Hsi-wei’s Letter to Ko Qing-zhao
Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published the story collections Life in the Temperate Zone and The Decline of Our Neighborhood; a book of essays, Professors at Play; two short novels, Losses and The Derangement of Jules Torquemal; and essays, stories, and poems in a variety of journals. His novel Zublinka Among Women won the Indie Book Awards first-place prize for fiction. His most recent book is The Artist Wears Rough Clothing. Another, Heiberg’s Twitch, is forthcoming.
[Note: This letter by the Sui period poet Chen Hsi-wei begins as a whimsical yet conventional letter-poem but continues in prose and at length.]
A biting wind blows through Tafang, gusts from
the direction of Hsuan where we drank
till the moon set and you let me see your
elegant landscapes. Could it be these blasts
are sent by you, old friend, reproaches
for my silence? If so, please relent and
instead of snowscapes paint green mountains behind
bamboo sprays. A-tremble are the walls of
Qiong Inn; Tafang’s curs are shivering.
Last autumn, I spent three days in Daxing, my first visit to the capital in many years. The city is thriving, orderly, cleaner than it was in our day. Officials and couriers rush down the boulevards, for the new government has a great deal to do in planning the Emperor’s construction projects and prosecuting his wars. To be candid, these ambitious enterprises make me fear for the peasants. Emperor Wen is doing much to spread Buddhism and, as you know, he reinstated the Confucian examinations so that his ministries are staffed with cultured men. Now that the empire has been united, quite a few southerners are to be seen in the city, elegant figures in their bright yellow robes and exotic headgear. Their conceited wives and still haughtier concubines are borne about in sedan chairs, an intimidating sight.
Among the poor I could discern no change.
I went to Daxing uninvited. Even had somebody conceived the wish to summon me, where could they have sent an invitation when even I don’t know where I’ll be from one week to the next? Why did I want to go to the city in which I had so seldom been happy? Well, you too must know the longing that sometimes squeezes one in its gentle fist; I mean the yearning to see again the scenes of one’s youth and how even the memory of long-ago miseries can be dear.
By a stroke of fortune, I was well received. Wu Da-quan, who in the old days was also a pupil of my late Master Shen Kuo, recognized me in the street. Wu’s family is well-connected; and, after passing his examinations with distinction, he was appointed to the Ministry of Revenue. Now he is among those charged with carrying out the Emperor’s currency reform. He invited me to dine. He shouted my name, took my hand, and, as he had to rush off, told me where he lived and insisted that I dine with him that very evening.
Wu’s villa is painted the green of a spring forest and furnished for comfort rather than display. You would like it. His wife Nuan greeted me herself at the door and in a charming fashion. Taking my hand, she said she had heard much of me from her husband, then recited, without a single error, “Yellow Moon at Lake Weishan.”
The dinner was delicious, the dishes simple and fresh. There were two other guests and they were well chosen. The oldest of us was Mr. Luo, yet he has the open enthusiasm of a child. He works in Wu’s department but his passion is the study of old chronicles which he seeks out and collects at his own expense. The other guest was Master Shao, a maker of string instruments—indeed, Wu assured me, the very best in the capital.
This company could not have been more congenial nor the conversation more pleasant. No one said a word about my cotton robe or that I am a peasant. Wu and I reminisced, of course, telling the others tales of our Master’s ferocity, stories of terror that now made us laugh. Master Shao and I felt an immediate sympathy, perhaps he fashions pipas and ruans as I do poems and sandals. Unlike the others, we both know making and trade and spoke almost as colleagues But, much as Wu, Shao, and I enjoyed our conversation, we fell quiet and attended to the story Luo said he was bursting to tell. His eagerness was so insistent that he felt the need to apologize for it.
“You must pardon me. Two days ago I received an ancient scroll from my agent in Kaifeng and I’ve only just read it this afternoon. It contains a remarkable story.”
“I understand,” said our host affably. “Good stories, like good jokes, demand to be shared. I’m sure we’d all like to hear the story.”
Luo’s scroll purported to relate events from the reign of Gaozu. After a career as a foot soldier, prison guard, and bandit, Liu Bang became the strongest of the rebel chieftains who rebelled against the Qin and so the first Han emperor, known by his temple name of Gaozu. The story Luo was so eager to tell us dated from late in the Emperor’s reign, during his war with Xiang Lu. Two of the Emperor’s generals came to him and accused a cavalry officer named Chang Jian of handing military information over to Xiang’s forces. They impressed on the Emperor that this Chang was particularly dangerous because he was popular with his troops and might, at any moment, take them over to the other side, which would be a disaster. The Emperor asked to examine their evidence against Chang. They produced two documents critical of Chang and a secret dispatch they claimed was from a loyalist among Chang’s men; it was this report that accused the cavalry officer of treason. The Emperor observed that the evidence was slim. “But damning,” insisted one general. “Lord of a Thousand Years,” seconded the other, “the man must be executed at once, and, given his popularity, in secret.” Trusting his generals, Gaozu set his seal on the warrant and three officers of the guard, accompanied by the Imperial executioner, sped to the front. But somehow an error was made and they seized a different Chang Jian, one of the officers in charge of supplies. Almost before he could protest, the man was beheaded by the executioner with a single stroke.
