The day they crossed the provincial border into Fujian, the hills were covered in flowers and dancing butterflies. Chen thought of Princess Fragrance and how she would have loved such a scene.
They were met at the Shaolin Monastery by Lord Zhou, who had come south to Fujian with his wife and servants to meet the Monastery's abbot, Heavenly Rainbow. With Zhou's great name in the fighting community, the Shaolin priests were happy to exchange knowledge with him. Heavenly Rainbow insisted that he stay in the temple, and by the time the Red Flower Society heroes arrived, several months had slipped by.
The abbot led his assistants, Great Insanity, Heavenly Mirror, Great Hardship and Great Idiocy into the great hall to meet the visitors. After they had introduced each other, the abbot led them to a quiet antechamber when tea was served. He asked the reason for their visit.
Chen knelt down before the abbot, tears glistening in his eyes. Greatly surprised, Heavenly Rainbow moved quickly to help him up.
"Great Helmsman," he said. "What need is there for such formality? Please say whatever you wish."
"I have an embarrassing request to make that according to the rules of the fighting community should not even be uttered," Chen replied. "But, Venerable Sir, for the sake of millions of souls, I boldly make this appeal to you."
"Please speak freely," the abbot said.
"The former Great Helmsman of the Red Flower Society, Master Yu Wanting was my foster father…" Heavenly Rainbow's expression changed immediately as he heard the name, and he raised his white eyebrows.
Chen told him in detail about his relationship with the Emperor Qian Long and about the plan to restore the Chinese throne and overthrow the Manchus. Then he asked why his foster father had been expelled from the Shaolin school and whether it had anything to do with Qian Long's identity.
"Please, Venerable Sir," he concluded, his voice almost choked with sobs. "Think of the common people…"
Heavenly Rainbow sat in silence, his long eyebrows trailing over his closed eyes. He was in deep meditation and no-one dared disturb him.
After a while, his eyes sprang open, and he said: "For several hundred years, it has been the practice of the Shaolin school not to reveal to outsiders information on members who offend against the school's regulations. Great Helmsman Chen, you have come a great distance to our monastery to enquire into the behaviour of our expelled pupil, Yu Wanting. According to the monastery's rules, this would ordinarily be out of the question…" the faces of the heroes lit up with delight. "…but as this affair involves the fate of the common people, I will make an exception. Great Helmsman Chen, please send someone to the Upholding the Monastic Regulations Hall to collect the file."
Chen bowed to the abbot in thanks, and another monk led the heroes to guest rooms to rest.
Chen was congratulating himself on his success when he saw Lord Zhou looking worried. "What's wrong?" he asked.
"The abbot asked you to send someone to the Hall to collect the file. But to get there, it is necessary to pass through five other halls, each guarded by a kung fu master and each one stronger than the last. It will be difficult to make it through all five," Zhou replied.
"We could try and force our way through together," Wen suggested.
Zhou shook his head. "No, the problem is that one person has to win through all five halls alone. If anyone helped him, the monks would come to the assistance of the guardians of the halls and it would turn into a brawl. That wouldn't do at all."
"This is an affair involving my family," Chen said quietly. "Perhaps Buddha will be merciful and let me through."
He took off his long gown, picked up a bag of his 'chess piece' projectiles, tucked the ancient dagger into his belt, and let Zhou lead him to the first hall.
As they reached the hall entrance, Zhou stopped. "Master Chen," he whispered. "If you can't make it, please come back and we'll think of some other way. Whatever you do, don't try and force your way through or you may get hurt." Chen nodded.
"Everything is arranged!" Zhou shouted, and then stepped to one side.
Chen pushed open the door and walked inside. Under the bright candle-light, he saw a monk seated on a mat, and recognised him as one of the abbot's chief assistants, Great Hardship.
The monk stood up and smiled. "So you have come yourself, Great Helmsman Chen. That is excellent. I would like to ask you to instruct me in a few martial arts moves."
Chen saluted him with his fists. "Please," he replied.
Great Hardship bunched his left hand into a fist and swung it round in a great arc while his right palm swept up. Chen recognised it as the 'Drunken Boxing' style kung fu. He had once studied the style, but decided not to reveal the fact by using it now. He clapped his hands together and countered with the 'Hundred Flowers' kung fu style. Great Hardship was taken off guard and only avoided being struck by dropping to the floor. He rolled away and stood up, and the two continued to fight closely, each a master of his own style.
