Chen Shih used to climb the hills near his home on the outskirts of Nanking. Oftentimes he would pretend that he was the legendary warrior Wong Kei-ying, one of the Ten Fighting Tigers of Kwan-tung. At other times, he would simply sit and look out over the city and wonder if any of its one million inhabitants had ever sat where he sat.
That was before the Japanese came.
Just before the invaders entered the city, almost five hundred thousand people, including several members of Chen’s family, fled. Those who remained prayed to the gods for help. Although the Japanese began a campaign of butchery that would, for a time, turn the Yangtze River red, it appeared as if the gods answered in the most unlikely of ways.
A small group of foreigners led by John Rabe, a German businessman, claimed a section of the city and declared it an international safety zone. For a couple of months this area was seen as an island of hope in a sea of atrocities.
What few members of Chen’s family that remained were fortunate enough to make it to this part of the city. Even though there was no real guarantee that any of them were truly safe, Chen, now eighteen, thought that they were safe enough that he joined the Resistance.
From December until a week ago, he had done nothing more than act as eyes and ears, gathering whatever bits of information he could. Unfortunately, one of his fellow patriots had been captured and had let Chen’s name slip under torture.
John Rabe had done his best to keep the young man safe, but it appeared that Chen’s, and Nanking’s, luck — what little of it there was — had run out. The German had been recalled home, but as one last act of goodwill, he helped the young man escape the city.
Chen spent a few moments overlooking the city before moving farther into the hills. After spending several hours trying to find somewhere safe to rest, he stumbled upon a small cleft in the rocks hidden behind a thicket. As he settled in for a quick bite to eat, he heard the sound of booted feet drawing near.
Peeking through the bushes, he saw a squad of Japanese soldiers approaching. Certain that they weren’t looking for him in particular, the young man nevertheless realized that if they found him, they would kill him on the spot, or worse. He had seen them bayonet children for no other reason than to see how long it would take them to die, so he could only imagine what they would do to him.
As he knelt there, he began a silent prayer to whichever of the gods that would hear him. Chen was convinced that they weren’t listening when the ground began to quake and the bushes fell away. Though staggered, the soldiers easily spotted the now-exposed young man and began to laugh as they approached.
Again the earth quaked, but this time, the wall of rock upon which he leaned fell away, and Chen was buried beneath a cascade of rock and dirt.
“Poor Takei,” one of the soldiers said as he climbed to his feet and began to dust himself off. “I guess this means that Sergeant Jube will get the credit for the most decapitations this week.”
“All I needed was one more to match him,” Corporal Takei said, looking at the pile of stone. “My father will think my arm has grown weak, and I am unable to wield my sword.” He stood up. “I swear, sometimes I think the gods hate me.”
“Don’t give up hope just yet,” one of the other soldiers said. “There’s still plenty of Chinese left in the city that we can accuse of being members of the Resistance. We’ll find us a woman, and when we are finished with her, then you can cut off her head.”
This seemed to satisfy Takei, so the squad continued on down the path and back to the city.
On the other side of the stones, Chen was sitting up and starting to dust himself off. “Thank you,” he said as he started to turn his back toward the pile. “That’s odd. I would have sworn that someone pulled me to safety just before the collapse.”
At that moment, torches held in sconces mounted on the walls flared to life and revealed what appeared to be the inside of a temple. As his eyes were drawn to the source of the light, the young man saw that the spaces between the torches were filled with carvings of battle scenes. After examining them, Chen realized that this was a temple to Kuan-ti, god of fortune-telling and war.
Almost as if he had been asleep and had just awakened, he noticed a large man standing several yards from him in front of an altar. The man’s back was toward Chen, and his head was bowed in prayer. The young man patiently waited for him to finish his prayers before speaking. After a moment, the man turned and acknowledged him.
“Please forgive my intrusion,” Chen said.
“There is no intrusion here,” the man said. “I called, and you came.”
It was then that Chen realized that he was standing before the god himself. He fell to his knees and touched his forehead to the floor.
Kuan-ti walked over to where the young man knelt. The god stood well over seven feet tall. His skin was the color of blood, and he wore his long black hair pulled back and braided. His armor was the color of jade.
“I called for one of great bravery and find that it is a child who answers,” the god said. “Tell me, child, which is more important: vengeance or justice?”
“Justice,” the young man said, his head still to the ground.
“You answer swiftly and wisely,” Kuan-ti told him. “Will you become my pupil and allow yourself to be taught and trained to become the protector of the people?”
“Yes.” Again, no hesitation.
“Then rise, student, and begin to earn your new name.”
Chen spent the rest of the day walking with Kuan-ti and listening as the god told the story behind each of the scenes carved on the walls.
At length, the god stopped and looked at his pupil. “Your grandfather has just been killed. Tell me which is more important: vengeance or justice?”
For the second time, the young man’s answer was, “Justice.”
“You have answered well,” Kuan-ti said. “Rest now, and we shall begin your training when you awaken.”
Chen felt the heaviness of exhaustion fall upon his shoulders like a wet cloak. It drove him to the ground and into slumber there in the middle of the floor.
Whether he slept for an hour or a day, the young man couldn’t tell. All he knew was that he awoke more refreshed than he ever had.
As he sat up, he felt like his chest was suddenly on fire. Pulling open his shirt, Chen discovered a tattoo of a large ring decorating his flesh.
“Ah, I see that you are awake,” Kuan-ti said, appearing out of nowhere. “Now, please get off of the altar.”
Chen almost fell when he saw where he was and scrambled down. “Forgive me, my lord. I didn’t…”
The god cut him off. “There is no need to apologize, for I am the one who placed you there.”
Despite his curiosity about the tattoo, Chen said nothing, because Kuan-ti chose to say nothing. Instead, the god spoke of the day’s training. “We shall begin your training today in the martial arts. Henceforth, you shall refer to me as ‘Sifu’ until I declare your training at an end.”
Kuan-ti led his pupil to another room of the temple, one designed and set aside for the specific purpose of martial arts training. The room contained several wooden men as well as a wide variety of weapons. It was, however, to a large mat in the center of the floor that the god walked.
For the next several hours, Chen copied each and every move the god made. He was amazed that Kuan-ti never had to repeat a move; every single one came to him as though he had done them all of his life. Not once did his sifu offer him an opportunity to rest, and, surprisingly, not once did he feel he needed one. Throughout the day, the closest thing Chen felt to discomfort was a tingling in his chest where the tattoo was.
At last, Kuan-ti declared the day’s training at an end. “How do you feel?” he asked.
“It is incredible, Sifu. I know hours have passed, and yet, I feel no exhaustion,” Chen said. “I even feel stronger.”
For the second time in as many days, Kuan-ti looked Chen directly in the eyes. When he refocused, he again spoke words of dread. “Your youngest sister has just been used and mutilated; her life is gone. Tell me, which is more important: vengeance or justice?”
Tears began to fill the young man’s eyes as he pictured what the girl must have went through. “Oh, Mei,” he whispered as he hung his head.
“Answer,” Kuan-ti said.
Chen knew in his heart what he wanted, but that was not what he was asked. Finally, he spoke. “Justice.”
“You have answered well. Rest.”