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Qi Ye / Lord Seventh by Priest: Commentary

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Author: nairin 

Twitter: @IrinaO20

AO3: https://archiveofourown.org/users/nairin/works

Novel: QiYe 七爷 / Lord Seventh, by Priest [2010]

Translation: Huang Zhifeng (皇织缝/Chichi)  https://chichilations.home.blog/lord-seventh/

Date: 3rd of April 2021

Table of Contents:

Introduction

Summary

Structure of Novel

Symbolism in QiYe/LordSeventh

The Saṃsāra in Buddhism: Karma and Reincarnations

The Realms of Reincarnation

Karma

Buddhism versus Daoism

Buddhist Undertone in QiYe

DiYu or Yellow Springs

Parallel with NanJiang

The Netherjudge and the Illustrious One

Chinese Folklore Legend: The Black and White Impermanence 黑白无常

Lord Seventh: The Lifetimes

The First 3 Lifetimes

The True Exposition and the Cyclic Resolution

The 7 Lifetimes Of Jing Qi

The Main Characters

Jing Qi as Ancient Deity

The Title of the Novel: Significance

Bai Wu Chang: The Predestined Love of Jing Qi

Helian Yi: Soul Born out of Karmic Regulation

The First 3 Lifetimes, Decoded

The First Lifetime

The Second Lifetime

The Third Lifetime

Proposed Chronology of Lifetimes

The Priest Trick

Conclusion

Bibliography

Introduction

The much accomplished author Priest (P大) distinguishes herself from other Danmei/BL-centered authors on many accounts. Her writing covers a great many genres, the topics tackled are controlled with full mastery of lore, and despite the always changing setting and first-class focus in building universes, she retains her unique style. Live Action, Donghua, Manhua adaptations of her books are much anticipated, not to mention the host of academia/literary prizes awarded in recognition of her works.

Clear examples are the very warm reception of “Words of Honor” based on “Tian Ya Ke/Faraway Wanderers” and the hype around the upcoming Live Action adaptation of “Sha Po Lang/Winner is King” and Donghua adaptation of “MoDu / Silent Reading”. 

The fanbase prides itself in being a privileged, intelligent niche. Apart from being extremely well-read, it has become obvious in her works that Priest is very much respectful of traditional Chinese folklore, leaning towards interspersing all her masterpieces with bits of classical Chinese poetry, history, spirituality, propelling the pride of the “Han people” and of the “Great Qing”.

QiYe 七爷 / Lord Seventh is one of her earlier works, written in 2010 and in terms of narrative devices and plot development it is not as complex as Mo Du  / Silent Reading, yet the topics tackled are very mature. 

Summary

A short summary - on a first glance - of what occurs in QiYe is as follows: 

Prince of Nan’ning, Jing Beiyuan, reincarnates his seventh lifetime with the help of Bai WuChang, a Yellow Springs (n.a. Nether world) Soulhook Envoy, for the potential of fulfilling his lifelong desire to be together with (future-to-be Emperor) Helian Yi. 

Having died horrible deaths in his previous lifetimes because of this amorous obsession with Helian Yi, Jing Beiyuan (aka Jing Qi) enters the seventh lifetime determined to not aspire to anything great and just live a comfortable life, devoid of any desires.

However, the political plots and devious schemes happening at the Court, Jing Qi is tasked with entertain/supervising a vassal state’s prince, future-to-be Great Shaman of the Southern Land of NanJiang, Wu Xi. Wu Xi is sent to the Imperial Capital of the Great Qing as a hostage in sign of good faith of his subdued land. 

The two develop a close relationship that ultimately comes to fruition after various trials and tribulations. Helian Yi is rejected by Jing Qi and WuXi is able to whisk the latter away to his birthplace in NanJiang, where presumably the two live there happily forever after, Priest’s signature.

Structure of Novel

The structure of the novel follows the usual Fichtean Curve, where there’s an exposition, a paced progress peppered with crises that maintain the reader’s attention and culminate with a  full-on military/violent conflict (as is almost always the case with Priest), all to be finalized with a satisfying resolution. 

Being a danmei, aka Boys Love genre (of Chinese flavor), the conflicts center around the protagonist (Jing Beiyuan) and the deuteragonist (Wu Xi), and each resolution means a step closer to the fulfillment of their love. 

But there are two very interesting things that set apart QiYe’s structure from the above model, enough for the deviation to constitute a vital clue to the meaning of the novel.

  • The Story begins and ends in a cyclical way with a Yellow Springs / Netherworld scene. Everything in the middle (the actual core of the novel) happens in the Earth realm.
  • Alpha / The Beginning - The first chapter: “Seven Lifetimes of Ephemeral Lives”
  • Omega / The Ending - The last chapter: “The Other Side of the Bridge of Helplessness”
  • The stronger-than-usual presence of the tritagonist, Helian Yi

These artifices stand out, so they must carry keys to solve the puzzle(s) of the title.

Symbolism in QiYe/LordSeventh

It seems like with QiYe, Priest’s mission is to befuddle readers as much as possible on various aspects: 

  • Who is actually the predestined pair?
  • What is the reason for the underworld scenes?
  • What is the reason for the senseless cruelty?
  • Why the vague title of the book and what is the meaning behind it? 
  • Who are the subjects of the very first three lives?
  • What is the correct chronology of the events?

The above have several explanations and readers may stop at the first, apparent level. 

In this essay, the intent is to dive deeper, taking a closer look at the symbolism and spirituality topics that Priest conveys. Priest has always been big on symbols, on delayed revelations and knows how to efficiently play with symbols and concepts of Buddhism, Daoism, folklore in order to convey that hidden idea in her mind, that only few can grasp. 

She likes to build simultaneously on different levels and interconnect everything into a big masterful spiderweb. This was obvious in “Mo Du / Silent Reading'' which is one of her more mature works. The labyrinthine quality of the story is evident here as well, although in a bit more chaotic way.

The Saṃsāra in Buddhism: Karma and Reincarnations

Because the novel’s epic core is driven by the concept of karma and reincarnations, it seems suitable to present a few short ideas regarding the cycle of reincarnations, namely Saṃsāra.

Per Chün-fang Yü in “Chinese Buddhism: A Thematic History” [5], “a person is reborn after death in accordance with his karma. Good karma leads to rebirth into one of the first three realms, whereas bad karma leads to rebirth into one of the latter three realms. Karma means deed, but it also includes thought and speech. (...) As long as one is not enlightened (n.a., has not achieved Nirvana), one creates karma and will continuously be reborn.”

The Realms of Reincarnation

The realms the author refers to in the quote above are:

  1. Devas  or Gods, highest deities -  “the most pleasure-filled among the six realms”[19], attainable by those with the best karmic accumulation. This does not mean however the end of Samsara, and being in this realm does not equate nirvana.
  2. Asuras, Demi-Gods - good karma
  3. Humans - good karma // it is considered accumulation of good karma to have been born as a human, but somewhat at the threshold i.e., next reincarnation could go either way.
  4. Animal /Vegetation realm - bad karma
  5. Hungry Ghosts realm - bad karma // entities that are depicted as always being hungry and thirsty, with large gaping mouths, destined for suffering.
  6. Hell realm - worst karma; “This realm is not similar to afterlife hell in Christianity, states Damien Keown, because in Buddhism there is no realm of final damnation and existence in this realm is also a temporary state.” [19]

The description of these realms of reincarnations vary a lot across regions, origin of Buddhism (either of Indian or Chinese affiliation).  Per historian Chün-fang Yü in [5],  “ There are ten Dharma realms in Tiantai cosmology. They include the traditional six realms of:devas (gods), asuras (demigods), humans, animals, hungry ghosts, and hellish beings. Tiantai adds four more realms: buddhas, bodhisattvas, self-enlightened buddhas, and disciples.

Karma

Karma is translated as “actions”. A soul will enter the cycle of reincarnations at birth (a soul can appear/be born in the world at any time, it doesn’t have to exist from the beginning of time), it will roam between six realms in different states as long as it creates karma, and will escape this endless suffering only if it stops creating karma. The end is Nirvana, i.e., the end of cycle of reincarnations and ultimately the end of suffering.

As long as one creates/accumulates good karma, they will be reincarnated in a good, higher realm; whereas if one creates/accumulates bad karma, they would conversely be reincarnated in a lower realm.

“This endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth is samsara , a constant wandering through the six realms." It is governed by the following three main precepts:

  1. Life is suffering (sanskrit: duhkha)
  2. Suffering is caused by craving.
  3. Nirvana is the end of suffering.

Buddhism in general, regardless of affiliation, reinforces the belief that "because everything in the world constantly changes, trying to hold on to and refusing to let go of a person or thing one loves can only cause suffering." [5]

In “Death, Intermediate State, and Rebirth in Tibetan Buddhism” [4], The 13th Dalai Lama speaks as follows about the concept of karma: "Through the afflictions of desire, hatred and ignorance, contaminated karma (actions) are performed, which establish potencies in the mind in the form of predispositions. When a lifetime finishes, a person who has such predispositions is born again  in cyclic existence with a mind and body appropriated through these contaminated causes"

"Some persons die upon the full exhaustion of the impetus of that action which, in another lifetime, laid the foundation  for this one. Others die without having used up their allotted time, through the incompletion of the causes  of sustaining life (...) The connection to a life is, therefore, made under the influence of desire, hatred, and ignorance. Until these afflictions are overcome, one is as if bound in chains without freedom."

Buddhism versus Daoism

Although it is known that today’s Chinese rich culture has grown in such a way that it assimilates buddhism, Daoism and traditional folklore passed down from generation to generation, it is important to underline a few of the differences between Daoism and Buddhism. 

Author Priest tends to lean more towards the buddhist (more pessimistic) side of things in the core of the novels she writes: the core usually is marked by the characters’ struggles, the feeling of helplessness in front of a fickle fate, ultimately to traumatise the reader with apparently meaningless deaths, cruel endings of side characters. 

Per Taoism vs Buddhism: Primary Differences and Similarities,  by Richard Pircher  [19], 

  • “The Buddhists believe that everything is characterized by constant change and people have to break free from their ties to the world. According to karma, a central tenet of Buddhism, all actions have consequences. Buddhists share a belief in the goal of overcoming suffering and rebirth by attaining enlightenment, known as Nirvana.” 
  • “In contrast, Taoists worship deities, even if Tao itself is not a god but rather the natural order of the universe that guides everything impersonally. The main goal of Taoists is to achieve balance in life and reach immortality through Tao. For them, the concept of sin doesn’t exist, people are equal, and all creatures should be respected.” 
  • "While reincarnation plays a role in both religions, Buddhists want to break the cycle of reincarnation (...) What is understood by reincarnation is also markedly different. For Buddhists, it doesn’t entail a belief in the existence of a soul of or any life after death.  Nirvana is the highest form of enlightenment and the ultimate goal in life. It can only be attained by living morally, respecting all life forms, and letting go of one’s attachments to this world." 
  • "Taoists believe that the soul is eternal and will eventually become one with Tao. (...) The teachings of Taoism are meant to help people connect to the energy of the universe and become one with it. (...) According to Taoism, the soul or spirit can never die. It will only move to another body which is to be reborn as a different person. This rebirth cycle will be repeated until one obtains Tao. Taoists say that every person possesses an inner light which guides us back to a clear mind and pulls away from distractions. Following this inner light is the only way to attain Tao. Taoists also believe that the human soul has the ability to travel through space and time and become immortal after reaching Tao."
  • "Achieving Nirvana is not the same as attaining Tao because Buddhists dismiss the whole existence of self and Taoists believe in the immortality of the soul."

