The Bandit was written by Dugu Hong and published by Spring and Autumn Publishing in 1970 in Taiwan. Dugu Hong’s novels are often set in the Qing dynasty, and he also uses a lot of Beijing dialect in his prose. I called the novel The Bandit, but the Chinese characters 響馬 actually mean whistling/screaming horse. It refers to mounted bandits who would shoot whistling arrows to announce their arrival before they robbed you. The protagonist of this novel, Fei Mushu, was one of these mounted bandits.
In this novel, Fei Mushu is broken out of jail on condition he complete an assignment. If he does then his rescuers will help clear him of all charges. Along with the mystery of his mission, which entangles him in Qing court intrigue, we also get to see the morals and behavior of a bandit working for a good cause. Below is a short excerpt I had translated previously. It’s the full prologue and a bit of Chapter 1. The synopsis below does contain spoilers.
Synopsis – SPOILERS:
This novel takes place in the Jiaqing reign period of the Qing dynasty.
Mounted bandit Fei Mushu was imprisoned in “Mukden” prison. One night, five people of unknown origin broke into the prison to rescue him and offer him and assignment; after completing the assignment they would help him clear all charges against him. Thus, Fei Mushu concluded his eight-year life in jail and once again entered the jianghu.
In the eyes of the average man of the martial fraternity Fei Mushu was a mounted bandit who robbed and murdered, but he was also an heroic, chivalrous person. The White Lotus Society wanted to set up branched in Beijing, and Fei Mushu usually operated in the six northern provinces, and if he learned of the White Lotus Society’s plans they believed he would try to stop them, so first they would have to get rid of Fei Mushu. So they used a young girl, Green Cloud, to get close to Fei Mushu and set a trap for him, at the same time informing the Qing yamen, who swooped in at night and arrested him for murder and rape.
Once out of prison, Fei Mushu went from the region beyond the pass and in a roundabout way snuck into the capital’s official circles, achieved great merit, and became Minister Heshen’s foreman. But Fei Mushu faced many difficult challenges. Surrounded by so many powerful people, how could he complete his assignment?
Heshen’s ninth concubine had been his old sweetheart, Xie Xiugu. Back then, Fei Mushu had fallen victim to the government plot and ended up in jail, giving rise to a misunderstanding with Xiugu and her father, who was so upset he got sick and died. Alone and grief-stricken, she left her hometown, but was abducted and sold off to a life of a prostitution. Because of her beauty the White Lotus Society used her to get close to influential figures, finally ending in her becoming Heshen’s ninth concubine. Xiugu was still furious with Fei Mushu, and when she saw him again for the first time she ordered him to be savagely beaten and wanted him put to death.
Righteous anti-Qing people, like the “Seven Heroes of the Divine Land”, together with planted agent Bai Yunfang, Heshen’s chief foreman and disciple of Seven Heroes’ leader, did not understand or condone Fei Mushu’s throwing himself in with powerful and treacherous court officials; the righteous robber “Great Sage Equal to Heaven” Sun Zhentian and his disciple Sun Jicheng, as well as various others, also opposed him.
The head of the Beijing branch of the secret White Lotus Society was the one who had framed Fei Mushu before, Green Cloud—-who was now the powerful and famous Hu Sannai. She only made friends with influential people; within the inner city of the Qing court everyone knew her, and there were even several reputable people in White Lotus Society that were under her influence.
Opposers of Heshen within the Qing court could not persuade Fei Mushu to overthrow the emperor, and prefered to die in glory rather than live under this disgraceful reign, and they vowed to eradicate Fei Mushu…Excerpt:
Qing dynasty, the third year of the Jiaqing reign period, one night in the fifth month.
A sliver of light from the quartermoon in the sky, six riders galloped into “Mukden”!
The horses were all “Ferghana” horses, five sabre-wielding black-clad riders atop them. Five men, five horses, the sixth horse unmanned, an ink-spotted black horse.
Night, the third watch. All was quiet, only a few lanterns still flickering.
Five black-clad men, six hearty steeds trotted behind a large compound.
Behind the large compound there was a tract of open land, deserted and still. Not a sound was heard. Not a thing moved.
Five black-clad men, six hearty horses reached the back of the large compound. Amidst the dense weeds along the eastern wall behind the compound stood a man, middle-aged, decked in gray. He came out of the thick growth and welcomed the five black-clad men, bowed, and with a smile said in a low voice, “You all are right on time!”
The leader of the five was a fair-skinned, mustached man sitting his carved saddle eyeing the gray-clad man cooly. “Everything ready?”
The gray-clad man hastened, “Yes! Yes! It’s all here. If it wasn’t right I wouldn’t dare come. No one else would be able to draw it as well as me!”
