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Now that they were ‘inside’, separately sitting on different seats, Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling began to put themselves in somebody else’s shoes by experiencing for themselves how important the martial art competition in front of the imperial court was.
Li Shimin was relying on unrivalled military merit, while Li Jiancheng was relying on his official title as the successor of the Emperor’s throne, plus Li Yuanji was drawing close to him so that Li Jiancheng obtained his help. Therefore, the two sides were locked in power struggle where both sides refused to concede.
In the struggle between the two major factions, the most important link was for both the enemy factions to strive for support from those in neutral ground to throw their lots into his side. And the precondition was precisely by showing that his side was occupying the upper hand.
However, with Li Yuan looking on, the two sides’ men and horses could not publicly show hostility to each other. Consequently, only by using this kind of martial art competition in front of the imperial court would they be able to show off their strength.
The Heavenly Policy Mansion suffered several defeats in succession, but it happened during ordinary days, which, compared to the imperial banquet, only made small differences. Afterwards, although the Princelings Faction spread the news out, complete with some embellishments, even though the damage was serious, it was still not decisive.
However, tonight, the ministers and foreign guests were gathered together. If the Heavenly Policy Mansion lost again, the consequences were really hard to imagine.
No wonder Li Shimin was so keyed up like this, and had to personally appoint the general in advance.
In Li Jiancheng’s mouth, it appeared that anybody could challenge Ke Dazhi, but the fact was that only the Heavenly Policy Mansion had the qualifications, as well as the guts – to answer the challenge.
Sure enough, Li Shimin laughed aloud, stood up to his full height, and reported to Li Yuan, “Wang’er [son king] Heavenly Policy Mansion new recruit, Ke Qing [visitor/guest subject] Mo Wei, his swordsmanship is outstanding; asking Fu Huang to give permission for him to set himself against Ke Duwei in martial art competition.”
In the palace hall, more than half the people practically had never even heard of Mo Wei. Seeing that the one accepting the challenge was not the top-ranked martial art master Li Jing, none did not show the expression that they lost interest. Even more, some speculated that Li Shimin simply could not afford to lose this time, hence the reason he did not let Li Jing to come down to the arena.
The main hall was so quiet that the crow and peacock did not make any sound.
Standing in the middle of the hall, Ke Dazhi maintained tranquil expression; he was taking a profound-mystery, calm attitude.
Li Yuan obviously did not expect Li Shimin would send out a Ke Qing whose name was not encountered in the classics [idiom: unknown] to come out to deal with such an important competition like this. Immediately his brows were wrinkled deeply. And then they saw Zhang Jieyu leaning over and whispered something in his ear.
While Li Shimin, Xu Ziling and Kou Zhong were crying, ‘Bad!’ inwardly, Li Yuan opened his dragon mouth, “If Mo Wei is not the Heavenly Policy Mansion’s best candidate, it would be best if Wang’er select someone else to fight. Tonight is possibly not an ordinary banquet.”
Xu Ziling turned to look at Li Jiancheng. He noticed that his face revealed a pleased-with-himself expression. From this, he deeply felt the formidable power of the alliance between the Princelings Faction and the imperial concubines left and right of Li Yuan. Even Kou Zhong also felt that if he were in Li Shimin’s position, he would equally be put in no-room-to-advance-or-to-retreat situation.
If he admitted that Xu Ziling was the best candidate, naturally the other Heavenly Policy Mansion’s martial art masters would be upset. In case Xu Ziling was defeated, it would be akin to the Heavenly Policy Mansion no longer had anybody who was Ke Dazhi’s match.
Who would have thought that Li Shimin laughed aloud and said, “In taking any action, Child has always emphasized the Art of War. Sunzi [Sun Tzu] said, ‘In making tactical dispositions, the highest pitch you can attain is to conceal them; conceal your dispositions, and you will be safe from the prying of the subtlest spies, from the machinations of the wisest brains. How victory may be produced for them out of the enemy’s own tactics – that is what the multitude cannot comprehend. All men can see the tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved. Do not repeat the tactics, which have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances.’ Would Fu Huang please bestow your permission for Mo Wei to take up the challenge?”
