Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University's College of General Studies. He has published essays, stories, and poems in a wide variety of journals (including Amarillo Bay), two story collections, Life in the Temperate Zone and The Decline of Our Neighborhood, and a book of essays, Professors at Play; his novel, Zublinka Among Women, won the Indie Book Awards First Prize for Fiction. His most recent book is a short novel, Losses.
Note: This story is one in a cycle of tales about an imaginary 6th-century Chinese poet, Chen Hsi-wei.
In a reply to an inquiry from the Prince of Sung, Chu Juyi, one of the compilers of The Bronze Lantern, explains why, despite its fame, he chose to exclude Chen Hsi-wei's "Letter to Yang Jian" from the anthology. "This poem," he writes, "is nothing like Hsi-wei's other work. It lacks his customary tact, subtlety, and indirection. Usually, the poet fixes his eye on details of the world and lends them a patina of use and familiarity through his verse. He writes of quiet moments and ordinary things. The interminable wars going on in his youth can certainly be felt in his poems but they are fought offstage, as when he concludes a description of early spring by writing Horses stamp on the dried-out roads. / Armies begin to march. Hsi-wei's meanings are like shadows cast by mountains, trees, and those small objects he disposes with such care. The 'Letter to Yang Jian,' on the other hand, could hardly be more blunt, its purpose more obvious, its violence more brutal. Even knowing the letter is signed, I still find it difficult to believe it is the work of Chen Hsi-wei. The clue as to why the poet abandoned his accustomed manner in the 'Letter' may lie in a tale told about how he came to write it and why he circulated copies of it throughout Northern Zhou." Chu Juyi goes on to relate a remarkable, probably fanciful, story about the composition of Hsi-wei's renowned open letter to the future Emperor Wen.
The village of Kuo-ling lay on the old road between Ch'angan to the west and Shan to the east. The place was hardly large but it could boast an inn called Tong Yun, The Red Clouds. What travelers spent kept the village afloat even in hard times. Consequently, the innkeeper, a fat widower named Chung, was highly respected.
On arriving in Kuo-ling, Hsi-wei went directly to The Red Clouds and asked this Chung for his humblest accommodation. As he was addressing the innkeeper, he happened to glance into the cool shade beyond the portico. Atop a bright red sideboard he saw a painted clay statue, a smiling Buddha. Hsi-wei remarked on it.
Chung clapped his hands together. "Ah, my happy Buddha. You recognized him, yes? Three years ago a pair of monks converted me, though I'm still looking high and low for enlightenment. Those monks were making their way back from a pilgrimage to the West and, according to what they told me, the statue was made someplace beyond the T'ien mountains. The good monks, of course, had no money for lodging, nor would I have taken any. All the same, they insisted on making me a present of the statue. Would you care to look at my little Buddha more closely?"
As they were going inside Hsi-wei told the good-natured innkeeper that he had studied some of the many Buddhist texts available in the capital. The Regent, it was said, had taken an interest in promoting the Buddha's teachings.
Chung was delighted to hear this, said a blessing for the Regent, then began asking question after question of the road-weary poet. Could he say whether the Regent himself was a Buddhist? Did he sit under a tree to meditate? Had he spent any time at a monastery? Did the esteemed traveler himself believe that the Buddha was really a rich prince who renounced wealth and pleasure? What exactly is meant by the Buddha-Nature and could he possibly repeat the Eightfold Path? "It's shameful. I've already forgotten five of the precepts!" the innkeeper confessed with a self-deprecating laugh.
The two men settled in the lobby with its polished wood pillars. There were many cushions scattered about, some new, others worn to tatters. Chung ordered a girl to bring them tea, then, later, vegetables and rice. The poet and the innkeeper talked until nightfall when Hsi-wei tactfully reminded Chung that he needed to sleep and a place in which to do so.
"My apologies! I was up there in the celestial ice mountains. Well, I have only two rooms available, but they are the finest. Take your pick."
Hsi-wei explained that he hadn't sufficient funds for such a fine accommodation, nor did he require one; a corner in the stable would do for him. "However," he added, "if anyone in Kuo-ling stands in need of new straw sandals, I'll soon have money, though hardly enough for one of The Red Clouds' finest rooms."