The whole idea of QiYe, and the title of the novel as well - Lord Seventh, not “Jing Beiyuan” - indicate that yes, the soul is changing, we go through numerous rebirths in order to attain wisdom and understand that everything is IMPERMANENT and nothing is meant to remain unchanged. It is the same with the worldly obsession Jing Beiyuan had acquired in his karma allocation with Helian Yi; even if it did exist, this affection waned away and was no more in his seventh lifetime. And rightfully so, especially because he paid his dues: fought the war, helped Helian Yi rise to the position of Rongjia Emperor, as promised, and then “died” honorably. 

However, what we’re assuming is a thousands-of-years spanning affection for Bai WuChang (and even if it weren’t, even if it were just affection acquired in the seventh lifetime) did not yet get fulfilled and the dues were upcoming, as we’re demonstrating in the following section.

Buddhist Undertone in QiYe

Priest opts for a Buddhist undertone in QiYe/Lord Seventh, though it is ultimately mixed with ideas of Daoism and traditional Chinese folklore concepts as well. The following are a few examples that highlight how buddhist spirituality is peppered and found throughout the novel. The precepts shown before will ultimately reward Wu Xi and Jing Qi with happiness, while punishing Helian Yi with suffering yet a few lifetimes more probably, within samsara.

  • Priest punishes her characters for having obsessions and not letting go of their desires: 
    • Bai WuChang, about Jing Qi: “He was too diligent, and already had a head full of white hair when he died, his obsession unchanged after his death. He refused to drink more than that one mouthful of forgetting water, then stood by the Bridge’s edge in painstaking wait for ten years, waiting for that person so they could enter reincarnation together…”
    • “He felt himself seemingly get abruptly pushed by someone, and he submerged in an instant, someone’s soft voice in his ears. “Your destiny was ruined with me as the cause, and you were senselessly made to wander the world, suffering the utmost of hardships. I currently have no means of recompense other than to give up all of my cultivation, and change your hair in the next lifetime to black…”
    • The entire host of Jing Qi’s ephemeral lives (bug, dog, pot of jasmine, fox) that end in extreme suffering, albeit unwarranted, at the first sight.
  • Similarly, the idea of compensation / owning debts / paying dues / “no-free-lunch” also characteristic in Buddhism is repeatedly highlighted:
    • Bai WuChang pays with the price of his cultivation in order for Jing Qi to reincarnate in a favorable status in the 7th life: “The reversal of time and space… even though he didn’t understand the ins and outs of that, did he not have some clear idea of the gargantuan price the Soulhook Envoy had to have paid, for the sake of reimbursing again?”
    • In the last extra, Bai Wu Chang is punished for having hooked Su QingLuan’s soul: “That was, until he had a day of inattention, where he mistakenly hooked one woman’s soul. Because of this, the Netherjudge made him stand in a corner for a full ten years and think about what he’d done. He didn’t mind; he made a mistake, so he should suffer punishment, and after taking it, he would go back to doing what he ought to be doing. It wasn’t until his penalty period had been fulfilled, and he was released, that he noticed the white-haired, indifferent-looking man beside Three-Life Rock. He didn’t know it at the time, but this was when his punishment had truly just begun.”
    • Towards the end of the novel, when Wu Xi goes with the Army to aid Great Qing expects Jing Qi to honor his promises towards him: ““He said, ‘I owe him for today, and if there’s another day that we meet again, I’ll definitely repay him.’” Wu Xi paused for a long time, then quietly began to laugh, finally feeling like he was beside himself. “Repay me… repay me? What’s he going to repay me with? I want him to repay me with his whole life, but when… when is he going to sincerely want to give that to me?””
    • However, he does not dwell in useless melancholy and is determined to get what is his: “Prince, you have a debt to pay. Your words are precious, and you still have a lifetime to say them.”

At the same time, Priest’s main drive for this novel is to show that the characters that BREAK the endless cycle will attain happiness.  Refusing to satisfy short-sighted obsessions in favor of long-term good-karma creating decisions, the characters will escape the cycle of suffering, and turn their fates around, as follows:

  • Wu Xi: at the end of the novel, when he attains the rightful position of Great Shaman of NanJiang, against all expectations, he rushes with the army to help Great Qing, its former enemy, instead of taking advantage of Great Qing’s warring weakened state:  “Ten years ago, I felt that we should build up our strength, fight back, take revenge, and settle the score of our anger and hatred. But what happens once the settling is over? Another batch of brothers in the prime of their lives dead, causing their wives and parents to be heart-broken and suffering, and their children to forever pass that hatred down?”  
    • Note how Wu Xi realizes that his sins are not only his own. Wu Xi realizes that any sins, bad decisions he makes will influence a great many others, and for generations to come. So he chooses to break the cycle of hatred, in a wise gesture of political military support (as opposed to just whisking Jing Qi away)
  • Jing Qi: at the start of his seventh life, he attains a sort of enlightened state, where he wishes to not get involved into worldly affairs, and just live comfortably: “Jing Qi peered at him, lip curled. “Great nobility isn’t necessary. Being unworried about food and clothing and unconcerned with the material world’s events is best. It’s fine enough to let me idly muddle around until my death, in any case.””
  • Jing Qi  BREAKS the cycle as well:
    • Immediately after reincarnating the 7th life, he opts to NOT live in the Palace with Helian Yi, but to go “as far away as possible from him” and goes back to Nan’Ning estate. Jing Qi is very clear on account of his past lives’ suffering, that he must avoid Helian Yi at any cost in order to lead a comfortable life.
    • He rejects Helian Yi resolutely, finally seeing in him the obsession, and letting him know several times that a bond between Helian Yi and himself is not possible: “Helian Yi chuckled, though there were no laugh lines at the corners of his eyes. “And if I… want to ask about a fated bond, instead?” he asked, voice hushed. Jing Qi shook his head, chuckling back. “This word has no affinity. Were there to be a three-life-long karmic tie for it, it would only be an empty shadow. There was no need to ask, Sir. You’re well aware of this in your heart.””
    • He refuses to marry and thus to continue the sinful bloodline he has: “There are three ways to be unfilial, and having no descendants is the greatest; do you want no heirs? Do you want to make the first outer-surname Prince title in our Great Qing have its bloodline cut off from now on?!”
    • Ultimately, he chooses to honour the oath of love probably made thousands of years before, and finally give Wu Xi what he is due: “Wu Xi’s motions paused for a time, but he didn’t look up at him, only giving a low mn (...) ‘A promise in life and death made with our beloved, to take their hands and grow old with them’… that was it. I thought of you, you came, and that was it.”

 

In short, Buddhism acknowledges that "the conviction that each person has an unchanging self (atman) within is the basic reason one suffers". "The Illusion of Self", the illusion that our obsessions are warranted in the greater scheme of things will only lead to more suffering, not just of others as well and the best way to circumvent this is shedding these wordle desires and attain calm, understand that there is nothing permanent.

In Chapter 43, “Meeting to Inquire Once More”, the following beautiful excerpt may as well be a synthesis of the fickleness of karma and the impermanence of earthly emotions:

“The affairs of life were one big dream. The human world had experienced several bouts of autumn chill, and three hundred years of love and hate had hurtled past. From the beginning to the end, as if happening in the snap of one’s fingers, youthful faces and beautiful hair would both become dried-up bones, warrior’s courage and musician’s essence turning into flying ash. For sixty-three years, there was an unconventional guest next to the Three-Life Rock. After sixty-three years of hard contemplation, he then realized that there were no characters upon the Rock to begin with. Those alleged several lifetimes of karmic ties; weren’t they laughable? This world hadn’t changed a bit. It was just fickle.

DiYu or Yellow Springs

As already mentioned, it is of critical importance that the novel starts and ends with a scene set in the NetherWorld, or Yellow Springs Realms. Also called DiYu (simplified Chinese: 地狱; traditional Chinese: 地獄; "earth prison" ), and encompassing as much traditional Chinese folklore as Buddhism or Tao, it can either be considered a purgatory - an intermediary state between reincarnations- or it can be the place for suffering, and reincarnation in the 6th Hell realm.

Per Wikipedia [13], ”According to ideas from Taoism, Buddhism and traditional Chinese folk religion, Diyu is a purgatory that serves to punish and renew spirits in preparation for reincarnation . Many deities, whose names and purposes are the subject of conflicting accounts, are associated with Diyu. Some early Chinese societies speak of people going to Mount Tai , Jiuyuan, Jiuquan or Fengdu after death.”

It’s also connected with the myth of Ten Courts of Hell, each of which is ruled by a judge (collectively known as the Ten Yama Kings), and this is apparently a later, buddhist-induced notion, as it appears that the traditional Chinese folklore vouches for a single ruler over DiYu, Yama, or Yangluo.

In QiYe, the Yellow Springs realm has three-four important items:

  • The Three-Life Rock (Excerpt from  Huang Zhifeng’s compiled Glossary at the end of her translated version of the novel [1])
    • “The Three-Life Rock (三生石) — also referred to as the Fated Love Stone, at least for the IRL version at Lingyin Temple — is purportedly located near the Bridge of Forgetfulness in the underworld, and engraved upon it is fated relationships. It’s named after the concept of ‘three lives’ in Buddhism; the past life, the present life, and the next life. When one commits to hundred years of marriage in a relationship, and they die before their partner, they are to wait at the Three-Life Rock until their partner joins them in death. That way, they face oblivion together. Furthermore, despite the wiping of one’s memories, getting deja vu in one’s present life when falling in love with someone is said to be a sign of having been together in the last life, and when people fall in love, they hope that they will continue to be so in the next one, hence the connotations of the ‘three lives’ with marriage and fate.”
  • The Bridge of Helplessness
    • Per the translator’s footnote at the end of the novel [1] “An extremely pared down version of the the cycle of reincarnation in Chinese mythology: dead souls travel to the Yellow Springs (the underworld), receive punishment in the Ten Courts, then cross the Bridge of Helplessness over the River of Forgetfulness afterwards, where they then drink Meng Po’s soup, forget their life, and move on to their next reincarnation.”
  • The River of Forgetfulness
    • Like all myths, they have a universal substratum; in this case, the Chinese-affiliated myth also has a Greek Myth counterpart in Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, which is one of the five rivers of the Greek underworld; the other four are Acheron (the river of sorrow), Cocytus (the river of lamentation), Phlegethon (the river of fire) and Styx (the river that separates Earth and the Underworld).