The fairskinned mustached man said, “Then take it out, what are you waiting for?”
The gray-clad man pulled a nauseating smile and rubbed his hands together. “Uh, uh…”
The fairskinned man said, “What? You didn’t bring it?”
“No! No! I have it, I have it, The thing is, if something goes wrong it will fall on me, and, and…”
The fairskinned man smiled, his smile a bit frosty. “Don’t worry! I won’t stiff you a single coin!”
He paused. “Give it to him.”
One of the men behind him dismounted and strode to the gray-clad man, pulled out a bag and handed it over.
The gray-clad man’s eyes were wide as he reached out to take the bag, but the man suddenly withdrew it.
The gray-clad man nodded hastily, “Yes! Yes! We exchange money upon delivery, no one’s the worse, no one’s at a disadvantage!”
He took out a sheet of folded paper and handed it over with one hand while receiving the bag with the other.
The man handed the bag over to the gray-clad man and took the sheet of folded paper.
The gray-clad man opened the little bag and saw five large silver ingots. At the same time the black-clad man unfolded the paper: a map, blueprints to the compound. At the top in red ink were several “*” marks.
The fairskinned man said, “Well?”
The black-clad man nodded.
The gray-clad man acted as if the question had been for him and nodded quickly. “Right! Right! Fifty taels, no more no less, no more no less!”
“Then, you can go!”
The words were just out of his mouth when the black-clad man suddenly jabbed his finger into the gray-clad man’s chest!
The gray-clad man couldn’t even cry out, his hands clutching his heart as he went down and was still, the five silver ingots spilling out onto the ground.
The black-clad man stooped over and picked up the silver and put it away in his clothes, then took out a small white porcelain bottle, opened it, and sprinkled white powder on the man’s body.
The fairskinned man and the three other riders dismounted. The fairskinned man took the map from the black-clad man, looked at it, and said to the black-clad men around him, “Guards are there, the jail is there. You all got it?”
The four black-clad men nodded in unison. “Got it!”
The fairskinned man balled up the map, stuffed it in his clothes. “Let’s go!”
When he said “go” the five men leapt up and bounded over the wall and into the compound.
The jail was hot and stuffy, several oil lamps mounted on the wall, their flames not rustling at all, making the men restless.
The jail was not big, thirty-foot square, huge wooden poles as big around as bowls lining both sides in two rows, six cells, and a corridor between the two rows of cells with a door at the end. The door was not large, but the planks were thick with a square hole at the top to which were affixed several iron bars.
Beside the door was a table, at which sat a bare-chested middle-aged man who was rubbing his foot and grimacing, looking rather satisfied.
There was only one man in the jail, locked in the deepest cell on the left side. A man wearing black lay on a straw mat spread over the wooden plank bed, laying there unmoving. It was so hot and stuffy in there that was about all he could do.
Then he suddenly moved, raising his head as if to listen. Just then the doorbolt broke with a bang and the door opened. The guard stoop up in surprise.
The five black-clad men blew in like a gust of wind. One of the men swiped the neck of the guard and he dropped and was still.
The prisoner turned over and sat up quickly. He was in his twenties, close to thirty, a tall and slim build with a long beard and mustache, long slanting eyebrows, deep-set eyes, a straight nose, and a cold and serious expression between his brows.
He sat up as the fairskinned man led three men outside the cell door. The fairskinned man reached out and grabbed the big copper lock and broke it with a twist and opened the door and stepped inside.
The prisoner stood up and with a cold glare said, “Who are you?”
The fairskinned man took out a wax-sealed envelope and handed it over. “Read this first.”
A look of surpsrise flitted across the prisoner’s face, but he took the envelope and opened it and took out the letter. One glance and his face pulled up in shock. “Who are…?”
The fairskinnes man said, “Read it first, then we’ll talk.”
The prisoner quickly read the letter start to finish, then raised his eyes with a look of astonishment. “Uh…Uh…”
“Are you willing?”
“Are you willing?”
The prisoner suddenly calmed. “Murder someone and escape from prison? If I were that kind of person I would have left long ago!”
The fairskinned man said, “It’s because of that you are worth trusting. We know all about your past. Only you are capable of doing this. We’re only asking if you are willing. we won’t force you.”
The prisoner said nothing.
The fairskinned man said, “You can think it over, but not for too long.”
The prisoner still said nothing.
“You wouldn’t be doing this for one person, but for the sake of many!”
The prisoner’s eyebrows twitched and an indescribable expression flit across his face. He nodded. “All right! I’ll do it.”