That night the Emperor had a dream in which an owl flew into his room and perched on his bed, an ill omen. When he received word that his order had been carried out, he was uneasy. The two generals returned and in exasperated fury explained that some fool had made a mistake, that the wrong man had been seized. Again they insisted that cavalry officer Chang Jian must be executed and the sooner the better. But now the Emperor grew suspicious.
“You may have the man arrested,” he said sternly, “but he must be brought here for a trial.”
The prospect of a trial frightened the generals. It might reveal that their evidence was false, the documents forged, and the secret dispatch suborned. The truth was that they were jealous of this brave and loyal officer, envied the devotion of his troops and his spectacular success in the field. Anxious that he might replace one, or even both, of them, they had conspired to get rid of him.
One of the generals had a bad night and the following day begged an audience with the Emperor. Even as he kowtowed he began babbling. “Lord of a Thousand Years! I’ve only just learned that my colleague, envious of Chang, forged the evidence against him. I am greatly to blame that, in my zeal for your cause, I was taken in.”
Gaozu ordered the man to be placed in an inner chamber, under guard, then had the other general summoned. When the second general was brought in, the Emperor had the other fetched.
“Say what this man did,” thundered Gaozu. Confronted by his colleague’s denunciation, the second general lost no time blaming the first.
Sickened by the treachery of his generals and remorseful over the unjust death of Quartermaster Chang, the Emperor was reluctant to execute anyone else.
“I shall show you a mercy you do not deserve,” he said. “Exile.” He then ordered the generals’ property confiscated and had them escorted by armed guards to the border with Koguryo. Their wealth he divided between the widow of the Chang who was beheaded and the man who wasn’t. The latter he promoted to command of all the imperial forces arrayed against Xiang. All records of these events were suppressed and an official story concocted by Gaozu’s First Minister. The beheading of Quartermaster Chang Jian was explained by a charge of embezzlement. As to the two generals, the official account was that one had begged to be allowed to retire due to ill-health, the other owing to age.
“And so,” said our host, “the poor quartermaster was killed twice. First his life was taken and then his reputation.”
“That’s so,” said Luo with a sad shake of his head, but he at once regained his good humor. “I’d like to think the blood money amounted to a considerable fortune. Perhaps the widow Chang and her family were satisfied.”
“They had to be,” observed Shao with acerbity. “It’s a well known fact that emperors never make mistakes—not until they’re overthrown.”
Soon after, the party broke up, but neither Shao nor I was eager to return home. We two bachelors walked as far as the Cloud Gate Pavilion, chatting of things at random, just as if we were old friends, as I would with you. Before we parted Master Shao invited me to visit his shop the following day.
“Just don’t come too early, Master Chen,” he said, laughing. “I drank more than you did so I’ll be sleeping later.”
I waited until noon then followed Shao’s directions to his shop. He welcomed me with a smile.
“I slept and slept,” he said. “And you?”
“Oh, I was up with my landlord’s rooster, I’m afraid.”
“Your host keeps a rooster? Too bad. Well, you might as well look around.”
The instrument-maker had secured an excellent location for his shop, across from a tidy park enclosed by closely trimmed elm hedges. Shao told me later that the park had been designed and dedicated by Emperor Wen himself. During my visit, I saw monks coming and going through the red gates. I went to look at it later in the day. At its center a statue of the Buddha sits under a maidenhair tree with pruned lower branches.
Master Shao’s shop was nothing like one finds in the provinces. I admired the fine appointments, the teak cases and paneled walls. I praised the pipas and sanxians on display, beautiful objects, inlaid with ivory and so highly polished that they seemed to emit rather than reflect the midday light. I complimented Master Shao on his workmanship.
“My workmanship,” he scoffed. “Come. I’ll show you something.”
We went behind his counter and, opening a narrow door, Shao extended his arm. “My workshop,” he said.
The contrast with what I had just seen could not have been more complete. Here all was dirt and disorder, shards of wood on the floor, broken liuqins and smashed ruans pushed in corners, dried puddles of spilt varnish, tangled skeins of broken strings, animal guts, gritty bowls, and a heap of stinking rags.
“Well?” he said crossing his arms over his chest. “What do you think?”
I hesitated before replying, “Last week I had to abandon a fu about a peasant woman I met in Fangshu, a widow, once the local beauty. I started the poem over fifteen times and still couldn’t make it come out right. The words fell apart like cheap sandals.”
Shao nodded his sympathy and pointed to my feet. “Well, at least your straw sandals are well made.”
“You never let anyone at all in here?”
“Certainly not. Neither customer nor competitor. Would you pass around that botched fu about your Fangshu widow?” Shao pounded on his workbench. “Like Gaozu, we know our mistakes but prefer others not to.”
[Note: Hsi-wei concludes his letter with the poem that has become known as “The Broken Fence”]
That broken fence will delight the fox but
not the chickens nor Tung’s new father-in-law,
come to see where his Mei-ling now dwells. And so,
drenched by unrelenting rain, Tung ties up
loose palings and replaces the cracked ones.
The bungled fu, the botched portrait, these we
Shove into our workshop’s corners like
Shao’s spoiled liuqins and sanxians.
We’d rather display what has been polished
and made smooth, though truth is never seamless.