Growing up in a Buddhist monastery had been a peaceful and carefree existence. Bai Qian lived without standing on ceremony and rigid customs even though she was Ming’s future Empress. She was born there and spent her entire life, well fifteen years, within this temple, located a mere two hours walk from Hanyang, the capital of Joseon, where the palace and her royal aunt reside.
She saw her mother’s younger sister only once a year when her mother and one of her brothers visited on birthdays. It’s felt like a countdown for them. Every year her family members remind her that she one year closer to leaving Joseon to take her preordained position in the great Ming dynasty as the Empress.
Every year, Bai Qian responded the same telling them she’d rather stay in Joseon and become a Buddhist nun. They thought her silly, naive. Assuming she was scared or uncertain, they could not understand her reasoning, but they were strangers even though their blood was akin. Neither party barely knew each other at all since they lived apart.
Her mother thought it was premarital nerves and confirmed the Crown Prince Mo Yuan was a dashing young man whom all the women clamor for and how lucky she was and how other women would love to be in her shoes. Bai Qian’s reservations had nothing to do with her future husband, some fellow whom she had only seen in painted portraits.
Her brothers believe her to be more shallow-minded. They reassured her fashion and society in Ming far outshined Joseon. Would they have been shocked if she had confessed, style and culture be damned? Her hesitation had nothing to do with parties and festivals. It was the beauty of the land, the peninsula surrounded by the sea full of whales and dolphins. Love for Joseon and its people was her motivation to stay.
Bai Qian wondered.. no, she highly doubted the gardens in Forbidden City could compare to Joseon’s forests in springtime. When the crispness leaves the air as the snow melts away, leaving behind the scent of green trees and the days seem to last just a bit longer. When the pastel pinky peach-hued cherry trees blossoms and their fleshy petals shower down like rain from above, covering the ground, pale rose, but the skies are slightly overcast.
What about the noises and the people she had grown to love? Such as the faint pitter patterings of the gentle spring rain, the temple bells, wind chimes made of brass hanging from the rafters sounded clear echoed rings when air-kissed by the soft cross breeze. Deep timbered, a unioned chorus of voices chanted morning, mid-day, and evening mantras in the central prayer hall. And the woman who raised her humming lullabies as Bai Qian slept in her arms.
Maybe it’s because it was their last day together. Her foster mother croons the same lullaby, but she sang the well-known Joseon song called Arirang with bittersweet lyrics.
Arirang, Arirang, Arariyo,
Arirang Pass is the long road you go.
If you leave and forsake me, my own,
Ere three miles you go, lame you’ll have grown.
For the second verse, the other females within the private dressing chamber sang along. Their melange of voices blending without overwhelming the lead singer’s soprano pitch as they harmonized.
Arirang, Arirang, Arariyo,
Arirang Pass is the long road you go.
If you leave and forsake me, my own,
Ere three miles you go, lame you’ll have grown.
It was a melancholy tune full of longing, but it matched the grey sky and impending farewell, “Come to me, child, the rain might cause some delay, but carriage from the palace will be here shortly. Your royal aunt will have my head if you show dressed in that grain sack of an outfit.” The woman smiled while leading and sitting Bai Qian down in front of the vanity.
After applying a generous layer of fragrant rose-scented hair oil on the Bai Qian’s hair from roots to tips in long sweeping passes, the woman stated. “Before anyone greets his Majesty, the King, and the royal court, your appearance must be proper, respectful according to Joseon’s laws. Today, I’ll braid your hair one last time while telling you an interesting tale. This story is about me, you. It’s about us.”
The speaking woman and other ladies dressed in the drab clothing consisting of traditional gray cotton outer jackets with wide sleeves and baggy pants garment commonly worn by Joseon’s monks, yet contrary to their modest apparel, the woman was none other than Joseon’s deposed monarch. Queen Cho and the other females were her attending ladies, all from noble births and homes.
Queen Cho’s story began as she tenderly brushed Bai Qian’s long black straight hair that hung below her waist. “Once, there was a bright-eyed young girl who happened to be a bit like you. She met a dashing Crown Prince who swore to protect and love her until the end of time, so this scholar’s daughter married him as his Princess Consort and soon after became the Queen.”
