Bill Meilen
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Below, blue shadows were purpling in the rifts of the terraced paddy fields. Somewhere off in the darkness under the ancient trees, an owl called a signal to the rising moon.

There were more than two hundred men of the Chang family assembled in and around the ruddy nan-tree-columned central hall of the Chang household. The hall had been built as a governmental reception room when an ancestor Chang had been imperial governor of the province, and was magnificent in its Ch’ing Dynasty decorations, tapestries, and bas-relief deities. Along one wall a series of life-size painted wooden sculptures portrayed the Eight Immortals - Chung-li Ch’uan, the fat man with his revivifying fan; Chang Kuo-lao, magician with his folding white mule and tube drum; the sword-bearing reclusive scholar Lu-Tung-pin; courtly commander Ts’ao Kuo-chiu with his castanets; old beggar Li T’ioh-kuai leaning on his staff; flute-playing scholar Han Hsiang-tzu playing music in the mind; Lan Ts’ai-ho laden with fresh flowers and clothed in a blue womanly robe, and Ho Hsien-ku the lotus-bearing fairy. It was a display of masterly art from another age.

High above, dusty war-banners captured over centuries from various ambitious foes hung high in the nan-beamed roof, their colour faded and stained. Only the very tip of the vast pyramidal family group was gathered there beneath those high honours, to pay homage to the leader of the Six Houses of Chang, drink ceremonial rice wine, and hopefully receive whatever benefice Chang Suey-lee deigned to spread among them from Gim San. They would then bear interpretations of the instructions to those lower down in the edifice, and see that things were carried out satisfactorily. All received plenary power direct from the family head. The family Chang was united, working to a common end — survival as a harmonious social unit.

On a dais at the end of the hall the family elders sat in a semi-circle of chairs about an enthroned Chang Suey-lee. They were five ancient uncles in fine silk robes, with wispy beards and traditional black horsehair hats on their heads, tied with black silk ribbon beneath their chins. The five oldest men in the family, they were the fount of all ancestral wisdom, for their memories could reach the furthest back into time. In their minds and on their tongues, the family history was safe.

Beside the dais sat some more older men. The mass of family males sat in ranks along the walls of the hall, standing and kneeling, chatting and smiling, crisp in their best clothing and on best behaviour before the family.

Lao Chen walked forward ceremoniously and banged with a bamboo pole on the great brass gong that hung at the wide-doored entrance to the hall. All fell silent as the shimmer of the gong died away.

Sun, in formal robes, entered and bowed to his elders on the dais, then clapped his hands smartly. “Most honoured and respected relatives! We are here this evening to meet the Head of our Family Chang, Chang Suey-lee. Our leader has returned for a brief visit from Gim San to attend to your welfare in these trying times. But before you meet Chang Suey-lee and his son, my nephew Chang Jing-loy, here are some of our new men!”