The Netherworld/Yellow Springs description is shockingly direct and mentions all three elements described above, making it absolutely clear that we’re talking about an epic that switches Buddhist/traditional Chinese lore realms:  

“Flowers bloomed all across the opposite shore, blood-like. The River of Forgetfulness’s waters trickled quietly, going three-thousand years to the East, three-thousand years to the West. Wandering souls came and went, treading on the endless Yellow Spring Road to come up the Bridge of Helplessness, pour a bowl of yellow soup down into their bellies, and thus have the entirety of their assorted previous lives go away. A crowd of beings passed the edge of the Three-Life Rock 2 to and fro, but none spared a glance towards the place. It was evident as to how reincarnation was little more than a trance.”

  • Note: the “blood-like” flowers are the red spider lilies who are known traditionally to populate the underworld, and are portents not necessarily of death but of the non-earthly realms; they are traditionally planted in cemeteries

Parallel with NanJiang

Because the novel is cyclical, it also ends with a scene in the Netherworld (very last extra, with Bai Wu Chang’s point of view), but if the reader pays attention closely, the land of NanJiang itself is a re-creation of the Yellow Springs realm, metaphorically speaking.

At the end of the novel, Jing Qi dies symbolically. Thus ends his 7th life with karmic allocation inclusive of Helian Yi.  He symbolically sheds everything of this ill-fated reincarnation cycle, and allows Wu Xi to whisk him away to NanJiang after faking his death successfully. Meeting the Teacher, i.e., the previous Great Shaman, Jing Qi says  “The ruler who pays my salary is the one who I’ll die for. Prince Nan’ning has long been martyred in the capital’s war” .

An interesting choice made by Priest is that NanJiang is in the south direction (containing the hanzi for South, and repeatedly mentioned that they are going down south to travel to it).  Per [10], “Light and shadow are the major dichotomous concepts associated with north and south in Chinese. The characters of north and south indicate that north is the shadowed side whereas south is the lit side. The geography and landscape of the country stresses the dichotomous divisions. All major rivers and mountains in China run west-and-eastward, which divide the land into parallel stripes. The ancient Chinese have learned to tell directions by looking at the positions of light and shadow. The saying goes "the shadowed side of a mountain is north and the shadowed side of a river is south."

In Chinese mythology, it seems that the South bears a connection to light and good-omens so it could be interpreted that Jing Qi, having “died” honorably, is able to go into the light and have a fulfilling afterlife with his loved one, after having paid his dues to Helian Yi, and breaking the vicious karma cycle that trapped him in suffering for all those ephemeral rebirths.

 

The Netherjudge and the Illustrious One

Having established that Bai WuChang and Wu Xi are one and the same, we can follow the same lead on the authority figure  that takes care of him, much like a father, in both worlds:

  • In the Yellow Springs Realm: The Netherjudge
    • “With a crackle, a shadow appeared out of thin air next to him, then stooped over to pick up the paper that had fallen to the ground. Hu Jia was startled, then quickly bowed towards him. “Netherjudge…” The black-clothed man waved him off. “Forget it.” He could only watch as the paper abruptly caught fire within the Netherjudge’s hand, becoming a lump of ashes in no time flat. The man opened his palm to a wisp of blue smoke that looked like spiritual essence, though it did not go inside the Pond. “This cycle’s Bai Wuchang was not originally a person of the underworld, and had been doing nothing more than borrowing a temporary frame in wait for his destined person,” he explained upon noticing Hu Jia standing there dumbly. “Now, he ought to go.” Hu Jia’s lips moved, seeming to have understood something, yet also seeming to have not understood anything at all. The Netherjudge sighed, then immersed once again into the darkness in the same exact manner he had come.”
  • In NanJiang: The (previous) Great Shaman / the Teacher / the Illustrious One
    • “For some reason, once Jing Qi walked in, saw the white-haired, white-bearded old man with a pipe in his hand, and then caught clear sight of the man’s eyes, he promptly stopped being nervous. Not only was he not nervous, but he got a vague, subtle sense that he had met someone of the same kind as he. Thus, he smiled, performed a bow befitting of one that came after, and spoke before he could. “This lesser scholar, Jing Beiyuan, pays my respects to the Illustrious One.”
    • Like a father giving his daughter away, the older shaman complains about his son being completely overtaken and overwhelmed with love by Jing Qi: “[WuXi] somehow had an unspeakable gentleness contained within the way he spoke quietly to yet another person. “Here. There’s a sill at the entrance, take care.” Tch. One could wring water out of that tone of voice… the Illustrious One narrowed his eyes, thinking to himself that the brat really had been domesticated. After that, he hurriedly sat upright and still, putting the wretched expression on his face away.”



In the scene where Jing Qi meets (together with WuXi) with the Teacher, he does not have the reverence of a younger man towards an illustrious, older one. Contrarily, “he got a vague, subtle sense that he had met someone of the same kind as he” - Jing Qi feels completely at ease, and feels he met with someone with as great of stature as him, with the same kind of understanding of things as him.

Moreover, the entire discussion afterwards is cryptic for Wu Xi, while the two “old foxes” discuss matters till late that day, and Wu Xi is surprised by the omniscience of either of the two: 

  • “He spoke Great Qing Mandarin quite fluently, yet Wu Xi found it odd; it seemed like his Teacher wasn’t the least bit surprised. (...)he still believed that the respectable elder was the wisest person he had ever seen his whole life.”
  • We also get clear hints about Jing Qi being an illustrious / ancient one himself (and remembering it), judging from the condescending tone he always uses in rapport with Wu Xi: “boy, your teacher is worried that you’ll get yours.”  or “Dressing up as a deity, yet playing the ghost… is, at times, a type of amusement as well. When you get older, you’ll understand.”
  • The Old Teacher (the Netherjudge in our assumption) is worried his well-loved disciple will encounter again suffering and bad karma  (“you’ll get yours” aka karma) at the expense of Jing Qi’s happiness; so the entire cryptic conversation they have, the old Teacher is only ascertaining Jing Qi’s intentions towards Wu Xi and making sure the former will treat the latter with kindness and think of his happiness.
  • Ultimately, the following cryptic paragraph demonstrates that Jing Qi knows the Great Shaman, who is a reincarnation of the NetherJudge in our assumption and that they are both acquainted from the Netherworld:
    • “The Illustrious One narrowed his eyes again, picked up his pipe anew, put it to his lips, took a deep inhale, and then blew it all out. “Though you say that, Prince, it is ultimately human nature… for one’s homeland to be hard to part with.” “If one doesn’t leave the chunk of land under their feet, how will they know how big the world is?” Jing Qi asked with a smile. “How big the world is? Our Nanjiang isn’t that big a place.” “A mountain doesn’t need to be tall. So long as an immortal lives in it, it will have a name.” The Illustrious One was stunned for moment, taking a careful measure of Jing Qi. The latter watched him, undisturbed. For a short instance, the two old foxes smiled as they observed each other.”
    • By Jing Qi mentioning a mountain and an immortal one (The Netherjudge/The previous Great Shaman) AND the great shaman acknowledging this, it can be established that they do indeed share this mystical acquaintance from realms other than the Earthly one, and each acknowledges and is aware of the status of the other   (“the two old foxes...”)
    • Wu Xi himself declares there is a similarity between the two in nature, and feel: “Later on, Wu Xi was depressed to find out that the two were real kindred spirits. Back when he had just arrived at the capital, he had felt that there was a certain something about Jing Qi that was similar to the Great Shaman, and he only now realized that that feeling hadn’t been off in the slightest.”
    • Wu Xi: “Every now and then, I get the general feeling that I’m stupid. Ninety percent of what Teacher says, I can’t understand. I didn’t expect that you two would be kindred spirits.” - Wu Xi cannot remember, like Jing Qi does, perhaps Jing Qi is of a rank significantly higher than Wu Xi, plus the fact that Wu Xi/Bai Wu Chang TRADED his cultivation for Jing Qi so this might be another reason why the latter cannot remember anything anymore;

At the end of the cryptic meeting between the two “illustrious” ones (from which Wu Xi cannot understand a single thing of what they talk, and then Jing Qi down-plays it), the Great Old Teacher makes a surprisingly convenient announcement to his disciple:

Prior to their departure, the Illustrious One said, “Wu Xi, I’m old, and I’ve spent my entire life in this place. I want to get out of it and take a look around. My luggage is already packed — I feel at ease handing Nanjiang over to you.” Wu Xi was taken aback, turning to look at his aged teacher. The man smiled. “You’ve grown up.” 

And then, to really drive the point home, Priest discloses elegantly that yes, the two entities that were engaged in this cryptic conversation - Jing Qi and the Old Teacher - are both “dressing up as a deity, yet playing the ghost”. Meaning, they mutually assessed each other, play a bad-guy / good-guy show in front of Wu Xi  .

“He’s just messing with you. How could there be that many profound things while one passes through life? I don’t understand what I say, and him being able to pick up the conversation illustrates that he also doesn’t understand what I say. Pairing our sentences is nothing more than idle senselessness to whittle time away. Dressing up as a deity, yet playing the ghost… is, at times, a type of amusement as well. When you get older, you’ll understand.” Sometimes, beliefs and mental myths would collapse, making one completely despondent. Then, slowly, despondencies like that would start to pile up, and a child would grow into an adult. The Illustrious One said that he would leave to wander, so, the very next day, he left his book behind and walked out, with absolute squeaky cleanness.”

The relevance of the scene is mostly the Great Teacher giving the “hand” of his “daughter” off in marriage to Jing Qi, and the “negotiation” of it. Once the old teacher is appeased, he promptly and conveniently takes off, for Wu Xi to attain the Great Shaman position, the King/Leader of NanJiang. 

However the scene provides great proof to support the theory that Jing Qi is a great deity himself, and knows the Great Teacher from a different realm and the latter is also probably a figure of great stature in the Netherworld. Because of his attachment to Wu Xi / Bai Wu Chang, we might infer that the figure that is reincarnated in the Great Teacher is the Netherjudge himself, for all the wisdom and care he displays.

 

Chinese Folklore Legend: The Black and White Impermanence 黑白无常

There is another important adjacent we need to tackle: the traditional folklore legend of the black and white impermanence, i.e., Hei Bai Wu Chang - 黑白无常  where  hei/ 黑  means black, bai/白 means white and wuchang/无常 means impermanent or temporary.

We will just relay the story as found in the article “The Cult of the Underworld in Singapore: Mythology and Materiality” by Dean Koon Lee Wang [6]:

“Two bailiffs in Fuzhou, Fujian province, named Xie Bi’an 謝必安and Fan Wujiu 范無救, were sent on an official duty one day. Upon reaching Nantai Bridge, Xie rushed back to fetch an umbrella as it was about to rain. Fan was told to wait under the bridge to seek shelter. Soon heavy rain came pouring, and in no time the current became violent while the water level rose rapidly. As Fan believed that Xie would not break his promise by not coming back to meet him, he decided not to leave and chose to hold onto a pillar of the bridge. Unfortunately, due to his height, Fan drowned shortly after with his face turned black due to the persistent struggling. Xie returned moments later only to realize Fan was dead. He blamed himself for causing the tragedy, and hung himself on a nearby tree in a state of devastation. Xie died with his tongue sticking out. In honor of their martyrdom, Xie and Fan are canonized as law enforcers of hell, assigned to assist the City God.”    

