The group was quiet for a long time before Boss Li continued, “I normally wouldn’t tell anyone this, but you all have been following me for so long that I think of you guys as my own. Since you guys want to know, I’ll tell you all about it.”
The young man immediately became excited, “That’s great! To tell you the truth, we’ve been wondering for a while if you had some unique skills that would help you locate ancient tombs on the first try.”
Boss Li paused again, seemingly reluctant to talk about it, before saying, “Nothing that amazing. In fact, it’s actually not a secret. This kind of thing has something to do with my ancestors and has been passed down through the family for ages. Listen and I’ll tell you.”
And with that, Boss Li told a very interesting story:
It was during the Northern Wei Dynasty,(1) when society was in chaos and countless battles were being fought daily. Many of the adults had died, so his ancestor—a boy who wasn’t even six years old—had to go out and herd cattle to support the family.
There was a riot near their village that year, and the government troops came to suppress it. All the villagers fled but his ancestor’s family wasn’t able to escape in time. They barricaded themselves in their home as a terrifying massacre took place outside. It continued like this for three days until it finally died out.
His ancestor was full of fear and trepidation as he stealthily crawled out to take a look. There were dead bodies all over the ground and many people who were heavily wounded but hadn’t died yet. Scared out of his wits, he ran to look for his cattle, but when he entered the barn, he saw that the cattle were gone and a wounded soldier was lying in the straw.
The soldier was mute and gravely injured. At that time, Boss Li’s ancestor was too young to tell whether the soldier was part of the government troops or one of the rebels, but he took pity on the man and gave him some water to drink and a cloth to stop the bleeding. But the mute man’s injuries were so bad that he didn’t last long.
Right before he died, he took out a roll of linen covered in Chinese characters, gave it to Boss Li’s ancestor, and made a gesture indicating that the boy should take good care of it.
But unfortunately, everyone in the ancestor’s family was illiterate so no one knew what was written on it. Later that year, when it was so cold that many people froze to death, the family used this linen to make a cotton-padded jacket.
When Boss Li’s ancestor became an adult, he enlisted as a soldier and went on expeditions. He performed many meritorious deeds in battle during the Southern and Northern Dynasties,(2) and was later promoted to an officer position. But society was so chaotic at that time, and dynasties rose and fell too quickly that his family’s situation gradually declined during his later years. As a result, when he died, the only thing buried with him was that cotton-padded jacket.
After that, the family went through several ups and downs until the Qing Dynasty, when they became landowners. They were moving the ancestral graves when several of the workers(3) became careless and accidentally tilted the coffin, causing the bones inside to fall out. As they picked up the bones from the ground, his grandfather found that everything inside had decayed, but the linen that was used in the cotton-padded jacket was still well preserved.
His grandfather felt that this linen was very strange so he took it to an antique dealer in the family. When that person looked at it, they immediately realized that the linen was quite special. The characters on it were those used in the so-called “mute language”, a written language that was said to only be understood by mute people.
When Boss Li got to this point in the story, he stopped and asked his audience, “Do you guys know what this linen was used for?”
Everyone was silent for a while, and then a voice I had not yet heard said, “I’ve heard a little about this from my uncle. At that time, there was an army in the Northern Wei Dynasty comprised of only mute soldiers. This thing was something they used to pass on confidential information. It was written in the mute language, which most people still don’t understand.”
Boss Li nodded and said, “As expected of a master. Do you know what this army was doing?”
The master laughed, “Now that I don’t know much about. But I heard that this Northern Wei division was actually Mojin Xiaowei who followed the traditions set down by Cao Cao.(4) Publicly, they were said to be the emperor’s guard but they were actually secretly engaged in grave robbing. Since all of the soldiers were mute and used the mute language that only they knew, this meant that only they and the emperor knew about the ancient tombs they had robbed. Their activities have always been shrouded in mystery.”
