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The Woman Who Runs Heaven: Tea, Talk and Trends with Ling Wen

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Ling Wen’s response came written on silk, the black characters scrawled in the clear, precise calligraphy of a woman who had lived a hundred lifetimes as a master of words.  The message invited me to visit the Heavenly Court at noon and invited Hua Cheng not to come at all. He came anyway. We arrived in the Heavenly Court at midday, when the sun turned the glittering streets of the Heavenly Court into a shining river of gold and silver, making the half-blind gods careen into floating pavilions and palaces. As Hua Cheng and I strolled up the glittering main avenue, we saw a martial god fly directly into the side of a temple, bounce, and plummet like a stone. 

“Do you think we should help him?” I asked Hua Cheng. 

“He’ll be fine,” he said with a smile. 

If you ever visit the Heavenly Capital at noon, be sure to walk rather than fly. 

The place Ling Wen had chosen for us to meet at was a tea shop run by a blind official who ascended during the later part of the Shang Dynasty. When she ascended, she brought her entire tea garden with her, and the same trees still sit outside the pavilion where she keeps her wares. Unlike the brilliant avenue outside, the inside of the store was cool and pleasant and smelled faintly of tea and flowers. It was the sort of place that hadn’t changed since the owner first opened it, and will endure exactly as long as she does. 

We met Ling Wen outside beneath the blooming trees, her dark robes spread out like a spot of ink, two teacups waiting on the table beside her. 

“I thought I wasn’t invited,” Hua Cheng drawled. 

“Of course not, but that doesn’t mean that you wouldn’t come,” Ling Wen said placidly. “Take a seat, if you’d like.” 

I sat down at the table, and San Lang reclined on the grass beside us and took notes. His calligraphy is really improving! Sometimes I can read a few characters. 

I took a seat and a sip of tea, and then asked Ling Wen if she had any advice for new gods or visitors to the Heavenly Court. 

"First of all, don’t visit the Heavenly Court. Go on vacation somewhere interesting instead, and spare me the incident reports. But if you must come here, bring a hat and wear long sleeves. We’re so close to the sun, it’s easy to get sunburned. And if you’re coming from Ghost City, don’t tell anyone! Say that the Martial God of the West sent you instead. Quan Yi Zhen beats up people who interrupt his training to ask questions, so no one will bother him about you.” 

“Won’t that get him in trouble?”

“If anyone knows a way to trouble Quan Yi Zhen, please, go ahead. He hasn’t filled out his paperwork in over a decade.” 

At this point our conversation was interrupted by the arrival of a fresh pot of tea.  When the shopkeeper was told Hua Cheng was lying on the floor she patted him on the head and called him a good boy. I suspect she thought he was a dog. 

“What was your first impression of the Heavenly Court?” I asked. 

“I came to the Heavenly Court straight from prison, and I was so grateful to be here I nearly cried. I’d been on death row, and then I was here, and everything was so bright and so splendid and I thought Jing Wen was so kind.” 

Ling Wen paused here, and spent a long moment looking down into her tea. She looks young, and it’s easy to forget how long she’s been here. Sometimes even I forget. 

“Jing Wen pinched my ass on the third day I was here, and that cured me of any illusions. People are people. Ascension changes them, but it doesn’t make them better. It just makes them more themselves. All these immortals, we’re like tea that’s been steeping for too long. You lose everything but the bitterest, most characteristic parts.” 

As we sat in silence, a cool wind blew through the garden, and the thousand tiny leaves of the tea tree hummed and rattled with a sound like whispers. There are places in the Heavenly Court that seem as new as if they were built yesterday, and there are places overlaid with so much time you can barely see them. The tea garden was one of those places. Sitting there, I could feel the presence of hundreds of generations of heavenly officials, some dead and some still living, and then the wind blew the moment away and it was only us and the ancient trees. 

To shake off the moment, I asked Ling Wen a question. “I bet you’ve seen a lot of trends come and go… what do you miss the most?” 

It was a question that I immediately regretted. I thought of Shi Wudu’s last words, and of his hand around Ling Wen’s waist, but Ling Wen didn’t flinch. She gazed at me over the wooden tea tables and replied: “I liked it when staining your nails was in fashion. Hua Chengzu’s dark nails are unusual now, but there was a time period when even Jun Wu and Mu Qing were wearing red and gold fingernails.” 

 “Don’t group me in with them,” Hua Cheng said. 

“Did you ever participate in any of the trends?” I asked, trying to picture Ling Wen with fingers stained from fashion and not from work.

“Black never goes out of style.” 

“Ling Wen, this is an interview,” Hua Cheng chided.  “You should be honest.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

There was a thin smile on Hua Cheng’s face, his eyelids closed, as if he were remembering something. “All sorts of things pass through Ghost City. Rumors, lies, books, poetry… and paintings. Ink on silk, about seven hundred years old, from Yuncheng. Portraits of a general and his companion. I thought your robes were quite fashionable.” 

“Heaven is full of generals and their companions,” Ling Wen retorted. 

“Not every general is General Ming Guang.” 