The researcher continues to highlight the following: “This narrative essentially manifested the values of trust (xin 信) and righteousness (yi 義)—Fan trusted that Xie would return with an umbrella, and Xie hung himself as an act of righteousness after the wrongful death of Fan.”

Of course, there are multiple versions of this legend, but essentially, the two unfortunate men are always bonded in a profound relationship of trust: Xie Bi’An dies first, then Fan Wu’Jiu dies following the former in the afterlife. The conclusion as shown in the wikipedia official article.Another article [8] discloses the following: “On the Black Guard’s hat, it’s supposed to say, “Death to those who meet me,” and on the White Guard’s hat, it’s supposed to say, “Fortune comes to those who greet me,” so they’re basically in charge of catching bad souls and good souls respectively.(...) when they were mortals, the White Guard’s name was “謝必安”, or Xie Bi An, which means thanking the gods for one’s safety, and the Black Guard’s name was Fan Wujiu “范無救,” which means having sinned till there’s no hope of salvation.”

“They are also called many other names too, like Great Elder (White Guard) and Second Great Elder (Black Guard), as well as 7th Master (White Guard) and 8th Master (Black Guard).

The above are also relayed similarly in the official Wikipedia article[9]: “The Heibai Wuchang, or Hak Bak Mo Seong, literally "Black and White Impermanence", are two Deities in Chinese folk religion in charge of escorting the spirits of the dead to the underworld. As their names suggest, they are dressed in black and white respectively. They are subordinates of Yanluo Wang, the Supreme Judge of the Underworld in Chinese mythology, alongside the Ox-Headed and Horse-Faced Hell Guards. They are worshiped as fortune deities and are also worshiped in Cheng Huang Temples in some countries.”

Across the entire novel, Priest continues to draw our attention repeatedly to the black/white monochromatics:

  • Right from the exposition, it’s underlined how Jing Qi waiting in front of the Three-Life Rock has white hair “he was between twenty to thirty years of age even though his head was full of silver hair, unbound and scattered about randomly.”
  • Bai Wu Chang’s name - it is practically the White Impermanence. He later turns out to be Wu Xi.

This inconsistency is one of the reasons why we have leaned less towards this theory, but there could be some explanations: in the netherworld, they are both white (bai wu chang and jing qi with white hair); in the seventh life on Earth, they are both black (wu xi’s eternal black clothes and equally black disposition; jing qi “getting back his black hair” after bai wu chang’s sacrifice); at the end they are finally in a state of balance, where jing qi is white (for the meeting with the elder, he dresses in “moon-white” clothes and appears regal) and Wu Xi retains his black;


The “three” lifetimes in the exposition of the novel that say one died first, the other died after, then they were reunited;

  • In our interpretation we went for Jing Qi dying first as a hero, then Wu Xi second as a pining lover; If we are to consider JingQi white and WuXi black though per legend, we’d have to consider that WuXi dies first (in all the legend versions, black dies first) and Jing Qi second; yet then there’s the inconsistency of WuXi being the white one in the afterlife (bai wu chang);
  • If we consider Wu Xi the white one aka Bai Wu Chang as is his rightful name, then this checks out: JingQi is INITIALLY the BLACK one, dies first; WuXi is INITIALLY the WHITE one, dies after and becomes Bai Wu Chang; then we can consider that JingQi having white hair is not indicative of him being a white impermanence but him indicative of experiencing a KARMA IMBALANCE that they have to correct with the long-suffering cycle of the five ephemeral lives (lives #2 through #6). Also considering the Buddhist point of view where everything is impermanent, and the Dao point of view where Yin and Yang are in perpetual cycle and change, we can admit that the white becomes black, and the black becomes white. So it is acceptable to think that Jing Qi and Wu Xi “change colors” in the course of their rebirths. We personally think this explanation is more suitable.

 


We left for last the most obvious three reasons why the HeiBaiWuChang might be adjacent to the novel:  the heibaiwuchang, in Taiwanese tradition, are also called
Lord Seventh (the white)
and Lord Eight(the black), as already shown in the previous quotes. At the end of the novel, we can assume Jing Qi becomes the White again (when he dons “moon-white” robes in meeting the Great Teacher);

  1. The heibaiwuchang are traditionally in charge of escorting souls in the Netherworld and are guardians of the Underworld; this is what Bai Wu Chang (the white impermanence deity) also does in his position of “Soulhook Envoy”
  2. Wu Xi is evidently the reincarnation of Bai Wu Chang and resident of Netherworld; but Jing Qi as well is special and foreshadowed to be a powerful deity well: “After that, following his coming back, he successively drank three bowls of Meng Po’s soup beside the Bridge.” Bai Wuchang laughed sourly. “But, for reasons unknown, the soup — which washes away the memory of all people who drink it — was actually useless on him.”
  3. We might infer that the soup (and three bowls of it nonetheless) did not affect Jing Qi at all because of his high status, and perhaps him being an Underworld Guardian as well.



Lord Seventh: The Lifetimes

The story starts with a highly enigmatic and vague account of three lifetimes. Then, the seven ephemeral lifetimes of Jing Qi are recounted in detail by one of the underworld workers, Bai Wuchang, who turns out to be the deuteragonist. 

It doesn’t help that the exposition of the novel throws the reader directly into Buddhist notions. While this might be normal for Asian culture, it is highly disconcerting for the international reader so we will present the actual excerpts that present the Underworld scene in QiYe, analyze it in depth, and then present the Buddhist, Daoist and Chinese Traditional Folklore referenced.



The First 3 Lifetimes

The story starts with the following three lifetimes:

“The first lifetime , a stone appeared, turning into the burial mound of a hero, feelings unable to be broken. 

The second lifetime , a boulder split, ferrying a predestined love across the Bridge, a pair of mandarin ducks flying off together.

The third lifetime , a jadeite burned, vowing to abide by an invaluable oath, eternally following each other in life and death. 

Flowers bloomed all across the opposite shore, blood-like. The River of Forgetfulness’s waters trickled quietly, going three-thousand years to the East, three-thousand years to the West.(...) etc.”

Things to pay attention to:

  1. No names are specified. It is kept intentionally vague.
  2. Each of the three lifetimes is a fully encoded phrase, using symbols to convey the hidden truth. They need to be decrypted by the reader.
  3. After these three lifetimes are shortly recounted, there’s a narrative pause, and the focus shifts away from the lifetimes and zeroes into the Underworld, with the comic-relief Ghost Messenger Hu Jia, and the introduction of QiYe, Lord Seventh. It’s as if the actual story should have started with the scene “Flowers bloomed all across...etc.” since it is the true exposition. 



The True Exposition and the Cyclic Resolution

The role of the exposition in general is to anchor the story’s main characters against a background, and usually, the narrative ends in the same setting in which it started. It’s important to demonstrate that the true exposition of the novel starts from “Flowers bloomed ...” , and the three lifetimes do not constitute the exposition of the novel, but are something else altogether. 

Reasons why the true narrative starts from this sentence:

It gives the readers the time, the place, the characters (ideally the protagonist/MC/Main Character and deuteragonist/ML/Main Lead or Love Interest)

  • Time: “The River of Forgetfulness’s waters trickled quietly, going three-thousand years to the East, three-thousand years to the West.”  // Time is immemorial
  • Place: “Wandering souls came and went, treading on the endless Yellow Spring Road to come up the Bridge of Helplessness, pour a bowl of yellow soup down into their bellies”
  • Characters
    • the Protagonist: “Beside the Rock sat a person. It was a man. Upon drawing closer, one could see he was wearing a wide-sleeved green robe with a crude bamboo flute stuck into its waistband, and also that he was between twenty to thirty years of age even though his head was full of silver hair, unbound and scattered about randomly.”
    • The Deuteragonist: “...caused his senses to viciously sharpen a tad. He swiveled his head around, only to have Bai Wuchang’s papier-mâché-like face come up before his eyes. Patting his own chest, Hu Jia turned and hurriedly bowed towards him. “Soulhook Envoy.”

It is a sudden, 180 degrees change of style and tone compared to the initial “three lifetimes” paragraphs.

  • Flowers bloomed all across the opposite shore, blood-like. The River of Forgetfulness’s waters trickled quietly, going three-thousand years to the East, three-thousand years to the West. Wandering souls came and went, treading on the endless Yellow Spring Road to come up the Bridge of Helplessness, pour a bowl of yellow soup down into their bellies, and thus have the entirety of their assorted previous lives go away.

The end of the novel is the final extra chapter called “The Other Side of the Bridge of Helplessness”, where Bai WuChang’s point of view is offered, while he roams the netherworld. So we can conclude that the novel is cyclic: it begins and ends in the same setting, in this case, DiYu or the Yellow Springs. 

It’s important to mark the exposition because this highlights in turn, two important things:

  • How the three lifetimes with which the novel starts are actually a key encrypted message. If decoded, the paragraph tells the reader how the relationship of the (true) main couple started, who they are, and how it will evolve in the course of the present story, which is also how the novel ends. In short, the third sentence of the novel already tells us how the novel ends, that is, with a happy ending. 
  • The exposition and the resolution focusing on DiYu/Yellow Springs/Netherworld thus indicate that the actual main characters are residents of the Netherworld. They are not the inhabitants of the Earth realm. We can safely conclude from the exposition (and cyclic resolution) that Helian Yi is not meant to be the fated pair of the Main Character. The main couple is Jing Qi and Bai WuChang, both residents of DiYu, both protagonists with consistent appearances in exposition and resolution.

 

The 7 Lifetimes Of Jing Qi

Following the three lifetimes, the scene continues with Hu Jia, Jing Qi and Bai WuChang being introduced, and while Bai WuChang and Hu Jia lead Jing Qi to start his seventh life , Bai WuChang recounts the other lifetimes of JingQi as he knows them. 

The reader must be aware though, as per Priest's usual narrative antics, the characters are not the owners of the whole truths, and the characters themselves cannot reveal the correct occurrences, as they are not omniscient.

“Bai Wuchang shook his head. “ He didn’t pass thirty-two in his first life . He was too diligent, and already had a head full of white hair when he died, his obsession unchanged after his death. He refused to drink more than that one mouthful of forgetting water, then stood by the Bridge’s edge in painstaking wait for ten years , waiting for that person so they could enter reincarnation together…” 

“Aren’t those who don’t drink Meng Po’s soup unable to be a human in the next lifetime?” Hu Jia asked. Bai Wuchang nodded.

“That’s why, in his second lifetime, he transformed into a flying bug . He flew beneath the lantern that person carried in the night, but unfortunately, they were an ignorant fool, and actually caught him between their fingertips and crushed him to death.”