Great Hardship aimed a blow at Chen's legs. Chen leapt up, and as he landed, hooked his right leg round, tripping the monk up neatly. As fast as lightning, Chen bent over and stopped him from falling. Great Hardship's face flushed red with embarrassment and he pointed behind him.
"Please proceed," he said.
Chen saluted once more and walked through into another hall, seated in the middle of which was the senior monk, Great Insanity. As Chen entered, the monk rose and picked up a thick staff lying beside him. He casually tapped the floor with its tip, and the impact shook the very walls of the hall, bringing a shower of dust down from the rafters. The monk lightly flipped the staff from left hand to right, then attacked using the 'Crazy Demon' staff style of kung fu. Chen knew it would be folly to underestimate the power of this opponent, and he drew his dagger. Great Insanity swept the staff across and Chen ducked down to avoid it then countered with a thrust from his dagger. The two fought round and round inside the hall, their weapons apparently greatly mis-matched.
Rather than attack, Chen concentrated instead on trying to tire the monk out. But Great Insanity's Inner Strength Kung Fu was profound, and as time passed, Chen could discern no hesitation in the monk's actions. On the contrary, the staff seemed to whirl and dance with ever-increasing speed, forcing Chen back into a corner of the hall. Seeing Chen could not escape, Great Insanity grasped the staff in both hands and swung it down at his head with all his strength. Chen stood stock-still until the staff was no more than two inches from him, then grabbed its end and carved a deep line across the middle with his dagger, snapping it in two.
Great Insanity was furious, and charged at Chen again. But with the staff only half its former length, he wielded it with much less dexterity. A moment later, Chen snapped another piece off the end, then dodged passed the monk and ran towards the rear of the hall. With a roar of anger, Great Insanity threw what was left of his staff to the floor and sparks flew in all directions.
As he entered the third hall, Chen's eyes were struck by a bright glare, and he saw both sides of the hall were full of burning candles, several hundred of them at least. In the centre, stood the monk Great Idiocy.
"Master Chen," he said, a welcoming smile on his face. "Let us compete using projectiles."
Chen bowed. "As your Reverence wishes," he replied.
"There are nine candles and eighty-one incense sticks on each side of the hall. Whoever can extinguish all the candles and incense sticks on his opponent's side is the winner." The monk pointed to the altar table in the centre of the hall. "You will find darts and projectiles of all kinds over there. When you have used up all the ones you have, you can go and get more."
Chen pulled a pile of chess pieces from his pocket and wished he had spent more time in the past learning the finer points of dart kung fu from the Red Flower Society's dart expert, 'Buddha' Zhao. "After you," he said.
Great Idiocy smiled again. "Guests first," he replied.
Selecting five chess pieces, Chen threw them simultaneously at the foot of the opposite wall and extinguished five incense sticks.
"Excellent kung fu," Great Idiocy praised him. He took a string of prayer beads from around his neck, snapped the chord and let five of the beads fall into his palm. With one movement, he slung them away, snuffing out five incense sticks on Chen's side.
Chen quickly extinguished another five sticks of incense. Great Idiocy replied by knocking out all nine candles on Chen's side, and in the darkness, the burning tips of the incense sticks became much easier targets for the monk.
"Of course, why didn't I think of that?" Chen thought. He chose nine chess pieces and threw them three at a time at the candles on the monk's side of the hall. But the flames were untouched. He had heard a series of clicks coming from the centre of the hall and he realised that Great Idiocy had knocked each of his nine projectiles down with his prayer beads. As Chen gaped in surprise at such skill, the monk extinguished another four incense sticks. Chen waited for the monk to throw another wave of prayer beads, and then aimed chess pieces to intercept them. But with the candles on the opposite side still burning he found it difficult to spot the small beads clearly and only managed to hit two of the five. The other three struck home.