This segment of Sun Wu’s [another name of Sun Tzu] Art of War, the general idea was talking about the way of warfare should not be constrained to a certain pattern, it must be flexible with ten thousand changes, so that the other could not see the least bit of trace. Since there is no trace, the other side would be unable to see what’s true and what’s false on his own side, even a sage would be unable to think of a way against his troops, so much so that they would not understand how they could be defeated. Therefore, the most brilliant strategy was to respond to the situation without any fixed method, and definitely would not let the opponent see through what’s true and what’s false.
Although Li Shimin did not directly answer Li Yuan’s question, he actually hinted that Mo Wei was the wonder troop [orig. troops appearing suddenly in an ambush] that the other people would not be able to see through. This deeply matched the Art of War.
In comparison, everybody thought that Li Jiancheng sending out Ke Dazhi to the arena, this was the trace that could be found.
Immediately Li Jiancheng’s countenance changed slightly, hiding within it an angry look. Li Shimin’s remark had hit his most fatal weak point, which was: he lacked the military merit.
Also, by showing himself and preaching like this, Li Shimin was reminding everybody in the hall that he was the unrivalled-under-the-heavens commander-in-chief. Of course, if Xu Ziling was unable to withstand a single blow and was defeated, Li Shimin’s hard-to-tell-if-it’s-real-or-sham remark would turn into a laughingstock. However, at this moment, not only Li Shimin evaded the crisis of belittling the other Heavenly Policy Mansion’s martial art masters, he also seized back the initiative. He demonstrated the magnificent magnanimity of his air as the commander-in-chief’s.
Hearing this, Kou Zhong submitted cheerfully. Inwardly he was full of praise, while also felt that Li Shimin’s struggle with his elder brother has reached the level where it has become apparent.
On the other hand, Xu Ziling’s thought went a layer deeper. Just now Zhangsun Wuji, either openly or surreptitiously, hinted that he ought to choose stable-defense strategy. Most likely it was Li Shimin’s idea. Li Shimin wanted to incite Ke Dazhi’s eagerness to win, so that he would not be able to unleash the formidable power of the Sandstorm Saber Technique to the max.
After all, this really was not life and death decisive battle. As long as he could hold his ground for a round, Li Yuan might give the order to stop the martial art competition.
In the entire hall the people were holding their breath and quieting their qi, waiting for Li Yuan’s decision.
After muttering to himself irresolutely for half a day, in the end Li Yuan said, “Very well. Let it be as Wang’er requested.”
At Yuchi Jingde and the others’ signal, Xu Ziling stood up calmly, walked over to Ke Dazhi’s side, and went down on his knees to kowtow.
It was only this moment did Li Yuan remember that he had seen this man before, when he inquired about Yue Shan. Immediately his compassion grew; with a tender but happy expression he said, “Turns out it is Mo Qing [subject]. Mo Qing must bear in mind that this is only martial art competition to test your moves, plus there will be Zhen [I, imperial use] personally supervising it. When the bell rings, regardless of the situation, both sides must immediately stop and withdraw. Mo Qing only needs to demonstrate outstanding performance; no matter victory or defeat, it will be enough to propel your name in Guanzhong, Zhen may also consider promoting you for your talent. Mo Qing, you may rise.”
After this ‘special care’ remark from Li Yuan, in an instant Xu Ziling’s social status differed greatly.
Inwardly Kou Zhong cried, ‘Formidable!’ It seemed like when Li Shimin decided to send Xu Ziling down to the battlefield, he already considered the relationship between Li Yuan and Xu Ziling. In this case, Li Shimin’s elaborate and meticulous thought process must be re-estimated.
Xu Ziling stood up awe-inspiringly.
Ke Dazhi cast his gaze toward him and smiled calmly, without the slightest bit of with-swords-drawn-and-bows-bent impression.