Hu Jia didn’t know what to say. “He waited for that man until the third lifetime .” Bai Wuchang and Hu Jia were articulating far behind that ‘Lord Seventh’. 

The Envoy’s voice was ant-like, repressed down low in his throat, yet each and every word was spat out with particular clearness. “That time, he was made into a black dog , which that person raised from youth. Because they suffered a downturn later on, though, they killed the dog to take its meat and eat it. 

The fourth lifetime, he was a pot of jasmine the person’s beloved gifted them , and was sat upon the windowsill. The person watered and tended to him with all of their heart, but after that, their beloved got married off to elsewhere. In their broken-heartedness, they turned around and moved away, ditching the jasmine at the abandoned residence where he withered and died. 

The fifth lifetime, he turned into an arctic fox . He was captured by them, kept in the inner residence, and provided them amusement, but because their concubine loved his fur, he suffered the pain of getting skinned…”

“After that, following his coming back , he successively drank three bowls of Meng Po’s soup beside the Bridge .” Bai Wuchang laughed sourly. 

“But, for reasons unknown, the soup — which washes away the memory of all people who drink it — was actually useless on him . The times he didn’t want to forget were contrarily forgotten, and the times he wanted to forget were contrarily remembered. He’s mocked himself for these truly endless several hundred years, as there were times where he couldn’t even think of his own original name, yet had to conflictingly remember the grime of those past happenings; because of the seven lifetimes, he calls himself Jing Qi. He waited out that Helian Yi’s sixth lifetime for altogether sixty-three years, and thus had sat facing the surface of the Three-Life Rock for just as long. Coming to this point, the foreordained seven-lifetime entanglement of Helian Yi and Lord Seventh has just one occurrence remaining .”



The Main Characters

Who Are the Main Characters?

Similar to her other novels, the author loves to confuse readers and for a short while, misguide them and keep the tension up by maintaining a consistent presence of the classical love triangle:

  • Tao Ran for Fei Du / Luo WenZhou (Mo Du / Silent Reading)
  • Shen Yi for Gu Yun / Chang Geng (Sha Po Lang)
  • Helian Yi for Jing Beiyuan / Wu Xi (Qi Ye)

What is interesting is an abnormally strong presence of the tritagonist (Helian Yi) who manages to muddle the waters until the very end of the story. So much so that readers or a good portion of them remain with the impression that Helian Yi and Jing Beiyuan are the fated lovers, and Priest commits a great transgression by fulfilling instead the love of the newly entered character Wu Xi. 

On account of Helian Yi being the first love interest that shows up on the stage and his strong unadulterated interactions with Jing Beiyuan, combined with the initial short account of how Jing Beiyuan’s sad love had not been accomplished in the previous lives, makes the reader believe that they are the main couple.

Jing Qi as Ancient Deity

As characterization goes, the protagonist of the novel is Jing Qi:  he is the one that gives the name to the eponymous novel, and is an impressive character all around: the Prince of Nan’Ning, by his name Jing Beiyuan on Earth, and Jing Qi (Qi here is the character for “Seven”) in DiYu or in the Netherworld.

There are two big truths that the author Priest hides and delays until the end of the novel:

  1. Jing Qi is the son of the Emperor Helian Pei, so he is a son of the Dragon
  2. Jing Qi is an impressive deity in the Netherworld as well, ancient and wise

Both of the above are foreshadowed in the first pages of the novel. Going through the exposition, a third party objective observer in the person of Hu Jia (a minor newly appoints ghost messenger)

“Beside the Rock sat a person. It was a man. Upon drawing closer, one could see he was wearing a wide-sleeved green robe with a crude bamboo flute stuck into its waistband, and also that he was between twenty to thirty years of age even though his head was full of silver hair, unbound and scattered about randomly. The man had his back turned to the souls on Yellow Spring Road, his front facing that smooth Three-Life Rock. All he did was sit there silently, eyes closed. It was unknown whether he was asleep or awake, and he was seemingly completely unaware that someone had been watching him for a very long time now.

Priest then introduces the deuteragonist immediately after the protagonist, making a lovely symbolical contrast placing them in opposition.

Referring to Jing Qi, Hu Jia feels calmed down and feels serenity, then (unconsciously, without knowing who it was) suddenly he feels a “wave of coldness attack”, his “senses to viciously sharpen” only to find it was Bai Wu Chang.

“Hu Jia’s state of mind would sometimes get beyond gloomy; gazing at that back that was as motionless as a mountain would , for a moment, calm him down in a strange way . Suddenly, a deathly pale hand was placed upon Hu Jia’s shoulder. Despite being a Ghost Messenger , he inevitably felt a wave of coldness attack him from it, which caused his senses to viciously sharpen a tad . He swiveled his head around, only to have Bai Wuchang’s papier-mâché-like face come up before his eyes. Patting his own chest, Hu Jia turned and hurriedly bowed towards him. “Soulhook Envoy.””

So despite being himself a Ghost Messenger, albeit a young one, Hu Jia is unconsciously overwhelmed by the aura of the two. He then later says:

“Me?” Hu Jia felt a chill. He looked at the statuesque white-haired man, then looked at Bai Wuchang. “This… lowly one…” - he unconsciously knows he is very much inferior in status

Hu Jia then compares Jing Qi to a dragon (the entire allegory with the painting of the dragon, and only “dotting its eyes” lest it might soar to the skies): “Hu Jia didn’t know why, but at this moment, he felt that… the quietly-sitting white-haired man was like a divine dragon whose eyes hadn’t yet been drawn, and it seemed like once he called out to and awakened him, that plot of land next to the Three-Life Rock would no longer be able to retain him.” - this powerful phrase serves to underline two things:

  • Priest foreshadows here that Jing Qi is of Royal Blood
  • Priest also foreshadows here that Jing Qi is an impressive, powerful being, of which the ghost messenger is in awe, and a mere thing like the “plot of land next to the Three-Life Rock” could not retain him, if Jing Qi were to fully arise to consciousness

Jing Qi has a regal demeanor meeting both Hu Jia and Bai Wu Chang:  “Lord Seventh, the Soulhook—” “I heard. I’m not deaf.”

Hu Jia is again caught unawares by the good-looks of Lord Seventh (Jing Qi) and detects an ephemeral “brilliance” in his “absurdly clear and bright” eyes (indicative of impressive personages in general):

“Those eyes were absurdly clear and bright, their corners wide and outline distinct. They were curved up slightly as though they were containing a slight smile, a brilliance stored inside it, yet there was only a flash of it before it was swiftly restrained . Hu Jia stared, thinking to himself about how this Lord Seventh turned out to be such a good-looking person.”

At the start of the novel, we are introduced with Jing Qi before the start of his Seventh Life, having slept for 63 years, lying in wait, not wanting to go through rebirth again after having suffered the pain of being a fox skinned alive of its fur in the previous life.

“The man was stunned, pinched his fingers to count on them, then shook his head with a smile. “I slept for so many years with just one shut of the eyes?”

  • Another hint that Jing Qi is an ancient impressive deity: he thinks he only “shut his eyes” a bit, and then tens of years passed
  • He sleeps for 63 years which is 7 * 9.In the work “Death, Intermediate State, and Rebirth in Tibetan Buddhism," by Lati Rinbochay [4], speaking about Intermediate states in buddhist reincarnations, it is said:
    • "The longest [intermediate state] is seven days. (...) If within seven days the causes of birth do not aggregate, at the end of the seventh day  a small death occurs whereupon another intermediate state is achieved."
    • "Some interpreters have said that the statement that the lifespan of an intermediate being is seven days  refers to the days of the individual types of migrators [some of which are very long compared to human days]"
    • Jing Qi's  'sleep' of 63 years being 7 * 9 years might mean that he is already a higher type of being (without him realizing, he "barely closed his eyes" and  7 (of his) days have passed.

Additionally, Jing Qi makes an interesting joke, causing Hu Jia to die of laughter:

“The white-haired man shook his head, came forward, and clapped Bai Wuchang on the shoulder all casual-like. “It’s been however long since that happened, yet you’ve thankfully still remembered it. A young prettyboy’s mind is indeed just as young”. His slender figure had an unspeakably unrestrained aura, as if none of the Yama's Ten Courts were of any importance to him.”

  • the paragraph gives us an inkling that Bai Wu Chang may be significantly younger that Lord Seventh, and holds in little regard the “Ten Courts” of hell.
  • so in the netherworld, Lord Seventh calls Bai Wu Chang a “young pretty boy” when Bai Wu Chang is just a papier-mache form and presumably old already of thousands of years; how did Jing Qi judge from a papier-mache form that Bai Wu Chang is just a “young pretty boy”? We can only infer from here his quality as great deity, omniscient and all-around impressive

In the same book [4], the authors state the following:

"In early Buddhism, under the Buddha there were said to be  four levels of  noble beings, depending on how many times one must be reborn before entering  nirvana:

 

  • the stream enterer, who will attain nirvana after seven more rebirths in this world;
  • the once returner, who will attain nirvana after being reborn only one more time;
  • the nonreturner, who will be reborn in a heavenly realm instead of in this world and will attain nirvana there;
  • the highest, the arhat (worthy one) who attains nirvana in this life and will never be reborn again"

 

 

An adjacent according to the above would be that Jing Qi is possibly a stream enterer having had seven rebirths, whereas Bai Wu Chang would be a once returner, who is reborn one more time (as Wu Xi) - it follows that after the seventh lifetime of Jing Qi, they would both attain Nirvana.

As already presented in the Netherjudge chapter, at the end of the novel there are a host of other hints that Jing Qi is on par with the Great Teacher and Wu Xi is in awe of him. He also always treats Wu Xi condescendingly, and is his Teacher during the Seventh Life (Wu Xi goes to him for the entirety of his youth to learn the culture of the Great Qing).

The Title of the Novel: Significance

The protagonist has many names, each used in a specific setting:

  • His Earthly name is “Jing Beiyuan”, Prince of Nan’Ning; Helian Yi and Wu Xi on Earth during the seventh life always call him “Beiyuan” (as term of endearment, affection) or “Jing Beiyuan”
  • In the Netherworld chapters however, he is called only Lord Seventh -  this is indicative of Jing Qi’s status and position in the Underworld; he is not called by his Earthly name;
  • In sharp contrast to the Earthly name and the Netherworld name above, the narrator always refers to the protagonist with the name “Jing Qi” - which is actually a mix of the two: “Jing” for the Earthly name of “Jing” he bears, and “Qi” meaning Seven for the Netherworld Lord Seventh title he bears. This would probably be indicative more to a “Jing 7.0”, i.e., the narrator prefers to refer to the protagonist as the 7th version of the man that is Jing.

The Title of the novel, “Qi Ye” or “Lord Seventh” is however the Netherworld name. The entire story then is under the sign of the netherworld. 

