The following is the first part of a comprehensive chapter summary of Zheng Feng’s (鄭丰) new novel Valley of Life and Death 《生死谷》. Plot summaries for the first ten chapters are listed below, with more posts to follow in the coming days. This novel has eighty-seven chapters in total.
Chapter 1: Ball Game (鞠賽)
A group of kids are playing cuju (蹴鞠), an ancient game of football in Chang’an during Tang Dezong’s reign. One kid, Little Tiger (小虎子) about seven or eight, dressed nicer than the other kids so obviously from a well-to-do family, kicks in the winning goal, but the other side cries foul. Another from the other time, called Sixth (六兒), challenges him to a one-on-one, first to score on the other’s goal wins. The latter steps on Little Tiger’s foot, but Little Tiger is still able to recover and score the winning goal. Sixth wants a rematch the next day and they all go their separate ways, Little Tiger inviting his team to the Eastern Market for a celebratory meal. Sixth goes home.
At home, Sixth changes clothes. Turns out Sixth is actually a girl, about 7 or 8 years old as well, named Pei Ruoran. She is the sixth child and only daughter of Pei Du, a local ”jinshi” scholar. She is to “enter the palace” as a concubine when she is older, so her mother is strict with her and doesn’t want her to go out too much to play lest she get hurt and spoil her chances at entering the palace later on.
Her mother’s husband, Pei Du, is away at his post, so every month she and Pei Ruoran go to a local temporary to burn incense in prayer to keep him safe and well. Pei Ruoran accompanies her mother this day to the temple, and while there an old nun approaches her mother and asks to take Pei Ruoran on as her student. But the mother refuses, obviously. The nun replies that even if Pei Ruoran were locked in an iron box she would still be taken away, and that the girl’s will is too strong and will bring misfortune.
The mother leaves, angry and afraid at the threat. She forbids the daughter to go out. A few weeks later, Pei Ruoran suddenly disappears. The mother fears the nun has taken her, so she goes back to the temple to ask about the old nun, but is told the old nun died three days before. At a loss, the mother concocts a story with her relative who lives out in the country that Pei Ruoran was sent there to study the proper way for a lady to behave from some specialists, and that she cannot receive guests because she is studying. This is all to explain Pei Ruoran’s disappearance because the mother fears for her daughter losing her chance to enter the palace, Pei Du’s reputation to be smeared, and also she is afraid for her daughter’s safety. For the time being, she can only hope and pray that her daughter is safe and well.
Chapter 2: Abducted (遭擒)
After the first cuju game, the teams met the next day, but Sixth didn’t show up. They kept playing anyway day after day, but Sixth never came. One day word came that the superintendent was coming through. They would often clean up the streets of beggars to make it look nicer, and kids were being abducted. Little Tiger’s friend was being abducted and he went to save him, but got knocked out himself in the process.
When he woke he was in a cart bound up with a bunch of other kids, including his friend. Eventually the people driving the cart, a monk named Far-Traveller Monk (行腳僧) and a man named Mr. Dog Butcher (屠狗爺) stopped to check on the cart. They find that Little Tiger is not asleep. The rest had been drugged to knock them out but it didn’t work on Little Tiger. They are going to kill him to avoid trouble when Little Tiger tells them if they spare him he won’t run away and will instead help them out with their chores and other tasks. They agree and he helps them cook meals, feed and water and wash the horses, etc.
Little Tiger wants to escape, but he wants to take his friend with him, but the friend is too big and fat, so he can’t think of a way to get him out (because he is still unconscious like the others). A few days later they party meet up with their leader, who calls himself Leader (大首領). He admonishes them for letting Little Tiger live because now the latter has seen where they are and will remember the landscape; the job was supposed to be done in secret. He orders them to kill Little Tiger but then decides to spare him and take him on as a disciple is Little Tiger can pass the training in the valley he is taking the children to. He tells Little Tiger that he must pass three tests, and if he does he can become his disciple. If he fails, he will never leave the valley (meaning death), but if he succeeds he will be allowed to return home.