At this point, the master paused as if he had thought of something, and then asked, “Boss Li, is it possible that the piece of linen you mentioned is actually ‘A Collection of Rivers and Trees’?”(5)
Li Boss suddenly laughed and nodded before saying in a smug tone, “Amazing, amazing. With such a master here, I couldn’t keep you all in suspense even if I wanted to. Yes, that’s correct.”
The master sucked in a sharp breath before saying, “That’s really amazing! To think that people in the same profession would have such different fates. The Li family should’ve been able to make a fortune with this thing.”
The young man didn’t understand what they were talking about and asked the master, “What is ‘A Collection of Rivers and Trees’? What does it have to do with ancient tombs?”
“It’s said that after the mute army found an ancient tomb, they usually wouldn’t rush to excavate it but would record its location first,” the master explained. “Then they would use horses to level the surface and pour molten lead on the ground to hide it. When they were ready to start excavating, they would use the record to find its location again. This record, which recorded the locations of these ancient tombs, is called ‘A Collection of Rivers and Trees’. It’s a play on words that means ‘Where the Tombs are Located’.”(6)
“Well, I’ll be damned,” the young man said in surprise. “So you’re saying that the last few tombs we went to were recorded on that piece of linen? Wow, Boss Li, you really haven’t been honest with us. If you had such a treasure, you should have shared it with us.”
Boss Li laughed, “That’s not entirely true. It’s not like this thing from my ancestor is an inexhaustible resource. The linen in my ancestor’s coffin had the locations of twenty-four ancient tombs recorded on it. The one we’re going to now is the last one but it should be the best out of all the ancient tombs.”
“Did it say what’s in it?” The young man asked.
Boss Li frowned and said, “The records aren’t that detailed but the linen did say that the treasure in this tomb can’t be used by ordinary people. It’s the best of the best, at least three times better than any treasure found in Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s tomb. Believe me, there’s absolutely no mistake.”
Lao Yang and I already knew that these people had come here with a specific goal in mind, but we didn’t expect that they were so experienced. “I-i-is that Li guy really t-telling the truth?” Lao Yang asked me. “Is there really a better tomb in the world than Qin Shi Huang’s tomb?”
I shook my head and replied, “I can’t say for sure, but he seems so confident that I bet at least part of it is true. They’ll definitely cross the mountain tomorrow, so we’ll just have to follow them.”
“T-then we might as well follow them to the end,” Lao Yang said. “Their goal this time shouldn’t be small, so even if we pick up their leftovers, we can still come away with something. Let’s not go to the sacrificial pit.”
He was so excited that he stuttered a lot and ended up saying a few words in a particularly loud voice. I knew that the situation wasn’t good so I quickly covered his mouth and told him to calm down while at the same time straining my ears to see if the group by the fire had noticed anything. But it was too late—there was sudden silence over there. They had clearly noticed that something strange was going on nearby.
Lao Yang and I held our breaths, trying not to make a sound as our hearts beat like drums in our chests. No one in the group spoke either, as if they were trying to listen to the sounds around them. Neither side made a sound, maintaining a precarious balance for several minutes. Then, Old Tai couldn’t stand it anymore and said softly, “Pockmark (the young man), there seems to be something behind us. Go and check it out.”
After hearing this, I also heard the distinct sound of two pistols being loaded, and I immediately broke out in a cold sweat. It seemed that these guys really were thugs. What Lao Yang had done just now was going to get us killed.
I turned my head and looked at our surroundings. If we ran away now, I was eighty percent sure that we could escape, but it would be harder to follow them in the future. If we didn’t run, I honestly wasn’t sure that we could hide right under their noses.
While I was hesitating, a loud noise suddenly came from off in the distance. I looked over at the place where the noise had come from and saw a row of four or five flashlights moving in our direction—it was a mountain patrol team.
“Shit, let’s go,” Uncle Tai whispered. The group hurriedly stomped the fire out, shouldered their equipment, and ran into the depths of the forest.
