herself in Shu Fang Pavilion.
When she was seven years old, she went to Shen Ming Tai (God’s Tower, the highest lookout point in the Palace). It was the first time he picked her up and carried her. He walked around with her to look for her home. She nestled in his arms as she tried hard to look for her parents. She kept thinking in a daze, mother said he will spend his entire life with me, spend his entire life with me…………
He was so quiet he didn’t say a single word, only calmly carrying her. But her fear and anxiety lessened.
Later, she discovered he loved going to Shen Ming Tai. But he only ever looked out towards the West, while she always looked towards the North. When she ran into him there occasionally, he would still pick her up and carry her, letting her look towards the North. Even though they both knew, whether it was North or West, they couldn’t really see anything.
When she was eight years old, she first heard someone in the Palace read the Yellow Sparrow poem the Emperor composed. She wasn’t quite sure of the entire meaning of the poem, but she knew that the Emperor was talking about himself.
She also often stood at the edge of the pond and stared at the birds flying freely in the sky, imagining that she was also a bird and can fly out of Wei Yang Palace and be free. In the recitation of the poem, she suddenly understood why he looked at her with compassion. Because he understood her. He was silent and distant, but he understood what she felt in her heart.
She gradually grew taller, and he ignored her more and more. Sometimes when she ran into him in Shen Ming Tai, he would turn around and leave. In his disappearing figure she could see the fatigue etched into his backside. She understood that Shen Ming Tai was the only place in Wei Yang Palace that belonged only to him.
Because she understood, so she stopped herself. She stopped going to Shen Ming Tai. All she would do on nights full of stars is take a walk and listen to the sound of a flute playing in the distance, the tune swirling around the beams and corridors……
How could she ever leave this place?
All the memories and happiness in her entire life was here. Her parents and her sibling, even her relatives, everyone was inside this city of Chang An. On ancestor piety day, she would first go visit her parents, next go visit her paternal grandfather, then maternal grandfather, plus her uncles from both sides of the family. Standing before her younger brother’s grave, she would burn for him a painting she drew of a horse. She would burn silk flowers before her Auntie Lan’s grave, and then burn silk handkerchiefs in front of her Auntie Cheng Jun’s grave.
Even more important was that this place had him. She could sit and stand on Shen Ming Tai for an entire day and night, go walk along the pond to look at yellow sparrows, go to Ping Ling to watch the sunrise. In this Palace, his memory was everywhere. And this memory belonged only to her. Even that girl in green, as free as the clouds, with a smile as lovely as a song, she could never have it.
If having is a type of happiness, then having these memories was her own happiness.
“Your majesty?” Cheng Er tentatively called out. The Great Dowager Empress was in her own world again.
Xiao Mei smiled apologetically and waved her hand for Cheng Er to leave. She casually dropped the handful of white hair and got up to walk to the window. She opened the window and saw a row of condors lined up in the blue sky, flying South.
Where those birds are going, what is that place like? Big brother Emperor must know now. Big brother, I know you are free. You can follow that girl who is like the cloud and like a song out of the Palace. She will walk the entire world and finish doing everything you wanted to do.
But the you who belongs to me remains in this Palace, everywhere in this Palace. On the banks of the pond, on the steps of Shen Ming Tai, in the corridors of the Palace. In a blink of an eye, it feels like you would be walking towards me. Late at night, when I crane my ears to listen, I can still hear the sound of your flute.
The official decree you gave me, I don’t think I’ll ever use it. I know the world outside is vast. But no matter how vast is the world outside, if it doesn’t have your shadow in it, then there is nothing I care about. No matter how beautiful those flowers are, how lovely those trees, how amazing the vista is, how remarkable the men are, none of it is what I want.
I just want to stay here and guard our memories, one person’s forever and always.