Leader personally escorts Little Tiger to the valley, carrying him along as he speeds there faster than Little Tiger thought possible. Once in the valley, Leader hands Little Tiger over to a subordinate for the time being.
Chapter 3: Panther Three (豹三)
Little Tiger is put in a group with four other kids: a tall one, a fat one, a skinny one, and a girl. The group is called Panther Three (豹三). Little Tiger is told he cannot speak at all to anyone unless answering his instructor’s questions, and he cannot make gestures at anyone or show anyone any facial expression. He is stripped of his name and called by number. His number is 5. The group is made to train in various tasks, such as running around the valley, leaping across the tops of a series of wooden poles, and climbing a cliff over and over again. This is the beginning of their martial arts training, though Little Tiger still does not know the purpose of it or why he and all these other children were brought here in the first place.
In this chapter we also learn some of Little Tiger’s backstory: he is the son of Xue Tao, famed poetess, but she is not the wife of his father. Subsequently, the wife does not like Little Tiger and treats him poorly, and his father is in Sichuan at his post so the only one treats him well is the fat friend of his.
Chapter 4: Mutual Help (互助)
The training in the valley continues and Little Tiger begins to feel bad for the fat one in the group who always gets beaten because he is so slow when they have to run around the valley, so he intentionally comes in last so he will get beaten instead of the fat one. Everyone in the group begins to admire Little Tiger for this and then they all start helping each other out. The Leader announces in three months will be the first challenge, and only 36 of the 200 children will pass. The group decides to meet by the waterfall on every run around the valley and discuss what they heard, trying to figure out what the first challenge will be like so they will have a better chance to pass.
Chapter 5: Fellow Sufferer (難友)
The story continues with Pei Ruoran, who was also abducted and sent to the valley to train. She is put in the Eagle Two group and is met by the Leader, who tells her her mother had sent her to the valley to train before entering the palace when she reaches the right age. But Pei Ruoran does not believe any of this, not even the obviously forged letter she is given purportedly written by her mother telling her to stay there and be good and pass the three challenges so she can go home. Pei Ruoran realizes she will have to harden herself to survive, so she does. One of the boy’s in the group gives her some medicine to help ease the pain from a time she was beaten, and the two begin to comfort each other at night as other children in the valley cry out at night, though Pei Ruoran never lets a tear fall. She steels herself to prepare for the first challenge, determined to be the best in her group at every exercise and the best in the valley so that she can be one of the 36 to pass the first challenge and work her way through the other two challenges so she can go home to her family.
Chapter 6: Passing the Test (過關)
The day of the first test arrives. All 200 children line up behind a red line and then they have to race to the finish, which includes going around the valley, crossing a stream, and then climbing a cliff where the instructors give each person a pine nut which they have to give to the instructor at the beginning of the course when they go back the way they came. Only the first 36 to cross the red line will pass the test; the rest will be sent north to serve in the military.
Pei Ruoran is the first to cross the finish line, having got a jump on the rest of them and avoiding the piles of people straggling to make it up the cliff. While climbing she sees a person get kicked off the cliff by the fat dumb kid who turns out to be Little Tiger’s friend from Chang’an. The person who is kicked off breaks his neck. This person turns out to be Pei Ruoran’s friend from her group, Three, who helped heal her wound and consoled her. She can’t forgive herself for not caring about seeing him get kicked off the cliff (she didn’t know it was him at the time, but she still feels bad about it), only focusing on passing the test.
Little Tiger and his group split up and cause a distraction at the top of the cliff to secure more pine nuts which they distribute to the other group members. Little Tiger also runs into his friend from Chang’an and helps him pass the test. Little Tiger and his group all pass the test.