Lao Yang was scared half to death just now but when he saw them running away, he became anxious and asked me, “Wh-what should we do? Sh-should we chase after them?”
I carefully craned my neck to take a look and found that no one in the group was using their flashlights. It was impossible to see anyone in the dark forest so I said to him, “No, look at how dark it is. We might even wind up in front of them if we try to chase after them. Let’s rest first and follow their trail tomorrow. I don’t think they’ll get very far considering they have to stop and rest as well.”
Lao Yang was still very anxious but there was nothing else we could do since that mountain patrol team was already very close to us. If we didn’t leave now, we’d probably get caught. Lao Yang kept talking so I told him to shut up and pulled him deeper into the forest in the other direction.
We didn’t dare go too far for fear that we wouldn’t be able to find our way back to that place tomorrow. The two of us hid behind a bush, only daring to relax when we saw the flashlights gradually fade into the distance.
After thinking for a while, I said to Lao Yang, “On the way here, the locals said that this was the most rampant time for grave robbing. I’m afraid there will be a lot of people patrolling tonight so we probably won’t be able to get a good night’s rest. We should find a place to sleep for the night and then head further into the forest tomorrow. Otherwise, two strangers like us will be arrested before we even have time to explain ourselves.”
Lao Yang nodded in agreement but didn’t say anything. When I shook him, I found that he was already half asleep. I sighed and wrapped my clothes tightly around my body, telling myself that it looked like I was the one who would have to take the first watch tonight. I leaned against a nearby tree, but I was so exhausted that I ended up falling asleep before I knew it.
We both woke up early the next morning and found that our heads were covered in bird poop since we had slept under a tree. The smell was so bad that I almost puked. Lao Yang didn’t seem to care at all and just expertly shook it off before shouting that we should hurry up and find that group. I couldn’t stand running around the forest with bird poop on my head so I sacrificed half a bottle of water to wash it off.
Once that was done, I quickly followed Lao Yang back to the place where we had been eavesdropping on that group the night before. I was praying that they had left some clues behind on the ground, but after circling around a few times, we couldn’t even find the remains of their bonfire. Lao Yang started complaining, his nagging a constant buzzing in my ears, “I-I told you yesterday that we should f-follow them. A-and now look at where we are. Such a g-great opportunity and it slipped right through our fingers!”
I immediately became furious, “You certainly have a lot to fucking say! Look, there’s only one mountain road here. Where else could they have gone? Let’s just keep moving forward. We’ll definitely find them.”
We raced along the mountain road all morning but still didn’t see any signs of them even after the road had ended. There was an extremely dense forest up ahead, with trees that seemed to reach the sky, bushes that were overgrown, and no road signs at all. I felt a little intimidated when I looked at it—it was obvious that even the mountain patrol team wouldn’t go beyond this path. This was the real entrance to Snake Head Mountain. From this point on, we were about to take a real mountain road deeper into the mountains and old forests. I couldn’t imagine how many cliffs we’d have to climb in the near future.
As we walked, I felt depressed at the fact that I didn’t see any traces of a bonfire. There was a chance those people didn’t rest after they were scared away by the mountain patrol team last night and simply kept walking. If that were the case, then our chances of catching up to them were almost zero.
I stood at the end of the mountain road and hesitated for a while before eventually coming to a decision. People’s energy was limited. Even if that group had traveled all night, they would have to rest during the day anyway. Moreover, they would have traveled much slower at night than they would during the day so they probably weren’t too far ahead of us. There was still hope that we could catch up to them but we had to be careful while walking to ensure that they wouldn’t discover us.
We took our tactical knives from our backpacks and strapped them to our waists before breaking off two big branches to use as walking sticks. There were many wild animals in the Qinling Mountains—tigers and bears were among the larger ones while wolves and wild boars were among the smaller ones—so if we were unfortunate enough to meet one or two, Lao Yang and I would definitely be enough for them to eat several meals.
