That a fish crawled out from the lake for me because I was hungry; that three mountain gods turned themselves into furious brave soldiers to fight off my enemies; that a phoenix dropped a sprig of tea leaves into my lap to quench my thirst.
My name is linked to such fantastical legends, one wonders if there could be any truth in these tales –- I mean, how do you expect me to quench thirst with a sprig of leaves? Masticate them like a mountain goat?
My name is Zhao Bing 赵昺, the last emperor of the Southern Song 南宋 dynasty.
If the mountain gods had fought by my side, my empire would not have passed into the hands of Kubilai Khan. My men caught those fish for me; and as for the tea –- remember, in Song dynasty we were still drinking green powdered tea: a sprig of tea leaves would not have meant anything to me. Besides, there was no phoenix; it was actually a crow with droppings for my head.
The year was 1278: the endless fleeing from the enemy, the sleepless nights, and the near drowning at high seas took the emperor’s -- my brother's -– life after a fit of illness. The little band of loyalists was disheartened, but Lu Xiufu 陆秀夫, the prime minister, reminded them that there was still me -- the Song bloodline was not going to end.
Trust me, I never wanted to be an emperor, never wanted a life as a fugitive on the run from the Mongolian barbarians. I wanted only to play with crickets.
I was fleeing from the barbarians the day I was crowned emperor, and we fled from Fuzhou to Guangzhou.
That is where I came to drink this tea that the locals plucked off tea trees and boiled as a beverage. Hong Yin 红茵 was what the farmers called it. It was a common beverage, but it tasted so good, so sweet. I was probably very thirsty then, and angry that a crow soiled my clothes, but the tea was nothing like the green muck I used to drink back in the palace -- when I still lived in a palace, playing with my crickets.
My kingdom, my sad small Southern Song state, didn’t last long. We fought the barbarians hard and furious, but they just came on stronger, wave after wave of fearsome barbarians, tall and thick as a wall. We retreated to the seas. We fought on the seas. We lost.
It was a cold dawn that day when Lu woke me up to tell me the news. The dynasty that my ancestors ruled for 152 years was no longer. Lu was weeping when he broke the news. I had never seen a grown man weep.
“Please come with me, your highness,” he said.
“Where to, Lu? Are we on the run again?” I was not yet fully awake.
“No, your highness, but it is time for us to go.”
I followed Lu to the deck; his wife was there waiting for us with their young son fast asleep in her arms. Lu walked to his wife, and began to tie her up with a rope, looping his wife and son together.
“I don’t want our son to suffer the pain,” she begged. Lu looked at his wife for a long time, and then at his son. He nodded. “I can’t bear having him suffer too,” he said gently.
Lu looped one end of the rope over his son’s neck, and suddenly, with one quick force, tightened the rope. The boy woke and began to struggle for air, but his mother buried his face into her bosom while his father tightened the rope further. I watched in stunned horror as the boy’s body stiffened before going limp forever.
The mother’s howl that came as the father relaxed the rope froze the morning breeze to icy knives that stabbed our souls.
Lu walked over to me, and began tying us together. “What are you doing, Lu?” I demanded.
“Your highness, it is time for us to go. This is no longer our country; our ancestors do not recognize us anymore.” I am tied securely to Lu, I am too stunned, too frightened by what I have just witness, to struggle.
Your highness, it is time for us to go.
The chilly water brought me to my senses. I struggled, but Lu held me tightly to him. I fought, I screamed, but every scream was drowned in mouthfuls of sea water. I punched him, I kicked. I clawed at Lu, but he only hugged me tighter and tighter. Over his shoulders I could see Lu’s wife sinking into the dark blue, she was struggling too, tied to her dead son. I thought I heard her scream…
My chest was going to burst. I needed air, but water filled my lungs. I thought I would be a fish, and breathe water.
I could feel Lu’s hug relaxing. I could untie myself now, but I was tired.
I never wanted to be emperor. I just want to play with my crickets; I just want to play with the fish in the pond.
The year was 1279. My name is Zhao Bing, the last emperor of Southern Song.
And I was eight.