Folk Song of A Kingdom Called Yue
She was a ferry girl. Her ferry boat was inherited from her father, who was forced to join the army of the Kingdom of Yue when she was four years old. Before her father left, he parked the ferry boat in their yard under a shelter, he told others that he would come back and operate his ferry again. But he never did. People said that her father was killed in a battle with the Kingdom of Wei, some others said it was the battle with Qin. But to her, no matter whether Wei or Qin, she lost her father. The only vague memory she could connect with her father was once before her father took her to his ferry boat. It was Spring, he picked a lot of wildflowers and pinned them on her hair; he called her “My little princess”; he wiped off the mud on her cheeks tenderly with a snow-white handkerchief.
Since her father left, her mother had to wash clothes for others to feed the family. Even though there were only two mouths to feed, her mother was exhausted. She remembered that everyday her mother was sitting in front of buckets of clothes, brushing and rubbing hard. Those clothes were so dirty and stiff that they could almost stand by themselves. And the awful stinky smell from them was haunting in their house day and night, thus they both had no appetite to eat. Later she was told by her mother that those clothes were sent from the army. The wars had lasted years, since she was four years old and her father left. But the clothes sent to them to wash became fewer and fewer. People told them that their country Yue had lost a lot of wars, and hundreds of thousands of soldiers were dead or captured.
She didn’t know those kinds of things; they were too far away from her. She was just a peasant girl, living with her mother. Then there were no clothes to wash at all, so they had to beg for food. When she was fourteen years old, her mother died from a long time of starvation. She had no choice but to restart her father’s ferry boat route. People had no money, no food, no clothes, but they had to cross the river and take the ferry. The river was wide and deep, nobody wanted to risk their lives to operate the ferry, except if they were as desperate as her; Besides, there were almost no healthy adult men in this area—The men either died in the wars or were serving in the army. Only those very old, disabled or underaged men stayed. Therefore, she had managed her ferry for nearly ten years; she became the only one to operate a ferry boat along the river; she also had no husband yet.
In fact, she had seldom met a man, a strong adult man that could be considered as her husband. She didn’t know the feeling of love, or a crush on a man. Sometimes she felt self-pity. From the folk songs that she loved to sing, love was a great thing, love was a sacrifice—Sacrifice yourself unconditionally. She thought that this kind of love must be something different from the way she loved her mother, even her father in her memory. She was living a simple life; she earned her food to survive. Yet she felt if she could love even once, her life would be complete.
She had a beautiful voice; she sang often to people who took her boat. People gave her high praise for her voice, and from their faces, she saw that her songs could relieve their sorrows for a bit. Therefore, she kept singing for people, and for herself.
One day, when she anchored her boat at the riverside and was waiting for passengers, a cloud of dust rose and approached. it was a crew of five men. They stopped by her boat. One young man stepped forward, he bowed gracefully to her and asked “Miss, may we know if this is your ferry boat? If so, could you please take us to the other side?” She nodded to him “Yes, it is my boat. All of you? Come along!” The young man bid thanks to her.
When they all settled down in the boat, she took out her money box. “You guys need to pay the ferry fee first before we go!” She demanded. One man stood out and spoke annoyedly: “Could you please start first? We are in a hurry. We can settle that later.” The first young man stopped him: “Don’t do that to her, it’s her boat and she has the right to collect.” He stood up, bowed to her again: “Sorry, we came out hurriedly and we don’t have the coins of Yue.” He untied something set on his waist. “Would you please accept this gold dagger as our fee?” He handed it to her. It was a small gold dagger; the handle was inlaid with jewels. She never saw such a valuable thing before; it must have been worth at least one hundred times more than the ferry fee. She accepted the deal. “Ok, very well. Now let’s go!” The boat was unmoored and paddled toward the other side of the river.