Great Idiocy, already nine candles and two incense sticks ahead, concentrated on protecting his own candles, while extinguishing more of Chen's incense sticks whenever the opportunity arose. In a short while, he had snuffed out another fourteen, while Chen, putting his all into the task, only managed to extinguish two of the candles. Suddenly, he remembered one of 'Buddha' Zhao's tricks and threw three chess pieces at the side wall with great force. They ricocheted off and two of them struck their targets. Great Idiocy, who had thought the throw was a show of childish petulance on Chen's part, let out a cry of surprise.
Chen continued in this way, bouncing chess pieces off the wall. Great Idiocy had no way of protecting the candles, but he was already several dozen incense sticks ahead, and without taking any further notice of his opponent, he redoubled his efforts to knock out the rest. As the last of the monk's candles went out, the hall was plunged into darkness. Chen counted seven incense sticks left on the monks side while his own was still a mass of red dots, perhaps thirty or forty. Just as he was coming to the conclusion that he had lost, he heard Great Idiocy shout: "Master Chen, I've used up all my projectiles. Let us stop for a moment and get more from the altar table."
Chen felt in his bag and found he only had five or six chess pieces left.
"You go first," the monk added. Chen walked over to the altar table and with a flash of inspiration, stretched out his arm and swept all of the projectiles into his bag. He jumped back to his place and Great Idiocy ran over to find the table top was empty. Chen threw a shower of projectiles at the remaining fiery spots, and in a moment had extinguished them all.
Great Idiocy let out a hearty laugh. "I have to hand it to you, Master Chen," he said. "That was more of a battle of wits than a trial of strength. You win. Please continue."
"I apologise," Chen replied. "I had already lost, and only used such a trick because of the importance of the matter. Please forgive me."
"The masters guarding the next two halls are my martial uncles. Their kung fu is very good. You must be careful."
Chen thanked him and went on to the next hall. This hall was also brightly lit with candles, but it was much smaller than the previous three. Two rattan mats lay on the floor in the centre of the hall, and the senior monk Heavenly Mirror was seated on one of them. As Chen entered, he monk stood up in greeting.
"Please sit down," he said, gesturing to the other other mat. Chen wondered how he wanted to compete, but took his seat in silence.
Heavenly Mirror was an extremely tall man and very formidable to look at. Even seated on the mat, he was not much shorter than an ordinary person. His cheeks were two deep hollows, and there appeared to be no flesh on his body at all.
"You have passed through three halls, which is greatly to your credit," he said. "But you are still junior to me, so I cannot compete with you on equal terms. Let us do it this way: if you can go ten moves with me without losing, I will let you go through."
Chens bowed to him. "Thank you for your kindness, Your Reverence."
Heavenly Mirror grunted. "Now parry this!"
Chen felt a force striking towards his chest and raised his hands to counter it. Their palms met and Chen was forced to make use of his full strength to keep from falling backwards. The shock of the impact caused a dull ache to grow in his left arm.
"Now the second move!" Heavenly Mirror called. Chen did not dare to counter his hand directly again. He leant to one side, then hit out at the monk's elbow. Heavenly Mirror should have responded by withdrawing his arm, but instead he swept it across in attack, and Chen only just managed to parry it. A bell close to the hall began to chime, and as it resounded, Chen had an idea. He switched to the kung fu style he had learned in the White Jade Peak, synchronising his movements to the sound of the bell. Heavenly Mirror gasped in surprise and fought back carefully.
When the bell ceased, Chen withdrew his hands. "I cannot continue," he said.
"All right. We have already exchanged more than forty moves. Your kung fu is very good. Please pass."
Chen stood up, and was about to walk off when he suddenly swayed and stumbled and hurriedly leant against the wall for support. Heavenly Mirror helped him to sit down again.
"Rest here for a moment and catch your breath," he said. "It won't affect matters."
Chen close his eyes and did as the monk said.
"Where did you learn that style of kung fu?" Heavenly Mirror asked. Chen told him.
"I never guessed that the standard of kung fu would be so high in the western border regions. If you had used that style from the start you would not have hurt your arm."
"Seeing as I am hurt, I am sure I will not be able to make it through the last hall," Chen said. "What does Your Reverence suggest I do?"
"If you can't make it through, turn back."
Chen's martial training made it impossible for him to accept defeat so easily. He stood up and bowed to Heavenly Mirror, then strode bravely towards the last hall.
