Both the scholars and the audience stayed quiet, not daring to make a sound. The buzzing of the bugs and the tweeting of the birds perched on the branches of the trees around them seemed astonishingly loud after the eunuch finished with reading the emperor’s decree.
Some scholars secretly clenched their fists, wanting to throw their brushes away. ‘The union of two hearts and the bond of marriage’? What kind of bullshit topic was this?! Where was the deep, complicated matter that was of importance for state affairs? Reforming currencies, introducing a new irrigation system, revolutionizing the infrastructure of their Chen country — these were topics that were deserving of being discussed at a competition that had been shown favor from the Emperor. Why was he instead asking about husbands and wives?
Zhang Shi Lan also looked on with a complicated expression. He had expected a different topic just like everybody else. But now that he heard it … He couldn’t help but think back to what Yu Huang Rong had said a few weeks ago: ‘The emperor once had a crush on me.’
This type of ridiculous sentence, who would dare to utter it? But maybe there was some truth to the matter? That would at least explain why the emperor had chosen such a topic. The person he had loved wanted to marry someone else. He could imagine the thoughts a person had at that moment very well. After all, it hadn’t been long since he had thought them himself.
It was just that … This person was the emperor. He certainly wouldn’t do something out of such personal motivations. Or could it be that he was over-thinking? Just because the person was the emperor didn’t mean that they didn’t have any feelings of their own. Maybe the ruler of a kingdom would be hit just as hard by such news.
Anyway, this was the topic they had gotten and he would have to accept it since it was decreed by His Majesty personally. And in the end, as a scholar, he should be able to think things through in detail and then write an essay about it. Wasn’t that what these competitions were for? What did it matter what the topic was?
Eventually, all the present scholars came to that revelation. The Academy’s teacher received the decree and the students sat back down, grinding their ink and picking up the brushes.
Some started to write immediately as if they couldn’t wait to finish this essay and finally leave again. It certainly wasn’t the way these competitions usually went.
Zhang Shi Lan also prepared to begin writing but he didn’t pick up his brush immediately. Instead, he looked at the paper in front of him and pondered. Marriage … That was a subject he had often thought about. Up until now, these thoughts had only been of private nature though. He had imagined how his life as a married man would be. Whether it was at the side of the person he loved or with somebody he couldn’t love but might be able to respect. He had also wondered what might happen if his parents insisted on having him marry somebody that he didn’t care for at all.
All of this couldn’t be written in such an essay though. After all, even if the reason the emperor had come up with this topic might be of personal nature, that didn’t change the fact that he was the ruler of a nation and that this had to be treated like any other topic that might be proposed. That meant that he would have to think about what kind of place the union of two hearts and marriage had in their Chen country as a whole. What importance lay in marriage? What if there wasn’t marriage? What if the way marriages were chosen and finally lived was different from how it was now?
Right now, a marriage could be decreed by the emperor but in most cases, it would be one’s elders that decided on it together with a matchmaker. The people that were to be married seldom had a chance to speak their opinion if the elders weren’t interested or they were confronted with a matchmaker as unconventional as Madam Yan. Even if their opinions were considered, there were still restrictions placed on who could marry whom.
Marrying another man as a man wasn’t forbidden but society might frown upon the people in question. Marrying a woman as a woman … That was even harder. In a place like the capital, it could even be called impossible. Neither family would agree to that. It might be different in the countryside but even there it would largely depend on the two families’ willingness to indulge such behavior.
Looking at it from that perspective, one could hardly say that there had to be a connection between marriage and the union of two hearts. Love didn’t equal marriage. Marriage didn’t equal love. It could but it wasn’t a given. Who knew if the odds were in the favor of those that married?
Then again, love might blossom out of such a relationship. If all people were so lucky to be able to marry the one they wanted, where would be the benefits for their Chen country? It should be something that started with a single person. A successful marriage might add to the happiness of both partners and a successful union of two families might better their stance as well.