Lao Yang asked me what we would do if my prediction turned out to be wrong and we couldn’t catch up to them. I pondered over it for a moment before telling him that according to the research I had done before coming here, there were many shacks on this mountain that had been built by herb collectors. These shacks contained cooking utensils, firewood, and dried meat, so if we could find one, we’d be able to have a good night’s rest before coming up with a new plan.
“You have to be sure,” Lao Yang said. “W-we still have a chance to turn back now but once we g-go further…. Just l-look, there’s not even a g-ghost around here. Once you get lost in the woods, it’s already too late. The road to Shu is hard, harder than climbing to the blue sky.(7) Since ancient times, people have died on the road from Chang’an to Shu. In fact, there’s no telling how many people have died in these hundreds of miles of mountains over the past thousand years. Their ghosts might still be haunting this place at night.”
I laughed at him, “What happened to that fiery ambition you had when we first came here? It looks like you’re nothing but fucking talk. We’re not even that far into the mountains yet and you’re already giving me the whole ‘the road to Shu is difficult’ speech. If you’re too afraid to keep going, then let’s go back.”
Lao Yang smiled and said, “I was warning you of the difficulties first to see if your determination would waver. But it seems that our young Wu has indeed given up his bookishness and moved closer to becoming a hooligan like the rest of us. Don’t you worry, your brother definitely isn’t just talk. I’m certainly not afraid of the difficult road to Shu, let alone any other fucking road out there.”
We used our walking sticks to push aside the bushes in front of us and started walking into the forest, headed in the direction of one of the distant mountain peaks. The unpaved mountain “road” was very difficult to walk since the ground was practically covered in tall grass and the tree canopy was so thick that hardly any sunlight could shine through. I didn’t know how long we walked, but I felt that the sky was getting darker and everything around me looked the same. Just as I was beginning to wonder if we were going around in circles, the mountain road suddenly became a steep incline and we reached a cliff. I could see that a row of plank boards from an unknown era had been set into the cliff to form a path.
The planks had not been repaired for a long time, as indicated by the dark green color they had turned after being subjected to all the moisture in the air for who knew how many years. There were also a lot of flowering vines and ragweed wrapped around them—it seemed that no one had come this way for a long time. We were just about to climb up when we suddenly heard someone shout from behind the tree line, “Hey! What are you guys doing?”
Startled, Lao Yang and I turned around and saw a group of people coming towards us. It was a group of locals comprised of both men and women who seemed to be going to the village on the other side of the mountain, just like us.
Not knowing whether to be happy or scared, I hurriedly signaled to Lao Yang with my eyes, telling him to hide his knife. Once it was hidden on his belt, we walked towards the group and I put on my most sincere smile, “Big brothers and sisters, we’re tourists from out of town. We wanted to go to the village on the other side of the mountain and were wondering if you knew which way to go?”
A woman in a long red coat looked at me and said, “Are you talking about our village? Why would you want to come all the way to our rundown village?”
I saw that the woman was quite vigilant so I decided to make something up, “I’m looking for someone. I came to your village two years ago, and there was an old man who let me stay with him. I came back to see him but I haven’t been here for two years and can’t remember the way.”
The middle-aged woman glared at me and swore, “Bah, you’re a thief if ever I saw one! Who knows what you’re really thinking? I’ve seen too many people like you, either digging up graves or poaching. You’re too wet behind the ears to try and fool me!”
I was stunned by her sudden scolding and didn’t know how to respond, but Lao Yang shoved me aside, waved a hundred yuan in front of the woman’s face, and said to her, “Wh-what a load of nonsense! With what eyes did you see us digging up graves? Answer o-our question politely and th-this one hundred yuan is yours. But if you say another negative word about us, I-I’ll fucking slap you in the face!”