“Their passion was like the first bite of a ripen fruit, sweet. At the beginning, blind by love, they neither noticed nor cared for anyone but each other, but as time passed, their affections were not enough to keep others from scheming when the Queen failed to produce a legitimate male heir. Since the Queen couldn’t give him a son and instead had three daughters in a row, from Ming, a stunning Princess came to serve as the King’s consort. Within that first year, she gave birth to the King’s first son, who happens to be your first cousin, Crown Prince Yi Won.”
“His Majesty promoted your aunt, and she took over my place as the Queen. The night I arrived at this temple, full of shame, looking like a commoner, and it felt like an insult to injury when I happen to notice your finely dressed mother praying before Buddha. This run-in wasn’t the first time we had met. In happier days, back in the palace gardens, we often shared tea when she arrived from Ming to aid her younger sibling’s last days of pregnancy. Sadly, for us now, everything had changed. We were on different sides, enemies…”
“I stared your mother down with all the resentment in my heart. She saw the hatred in my eyes, and I must have caused her such fright because she suddenly went into labor one month earlier than scheduled. You came into the world after three pushes.” Bai Qian’s eyes lit up when she asked curiously, “I came that fast? Queen Mother, did you deliver me personally?”
“Heavens, no child. Lady Jo, and Lady Han, are trained midwives. They handled the messy part. I stayed away. I was torn and unable to trust my mal intentions. I will confess you and your family were the targets of my misplaced resentment towards the King and his unfulfilled promises. I thought about taking you out in the forest and abandoning you. It would have been easy since childbirth at your mother’s advanced age took a toll on her. She drifted in and out of sleep constantly.” Queen Cho explained, caressing Bai Qian’s soft as baby skin, her rosy cheek with the back of her hand.
“Then the oddest thing occurred. You were two days old when a strange dense fog rolled into the woods. This fog wasn’t like anything anyone had seen before. It even drifted into the temple. And amid the chaos, a forest beast crept into your mother’s chamber. When the haze cleared, we found muddy animal prints. A trail leading from the entry went up to your crib, so we knew it took you.”
“Your weakened mother awoke to hear the news of your missing and collapse from the shock into a month-long feverish coma. I think she wanted to accompany you so you wouldn’t be alone in the netherworld. We thought the beast ate you and searched the entire forest for weeks looking for your bones or any remnants of your body until one day. A traveling trader heard strange noises like a baby cooing coming from inside a cave.”
“He peeped inside and saw you nursing with a white tigress’s cubs. He came here for assistance. However, the others were away on the opposite side of the mountain, searching for you. I was the only adult member here, so I followed him back to the cave. The foolish man believed he could sneak inside the shelter and take you, but the tigress attacked, killing him on the spot. Nobody would dare to go inside after that.”
“Someone suggested hiring a professional tiger hunter, but she was nursing her young and protected on sacred temple grounds. Everyone advised me not to, and it’s nothing I can put into words, but I felt this strange pulling sensation. Therefore I slowly crept inside. Now, I’ve seen my share of wild beasts but never had I seen such a majestic tiger. As virgin snow, she was pure white with the most brilliant sapphire blue eyes.”
Queen Cho raised her jacket sleeves to reveal the old but still visible jagged scars on her arms. “Sometimes, I wonder if that animal came from another realm? What wild beast takes a human child and raises it as her own? She didn’t want to give you up how she grumbled, snarled hissing until I extended both my arms submissively. She scrutinized me for what felt like a lifetime, and during that moment, I read her mind. She demanded your safety, and I wordlessly nodded my head that I would protect you. She didn’t trust my intention. It wasn’t enough of a guarantee for her. She demanded a blood oath and ripped both my arms to the bone before allowing me to take you.”
“By the time we returned to the temple, you were naked and covered in my blood. To anyone who saw us, it probably looked as if I’d given birth to you in the forest. Because we believed you dead, there wasn’t a single nursemaid nearby to feed you. Stress and illness dried up your mother’s milk supply, and you were hungry. My youngest was already two, and as per custom, I’d had never nursed any of my own, but the sound of your cries caused my breasts suddenly to fill up so painfully that milk drenched my jacket, so I put you to my breasts.”
Bai Qian squirmed in her seat and asked hopefully, “Did you fall in love with me right away because you fed me?”
“Not quite. I still didn’t like you.” Her nimble hands braiding Queen Cho answered honestly and continued with her account.