The entity called Lord Seventh in the Netherworld is the one that will have his love fulfilled, and that is with Bai Wu Chang, the deuteragonist and also resident of the Netherworld. This novel is about them. It is about the seventh version of Jing, who has gone through several centuries or more likely, thousands of years of tribulations to fulfil his love. This is all decoded from the first three sentences of the novel, the three lifetimes, which we will explain in great depth shortly.

It is not the Earthly Jing Beiyuan that will have a fated pair satisfied (with Helian Yi). Even more to the point, actually Jing Beiyuan dies a symbolic death forever because by refusing to marry, he also crushes his chances of continuing his bloodline, leaves a completely clean slate, and after the earthly Jing Beiyuan dies, there will not be any successors or “karmic residue”: “Helian Yi’s eyes were getting wider and wider while he listened to him continue on. “Now, the legacy of Prince Nan’ning ends with me.”



Bai Wu Chang: The Predestined Love of Jing Qi

We will not dwell on the revelation that Wu Xi is actually Bai Wu Chang, as that is pretty straightforward and revealed early in the novel: Wu Xi has dreams of embracing a white-haired man: “Wu Xi gazed blankly at him, his voice hoarse. “I just saw you…” Jing Qi paused, merely listening to him go on. “I dreamed I saw you… with a head full of white hair, sitting in front of a big rock. I talked to you, but you ignored me…”

Similarly, we will not dwell on the evident love the two bear one another on Earth during the seventh life of Jing Qi.

We will dwell a bit on Bai Wu Chang’s emotions in the very first chapter of the book, and in the very last chapter of the book. His feelings of unexplained pining -  which in “Priest style” translate to love - are placed symbolically at the beginning and at the ending, to show that he is actually the deuteragonist and that his love will be fulfilled in the core of the novel.

  • In the beginning, when the impressive Lord Seventh wakes up and meets again with Bai Wu Chang, he cleverly and all-knowingly detects the plaintive tone Bai Wu Chang takes to him, as if he had wronged him:
    • “The man blinked, then abruptly grinned. “Why is it that the Soulhook Envoy’s words contain a hint of complaint?” Bai Wuchang lowered his head. “This lowly one wouldn’t dare to.” Yet, the man was slightly taken aback. “This tone of yours… actually gives me the impression that I’ve offended you.” “This lowly one wouldn’t dare be.” Bai Wuchang maintained his manner of speech that was even duller than a coffin.”
  • He sacrifices his cultivation in order to enter the next rebirth together with him:
    • “Watching him about to go in, the non-hindering Bai Wuchang suddenly bit his own finger open, then crooked it. That bit of maroon oozed out of his ghastly pale fingertip and fell into the Pond, the entire body of water thus shining a blood red. Hu Jia suffered a start. “Envoy, what are you doing?” he cried out in alarm. Bai Wuchang ignored him, mumbling composed verses, and extended his bloody finger to poke at the space between Jing Qi’s brows, who was in the pool and unable to evade him.”
    • In “Death, Intermediate State, and Rebirth in Tibetan Buddhism”[4], in Buddhist Samputa Tantra it is said:  “If one is to be reborn in the form realm, the exit is from the middle of the brow, and if one is to be reborn in the formless realm, it is from the crown of the head. These are set forth in the eight chapter  of the Samputa Tantra" - so it’s highly symbolic that Bai Wu Chang pokes the center of Jing Qi’s brow with his own blood: this means that he forces Jing Qi to be born in the form realm, more to the point in a lifetime entangled with him.
  • The end chapter (extra chapter) shows us a Bai Wu Chang who just landed in the Netherworld:
    • “For the entire time he walked in the two worlds of yin and yang, none of his possible emotions could present, all due to his papier-mâché body. At the beginning, he felt stifled, but over time, he got used to it. Who would he even show emotion to, out of all the wandering, stupefied, and half-conscious souls here? Once accustomed, he grew numb. Slowly, his heart hardened; the lives and deaths of mortals were nothing more than events, and if one witnessed them a lot, they then wouldn’t think much of them.”
  • HUN and PO souls reference made by Bai Wu Chang:
    • No emotions and no body  (“none of his emotions could present due to his papier-mache body”) are indicative of another buddhist precept - the HUN and PO souls. The same way Bai Wu Chang later declares Jing Qi in the Netherworld is separated from his HUN souls: “Bai Wuchang then knew that the man’s hun souls were still in the land of the living.”, we can also infer that, conversely, Bai Wu Chang’s PO seven earthly souls are damaged and not with him 
    • Lord Seventh in the beginning is said to have a lacking memory, and a dazed atmosphere > indicative of no HUN souls (the HUN souls provide the awareness, sharp consciousness)
    • Bai Wu Chang’s lack of body and visceral emotions point to his damage of PO souls

Bai Wu Chang acquires without explanation a growing obsession with the white-haired man waiting in front of the Three-Life rock, right from the start - as if he has a drive to forge a bond with him: “Bai Wuchang suddenly thought, Lord Seventh, he… hasn’t looked at me even once, for these many years. (...) So, you’ve always hated me, he quietly thought. Then I’ll just have to pay you back. He believed himself to be possessed, but was perfectly happy to do it, anyway.”

The last sentence of the novel is, romantically, him hoping against hope that after giving up his memories and cultivation, he would be reunited with Jing Qi in the next life:
“As he sank into the Pond of Rebirth, he had one last wisp of consciousness. If there’s a next life… I’ll see you again.”

 

Helian Yi: Soul Born out of Karmic Regulation

Considering that the novel is actually about the fulfillment of the bond of love between Jing Qi and Bai Wu Chang/Wu Xi, Helian Yi unfortunately is the one that will take the “karmic” brunt of their happiness. As happy as the two become, as sad and destitute in all his royal glory Helian Yi becomes, after Wu Xi fakes Beiyuan’s death. 

Considering that Bai Wu Chang and Jing Qi had a destiny even from before, we dare to advance another hypothesis as to why the mishaps happen and the course of their entire love is veered towards an off-course loop: it is the sin of the forefathers Jing Lianyu (Jing Qi’s assumed father), Prince Nan’Ning Consort (Jing Qi’s mother) and Helian Pei, the Emperor.

Let’s look a bit at the chronology of events:

  • Bai Wu Chang already is in the Netherworld doing his job as Souldhook Envoy for thousands of years
  • Nothing is said about Jing Qi, just that Bai Wu Chang says how in “his first lifetime” he died obsessed with Helian Yi at 32 years old with a head full of white hair. But this is only what Bai Wu Chang remembers.
  • Since Jing Qi is and acts superior to Bai Wu Chang, we can assume safely that Jing Qi also resides in the Netherworld, probably waiting in front of the ThreeLife Rock for his original love, Bai Wu Chang
  • Helian Yi appears in Jing Qi’s “first” life; per buddhist precepts, souls can be born anew at any point in time

Our hypothesis is that Helian Yu appeared as a “karmic” regulation following the sinful entanglement of Jing LianYu, the Prince Nan’Ning Consort and Helian Pei. The catalyst of Jing Qi actually being reborn in his “first” lifetime (we are advancing that this is the second, actually) with an obsession for Helian Yi is his mother’s sin of being entangled with Helian Pei. 

In the end of the novel, both Helian Yi and Jing Qi find out that Jing Qi is most likely Helian Pei’s son so their bond is not possible anyways:

  • Jing Qi realizes even before finding this out that he must steer clear of Helian Yi, and either way, any residual feelings he had from his initial obsession had all waned away:
  • “A long time after, he took in a deep breath, then asked in a quiet voice, “What… kind of person are they?” Two piping-hot bowls of wontons were served, steam assailing their faces. Jing Qi picked up a soy sauce dish from the table and poured some seasoning into his own. “Dead,” he responded casually. “I’ve long since been unable to remember them clearly.”
  • Helian Pei had always had a soft spot for Jing Qi and was always protective of him, and it’s repeatedly highlighted how Jing Qi had his mother’s beauty but a mischievous behavior, not found in either his mother or his sad & melancholy-stricken “father” Jing LianYu;  whereas Helian Pei is also repeatedly highlighted as a mischievous, clever but always-looking-for-fun kind of laid-back person, same as Jing Qi:
    • “How could he have made such a naughty, undisciplined kid as you?!” “It’s a pity that he passed early,” Jing Qi followed along, “or else you could’ve asked him if he had swaddled the wrong child, right?” Those words invoked Helian Pei’s nostalgic memories. He looked Jing Qi up and down once. “Mingzhe… has been gone for eight years, yes?” he asked, sorrowful.”

In the divination scene, Helian Yi comes clean and finally confesses truthfully to Jing Qi, asking if there is any affinity of a bond between himself and a surname “Jing”, obviously Jing Beiyuan, yet Jing Qi refuses him flatly, brooking no argument: 

“Helian Yi chuckled, though there were no laugh lines at the corners of his eyes. “And if I… want to ask about a fated bond, instead?” he asked, voice hushed. Jing Qi shook his head, chuckling back. “This word has no affinity. Were there to be a three-life-long karmic tie for it, it would only be an empty shadow. There was no need to ask, Sir. You’re well aware of this in your heart.””

Unfortunately for Helian Yi, he appears in Jing Qi’s life only so that Jing Qi is tested and not make the same mistake as his forefathers did:

  • In the painful ephemeral lives, he gave in to the obsession of being entranced by Helian Yi (same as Helian Pei / Prince Nan’Ning Consort) so he suffered for committing the same sin
  • Jing Qi realizes that this was not meant to be, and in order to escape suffering, he must evade the cycle and reject the affections of Helian Yi
  • in Buddhism, incest is a sin, as would be a union between half-brothers Helian Yi and Jing Beiyuan; so they must not do it
  • Last but not least, Helian Yi himself has to pay for the illustrious future he has as “a first-class wise sovereign throughout the ages.”, per Ghost Messenger Hu Jia’s recollections

In contrast with how Wu Xi and Jing Qi break through the cycle of endless bad choices leading to endless long-suffering rebirths, Helian Yi on the other hand, does not break the cycle and is doomed to reincarnate however many times, because of his obsession”

  • He is repeatedly portrayed as harboring a close-to-deranged, selfish obsession with Jing Qi:
    • When he found out Jing Qi was presumably in love with a (imaginary) MingHua man from “brothel grounds”: “In the East Palace, Helian Yi vigorously crushed a cup, the fragments of broken porcelain cutting his regaled hand until it was dripping blood. A couple of young palace maids beside him were terrified”
    • “The Crown Prince, normally slightly smiling when coming across people with neither joy nor anger recognizable on him, had a face white as paper, and with the addition of his hand that was bleeding without cease, he was frightening no matter how one looked at him.”
  • Helian Yi’s reincarnation cycles are not in sync and not fated to be in sync with Jing Qi. Jing Qi and Wu Xi have graduated, whereas Helian Yi’s star lies still in the shadow of suffering, of duhka, and may have many more lives to go through until he as well achieves wisdom: 
    • Helian Yi, thinking about being rejected by Jing Qi, but the latter preferring an inferior anonymous Ming Hua: “What joy was there… what joy was there in life? What it was like to have a knife twisted in one’s heart… he now knew. couldn’t even vent it out. Year after previous year, several times, he had been heartbroken. Several times, for him. Several times…”
  • To hammer out the idea that Helian Yi is still doomed to suffer by himself, both of Helian Yi’s end appearances are under the sign of suffering:
    • When Wu Xi fakes Jing Qi’s death, at the end of the novel: “Waiting from afternoon until nightfall, the one awaited didn’t come. Helian Yi now refused to go to sleep no matter how Yu Kui tried to persuade him, standing watch the whole night. By the time dawn broke, he was completely unable to keep himself up, and laid on his side, half-conscious ( … )  [Wu Xi] Slowly, he reached out and took the cloth, holding it in his palm. “Where is he?” he asked, hoarse. Wu Xi mutely shook his head. “We… want to see him if he’s alive, his corpse if he’s dead! Someone! Come here!” Feeling that there was nothing more he could say to him, Wu Xi turned and left amidst the chaos of the imperial doctors and attendants.”
    • The first to last extra that recounts Helian Yi’s lifetime, ending in remembrance of Jing Beiyuan, a true infatuate that sought but never obtained, and dying of illness, alone and destitute.  “Ah. It’s lost [n.a, the rabbit jade pendant]…” Helian Yi sighed, sitting down in a daze. As it was… the person was gone, and the object was gone, too. On the thirty-sixth year of Rongjia, the Rongjia Emperor, Helian Yi, became bedridden without rise following a heavy rain, and, in early autumn of that same year, perished.”

