Author: Rydain PM
How did an unruly teenage boy grow up into one of Wei's greatest commanders? In tumultuous times, Cao Ren sorts himself out to take a stand against chaos. A close historical look at the army Ren raised to begin his military career. Under revision.Rated: Fiction T - English - Drama/Adventure - Cao Ren & Cao Cao - Chapters: 24 - Words: 39,342 - Reviews: 32 - Favs: 8 - Follows: 5 - Updated: 07-09-11 - Published: 02-12-09 - Status: Complete - id: 4858842
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How did an unruly teenage boy grow up into one of Wei's greatest commanders? In tumultuous times, Cao Ren sorts himself out to take a stand against chaos.
A historical tale of first steps toward military leadership, based on a broad survey of research about Han Dynasty culture. Sources include the Scholars of Shen Zhou, China History Forum, Rafe de Crespigny's work, free English translations of classical Chinese texts, and other reputable online resources. Special thanks goes out to the friends who helped me with all manner of brainstorming about ad hoc militias.
Cao Ren and his fellow clansmen are historical figures, characterized from their Sanguozhi biographies with some inspiration from fitting portrayals in other Three Kingdoms media. All other characters are fictional.
Critique is welcomed and encouraged, especially with regard to historical plausibility.
Rated T for coarse language and violence in the context of war.
Cao Ren crept through the wilds of Pei in pursuit of whatever quarry he might find. Even if he took nothing home for the stew pot, a morning in such desolate splendor was time well spent. Distant mountains rose craggy and mist-shrouded against the pewter sky. A cool breeze touched his face, swishing through the towering pines and the shrubbery that served as his cover. It had rained the night before, and the earth smelled fresh and green and new.
His eye caught a telltale rustle in the scrub growing thick at the clearing's edge. Ren notched an arrow and raised his bow, well ahead of the pheasant about to amble away from safety to peck for stray seed. His pull was taut, his aim true -
- and a scrubbing brush sailed out of the clouds and thumped him square in the chest. The vast and heady wilderness became an austere hall in the Confucian academy where Ren had been cooped up all morning. Rather than a bow, he held a brush with a habit of blotting regardless of what care he took with his stroke. His quiver was a stack of bamboo sheets marked with utilitarian calligraphy. And the pheasant? Master Pan, his thin and pointed face even more pinched than usual.
The teacher glared at Ren as if peering into his thoughts. "And what were we dreaming of today? Troublemaking? Lollygagging? A lovely young lady, perhaps?"
"The field, master."
"How is it that you have such patience for the hunt and so little for the classroom?"
"When game appears, I shoot it. Doing the same to master would be unthinkable."
Giggles escaped from a few students around the room, who swallowed their amusement before Master Pan could turn his hawk eye upon them.
"Order!" the teacher barked, still focused on his daydreaming pupil. "How unsurprising that your mouth is as flighty as your mind. Remind us all of a better example."
Ren sat up straight, ignoring the insult and the dust mark that the scrubbing brush had left on his yi. "Ken is signified by two mountains standing together. It means to stay still when called for and go forward when necessary. Take consideration before moving. Keep thoughts and words in order." Tempted to add a remark about his obvious deficiency at the last part, Ren bit his tongue instead. There was no sense in digging himself into a deeper hole by flouting wisdom with a wisecrack.
"And how does the Book of Changes instruct the superior man to achieve this?"
"In terms of control over his body." Ren took a breath. "Six at the beginning means keeping his calves- his toes still. He cannot rescue him who he follows."
The line made sense - people used their feet to walk, after all - but it seemed off. Master Pan shook his head, confirming that Ren had misspoken.
"Six at the beginning means keeping his toes still."
Ren's face became as red as his clothing. Copied countless times during detention, the wisdom of ken had once been a freshly inked book hung on the wall of his mind. Ren had even recited it in his sleep, mumbling himself awake from a dream about a strange school taught by a fox spirit in the mulberry grove. The phrases now lay scattered in a mess of unbound slats as Master Pan watched him scramble to put them all back in order.
Ren flicked his eyes to the right where brother Chun knelt as poised and unmoving as the lion statues guarding the family estate. Perhaps Chun, who could retell the entire Book of Changes backwards while standing on his head, would take pity on Ren and prompt him.
Perhaps not. Chun kept his stony silence, leaving Ren to flail after those elusive words as Master Pan eyed him for several long moments.