Chapter 7: House Rules (門規)
The 36 who passed the first test are taken to a cave wherein they see an altar with several statues behind it. The Leader comes out and tells them they are to be initiated as official disciples. One of his subordinates lays out the three rules the new initiates must follow:
- They must obey the Leader’s orders and mustn’t disobey
- They must help their fellow disciples and must not harm each other
- They must be ruthless toward their enemies, showing no compassion, and must wipe them out completely
In addition to receiving these rules, the initiates also receive new names coinciding with the 36 Heavenly Spirits (the same star names used in Water Margin for the first 36 heroes). Little Tiger is the Fierce Star (天猛星, the same as Qin Ming in Water Margin) and Pei Ruoran is the Minute Star (天微星, same as Shi Jin in Water Margin). The initiates are told that in two years they will have to face the second test, of which only 8 disciples will pass. In the meantime they will practice martial arts. The 36 are divided up into six groups of six.
Pei Ruoran despairs at having to wait another two years just for the second test, much less however long she will have to wait for the third test. The initiates are allowed to speak to one another now, but may not make jokes or argue with each other. Pei Ruoran sees her fellow disciples as enemies, especially the big one that caused the death of her friend. She vows to break the second rule (of not harming fellow disciples) regarding him. She steels herself to show no expresion to the others so that she will not appear weak.
Chapter 8: Martial Arts Training (練武)
They 36 remaining children are trained in martial arts by various teachers, learning Shaolin martial arts, as well as qinggong, neigong, and how to handle/manage/anticipate your enemy. Little Tiger and his original group are called before the Leader, who asks them if they broke the old rule of talking in order to form a plan to pass the first test. That’s exactly what they did, but one of the kid’s says it was their instructor’s strict instruction that made sure they all passed. The Leader doesn’t pursue the questioning any further. Peu Ruoran and her new group talk about where they came from, though Pei Ruoran refuses to say because she has learned from the others that her background is different than the others, who were volunteered by their families to come to the valley, which she learns is called Stone Tower Valley, in order to pass the training and hopefully get a position as bodyguard to one of the military governors. The other kids in her group are from the north, where warlordism among the military governors is rife. Pei Ruoran doesn’t understand why she was abducted while the others volunteered to come. She wonders if Little Tiger also volunteered, or if he was abducted like she was. Pei Ruoran takes her martial arts training seriously, as the instructors are not as mean and strict as the first one, instead studiously teaching their techniques. She is determined to study well.
Chapter 9: Forming Cliques (結黨)
Flight Star (天空星) becomes the de facto leader of Pei Ruoran’s group, and he starts picking on and beating up Killer Star (天殺星) who does not acknowledge Flight Star’s authority. Pei Ruoran wants to intervene but she is too timid to do it. She blames herself for this, remembering how she didn’t help her friend Three earlier, who died when he was kicked off the cliff. She also hears about Fierce Star (天猛星), aka Little Tiger, whom the instructors all admire because he works so hard at his martial arts even though he doesn’t have much natural ability. Pei Ruoran is jealous of this so she starts doing like Little Tiger does, asking the instructors further questions after training to improve even more. The instructors subsequently start to take more notice of her as well.
Little Tiger is disappointed in his big dumb friend from Chang’an, whom he helped pass the first test, because the former has changed from an easy-going simpleton to a crude, rough violent simpleton, making him more difficult to manage. Little Tiger also notices Pei Ruoran’s cold demeanor toward him and cannot understand the reason, thinking that being mad about their cuju game after so long would be too unreasonable. A year passes in the valley and Spring arrives again.
Chapter 10: Competition (比試)
The groups have to compete against each other every month to determine their rankings. Pei Ruoran ends up facing off against Flight Star and manages to ward off his attacks until she sees and opening, then she kicks him in the stomach with all her power, doubling him over. She then finishes him off and he falls to the ground. Flight Star is angry and says he accidentally fell down, but the ruling stands. Pei Ruoran then faces off against Killer Star and defeats him easily, wondering why he is so weak a fighter given how studiously he trains.
Flight Star and his crew have it in for Pei Ruoran after that. They one day corner her while she is practicing on a wooden pole. She knows she is surrounded and is thinking of a way to escape when Killer Star suddenly shows up and mounts a pole next to her and begins training. Surrounding one is easier than surrounding two, so Flight Star and the others back off. From that point on, Pei Ruoran and Killer Star become de facto comrades, always staying together to protect themselves against Flight Star and his clique.
to be continued…