“Let’s see. By then, your father heard the unbelievable story in its entirety and sent a courier asking if you had a star-shaped birthmark by your ears or on the back of your head.” Tenderly her fingertip touched the centered dark star-shaped speck on the highest point of Bai Qian’s neck as she had countless times before. “Your mother replied that you indeed did. And to our confusion, your father commanded your mother to leave you behind and return home. I know it broke your mother’s heart, but her loss was my gain. You are the child that healed my soul.” Queen Cho kissed the top of Bai Qian’s parted and braided hair, knowing this would be the last time she would see her foster daughter.
The women in the room wiped their watery eyes until SuJia exclaimed, “Ewwww… Qiana drank from a freaky tiger’s nipple! Gross.” Tears and cries turned into laughter. The women who had been crying moments ago now laughed while exchanging amused glances. There was humor in watching a lowly farmer’s daughter tease a future Empress.
Bai Qian and Su Jia were the same age. The peasant girl, at age ten, became orphaned after her parents died from the epidemic. A brothel worker’s fate would have been hers had it not been for Bai Qian saving her from the slavers’ block, and now the two teens were inseparable.
“You two must have been bitter enemies in a past life to love each other.” Senior Lady Sawa teased as she held the colorful hanbok top for Bai Qian. “We don’t love each other!” Both girls barked in unison, causing the entire room to giggle more.
Second Lady Kyung’s nimble hands removed Bai Qian’s gray jacket and, in its place, dressed the girl in the hanbok sent by the palace. The outer vest was bright pink fuchsia and sky blue with white and golden threading around the collar. The jacket underneath was lavender and light pink. The puffy marigold and pale shades of yellow, the multi-layered skirt accented with pure gold, gleaming metallic cranes embossed around the skirt’s entire lower perimeter, and underneath the countless layers of colors was a fluffy white petticoat that caused the dress to balloon, like a lantern.
Seeing her dressed to fit her status, Queen Cho knew Bai Qian would undoubtedly be the most beautiful woman in Ming’s Imperial harem. The Queen’s eyes welled as her heart heavied, knowing from personal experience life as the controller of the inner court surrounded by falsely smiling, perfumed and sweet-talking flattery spewing enemies would be precarious.
Yet when Bai Qian suddenly buried her face into the deposed Queen’s breasts and whimpered, “Queen Mother, I love you. Thank you for raising me. When I become the Empress, I’m going to dismiss your banishment, and you will live with me in the forbidden city. I’ll build you the grandest palace ever created.” All she felt was love.
“What a good and loving child. I don’t deserve such filial piety. Stand straight so as not to wrinkle your lovely dress—such detail.” Queen Cho stepped back and slowly walked around Bai Qian. Her keen eyes examined the dress with her knowledgeable gaze. “I recognize the exquisite features and delicate stitching. The royal tailor, the King’s tailor, made it personally for you.”
“Just in time. Do you hear the carriage outside, and your escort has arrived?” She declared, sounding as relaxed as possible even though her heart was breaking. The banished Queen knelt until she and Bai Qian were eye to eye and warned, “My sweet innocent child, harem, life is confusing, but you mustn’t forget what I’m about to tell you. If any woman that includes my second daughter Consort Chung who entered the Imperial harem last year, refers to you as a friend, sister, mentor, or family, they are against you.”
“Women are like vipers. They may loathe each other too but will join hands in order to plot against you. It would be best if you become a force of one. This is foremost, never, never fall in love, especially with your husband, who will become the Emperor one day. Men are fickle, weak, and will make any promise to get between your thighs.”
The girl’s big round eyes grew huge with newfound concern. A steady trail of fresh tears ran down her lightly rouged cheeks, but she replied with a smile, “Yes, Queen Mother. Bai Qian will forever hold your wise advice in my heart until the day I die.” And honored her foster mother with three kneelings and nine full kowtows, grand kowtow such respect was usually reserved for the Emperor or royal coronations.
Never not even her biological daughters had shown her such utter devotion. The sincere display of genuine gratitude caused her guarded emotions to overcome Queen Cho. She turned away to hide her weeping, blankly staring out the window.
She never knew Bai Qian glanced back over her shoulder several times for one last glimpse of the beloved woman that raised her from infancy before leaving the monastery. And only after hearing the carriage go and the trotting sounds of the horse-hoofs hitting the damp ground grew dimmer before fading, Queen Cho calmly drank the poisoned wine. Imperial Consort Linqin ordered her death sentence. She swallowed the sweet wine without hesitation. She thought of Bai Qian and took her last breath with a serene expression on her face.
To be continued…