Inwardly Xu Ziling shivered greatly, knowing that although in term of age Ke Dazhi was not much different than himself, but in term of self-cultivation, he had reached the realm of the stove fire has turned bright green [idiom (allusion to Daoist alchemy), fig. (of an art, a technique etc.) brought to the point of perfection], hence while being on the spot he did not affected by outside influence at all. Li Shimin’s spurring into action by making negative remarks obviously was not effective to be used against him. This was certainly an extraordinary opponent.
Ke Dazhi even raised his cupped fist to salute and said, “Mo Xiong, please do not hesitate to bestow your instruction.”
Xu Ziling returned the salute.
According to court rule, no one, except high-ranking imperial bodyguards, was allowed to carry any weapon into the Palace. Therefore, the two must wait for the imperial bodyguards to deliver their weapons.
The main hall was abuzz with everyone whispering to each other. The topic obviously did not depart from who would win and who would lose.
Chang He pulled his gaze away from scrutinizing Xu Ziling; he spoke to Mo He’er, who was sitting next to Wen Yanbo, “Compared to us Ci Qie Daren must be more familiar with Ke Duwei. Compared to Ba Fenghan, who do you think is superior?” Ci Qie was Mo He’er’s official rank. [Translator’s note: in Book 28 Chapter 3 it was Ci She.]
If Chang He was asking about the outcome of Xu Ziling versus Ke Dazhi’s battle, no one would be interested to know, simply because everybody already decided that Xu Ziling was going to lose.
Naturally Kou Zhong was the only exception. Because he was holding the exact opposite conviction.
But Chang He was asking about the top two young martial art masters of the new generation, the Tujue martial art master Ba Fenghan, who shared the same fame as Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling. Therefore, no one did not feel curious, hoping that they would hear a bit of clue from Mo He’er, who had just come back from the East Tujue.
Kou Zhong was particularly concerned over an old friend’s current situation; hence he pricked up his ears to listen attentively.
Slightly startled, Mo He’er smiled and said, “Chang Daren’s question really confounds Xiaodi. Since entering the Central Plains to take refuge, Ba Fenghan has been disappearing without any trace. It is rumored that there were traveling merchants in Huihe [pre-Tang name of ethnic group corresponding to modern Uighur] who heard news about him; they said that he defeated the three most famous local martial art masters in succession, while also beheaded several horse thief bosses who wreaked havoc locally. When this news reached Tujue, it created quite a stir in the entire nation.”
Inwardly Kou Zhong was relieved; knowing that Ba Fenghan was preparing himself in the martial way cultivation before challenging Bi Xuan.
Wen Yanbo said, “In that case, Ci Qie is still unwilling to come to the final conclusion on who’s superior and who’s inferior between Ke Dazhi and Ba Fenghan.”
Mo He’er nodded and said, “Ba Fenghan was able to defeat the ‘Eagle’ Qu Ao, naturally he cannot be trifled with. But I have never personally seen his startling-the-heaven method, so it is inappropriate for me to make any comment. However, among the younger generation masters, he is definitely Ke Dazhi’s most formidable opponent.”
Everybody felt that his remark was very appropriate; they all nodded in agreement.
Just like everybody else, Mo He’er could not control his gaze from looking at Shang Xiufang’s exceptional jade countenance. Sitting next to Kou Zhong’s ugly countenance, it appeared even more tender and beautiful and alluring. With a I-see-it-and-feel-pity impression, he said, “Where we live, having martial art competition in a banquet like this is a common occurrence, it even often ends up in blood. I wonder if Xiufang Guniang is accustomed to it?”
Sighing lightly, Shang Xiufang replied, “After arriving in Chang’an, even if I was not accustomed to it, I become used to it!”
And then she turned to Kou Zhong, pursed her lips and said with a tender laugh, “Besides, with Mo Shen Yi here, I am not afraid someone would be injured; am I right?”
Kou Zhong’s heart was moved. He was about to respond, Liu ZHenghui said with a laugh, “Weapons are here!”
The main hall grew silent again.
Two imperial guards delivered the saber and the sword to Ke Dazhi and Xu Ziling, respectively. Under ten thousand expectant gaze, the Li Clan’s tradition of ‘palace courtyard martial art competition’ finally began.