She peered at these men while stroking her oars: They all dressed nicely in silk, with embroidered patterns all over; their belts were mounted with jade; the boots were black silk upper but covered with dust, and the white soles were quite dirty and damaged. “They must have walked on foot for a long distance,” she thought. Their ages were between forty and sixty, except that young man—He looked to be in his twenties, similar to her age. He sat straight backed; whether he talked with his crew members or not, his face always wore a dignified expression. He was tall, slender and pale, and he was very handsome—His slight slant eyes were dark and clear, and the corner of his eyes flew into his temple. The temples were trimmed neatly, like they were drawn by pitch-black ink. She heard others call him “Prince”. “Yes,” she complimented in her mind “He exactly looks like what a prince should be.” He wasn’t like her other regular passengers; in fact, he wasn’t like anyone she had ever met.
She overheard what they were discussing: It sounded like they just escaped from their guesthouse early this morning; the prince’s father who was the king of Qin was assassinated last night at a party that was given by the king of Yue; the prince and his crew were in danger as long as they were in Yue’s territory, and they believed that the king of Yue should already have sent a group to search for them. Everyone seemed nervous and worried but the prince. He noticed the beauty of the river view with great interest; his eyes sought the blue sky, the light clouds, the distant mountains, and the other side of the river. There was even a faint smile on his face. Even without talking and behaving, his existence already told you his significance, which could calm your eager mind, and soothe your restless soul. Then the prince took out a handkerchief to wipe his forehead—A snow-white handkerchief, which was similar to the one her father used to clean her cheeks.
She felt something hit her heart all of a sudden: Something like a pang, like a tear, like a mother holding her baby in her arms, like the splendid Autumn fields carrying an unknown joy and suffering in a harvest season. He was in her little boat, she breathed in the air he just breathed out, her life overlapped with his and they were crossing the river together. Then he would leave and disappear from her life. She felt a strong impulse that she wanted to hug the prince and cry out. It was him, such an excellent man, a prince, who was so beautiful, unreachable, and in danger!
Overwhelmed by this strong yet desperate feeling, she found that nothing could release her passion but singing. She started to sing, lowly at the beginning:
“What a lovely day,
I paddle my boat in the river;
What a great luck,
I meet a prince in my boat;
He doesn’t look down on me as a ferry girl,
My heart’s beating fiercely upon seeing him;
The trees grow on the mountain and the leaves on the tree.
I fancy this man, but he will never know.”
Her voice attracted the prince. He turned to her and smiled: “It’s beautiful! May I know the name of this song? and what it’s about? It sounded like the dialect of Yue, which I failed to catch.” Her face reddened “Your highness, I just randomly thought of it and sang. It means nothing.” The prince didn’t persist, but nodded slightly with a warm smile of approval.
Finally, the boat arrived at the other side. She anchored the boat and jumped to the land. One of the crew helped the prince to get off the boat. The prince bowed to her again “Thanks for taking us across the river, and thanks for your wonderful song. We appreciate it!” All of the other men bowed to her as well. Then they clustered around the prince and hurried off.
She looked at their backs and felt heartbroken. The man who would only appear once in her life was gone; that glamour moment, his handsome face, his exquisite clothes, all were gone. She would never see them again! Seeing her still standing there, an old man’s voice called: “Come have some water. I heard you sing songs to them when the boat was nearing the shore. Who are they? They look like noblemen.” She walked to the old man’s booth, took the bowl he handed to her, and finished the water in one drink. She wiped her mouth with her sleeve. “Yes, that young man is the prince of Qin. They are hunted by our king; that’s why they have to walk on foot in such a hurry!” The old man nodded “I see. Well, It isn’t easy for anyone in this bad era, including a prince—Who has to take a ferry boat and walk on foot!”
She sighed. The old man requested, “Your song sounded very nice, but I missed the beginning. Can you sing it again to me?” She nodded. She put down her bowl, cleared her throat, and started to sing. The old man listened quietly. When the song was over, he shook his head “What a pity! A such nice man. Even though he isn’t our prince, who cares? We have never enjoyed one day’s peace from our king. See how many of our folks have been killed? My sons, and your father. Always wars, endless wars! Ah, some others are on the other side of the river and waving at us. They must want to take your ferry.”
She looked across the river and did see a bunch of people crowding there. She thanked the old man for his water, paid him one coin, and set her boat toward the opposite side.