The fairskinned man raised his brows. “Listen, after you leave here you are an escaped criminal wanted for murder. No one can help you; you’re all on your own. There’s only one reward. Once the matter is complete, and you’re exempt from punishment…”
The prisoner said, “I’m not asking for…”
The fairskinned man said gravely, “Also, listen. If you’re captured you mustn’t say a word about what happened tonight. If you fall into their hands we will never acknowledge what happened tonight. Understand?”
The prisoner said cooly, “Say no more.”
The fairskinned man nodded. “Good! On the other side of the rear wall we’ve prepared a horse. Let’s go!” He reached out and took the letter, turned and left the cell, and he and his four men shot out like arrows from a crossbow!
Chapter 1: Wind Over the Banks of Old Dragon River
Windy, wind whistling, a large sandstorm, yellow dust blotting the sky, even the water of “Old Dragon River” was kicked up in waves by the sweeping wind.
Dust splashed like water, sprinkling over “Old Dragon River”, dust settling over the water only to be turned over and dispersed by the waves.
Cripple Sun opened this wine shop, a great place to take shelter from the wind, because it was the only tattered-thatch house within a hundred li of either side of “Old Dragon River”.
Don’t think of it as tattered. If you have to brave wind and rain and winter snow you wouldn’t mind it. But within several hundred li of the two banks of “Old Dragon River” it was arid, famous for droughts, it rarely saw a drop of rain throughout the year. Anyone looking to be a farmer in this area would be unlucky for eight generations. But no worries, there’s never been anyone that stupid.
“Old Dragon River” rarely saw rain, but it often saw sandstorms, which would blow for days, irritating people to the point of snapping.
When the wind blew it grated the ears, and when it stopped it was like the world had died it was so quiet. Standing on the banks of “Old Dragon River” and looking around you could not see even a speck of green, nor any moving thing.
The area of “Old Dragon River” often saw horses pass through. Sometimes a caravan, sometimes just one or two, and it was these people who made up Cripple Sun’s customers. Since there were people passing through and his was the only shop around, business was good, and when there was a sandstorm business was even better.
Cripple Sun ought to have become rich long ago, but he was an odd one. He only wanted three meals. He didn’t even want a son. So he got on well with the people who came and went through the area. Everyone who passed through knew Cripple Sun.
Cripple Sun had another oddity: his shop only sold watery stuff, not dry stuff. In other words, he sold wine, but not food. If you needed some light dishes to go with your wine, well that was easy, just bring it yourself.
Today was another sandstorm day, and it was the same in his tattered thatch hut as it was on every sandstorm day: filled with people. Not only were the tables loaded with customers, people even leaned against the door frame, and people even sat against the walls.
Cripple Sun sat in the corner behind a counter made from several boards nailed together, legs crossed, his bad leg on top of his good one, hands in his sleeves, a shiny jujube tree at his side, his eyes closed, taking a break. His face was wrinkled, a weather-beaten face, a mustache over thin lips, his face expressionless, as if he were indifferent to the wind threatening to blow his roof off.
The busy ones were the roomful of guests. Several wine jars sat by the wall, ladles hanging from the mouths of the jars. If you wanted a drink you ladled it yourself, and when you had had enough you slapped your butt and left the money you owed and went out. So you drank as you pleased, making a trip to the jars each time. It was just there was nowhere to sit, so you had to lean against the door frame of sit against the wall. Those with actual seats were in no hurry.
Cripple Sun’s hut had five tables, ten people altogether. Those ten people seemed to not have much capacity for liquor, and they seemed to have heavy matters weighing on their minds as they drank.
Ten people, three sitting alone at three tables. The other two tables, at one sat three people, at the other four.
The four seated at the one table were all burly men. The weather wasn’t that cold yet they all wore fur hats, fur jackets, and riding breeches and leather boots. The fur on their jackets was turned out and they wore wide belts around their waists, their expressions bold and fierce. Plus four broadsword scabbards tied with red silk on the table that made people shake with fear. No one dared look at them directly.
At the table with three people, all three were old men. The one in the middle had long thin eyebrows and a long beard in five tufts, and he wore a blue gown and sat erect in his chair with a solemn expression, a faint imposing air about him.
Of the two on either side of him, one was fat, the other thin. The fat one was white and fat and wore a white gown; the thin one was darkskinned and wore a black gown.
The white fat old man’s face was pale and delicate, really like he would break if you blew on him. His fat hands were even paler, without a trace of color, nearly transparent, but his fat face seemed to always wear a smile. Whoever looked at him couldn’t help but smile and nod.
The dark thin black-gowned old man was different. His face was black like the bottom of a pot, thin as a bag of bones, deep-set eyes, the bridge of his nose high. His hands were like the claws of a ghost, his expression stony, his gaze piercing cold. Whoever looked at him would be frozen in place.