Xu Ziling and Ke Dazhi received their weapons. Together they saluted Li Yuan, and then separated to the left and right. Ke Dazhi held the scabbard in his left hand horizontally in front of his body. Standing with his back toward Xu Ziling, he pulled the Sandstorm Saber from its scabbard, producing a clear gaining-the-upper-hand-by-a-show-of-strength, intimidating-the-entire-arena ring.
His feet slightly apart, combined with his tall and straight like pine and cypress imposing build, he exuded a motionless-like-a-mountain, deep-pool-pavilion, highest-peak grandeur, immediately inciting a burst of cheers and applause, which increased his awe-inspiring authority.
Under the bright lantern light of the main hall, the Sandstorm Saber emitted cold rays that were flickering continuously as if it was a magical object that had a life of its own.
Xu Ziling could not help crying ‘Good saber!’ inwardly. He slowly pulled the sword out of its sheath.
Looking at that, the people in the hall who understood weapons shook their heads, simply because Xu Ziling’s weapon was just an ordinary fine steel sword. Compared to Ke Dazhi’s Sandstorm Saber, it was indeed too far inferior.
The people on the Heavenly Policy Mansion’s side were stunned as well; they had never thought that the weapon he was using was such an ordinary sword. Perhaps after blocking a few of Ke Dazhi’s saber strikes, it would be hacked and chopped and broken.
But Xu Ziling completely ignored the other people’s sighs due to his long sword. After handing the sheath to the imperial bodyguard, he looked at the sword closely, and used his fingertips to stroke the sword blade lightly.
By the time the finger reached the tip of the sword, a hint of smile floated out of the corner of his mouth. “Ke Xiong, please bestow instruction,” he spoke calmly.
Ke Dazhi still had his back facing Xu Ziling. Throwing his head back in laughter, he said, “Mo Xiong may make your move anytime. Xiaodi is not afraid anybody would attack me from behind.”
Not only this remark contained heroism reaching to the clouds, it also meant to shame Xu Ziling, containing the arrogance of he did not consider the opponent worthy in his eyes.
However, Xu Ziling definitely would not fall into this thought. The moment this Eastern Tujue young martial art master pulled the saber out, he already started the offensive toward Xu Ziling. If he got angry, he would fall into the trap that he laid out.
All the people in the hall, from the Great Tang Emperor Li Yuan to the imperial bodyguards and palace maids, none did not sense the feeling of wind and rain approaching, the urgent feeling of two martial art masters in a thousand-jun face-off about to happen. Everybody was holding his breath, watching with full attention.
Using his fingertips, Xu Ziling flicked the blade of the sword, producing a clear ringing noise that sounded like the dragon’s groan from the abyss; the noise was focused and did not scattered.
And then his waist and spine straightened up, just like his entire body suddenly lengthened, to become lofty, confident and at ease, with a looking-disdainfully-out-of-the-corner-of-his-eyes-at-the-world spirit, definitely not inferior to Ke Dazhi in any aspect.
The change was so sudden that it appeared magical, totally outside everybody’s expectation, brimming with intense dramatic feeling.
Being at the receiving end of it, Ke Dazhi generated reaction. He felt the opponent’s powerful-without-equal momentum pressing down on his back. If he still had his back toward the enemy, he would immediately fall into the disadvantageous position.
With a long whistle Ke Dazhi, with the scabbard in his left hand and the saber in his right, he spun like a hurricane toward Xu Ziling.
In the entire hall, only Kou Zhong, one person, knew that in flicking the sword to create the sound, Xu Ziling secretly applied the Zhenyan Yin Fa [incantation image method] to break Ke Dazhi’s unfathomable move. Those with superior eyesight like Li Yuan, father and son, Huang Gongcuo, Li Shentong, and martial art masters of their level only saw Xu Ziling shooting forth sword qi to deal with Ke Dazhi’s ‘changing moves’, but they failed to really understand the profound mystery within the move. However, their impression on Xu Ziling’s Mo Wei was growing considerably.