"Young man, this evening's conversation has been a pleasure for me, like rain after a drought," said the innkeeper touching three fingers to his forehead. "Your words are wise, learned, and, if I may say so, beautiful. Take either of the rooms and pay whatever you like."
By city standards, of course, the room was neither large nor well furnished. Then again, to a man who had been living rough and on the move for more than a year, it was both.
Before retiring, Hsi-wei opened his pack. He laid out his tools and the notice he would post by the well. Then, as he did nightly, the poet carefully unrolled the oil-cloth in which he kept his ink stone, brushes, and supply of paper. After that, he undid the leather binding of his small library, the precious scrolls he had taken with him when he departed the capital. These included The Consecration of the Lamp, The Five-Pillared Pavilion, two Buddhist tracts, and copies of his own early poems. Rolled up tightly in the middle of the latter was a brief note from the Lady Tian Miao which it was the poet's habit to press to his nose each night.
Since taking up the life of a vagabond, Hsi-wei always fell asleep quickly, stretching out where he could. That night—on a proper cot, under a freshly aired blanket, between solid walls—he slept deeply. Yet in the hour just before dawn he was awakened. He heard a woman's voice loudly whispering his name over and over right up against his ear, though he felt no breath. When he opened his eyes he saw standing by him in the moonlight a thin woman. She was chalk-white and wrapped in a colorless cloak. As the only illumination was that of the moon, at first he thought the appearance of the woman's face must be a trick of the shadows. Yet her face was not in shadow but in full moonlight. It was smooth and pure white and all its features appeared to have been washed away, like a pebble worn smooth in a river. There were no eyes, no nose, not even a slit that could pass for a mouth.
Hsi-wei started up.
"Don't be frightened," said the woman in that unnaturally loud whisper. "I'm not here to do you any harm, Hsi-wei."
The woman was not close to him yet he could hear her whisper plainly; she spoke so clearly and yet she had no mouth. "You must be a ghost," he mumbled fearfully.
"You are a poet, Hsi-wei. The time will come when your poems will be known everywhere. But you are also a peasant, not from the lordly class."
"Hardly famous nor likely to be, but, yes, I'm certainly a peasant."
"Then you know what we suffer, affronts that are never written down, crimes that are never avenged, injustices never made good."
"Listen to me. I come from the village of Xin Cai Cheng in the province of Chiennan. All of us were loyal to the Duke of Daxing, our lawful ruler. He treated us justly, even after he was raised to be Duke of Sui and Regent. Maybe our loyalty to him is the reason, if there was any reason at all, why three months ago the rebel General Yuchi Jiong and his men attacked our village. They killed all our men at once, and every boy, even the babies. My husband, my son—both of them were dead before I could grasp what was happening. Then that terrible Yuchi armed all in black joked that the loss should be made good. He ordered his men to rape us, even the youngest girls. I fought my way to him and begged on my knees for mercy. For this I was, by the General's command, twice raped, stabbed four times, and thrown down the village well."
"That is horrible, horrible."
"I haunted Yuchi Jiong for two months. I came to him at night but he was so drunk I could hardly wake him, even when I shrieked. So I frightened his wives and concubines until they all begged him to let them leave. 'Good riddance,' he said. 'I've been hankering for fresh meat anyway.' I scared a servant carrying an oil lamp so that she would drop it and set fire to Yuchi's tent, but the guards quickly doused the flames. And so I've come to you, Hsi-wei."
"I don't understand."
"I want you to write my story. To make it into a poem. I want it to be read everywhere. I want everybody to know what this Yuchi did and what he is. I ask this as a favor, a favor a live peasant can do for a dead one. For many, many dead ones."
The faceless woman didn't wait for Hsi-wei to reply. She simply vanished.
When he woke in the morning, Hsi-wei felt troubled but convinced himself the visit from the faceless woman was simply a bad dream. He washed his face, went to the village well, set up his sign, took a dozen orders, purchased two dou of straw on credit, then returned to the inn to begin making sandals.