“Not every woman who hangs around Pei Ming is me.” 

Hua Cheng and Ling Wen’s tense staredown lasted until a martial god kindly broke the tension by flying into the wall of a nearby building. 

“Ling Wen, what’s been the greatest improvement since you entered heaven?”

“Legalism wasn’t half bad, though it’s too bad about Han Feizi. But my favorite development… I’d have to say paper.  Before paper everyone did all their writing on wooden tablets. It was terrible. Don’t even mention oracle bones. I’m so glad paper is trendy right now.” 

“Oracle bones?” Hua Cheng asked, one eyebrow tilted upwards. I couldn’t see the other eyebrow, but it may have been raised as well.

“As I said, don’t mention them.”

“Is paper really a trend?” I asked. 

“Everything’s a trend if you take the long view. When I ascended, the oldest gods were from a time before written words, and they would chide Jing Wen for adopting the new-fangled trend of written records. In a few centuries, who knows? Perhaps someone will invent something to replace paper.”

“I wouldn’t bet on it,” I said, laughing. 

“Anything can happen in a few centuries,” Ling Wen said. “Quan Yi Zhen might even learn how to read.”

“For a change like that? A few centuries definitely isn’t enough time,” Hua Cheng said, and he and Ling Wen shared a mean smile, the earlier tension forgotten. 

“This is an interview,” I pointed out. “Shouldn’t you be kinder to your heavenly colleagues?”

“Don’t worry,” Ling Wen said dismissively. “Even if this were printed word for word, Quan Yi Zhen would never get this far in the transcript.” 

After finishing our tea, we gave our thanks to the owner of the teahouse, who smiled and offered Hua Cheng a bone to chew on. Ling Wen thanked her, Hua Cheng took the bone, and the four of us chatted for a while about recent developments in teaware and drinking styles. Behind the counter there was a painting: Ling Wen, Pei Ming, and Shi Wudu, seated at the same table where we’d just been sitting, the same tree stretched out over their heads. 

It was like stepping into a different world when we left the teahouse and stepped out onto the main street. 

🦋

After our teahouse visit, Ling Wen took the lead, commenting on this and that as we walked past the many palaces clustered around the main avenue. The central axis of the Heavenly Court is a wide, broad road, shining and clean, more like a dream of a street than like a street. Today it was empty. Only the topknots of frightened officials could be seen as they cowered behind awnings and benches and ornamental plants.

Ling Wen gestured to the empty boulevard with an elegant sweep of one wrist and said: “As you can see, the traffic is really terrible at this time of day.” 

“Is it?” I glanced around at the boulevard, which didn’t have a single person on it, and then back at Ling Wen, who smiled and pointed to a nearby tree.

“Yes. Look, there’s five people fighting over who gets to hide behind that ailanthus.”

As we watched, an official fell out of the tree, smacked into a lower branch, and then landed on the quarreling officials with a loud thud. 

“They’re not very good at hiding, are they?” Hua Cheng said. 

“They’re middle officials,” Ling Wen said mildly. “They’re not very good at anything. But once crimson rain is no longer on the weather forecast, they’ll be back on the street again, and the avenue will be more crowded than Pei Ming’s bedsheets.”

“Aren’t you worried about rain?” Hau Cheng asked. 

“Between blood and middle officials, I’ll take the blood any day,” Ling Wen replied.

As we strolled down the avenue, Ling Wen gave a running commentary on the temples and palaces that we passed. 

About Lang Qian Qiu’s palace: “If you want a good fistfight, this is the place. If you want a bad fistfight, this is also the place. If you want a fistfight fraught with homorerotic tension, try Mu Qing’s palace. But please take it indoors- I’m tired of having to file expense reports for the cracks in the sidewalk.”

About Feng Xin: “My second-favorite heavenly official. He’s scared of women, so it’s easy for me to bully him into filling out his paperwork properly. One time I showed him my wrist and he didn’t visit my palace for a whole year.” 

About Mu Qing: “The tension between him and Feng Xin is truly exhausting. There was a time period when his name got mistranslated and for a few years he was the martial god of yearning. People were leaving “instruments of love” in his offering boxes. Some nun even wrote a yellow book about him and Feng Xin.”

“A yellow book?” I asked. 

“I’ll explain it to you when you’re older,” Ling Wen said. 

“I’ll explain it to you tonight,” Hua Cheng said, and he had a very, um, specific look on his face. I had the sense that Hua Cheng would have explained it to me right then, if he could, and I felt that the explanation would not be appropriate for this article. 

“… he doesn’t have that title any longer, right?” I said, changing the subject. 

“That’s correct. He lost it. Feng Xin sent him a spiritual device for alleviating your longing and Mu Qing threw it on the ground so hard it came out through the other side of Heaven. The pothole was incredible. The crater where the spiritual device landed is a holy site now.”

Travelers, if you ever visit heaven, it’s probably best to avoid Mu Qing and Feng Xin entirely. Like a sandstorm, or like heavy rain, it’s better to admire picturesque paintings of them than it is to experience them in person. However, if you absolutely must see them fight, Ling Wen’s palace sells tickets for seats at a safe distance. 