At last, the teacher waved a dismissive hand. "It is irrelevant. Even if you did know the text, you certainly have not learned it. Stay after class."
Then it was back to the hypnotic boredom of Master Pan's dry and droning monologue. Ren put brush to bamboo as if his strokes were fishnets to capture the words, reins to keep his focus from drifting back out the open window.
Mountains standing close together
The image of keeping still.
Thus the superior man
Does not permit his thoughts
To go beyond his situation.
Character after character, line after line, stroke after tedious brush stroke. Over and over, Cao Ren inked the terse wisdom of ancient philosophers. Master Pan wandered by now and then to glance at the growing stack of copies beside his desk, offering no feedback other than an occasional sniff of apparent satisfaction.
After Ren covered several more sheets with no sign of the teacher's presence, he set his pen down for a break. He unfolded his legs into a more comfortable pose and stretched his hands as the afternoon's work marched in imagined columns across his bleary eyes. A small voice reminded him that success at school just might come down to this sort of brute force. Ren could always copy on his own time instead of being stuck in this room as the clouds broke and the afternoon sun beamed bright through the open windows. Yet he struggled to focus with forests and fellows out there and waiting for him, especially because such effort was required for results that came easily to others. Brother Chun soaked up verses as a parched plant took in water. Compared with his scholarly twin, Ren had a head full of rocks upon which such knowledge had to be engraved - stroke after tedious brush stroke.
A sharp tug on the topknot and an accompanying admonition reminded Ren that Master Pan was, as usual, one step ahead. "Dawdling merely delays the inevitable."
"Yes, Master." Ren's first order to copy texts after class had become a futile attempt to outlast the teacher's patience. He had sat cross-armed at the low desk with a blank sheet of bamboo in front of him and the ink left unprepared nearby. Master Pan had waited without concern or comment, taking no action at all other than fetching an oil lamp for each of them at sundown. Only then had Ren picked up his brush and begun what he could have finished a long while before. After all had been said and done, he had arrived home well past his usual sleeping hour to a dark house and a box of leftover barley and vegetables congealed into an unappetizing brick.
"As does distraction." Master Pan inspected the pile of copies with an impressed harrumph. "Yet that did not get the better of you just now. It appears that some inkling of ken sank into your skull."
Of course, the teacher's rare compliment would have to be wrapped in condescension.
"Continue this study on your own time if you are up to the responsibility. And if you are not -" Master Pan brandished the scrubbing brush. "The walkways around here could use a thorough cleaning."
What sort of a threat was that? Scrubbing was no more hand-numbing than writing. It let Ren catch some fresh air among the greenery of the school courtyards. And none of it had to be repeated word for word later on.
The teacher's eyes bored into Ren like slitted coals. "Every last one of them."
So much for that lesser of two evils. The brick paths in question ran all over the sprawling academy grounds, bordering buildings and connecting pavilions and winding their way through the gardens. Washing every chi of such would have Ren eating his dinner cold for the better part of next month. By the time he finished up, the walkways he had cleaned first would have become dirty again - and still his responsibility to take care of.
"You may leave now. I trust that you will consider your choices."
Ren bowed, collected his belongings, and hurried out of the classroom, his heart heavy with gathering dread. Master Pan's ultimatum went well beyond the evenings of chores or copying brought on by his typical misbehavior. Long-term drudgery was reserved for more serious infractions, such as the brawl that had earned its participants a vacation from class to labor alongside the academy's servants. Over the following month, Ren had seen an occasional miscreant painting a roof in the hot sun, crawling deep into a garden to pick some errant weed, or glowering under a load of lumber. A few had served their time and returned to their studies with proper humility. Others had dropped out, well behind their classmates without a prayer of catching up on the missed schoolwork.
Though not in danger of such banishment, Ren was still sinking rather than treading water. And Mother would be none too happy if he came home late again due to detention.
Ren left the academy and hit the road running with a silent prayer that he would make it home for dinner.
Book of Changes - Also known as the I Ching, this classical text describes a fundamental ancient Chinese philosophy and worldview. It is one of the Five Classics studied by Confucian students in Han China.
ken - I Ching hexagram about achieving a quiet heart. This includes disciplinary advice such as refraining from distraction and thinking before speaking.
yi - A wrap-style Han Chinese upper garment with an open front, crossed collar, and wide sleeves.
Some sources list Cao Chun as two years younger than Cao Ren. According to the Biographical Dictionary of Later Han to the Three Kingdoms, the brothers are twins.