There were several strong men in their group, so when I heard Lao Yang say this, my first thought was that we were going to suffer. Mountain people were tough as nails yet he dared to say something so foolish in front of them. I quickly took a step back, ready to run away, but to my surprise, a man behind the middle-aged woman saw the money and immediately took it with a smile. “Don’t be angry, don’t be angry,” he said to us. “My wife is just messing with you guys. If you want to go to our village, then you have to go to the left. If you go around this mountain, you’ll see a waterfall. Follow the river a ways and you’ll reach the village. It’s the fastest shortcut through the mountain.”
Lao Yang sneered, “You’re lying. Wouldn’t it be faster to go up this plank path instead of going around?”
“No one knows when this plank path was built,” the man responded. “It’s never been reinforced either. No one dares to use it now.”
I was completely dumbfounded after hearing this and couldn’t help but think that we were lucky to have met them. I had just been walking in a daze and almost went up that dangerous path without thinking. I didn’t know what we would’ve done if we ended up stuck up there.
The man suddenly glanced at the sky and said, “Oh, I don’t think you guys will be able to make it there tonight. It looks like you’ll have to spend the night in the mountains. There are several streams that split off from the river so if you’re not familiar with the terrain, you’ll definitely get lost. How about this—we’re going over there to pick ragweed. If you guys want to wait for us, we can all go back to the village together tomorrow. That should work for everyone, right?” As he said this, he came up to me and offered to help carry my equipment.
I saw how enthusiastic he was and he didn’t seem like a bad guy so I quickly weighed our options. The place where we were headed was a valley on the other side of Snake Head Mountain. It had already taken us nearly three days to get this far on the mountain. There was a limit to the amount of equipment we could carry, and it was impossible to bring more than ten days’ worth of dry food with us. As a result, we’d definitely have to go to their village and stock up on provisions once we climbed the mountain. Moreover, that group of five we’d been chasing was nowhere to be seen right now—they had probably taken a fork in the path somewhere along the way. It was also rare to meet people in the mountains like this so it was better to stick with them instead of running the risk of getting lost.
Lao Yang and I exchanged a glance before quickly nodding, “Thank you, big brother. We’ll wait, we’ll wait.” Then I took out my cigarettes and started handing them out to the men.
The middle-aged woman wanted to keep arguing but remained silent when the man glared at her. Even though she didn’t dare say anything, she continued to scowl at us.
Generally speaking, in the mountains, men were the head of the household while women kept quiet, so as long as we were on good terms with the men, these village women couldn’t do anything to us. I looked at the middle-aged woman’s expression and secretly laughed.
We joined their group. The man was the oldest and didn’t seem to have to do too much work so Lao Yang focused all of his attention on trying to get closer to him. The man told us that he was the village secretary and said that the village itself was too backward. Although they had electricity, getting to the village was difficult so that made it impossible to develop it any further. The young people had all gone off to the city to work so there was no one to do any of the farm work. As a result, the villagers had to travel dozens of miles of mountain roads to pick ragweed.(8) But the man had a back problem and couldn’t work for a long time so he had to rest frequently.
I gave a perfunctory response while telling myself that these people didn’t have it easy either.
We walked with them for a while until we reached a certain spot, at which point they all got to work. Lao Yang and I looked at the surrounding terrain, but the mountain here was on the low side so we couldn’t make out what the scenery on the other side was like. I only had a vague impression that this mountain merged into the next one to form a lush sea of green. As I looked at this mountain range that seemed to float in the air, I couldn’t help but wonder where Lao Yang’s sacrificial pit was.
By the time they were done picking the ragweed, it was already evening. We each grabbed a bag of their harvest that was almost as big as ourselves and then followed them for about an hour, the setting sun casting its dying light on our backs. The sky was getting darker and darker, but as I walked, I suddenly found that Lao Yang’s expression had changed and his eyes were constantly scanning the area.
When I asked him what was wrong, he whispered to me, “I’ve been to this place before. If I remember correctly, there must be a place to rest up ahead.”