In other words, one marriage would be able to not only influence the two people that were getting married but also the people related to them. Thinking further, depending on what kind of status the ones marrying had and what status their families had originally held, this influence might have even broader effects.
For example, if a Minister married a wife, then the personal satisfaction he felt might influence his work as well. After all, the time he spent with his wife after he finished his work was time that would allow him to rest his mind and the opportunity to tell her about his worries would make sure that his heart was at ease. This, in turn, would help him to see matters clearly and thus make his work progress more smoothly. So in a way, a happy marriage might boost the work of a Minister and thus benefit their Chen country as a whole.
Zhang Shi Lan nodded to himself. This should already be covering some points that were important to the topic. Some other ideas could be gleaned from this as well: If a happy marriage was this beneficial, then it might be advantageous to make sure that more satisfactory marriages performed. The question was how to do that.
Zhang Shi Lan thought of his own marriage and the trouble that came with it. Both he and Yu Huang Rong were willing to walk down this path. Their families wouldn’t easily accept it though. After all, they wanted an heir that would allow the bloodline of their family to live on and they might also have some thought that it would be damaging to their reputation if this kind of marriage happened.
He wasn’t sure about the latter point but even if their own families didn’t think so, others definitely would. This was just a matter of promoting the idea though. If there were more marriages between men formed or maybe even decreed by the emperor or shown his favor, then over time, the citizens’ impression of such marriages would also get better. After all, what the ruler deemed appropriate, couldn’t be deemed inappropriate by them, could it?
The former point was more troublesome. Which family wouldn’t want their bloodline to be carried on? And there was no way around this. Two men or two women wouldn’t be able to have a child. What could be done about that? If there were other children in the family, then the parents might be able to overlook the matter and just rely on the other offspring to produce the next generation. If there weren’t other children though …
Zhang Shi Lan sighed to himself. This was much more of a problem and he couldn’t see a good solution to it. Personally, he had always thought that he would be able to live with it if Yu Huang Rong took a wife next to him to secure the continuation of his bloodline. He didn’t like the thought of sharing his husband but if that was what allowed him to be with him, he would live with it.
That method wasn’t possible in all circumstances though. First of all, it required both partners to acquiesce. Second, it couldn’t be used if both partners were required to carry on their respective bloodlines. It could hardly be tolerated if two men married each other but both had a wife at home as well, could it? Zhang Shi Lan furrowed his brows. No, if something like that happened, the acceptance the citizens had toward such marriages would plummet.
Another problem was that having more than one partner wasn’t sustainable for most of the citizens. Nobles and men of higher position would be able to do so but in the normal population, many had to give their all to support one wife and their children. Thus, this was a matter of economy as well.
The trouble didn’t end there though. In many families, children born of a second wife, a consort, or a concubine weren’t worth as much as children born of the first wife. So even if somebody had the money to support more than one partner, if their first partner was a man and the second a woman, then the children would be seen as being worth less. To circumvent that, men might be required to marry the woman as their first wife, relegating the man they loved to the position of second wife despite them already being in a socially-awkward position for marrying another man. If things were carried out like that, they might as well not marry at all.
Zhang Shi Lan looked at the blank scroll of paper in front of him and shook his head at himself. He had thought about it for so long but the only thing he could come up with even after years was still just one question: Why couldn’t he have been born a woman? Then all these problems wouldn’t exist. Well, if he was, then he never would have been able to become a scholar. That was also something he wouldn’t have liked to miss out on.
Unfortunately, the laws of their Chen country and their customs didn’t align on this subject and to change that, many of the people’s core beliefs would need to be changed: Allowing the people that were supposed to marry to choose their own partner, assigning the same worth to all children regardless of what their mother’s status was or maybe even accepting children of another bloodline as your own and raising them as such. That would be the only options to solve these problems.
As a result, he could only write in his essay that albeit marriage between lovers might have positive effects for their Chen country, it was unlikely to be able to be promoted to a large degree because too many issues stood against it some of which might shake the nation’s foundation.
It truly was a conclusion that left him heartbroken.