We can even consider that the downright unexpected mistake of Bai Wu Chang hooking Su QingLuan’s soul was not actually an accident, but karma acting in mysterious ways in order to:

  1. Break the limbo state of Jing Qi and Bai Wu Chang’s predestined fate and actually bring them together
  2. Jing Qi compensating for the bad karma created by his parents
  3. Helian Yi paying for his Dragon Throne




The First 3 Lifetimes, Decoded

The First Lifetime

“The first lifetime, a stone appeared, turning into the burial mound of a hero, feelings unable to be broken.”

This is obviously the First, True lifetime of the protagonist. Even though it doesn’t explicitly say the name, the eponymous novel stresses the importance of the main character getting full attention.  We will call this the (true) First Life of Jing Qi.

  • Eponymous novel: Qi Ye / “Lord Seventh” refers to the main character Jing Qi, where Qi in both instances means number 7

“A stone appeared”   - a clear allusion to rocks or stones  as megalytic funeral monuments, Mircea Eliade describes in “Traité d’histoire des religions” [1949] how they symbolically have the purpose of "fixating" the soul of the dead, establishing it a temporary lodging. Furthermore, he underlines how “in the case of a violent death (lightning, tiger, snake), the monument is built right at the place of the accident.” 

The verb used is “ appeared ”: it makes one think of creation , revelation ; so it bears the mark of a Creation stage of the main Protagonist/Deuteragonist eternal entanglement in love.

“turning into the burial mound of a hero” - this tells us how the protagonist, Jing Beiyuan, in their true first lifetime, had been an impressive, larger-than-life character, a hero who died in an honorable way

“Feelings unable to be broken” - at the time of death, it is revealed that Jing Beiyuan/Jing Qi already had a long-lasting bond of love with their fated one, and goes in the afterlife with his loved one in his heart. However, since the phrase is vague, it may very well be that the “feelings unable to be broken” might be the deuteragonist’s. In our interpretation, this is kept vague purposefully, so that this may apply to either lover of the pair: an unbreakable bond of love from either of the two main characters.

The Second Lifetime

“The second lifetime, a boulder split, ferrying a predestined love across the Bridge, a pair of mandarin ducks flying off together.”

This is probably the most enigmatic part of the entire novel . Because the key (in our personal interpretation) is that this isn’t the second life of Jing Qi . This is the second lifetime consumed in the course of the fated love, and constitutes the first lifetime of the deuteragonist, which is Bai WuChang or Wu Xi (we later find out).

  • This way, the math of the lifetimes also checks out
  • Jing Qi gets to have the 7 lives foreshadowed in the title
  • Here, Bai WuChang dies after Jing Beiyuan

“A boulder split” - again, the chtonic (i.e., referring to rock, stone) presence alluding to its funeralistic role. However the second time around, this is larger (“stone” versus “boulder”) so it marks a progression, an increase in power, sentiment, tragedy. The bigger the boulder, the bigger the funeral monument, the larger and more violent the death.

Thinking of Stonehenge solar formation, from the dawn of times, boulders (stones, rocks) are also gates of passage towards higher plains. According to Eliade, “an interference point between the realm of the living and the realm of the dead, a funeral stone also becomes a “center”, an omphalos  (n.a., bellybutton , dead-center) of the Earth”.

Considering that Wu Xi reincarnates in his (actually) 2nd lifetime as a shaman (entity that connects mystically with deities), this gives us the hint to interpret this “boulder split” as a sort of mystical endeavor that Bai Wu Chang undertakes in this first (ancient) life to transcend realms and follow his loved one. We will show shortly a more detailed explanation.

The verb used here is “ split ” - portent of destruction, separation, violent smashing. This enables us to call the second paragraph the Destruction phase, but not in a tragic way, more in a cleansing / re-affirming way. The destruction, separation of the two lovers on Earth seems to be complete with the Deuteragonist’s death in a violent/mystical / realm-transcending way.

 “ferrying a predestined love across the Bridge” - this phrase is straightforward, driving home the point that the fated love did not find completion on Earth, but have been both ferried “across the Bridge”, in the realm of the Dead. Both lovers have now died.

a pair of mandarin ducks flying off together. ” -  a common traditional chinese leitmotif, the pair of mandarin ducks signify the “ultimate symbol of love and marriage in South East Asia, especially in China, Japan and South Korea. (...) Pairs of ducks are often seen swimming close together. It is told the Mandarin ducks stay faithful to their mate throughout their lifetime.

It’s clear now that the second character, the Deuteragonist makes his apparition . The Deuteragonist, in death, follows his true love in the afterlife. Their eternal bond of love, that started but was unfulfilled on Earth, continued to exist “across the Bridge”, in the Netherworld. As mandarin ducks fly off together (metaphor for death in this context), they continue their journey together and strive to find each other, no matter the lifetime. In the past, in the present, or in the future.  

The Third Lifetime

“The third lifetime, a jadeite burned, vowing to abide by an invaluable oath, eternally following each other in life and death.”

The first lifetime refers to the Protagonist. The second lifetime refers to the Deuteragonist. As luck would have it, the third lifetime refers to the finally-fulfilled love of the protagonist and the deuteragonist. This is the most straightforward of the three lifetimes, and easiest to derive meaning from.

A jadeite burned ” - this short phrase is codeword for “Prince Jing Qi dies symbolically at the end of the novel”. Jadeite is a pure, higher form of jade which traditionally indicates the Emperor, someone of very grand stature. So in this context, the “jadeite” represents the Prince of Nan’Ning Jing Beiyuan, also bearing in mind that by the end of the novel, it is revealed that he might also be a true son of the Dragon. Him being compared with jadeite practically confirms the fact that yes, he is a descendant of the Emperor Helian Pei. Again, Priest foreshadows an important truth in the very first sentences of the novel.

As for his symbolical death (the jadeite burning), Jing Qi is gravely wounded in the aftermath of the military conflict at the end, and Wu Xi saves him, relaying to emperor Helian Yi that he died: “Slowly, he reached out and took the cloth, holding it in his palm. “Where is he?” he asked, hoarse. Wu Xi mutely shook his head. “We… want to see him if he’s alive, his corpse if he’s dead! Someone! Come here!” Feeling that there was nothing more he could say to him, Wu Xi turned and left amidst the chaos of the imperial doctors and attendants.”

And Jing Qi himself asks WuXi curiously later: “ Where did you find a corpse able to trick the Emperor into believing it was mine?”

The verb “ burned ” - burning means erasing all traces, destroying until nothing is found, an alchemical process where the identity is melted to be transformed in something else, re-shaped. 

So we can call this the “Rebirth” stage of the fated love. After Creation and Destruction, it rises higher, transformed into something stronger, a higher level than it was before. The jadeite burning is also relevant as an alchemical process, where the precious mineral goes through the purifying action of fire, to be reborn as something new. Extricating himself from the sins of this life, where he had to acquiesce to abominable things in order to support Helian Yi, Jing Qi leaves all of it behind in order to start a new life with his predestined one, Wu Xi.

“vowing to abide by an invaluable oath” - this is actually the easiest clue on how to to figure out that the fated love of the novel is Jing Qi and Wu Xi. The main argument is the leitmotif of the love oaths peppered all along the novel, and critically, ends with precisely the promise or oath of eternal love between the two of them.

Near the very end of the novel, when Wu Xi brings Jing Qi back with him to NanJiang, Jing Qi confesses the following:

“Immediately after that, he remembered something, and suddenly pushed Wu Xi away with an expression like he had suffered quite a fright. “I say, Great Shaman, this Prince has already promised my devotion to you once before. Could it be that… be that… you want to hear an oath of undying love? ” (...) You want to hear, ‘when mountains flatten, rivers dry, winter thunders, summer snows, and heaven and earth collide — then, I will dare part with you’? Or do you want to hear, ‘our parting will wait until the green mountains rot, steel weights float on water, and the Yellow River is completely parched ’—”

Earlier in the novel, this particular poem is brought up numerous times. As Wu Xi goes to Jing Beiyuan’s Estate for lessons, Wu Xi asks Jing Qi to read him certain poems.

As Priest usually does, at that particular moment, it is revealed only vaguely what/why they read.

  • the “Drum Strike” poem which is an oath un undying love between fated lovers, no matter the realm

 Only at the end of the novel, do we realize that in fact, Wu Xi was forcing Jing Qi to tell him the words of the poem, making him read it to him times and again, as if re-enacting the oath of love. Jing Qi also realizes that as well, and does make indeed the oath of undying love to Wu Xi:

  • “You asked me about ‘Drum Strike’…” (...) ‘Lament for the distance, for we shall not live. Lament for the expanse, for we cannot keep true (...) life and death are heavy, but they aren’t as important as unity and separation. I had been thinking of that sentence, yet you came.” Wu Xi’s motions paused for a time, but he didn’t look up at him, only giving a low mn (...) ‘A promise in life and death made with our beloved, to take their hands and grow old with them’… that was it. I thought of you, you came, and that was it.”

The above paragraphs drive home the revelation that all the three lifetimes are about Jing Qi and Wu Xi. As is the entire novel.

For those readers that believe that Helian Yi is the main love interest, they need to consider that Helian Yi in none of  Jing Qi’s ephemeral lives had actually had fulfillment with Jing Qi. 

The two only actually met (as both humans) in the “first” lifetime  (we will see that chronologically it is the second one of Jing Qi) and in the seventh. And obviously did not have fulfillment in either. So Helian Yi remains an interesting character - with its role more on the side of regulating karma - but a tritagonist, nonetheless.