Sure enough, we walked a bit further and saw a wooden herb collector’s shack appear in front of us. Lao Yang’s expression became excited and he gave me a look as if to say, “I was right!”. The man pushed the shack’s door open and turned to me before saying, “We’ll spend the night here. This place has a stove so if you guys want to cook anything, help yourselves.”
I followed them in and found that it was a two-story shack, with a ladder that led up to a loft. The shack wasn’t furnished but there were several large wooden boards lying around, along with a dirt pit in the middle of the room. This pit was full of charcoal ash, which made me think that it was used to make fires. We put down our equipment, picked up some firewood outside, and quickly made a fire to warm ourselves. Then we took out our dry rations from our bags, heated them over the fire, and ate them. When we finished eating, it was already dark outside and we could hear the cries of wild animals coming from all directions.
Lao Yang lit a cigarette and asked the village secretary what kind of animal it was, but the older man didn’t know. He said that the hunters in their village were long dead and it was only the old people in the village who knew now. “We men can only sleep half the night,” he added. “Someone has to watch the fire and keep it from going out. Otherwise, the wild animals outside will come in.”
I didn’t say anything, too exhausted after the day’s hard journey. When I thought that I might have to live like this for several more weeks, I couldn’t help but regret making that promise with Lao Yang. “I’ll take the last shift,” I said to Lao Yang. “I need to sleep first. Just wake me up in the middle of the night when it’s time to change shifts.” He started protesting loudly as soon as I said this, but I was so out of it that I didn’t understand what he was saying and soon fell asleep.
Unfortunately, my sleep wasn’t very peaceful. I tossed and turned until someone suddenly shook me awake in the second half of the night. I opened my eyes and saw that everyone else was asleep and Lao Yang was hovering over me, furtively looking around. He gently shook me again and whispered, “Get up, get up quickly!”
<Chapter 4><Table of Contents><Chapter 6>
(1) Northern Wei Dynasty was a dynasty founded by the Tuoba clan of the Xianbei, which ruled northern China from 386 to 534 AD, during the period of the Northern and Southern dynasties. Info here.
(2) Southern and Northern Dynasties was a period in the history of China that lasted from 420 to 589, following the tumultuous era of the Sixteen Kingdoms and the Wu Hu states. Info here.
(3) Pinyin is “chang gong” (长工). I went with workers instead of servants because according to Baidu, they’re workers with a relatively long and fixed period of employment who have signed a long-term contract with the landlord/landowner. Short-term laborers had their own homes and would go home regularly. The two had a tenancy relationship with the landlord/landowner.
(4) Cao Cao (155-220) was a famous statesman and general at the end of the Han Dynasty. He was also a noted poet and calligrapher, later warlord, founder and first king of Cao Wei, and father of Emperor Cao Pi. Said to have robbed old tombs to fund his military campaigns.
(5) Pretty sure the author made this book up.
(6) Per Tiffany: The exact Chinese words are “河(River)木(Tree)集(Collection)”. However, when people pronounce these three Chinese characters, they can sound exactly the same as “何(Where)墓(Tomb)集(Collection)”, which can be interpreted as a simplified way to say “A Collection of Where the Tombs Located”. Since this was a business that they didn’t want others to know about, they chose normal words like river and trees as a cover for grave robbing.
(7) Line from Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai’s poem “The Road to Shu is Hard”. The poem describes the treacherous passage to Shu, which is located in modern day Sichuan province. There are a million different translations of it but I think this was one of the better ones I found. Here’s some other related info.
(8) Fun fact: ragweed is said to have many medicinal benefits; it can be used as an astringent (for dysentery and diarrhea), antiseptic, emetic (aka vomit inducer), moisturizer, and a fever reducer. More info here.
3 thoughts on “Chapter 5 Eavesdropping”
Thank you for the chapter. Love the notes.
So far the story seems similar to the licensed version… Though I always like your translation style the best
Honestly, when boss Li asked the audience what the linen was for, from behind the tree, I expected Wu Xie to answer instead of them.
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thank you for the chapter 🙏🏼