He was surprised to find it was in fact only a tiny room in the centre of which sat the abbot of the Shaolin Monastery, Heavenly Rainbow. Chen wondered how he could possibly overcome the best kung fu fighter in the Shaolin Monastery if his junior, Heavenly Mirror, was already so formidable.
The abbot bowed. "Please be seated," he said. A steady stream of sandlewood-scented smoke rose from a small incense stove on a table between them. On the wall opposite Chen, was a painting of two monks which, although executed with only a few brush-strokes, was full of vitality.
Heavenly Rainbow meditated for a moment, then said: "There was once a man who was very successful at goat-herding. He became very rich, but he was by nature very miserly…"
Hearing the abbot begin to tell a story, Chen was greatly puzzled, but he concentrated on what the old man was saying: "An acquaintance of the goatherd knew he was very stupid, and also that he badly wanted to find a wife. So he cheated the goatherd, saying: 'I know a girl who is very beautiful. I can arrange for her to marry you.' The goatherd was delighted and gave him a large amount of money. A year past, and the man said to him: 'Your wife has given birth to your son.' The goatherd hadn't even seen the woman, but hearing he had a son, he was even more pleased and gave the man another large sum of money. Later, the man came to him again and said: 'Your son has died!' The goatherd cried uncontrollably, heart-broken in the extreme."
Chen had a fairly good general education, and knew he was quoting from the Hundred Parables Sutra of the Mahayana school of Buddhism.
"In fact all worldly matters are like this," the abbot continued. "Power and riches are like the wife and child of the goatherd: just fantasies. What is the point of wasting effort to obtain them when losing them will only cause sorrow?"
"There was once a husband and wife who had three cakes," Chen replied. "They ate one cake each, but could not decide who should eat the third. Finally, they agreed that whoever talked first would lose the chance to eat the cake."
Hearing Chen relate another story from the Hundred Parables Sutra, Heavenly Rainbow nodded.
"The two stared at each other in silence. Soon after, a thief entered and ransacked the house for the couple's valuables, but because of their agreement, the couple continued to stare at each other without saying a word. Seeing them thus, the thief became even more bold and violated the wife in front of the husband. The husband made no complaint at all about what was happening, but in the end, the wife could stand it no longer and cried out. The thief grabbed up the valuables and fled, while the husband clapped his hands and shouted triumphantly: 'You lose! The cake is mine!'"
Heavenly Rainbow could not help but smile, even though he knew the story well.
"He ignored great suffering for the sake of minor personal satisfaction, allowing the thief to steal his possessions and violate his wife in order to satisfy his appetite. According to Buddhist tenets, one should try to help all living things and should not think only of oneself."
Heavenly Rainbow sighed, and quoted from the Buddhist scriptures: "There are no rules to regulate behaviour, there are no rules to which I am subject. Man is at a standstill until acted upon by a force. Those with no desires, will not be troubled by dreams and fantasies."
"Life for most people is full of hardship," Chen replied. "The monk Zhi Daolin once said: 'Emperors are cruel and evil by nature. How can one stand idly by?'"
The abbot could see Chen's determination to carry out his duty and help ease the people's burden, and was full of respect for him.
"Your enthusiasm is commendable, Master Chen," he said. "I will set you one more question, and then you can have your way."
Chen bowed his head in acknowledgement.
"An old woman was once lying under a tree, resting. Suddenly, a huge bear appeared wanting to eat her. She jumped up and ran behind the tree to escape, and the bear stretched its paws round either side of the tree to grab her. Seizing the opportunity, the old woman pressed its paws down onto the tree trunk. As a result, the bear could not move, but the old woman did not dare to let go either. Some time later, a man passed by and the old woman appealed to him for help, saying they could kill the bear together and share the meat. The man believed her and took her place holding down the bear's paws. The old woman then fled, leaving the man in the same dilemma she had been in."
Chen knew the moral of the story: "Never regret helping others, even if you suffer yourself as a result," he replied.
Heavenly Rainbow lifted the the long-haired duster he was holding. "Please go through," he said.
Chen stood up and bowed before him. "Please forgive me for trespassing on this sacred place," he said.
The abbot nodded. As he walked out of the room, Chen heard the old man sigh.