The innkeeper brought him some food and asked to sit with him. He had thought of more questions to ask about the Buddha. And so the evening passed, with Hsi-wei working and chatting with his landlord. Then, having completed six pairs of sandals, he retired to his room.
In the middle of the night the ghost returned.
"Hsi-wei. Hsi-wei, wake up. Wake up!" It was the same loud, uncanny whisper which seemed to come from beside his ear. "Hsi-wei, will you do it?"
When Hsi-wei paid up and said farewell to Chung, he handed the innkeeper a copy of the "Letter" with the request that he lay it on the red sideboard by the Buddha's statue. Then he took up his pack and headed up the highway. At each village he left behind not only new straw sandals but a copy of the "Letter." Hsi-wei knew that the illiterate peasants would not be able to read what he had written but hoped that educated travelers—clerks, assistant governors, deputy ministers, merchants—would see it and might even read it out to the villagers. Above all, he hoped that eventually one or another would see that it reached its exalted addressee, the Duke of Daxing and Sui, the Regent Yang Jiang. In this manner, as he went on his way, Hsi-wei spread seeds of outrage in obedience to the bidding of the faceless woman.
Tales of atrocity were, alas, hardly uncommon in those days; but there is a difference between vaporous rumors and hard verses. At its best, poetry is language made unforgettable, untouched by time as gold is by fire. The "Letter" spread. More copies were made by unknown hands in distant towns and before long it became known throughout Northern Zhou. At last, his First Minister presented a copy to Yang Jiang himself, along with the news that the peasants were demanding that this Yuchi Jiong be punished. "Here in the capital, Lord," said the minister boldly, "we've considered the activities of this renegade a minor annoyance, but I can assure you that in the countryside your loyal people are speaking of little else."
The Duke read Hsi-wei's poem and nodded.
"My loyal people," he said. "Loyalty is a spoon with two handles. Very well. The peasants are right. It's high time we dealt with this man."
Yang Jiang chose to lead his troops himself, wanting to be seen at their head. He pursued Yuchi for a month before catching up with him in Iwu, a place three days' march from Chiangling. At the sight of the Regent's pennants and his cavalry, Yuchi's army dissolved. He himself fled with a few henchmen in the direction of the T'ien mountains. The Duke sent a detachment of horsemen in pursuit. At each village and hamlet the horsemen inquired about the rebel and those who had seen him were quick to tell what road he had taken.
When the detachment galloped into the small village of Hofei, the captain made his usual inquiry about Yuchi Jiong. This time the peasants were silent. Then a burly fellow strode up to the captain and unrolled before him a copy of Hsi-wei's "Letter." Trailed by the entire population of the village, he conducted the soldiers to an abandoned well.
Pointing into the well he said simply, "There."
A Letter from the Humble Chen Hsi-wei to the Most Honorable Yang Jian, Duke of Daxing and Sui, General of the Army, Regent of Northern Zhou
Like famished tigers on stunned sheep,
the fires leap at the roofs of parched thatch,
his soldiers on the defenseless peasants.
Yuchi Jiong raises himself in his stirrups
and surveys the scene, a black oak amid scorched walls,
broken bamboo, crushed cabbages, slain oxen and men.
The chests of Yuchi's pike men heave, their faces are
black with ash and sweat. Slaughter is hard work,
but they carry out Yuchi's pitiless command.
"To make widows is good, men," shouts the general
from his high horse, "but the place needs peopling.
It's only fair that you make mothers too."
Mixing with the shrieks of dying pigs and fleeing geese,
the soldiers roar, break ranks, drag out women and girls.
One new widow fights off bloody hands, ceases keening
over her slashed husband and lifeless son;
she rushes at the general in his black armor,
throws herself in the dust before his horse's hoofs.
"Lord, spare the girls at least. Surely it's enough
to have made us destitute orphans and widows."
Yuchi Jiong looks down on her with contempt.
"What presumption!" he growls and motions to two guards.
"Rape the bitch then toss her down that well."
Thus did the rebel Yuchi Jiong deal with the loyal
village of Juan Xin Cai Cheng in the province of Chiennan.