Before she arrived, they started to shout at her “Hurry! We have something urgent!” When she got closer, two casually dressed armed men already had jumped into her boat. One man questioned her: “We were told that a prince came toward this direction. Did you see anyone just before?” She shook her head: “No sir. I have been here since this morning, no one passed by or took my boat.” The man examined her face suspiciously. Then the other man cried out “Here is the dagger, it is the prince of Qin’s! There’s his name on it!” The man grabbed her collar: “Dare you to cheat me? They must have crossed the river. Now, take us there!” He signaled to his crew, two more men jumped in the boat, as well as four horses. They warned her: “Operate your boat carefully, otherwise we will kill you!” She took her oars obediently, and the boat started to move toward the other side.
The men discussed aloud about how to catch the prince, and how to kill him without hesitation if he refused to go with them. The king of Yue had announced “I must see the prince either alive, or his dead body.” She was worried about the prince—He and his crew were on foot, while these men would ride horses; He and his crew didn’t look like they were prepared for a fight, while these men all wore weapons on their waists; He and his crew were left ashore just a short while ago, these men could find and catch them easily. She couldn’t continue to think. Then a man walked to her, and threatened “You are our Yue folks, you should worship your country rather than our enemies! Now you are in our hands, don’t play tricks! If we can’t find the prince, we will send you to our king and cut you into pieces.” She started to weep, not only for herself, but mostly for the prince. She could imagine how miserable the prince would look when he was caught. Such a beautiful man, such an extraordinary character, stylish yet humble! Another man called, “Don’t distract her! We are approaching the middle of the river now; the water is deep here. Let her do her job!”
She heard and stopped weeping. The tears were still in her eyes. Yes, that man was correct about the perils of the river; it also reminded her of something else: If she didn’t want the prince to be caught, there was only one way. But was it worthwhile? The man she saved would never know what she did for him—She would just disappear forever, like a bubble in the water, like a particle of dust in the air. If that was the truth, did it matter? She was the person who took these men across the river. If she could have been smarter and realized earlier that they might be coming for him, she wouldn’t have returned to the other riverside in the first place. She did, hence she had to take her responsibility. Plus, she admired him, thus everything she did for him should be unconditional. She was just a small and insignificant ferry girl, perhaps she was destined to meet the prince and devote herself to him; perhaps she was meant to do something bigger and more meaningful than what her life should or would have been. He was too beautiful to be destroyed by these people. He gave her his respect, his appreciation, and his generosity. Shouldn’t it be her turn to reciprocate? She couldn’t just sit there and watch, if so, she would never forgive herself. It was a hard choice, but it was her choice!
She felt relieved. She stared at the water. It was reflecting sunlight and shining gorgeously. It was as if she and her boat had entered a dreamy pool, and the moon was just above. She loved this river, it fed her; She loved her land, it raised her. But did she love her country? It didn’t need her love, her father had died for it; her mother had died because of it; a lot of her folks had shed their blood and paid with their lives to it; then, nothing for them, not even a kind word! They couldn’t feed themselves; they had to either abandon their hometown and escape to other kingdoms, or struggle to live like her and wait for their deaths. It wasn’t her responsibility to save her country, but she could save a man whose life was far more important than hers; who was as magnificent as a rainbow that lit her dull life; and who would fill meaning into her barren existence so she could be complete and have no regrets. What more could she expect?
She thought of her song, and she started to sing it again. One man in the boat yelled at her “Shut up!” She didn’t listen, and she didn’t care anymore.
The old man at the other side of the river witnessed the accident: The ferry boat was turned over, all of the men and horses fell into the water and perished, as well as the ferry girl.
One month later, the prince of Qin was announced to be the king.
Three years later, he eliminated Yue from the map, and achieved the same result with his other competitor Kingdoms.
He united the whole country for the first time in its ancient history and built the biggest empire that had ever existed; he was its first Emperor.
Nobody knew the name of this ferry girl, but her song was remembered by the old man and was spread among her folks. They thought it was just a simple love story; they didn’t know it related to death, salvation, and sacrifice.
Perhaps she was the match point in Qin and Yue’s history. The unified country would last for thousands of years, but the ferry girl who had incidentally and fatefully been involved in its formation, and whose decision might have saved it, was instantly forgotten.