Going back to the lovely eternal love oath that Jing Qi swears to Wu Xi, Wu Xi confirms and agrees to the oath: “ he didn’t look up at him, only giving a low mn ”. This is important as thus, a true marriage was sealed between them. Because, what else is a marriage if not mutual vows of undying love? So we can consider this a symbolic wedding between the two.

Priest herself re-asserts this later, in her masterpiece Silent Reading / Mo Du. We’ll relay the entire beautiful passage below:

  •  [Silent Reading, Priest [2016]] “Why are there holidays to mark the beginning and end of each year? Why do you have to make a public confession and stroll around in the streets together before getting in bed with someone? Why, to live together legally, in addition to needing a certificate, do you need to invite your friends and family to a useless ceremony? Because life and death, dark and light, partings and meetings, all have the meanings people have endowed them with. You can’t see them or touch them, you don’t know what use they have, but the difference between you and me and a lump of chemicals lies in those bits of meaning.” Fei Du paused. Luo Wenzhou reached around from behind him and took his wrist, guiding him to put the clean bowl back into its original place. “If you don’t understand, I can tell you later slowly. You called me, and that’s a ‘ceremony,’ too. I gave you the chance to repent.
  • Similarly, Jing Qi in “Lord Seventh” says “I thought of you, you came, and that was it.”

And now we can see clearly how cyclical and of paramount importance are the three lifetimes, the last one being the Seventh of Jing Qi in togetherness with Wu Xi, while they “vow to abide by an invaluable oath, eternally following each other in life and death.”

They follow each other in life and in death in such a way that Jing Beiyuan / Jing Qi’s and Wu Xi / Bai Wu Chang’s love transcends time and realm.




Proposed Chronology of Lifetimes

What follows below is a personal interpretation of how the lifetimes actually occur in QiYe / Lord Seventh, supported by arguments, and taking into consideration the author’s consecrated style of writing. 

Bai WuChang and Jing Qi are ancient beings, and their fated meeting on Earth constituted their first real lifetime; thousands of years before the core events, they fell in love and were destined for each other; 

Jing Beiyuan died first, as a hero, pining for his love; 

  • ALTERNATIVELY, [HeiBaiWuChang Lore]: Jing Beiyuan drowns in the flood, and dies at the foot of the bridge because he kept his promise to meet there and would not be moved (“hero”), waiting for WuXi; the leitmotif of “waiting” and specifically waiting at the foot of a “bridge”, Jing Qi is always waiting: 
    • “He thought, in any case, I’ve long been a frequent visitor of the Bridge. Waiting for someone else this time around is still waiting, huh? It won’t be any longer than sixty or seventy years…”
    • He becomes the Hei Wu Chang deity  // the black one, “a stone appeared, a hero dies, feelings unbroken”

Bai WuChang died after in a maybe mystical effort to attain companionship with his love at least in the afterlife;  

  • ALTERNATIVELY, [HeiBaiWuChang Lore]: WuXi arrives too late, sees his lover drowned waiting for him and hangs himself out of grief, per the legend. He becomes the  Bai WuChang deity // the white one, “boulder split, ferrying a predestined love across the bridge, a pair of mandarin ducks”

Jing Qi waits for Bai WuChang at the Three-Life Rock out of instinct; but neither of them remembers consciously the other:

  • Bai WuChang doesn’t remember Jing Qi (in spite of his immense efforts to follow him in the afterlife) because he lost his PO Earthly souls (hence his papier-mache body in the afterlife) and his being is damaged (and perhaps he paid a toll for the transgression of violating the normal course of samsara, and going above it)
  • Jing Qi as well does not remember Bai Wu Chang consciously; he lost his HUN souls and his memory is lacking

While in the Netherworld and having forgotten about Jing Beiyuan, Bai WuChang gets the duty of Soul Hook Envoy (this enforces the idea that he had special mystical abilities even before dying). This has significance, because it’s a job perfectly suited to help someone who has lost his HUN heavenly souls, aka Jing Qi // karma helps them somehow

  • ALTERNATIVELY, [HeiBaiWuChang Lore]: This was the actual job of these deities, to fetch and deliver souls, so at this stage, Bai WuChang executes his legendary job

 

Because of Karma, Jing Qi ends up having to enter a new cycle of reincarnations to atone for the sins of the fathers; the catalyst for this: the reincarnations of his parents committed a sin (Prince’s Consort (mom) / Jing Lianyu (dad) / Helian Pei (dad)), so Jing Qi and Helian Yi were put together in an arc in order to make up for the imbalance created by the sins of the forefathers. Helian Yi actually may have been a soul birthed simply to correct a karmic imbalance.

  • ALTERNATIVELY, [HeiBaiWuChang Lore]: As YinYang Dao model goes, everything is cyclical, black turns white and white turns black in a never ending motion (everything changes, nothing is permanent), so they ultimately “switch” roles as well because at this point a new cycle of lifetimes begins for the fated pair:  Jing Qi becomes the White and Wu Xi becomes the Black. The entire core of the novel insists on the theme of black Wu Xi / white Jing Qi  (usually conveyed by clothing/demeanor)
    • This would explain the White Hair on Jing Qi at this point of the story (Bai Wu Chang starts the story while watching him during these ephemeral lives)
    • Bai Wu Chang does not have a body so it’s difficult to ascertain his change to black, but his Netherworld demeanor seems to have gone through a change that might support this assumption i.e., how he starts from a numb state, but becomes increasingly dark and obsessed watching Jing Qi’s back and thinking that he is hated.

 

The lifetime Jing Qi waits out at the Three-Life Rock (those 63 years) is just a wait, it’s not a reincarnation; this way, factoring it out, and considering the first true life the ancient one (lived together with Bai WuChang), in the end he does get to have those 7 lifetimes. Only in the 7th life, are the two lovers allowed to be together again.

Please see below a detailed scheme of the above, in which both explanations (standard and the heibai) work out: 

https://www.dropbox.com/s/mx2ska5a16drp3v/qiye-chronology-lifetimes_nairin_apr2021.png?dl=0

Additional arguments to support the above:

  • [The Three Lifetimes] “Boulder split” - the door of separation between realms (metaphorically speaking) was split/broken, assuming process or mystical happening caused by Bai WuChang 
  • Bai WuChang reincarnates as a Shaman WuXi in his 2nd life (aka Jing Qi’s 7th life). This means someone specialized in forging bonds across realms.
    •  According to “Daoism: A Beginner's Guide”, by James Miller[3]: "Shamanism (the word is of Mongolian origin) is a religious phenomenon found all over the world and is particularly visible in indigenous (i.e. non-Axial age) religious cultures. A shaman is someone who through a variety of techniques (often involving drugs or dancing) enters into a state of ecstasy and makes a journey to the spirit world to encounter one or several deities. Shamans are generally different from mediums in that mediums channel, or are possessed by, the spirits of the dead whereas shamans make the journey themselves to see the spirits.”
  • Bai WuChang has the appearance of papier-mache in the Netherworld and his form is temporary
    • “For the entire time he walked in the two worlds of yin and yang, none of his possible emotions could present, all due to his papier-mâché body. At the beginning, he felt stifled, but over time, he got used to it.”
    • He feels stifled, it’s not a natural state
    • Papier-mache objects are traditionally deposited in the mortuary chamber of the deceased in traditional Chinese funerary customs; these are persons or objects that the deceased may want to have to accompany them in the afterlife; 
    • a simple example is the usual joss paper money being burned; a larger scale is the terracotta soldiers (although not paper; referring here to “taking loved possessions in the afterlife with you” notion);
    • since Bai WuChang enters the afterlife as papier-mache temporary form, we could infer that he might’ve wished to accompany Jing Beiyuan in afterlife.
  • The NetherJudge himself comes and provides an apology for both deities behaviors: “This cycle’s Bai Wuchang was not originally a person of the underworld, and had been doing nothing more than borrowing a temporary frame in wait for his destined person, (...) Now, he ought to go.”

To conclude, for thousands of years, Bai Wu Chang had a destined one, and was waiting for a destined one. The NetherJudge says it’s so, yet the Bai Wu Chang the reader meets DOES NOT REMEMBER. Obviously, the destined one is Jing Beiyuan, and this also confirms our hypothesis that they had been fated/bonded since Ancient Life #1.



The Priest Trick

A Priest characteristic narrative trick, the narrator is not omniscient (or at least pretends not to be) and only uncovers the mystery gradually, through the eyes of all her characters. As if adding seemingly unrelated pieces of puzzles to the scene, the reader has to be intelligent and put two and two together and most importantly, not fall in the trap of believing what only one character says.

The “lies” that the individual characters in QiYe tell are multiple, but only because neither Bai WuChang nor JingQi remember that they had come in the afterlife as fated lovers, and both forgot their initial history together.

  • In our humble interpretation, JingQi does not wait for HelianYi in front of the Three Life Rock, but for Bai WuChang. It’s just that they both forgot.
  • Same, Bai Wu Chang saying that JingQi is waiting for his fated lover Helian Yi is not something accurate.  They were most likely waiting for each other: 
    • the three lifetimes in the very beginning in parallel with the leitmotif of the Three Life Rock 
  • Jing Qi is confused when Bai Wu Chang first mentions Helian Yi to Bai Wu Chang and says “which one was that?”
    • “All of a sudden, he witnessed the white-haired man return to his senses, blink, and then turn to question Bai Wuchang with a bit of confusion. “Which one had Helian Yi been?” It was like Bai Wuchang got choked. “He’s…” The white-haired man thought hard about it, and, without waiting for the other to finish talking, slapped himself on the forehead when he had the epiphany. “Oh, you’re talking about him … I’ve got a little recollection. How is this still not over?
  • “Which one had Helian Yi been” and “How is this still not over” - these two phrases are also hard for the reader to grasp, but in our interpretation, they are indicative of an ancient, old deity Jing Qi currently going through a cycle of ephemeral lifetimes, possibly as punishment/karma regulation.

Each of the characters have only a sliver of the truth, and the mind is fickle; additionally, a travel in the netherworld muddles up minds considerably. The reader has to paint the entire truth themselves by deriving intelligent judgements, to say it more plainly.Same trick was used in Mo Du / Silent Reading (see analysis here)

 

Conclusion

Although the entire thesis is based on researching several materials as well as taking into account Priest’s penchant towards symbolism and delayed reveals, hermeneutics is a highly subjective art and is open to multiple opinions. 

The fact that QiYe/ “Lord Seventh” is loaded with cryptic phrases and symbolism, muddled up by narrative and chronological tricks relying on Buddhist lore hasn’t made interpretation easy. 

All in all, we hope to have offered not necessarily the truth, but a version of it that satisfies, in turn, the absolute truth that Bai Wu Chang and Jing Qi are predestined lovers that finally get to fulfill their love in Jing Qi’s seventh life.



Bibliography

 

  1. [Book] Lord Seventh (QiYe  七爷) novel, by author Priest [2010], translated by Chichi /  Huang Zhifeng (皇织缝/Chichi) https://chichilations.home.blog/lord-seventh/  
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