“I’m using Yushi Huang’s empty palace as seating. She doesn’t mind, and I’ve got to raise funds for street repair somehow. Everyone here is too rich to pay taxes.”

“If they don’t pay taxes, then what’s all the paperwork you have to do?”

“They’re supposed to pay taxes, but every year they send me paperwork saying they don’t have to instead. It’s a miracle. Once a year for tax season, everyone becomes literate.”

We passed Pei Ming’s palace. 

“What, nothing to say?” Hua Cheng asked. 

“The view from the top floor of the sausage shop is nice, but I’m sure everyone in the city has seen it by now.” Ling Wen replied. Female Travelers, a note: Pei Ming’s bedroom is on the top floor of his palace.

“Including you?”

“I can’t be bothered to climb that many stairs,” Ling Wen said. 

She led us past palaces and temples and teahouses and gardens, never missing a turn, until at last we arrived in the district which had been the former residence of the Water Master. It was as splendid as always, and all that splendor was guarded by a pair of Martial Gods who bowed their heads to Ling Wen as she led us in. 

“Welcome to the memorial,” she said.  

Shi Wudu’s former palace has become a memorial to the people who died in the fight against Jun Wu. The halls that were previously reserved for banquets and toasts have been lined with funeral urns and shrines, the revelers replaced with mourners. Spiritual devices are lined up on display, silent witnesses to those who came before. Despite the display cases and shrines, it felt as if Shi Wudu might return at any moment and order his middle officials, now employed as docents, to return to their posts.

“Shi Wudu wasn’t killed by Jun Wu, you know,” Hua Cheng said, tapping his finger against his lower lip as if he were lost in thought. “I seem to recall it was something to do with the small issue of him cheating his brother into Heaven.”

“This isn’t a memorial to Shi Wudu,” Ling Wen replied.

“How can you say it isn’t?” Hua Cheng asked. “It’s his house.”

“It’s a memorial. The house happened to be empty.” 

“Just admit it,” Hua Cheng said, smiling. Ling Wen returned the fake, empty smile with interest. 

“After your dear shidi killed the Water Master, his fortune didn’t evaporate,” she said. “There was a little war happening in my palace as everyone fought over the scraps, and this was my solution. The money stays here. It’s the most convenient solution for everyone.”

“And if it isn’t?” Hua Cheng asked. 

“I’ll bring them around,” Ling Wen said. 

The Palace of Memory is open Monday - Friday, with guided tours at 10:00, 12:00, and 3:00. If you go, be sure to check out the fan room and the hall of musical instruments, and don’t forget to check your weapons in the coat room. 

Ling Wen guided us out through the back of the gardens, past fountains and gardens and flowers and stones, every item perfectly placed. Despite the flourishing beauty, there was an overwhelming sense of rigor, as if even the flowers had been instructed in how to bloom. At the far end of the gardens, we left the tyrant’s flowers behind and began to climb. The staircase was long, the end of it obscured by clouds and mist. As we climbed, the Heavenly Court appeared beneath us, the rooftops spread out like lotuses floating in the lake of clouds. From this distance, the heavenly officials fell away, and only the splendor remained.

We reached the top, and looked down from a platform that must have been the highest thing in Heaven and Earth. Ling Wen sat on the edge, childishly dangling her legs over the empty air, and for a moment I caught a glimpse of the teenager she must have been all those centuries ago. The day was finally shading into evening, and the black color of her robe was a silhouette of night against the gold and purple of the waning sun. 

“Jun Wu brought me here once, a long, long time ago,” Ling Wen said. “It was a little after I’d become the head literature god. He took me to the edge of the platform, and he told me to look down. 

‘Look how small it is,’ he’d said. 

At the time, I thought that he was just saying that to scare me. How could a city with so many palaces and temples and gods be small? It stretches from horizon to horizon. But now, after everything—now that I’ve seen it in flames—I think it looks small too.” 

I sat beside her and tried to see what she could see, but my eyes kept getting caught on the details. The gold-trimmed roofs were glittering with the diagonal light of evening, and the shifting clouds were like an ocean painted in orange and pink, and all around us the earliest stars were beginning to decorate the sky. The wind blew us the smell of incense and the smell of meat, and sometimes, when it went still, there was a silence so complete it felt as if time might never start again. 

On earth, when people wait, the inhale and exhale of their breath keeps time, but between the three of us, there was nothing but silence. There are fewer differences between ghosts and gods than either likes to admit. I looked at death-pale Ling Wen and at Hua Cheng, and I looked at the city, and I wondered what they saw. 

“It seems pretty big to me,” I said at last.  

“Good,” Ling Wen replied. “Come back in a thousand years, and tell me what you see then.”

We ended our evening there, clustered together on the edge of an empty palace, our legs dangling over the vast drop down into nothing, laughing and talking as the sun set. The Heavenly Court is old, very old, as old as human aspirations for the divine, but it’s also new. Every day it changes. High on her head, half-concealed behind the bloom of her dark hair, Ling Wen was wearing a new hairpin, courtesy of Pei Ming.