From the Great Vajra Chakra Image, Xu Ziling changed into Motionless Fundamental Image. The lingtai [on top of one’s head] empty, bright, and clear, the divine light in his pair of eyes subdued, his heart was like the bright moon in the well, nothing was missing from Ke Dazhi’s move, which, from stopping, has already started to attack again.
Each spin of the body was carrying a burst of howling noise brimming with rhythm and strength. The scabbard in his left hand and the saber in his right hand intersected and weaved sharp thunderbolt, both offense and defense forming a net covering the opponent. The fantastic qi power, with Ke Dazhi at the center, like violent sandstorm scraping the desert, followed Ke Dazhi’s approach, attacking Xu Ziling with ten-thousand-jun-thunderbolt momentum.
Regardless of whether one knew martial art or not, no one did not feel that Ke Dazhi has turned into a terrifying eye of the storm, carrying abundantly unstoppable power.
Even for various generals of the Heavenly Policy Mansion who has had a chance to exchange blows with Ke Dazhi, or perhaps a chance to personally see Ke Dazhi fighting before, this was still the first time they saw Ke Dazhi using his saber and scabbard together, in such a fantastic shenfa, unleashing his offensive. It was only then did they realize that Ke Dazhi has been hiding his strength.
However, Xu Ziling was able to force Ke Dazhi to make his move in full strength, it could be considered extremely exceptional. The most formidable aspect was that each spin of Ke Dazhi body had subtle difference from each other, so that it was difficult to predict beforehand the accurate time on when his attack was going to reach the opponent’s body.
Ke Dazhi’s Sandstorm Saber Technique was divided into five secrets [of an art], namely ‘spin, blow, roll, scroll, and break’. This moment he was using the ‘spinning sand’ secret; it changed unpredictably like the whirlwind in the desert, making it hard for the opponent to fathom.
Facing Ke Dazhi’s attack, Xu Ziling was immediately subjected to the frightening feeling of thirst and drought in the desert. The opponent seemed to turn the main hall into an endless expanse of sandstorm. If it were other people, such offensive method would definitely bring about discouraging feeling of being lost and being routed by gazing into the sandstorm in the distance.
Another hint of smile floated on the corner of Xu Ziling’s mouth. Suddenly he traversed and swayed sideways. When everyone thought that he was going to evade, fast as lightning he shot forward again, his long sword swiftly pricked up.
Like a streak of lightning the long sword, swift beyond human comprehension, shot inside Ke Dazhi’s saber net. At the speed that was hard for naked eyes to see clearly, the saber and the sword collided. And then Xu Ziling spun around, putting his fingers together into palm chop, he fiercely hacked onto Ke Dazhi’s sweeping-over saber blade.
The two men spun away from each other at the same time. When the distance between them was about two zhang away, both of them suddenly stopped and stood steadily at the same time as if they had prior agreement, facing each other.
The entire hall exploded in shaking-the-heaven cheers and applause.
The two men’s eyes met. It was as if they completely did not hear the cheers and applause. Practically, it was as if there was no other person watching the battle; there was only the opponent in each other’s eyes.
Watching this, Kou Zhong’s blood was boiling. He really wished it was he who went down the arena in place of Xu Ziling. Such a formidable opponent, where else could he find it?
Ke Dazhi casually tossed this scabbard away, letting it dropped on the side, and then he pounced forward like a tiger, the Sandstorm Saber swept – following a curving arc trajectory, to chop toward Xu Ziling.
Xu Ziling secretly performed an image technique, casually his sword swept, completely without any fancy variation. The instant the scabbard touched the ground, creating a clear ringing noise – was the exact same moment Ke Dazhi’s Sandstorm Saber was swept by Xu Ziling’s sword.
The speed of these movements could be easily imagined.
The saber and the sword struck; simultaneously the two men’s tiger body was severely shaken.
Ke Dazhi let out a long whistle, his saber technique changed. Fantastic, like rolling quicksand, wave upon wave of saber strikes attacked Xu Ziling.
This was the ‘rolling sand secret’ of the Sandstorm Five Secrets. From the people watching, none did not have their breathing stopped, their qi was unable to flow.
Now the two were engaged in close hand-to-hand combat. Both sides were fighting with all their might. Not only victory or defeat could be decided at any moment, life and death were barely discernible.
It was not until this moment that Xu Ziling truly experienced Ke Dazhi’s startling-the-heavens power, as if he was trapped in violent billows and angry wind, saber waves were rolling down on him without any letup. However, he was already aware of Ke Dazhi’s extraordinary ability; otherwise, how could he and Ba Fenghan be equally famous in the East Tujue?
On the other hand, because Ke Dazhi’s previous impression from the fight at Shang Lin Yuan, he had never expected that the opponent would be able to receive his full-strength attack without yielding the slightest bit.
Xu Ziling was using attack to meet attack, using hard to attack hard, powerful like Luoyang, Chang’an, that kind of strong big cities with the strictest military defense system, so that no matter how devastatingly like sandstorm the opponent’s rolling sand method was, it could not sway him the slightest bit.
The most shocking to Ke Dazhi was that although on the surface Xu Ziling’s sword technique was brimming with agile and graceful impression, the reality was that each sword strike carried more than a thousand-jun power. The outside was empty, the inside was solid. And the sword technique fantastically changed without any pattern, just like a heavenly steed soaring across the skies, each stroke was original and ingenious, going or staying without any trace.
Such swordsmanship, this was still the first time that he encountered.
Everybody watching even forgot to cheer.
Xu Ziling twisted his sword upward onto the saber blade, Ke Dazhi’s saber could not continue ‘rolling’ anymore, he could only dodge.
Once again they returned to their previous position of standing some distance away facing each other.
Cheers and applause shook the hall again.
It was only then did Li Shimin and the Heavenly Policy Mansion people heave a sigh of relief. They were glad that Xu Ziling was able to block this round of Ke Dazhi’s howling-wind-and-torrential-rain-like offensives.
Kou Zhong was also heaving a sigh of relief, because he could see that Xu Ziling had fallen into disadvantageous position somewhat, not because his skill could not match the opponent’s, but simply because he was not accustomed to using sword.
The crowd could not help casting their gaze toward Li Yuan; they wanted to see if Li Yuan would use this opportunity while both sides stopped fighting to discontinue the martial art competition.
Ke Dazhi stood with his hands cupped the saber. Before Li Yuan made any decision, he let a long laugh and said, “Delighted! Delighted! I never expected Mo Xiong to be this brilliant. I am asking Mo Xiong to take three more strikes from me, and then Xiaodi will propose a toast to make amends.”
This way, it would be difficult for even Li Yuan to issue his decree to stop the competition.
This moment Xu Ziling’s surging blood and qi had just calmed down. Inwardly he knew that the next three saber strikes must be no small matter. Smiling slightly, he said, “I am asking Ke Xiong’s saber to be lenient, so that even if Xiaodi loses, I won’t lose too unsightly.”
Anybody would know that Xu Ziling was only being modest, hence nobody took it seriously; they admired his manner from the heart even more.
Ke Dazhi was slightly startled. A bit awkwardly he said, “Mo Xiong must be joking; just now Xiaodi fully used ‘spinning sand’ and ‘rolling sand’, two kinds of saber secret in succession. The next one will be ‘scrolling sand’ saber technique; I am asking Mo Xiong to give directions.”
Finished speaking, the strange light in his eyes flared out brightly, he pulled his saber backward, the clothes and sleeves on his body fluttered, his momentum violent and ferocious to the extreme point.
The strangest thing was that the air around seemed to stop flowing; it became empty and silent like a vast desert without even half a drop of wind, while the temperature was rising.
Xu Ziling showed a grave expression, his entire spirit was ready.
 If you think that I am not smart enough to translate Sun Tzu, then you are right. The excerpt is from ‘Sun Tzu on the Art of War’, translated by Lionel Giles, M.A. Allandale Online Publishing, 2000, ISBN 1-903328-03-9 https://sites.ualberta.ca/~enoch/Readings/The_Art_Of_War.pdf
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