Before retiring to his cottage outside Chiangling, the peasant/poet Chen Hsi-wei had always been on the move. When the news spread that he was able to receive visitors, several came. Among the most welcome was Liu Qing-sheng, who, before his own retirement, had been a second minister in the last years of the Sui dynasty. Liu and Hsi-wei had been pupils together under Shen Kuo, an exacting and formidable master. As the two friends shared recollections, both noted that the pains of their youth were somehow more delightful to recall than the pleasures. “The alchemy of age,” Hsi-wei mused, “is magical. It seems to have transmuted resentment of our Master’s sarcasm and fear of his bamboo cane into something almost like affection.”
Liu had brought along with him two large jars of Sogdian wine, a recent and prized import. Hsi-wei thanked his guest and reminded him of what his namesake, the Daoist poet Liu Ling, had written of himself. I was born Liu Ling, and wine is my name. Each time I drink I down a hundred liters. Then, to sober up, I drink another fifty.
The two old men laughed and patted each other on the shoulder. Liu suggested that they honor his namesake by polishing off both jars before they parted and they vowed to do so. With nostalgia exhausted and his tongue loosened by the wine, Liu discarded all discretion and regaled his host through the afternoon and evening with stories of a decade of court scandals. When he had finished, he asked the poet to tell him a story in recompense. Hsi-wei smiled and said such a debt deserved to be repaid with interest. “So, tomorrow I’ll tell you a story with one story inside of it and another on the outside.”
What follows is the account of Hsi-wei’s tale as Liu Qing-sheng recorded it in his memoirs.
Many years ago, Master Hsi-wei began, I spent a memorable night in Ch’engtu as the guest of a jade merchant by the name of Fong Cheng-li. We had met at an inn on the road near the border of Chiennan province. It was wintertime and the demand for straw sandals had fallen as rapidly as the snow and as low as the temperature. I hadn’t enough money for a room, but I needed to find something; it was too cold to sleep out of doors. Fong and I arrived at the inn at almost the same time. He was a heavy-set man, twenty years my senior, with two servants and a loud voice. He tramped into the inn, shouted for the proprietor, demanded the inn’s best room for himself and something suitable for his servants. The innkeeper quailed before him; perhaps he was deafened. As for me, I promised the innkeeper two pairs of sandals if he would let me bed down; anywhere would do. He took pity and said I could have the small pantry behind the kitchen, but I would have to be up at dawn.
Fong sent his servants to see to the horses, ordered wine for himself and looked around for company. The innkeeper was preparing the rooms so there was no one but me.
“Well, come and join me.” It was more a command than an invitation. “Your company can’t be worse than this wine.”
“Very well,” I said.
“Tell me about yourself? No, let me guess. Rice farmer? Pigs? No? I wouldn’t call you big but you look strong enough to be a porter.”
“I make straw-sandals. I’m an itinerant.”
Fong looked disappointed. “As for me, I deal in jade, the finest. I just wound up a buying trip. Now I’m taking my wares home where I’ll sell them for considerably more than I paid.”
“That is the work of a successful merchant.”
Fong looked askance at me. “You’re a sensible man.”
“I too am a merchant, sir.”
“A merchant of straw,” he scoffed.
“Not of straw, sir, but of sandals made from straw. The work is what creates value. I presume you look for good workmanship when you’re buying jade carvings?”
“That’s true. The jade has to be of good quality but it’s the workmanship that sells.”
“It’s the same with poetry,” I said. “Words are common enough; it’s putting them in the right order that counts.”
Fong laughed like a donkey. “So, you like poetry?”
“Without poetry, life would feel like a mistake,” I said simply.
This drew a curious look. “A peasant who sells cheap sandals yet cares about poetry. Not something found every day. You know how to read, then?”
“A peasant who reads—that’s like one of those birds that are trained to talk.”
I pointed to the bottle. “A parrot is like this wine jar; it can’t put out what isn’t put in. But, as a craftsman transforms jade into maidens and tigers, learning can change a peasant,” I said sharply. “A trained bird doesn’t write poems.”
Fong laughed again. “What? You write poems too? Now this is something unexpected indeed! Recite one of your poems for me.”
I recited for him.
Fong struck the table. “But I know that poem. It’s called ‘Yellow Moon at Lake Weishan’.”
I was surprised. “You know it?”
“Everybody knows it. It’s one of my daughter’s favorites. But you didn’t write it.”
“Well, certainly not you, you scoundrel. The poet’s a fellow named Chen Hsi-wei—not an educated peasant like you, but a magistrate somewhere up north. A business acquaintance told me he met the man himself, said he was just as fat as I am!”
I couldn’t help feeling a little pleased that my poem had found admirers but I was disturbed by the news of this other Hsi-wei, the fat magistrate up north. Fong was drinking a lot; maybe he had gotten things mixed up. But then I had a nauseating thought. Perhaps there really was another Chen Hsi-wei, claiming to be the author of my verses. Maybe there were even more Hsi-weis. I felt as if the floor had opened up beneath me.
Fong laughed. “You claim to have written this poem everybody knows. If you’re a poet, then recite a different poem for me.”
I probably should have excused myself there and then and gone to sleep in the pantry. But I was indignant. I discovered that I had more vanity than I thought and felt compelled to answer the man’s challenge. I thought for a moment then recited the poem that’s become known as “The Cruelty of Springtime.” I chose it because no one else knew of it at the time—it still felt too personal to circulate—and because of the comparison in the third verse.
Blossoms unfold overnight.
Hills change from ugly brown to
the pale green of Lingnan jade.
The weightless air bears intoxicating
scents of manure and turned soil.
Ducklings waddle behind their mothers,
plop into ponds refreshed by rain.
Horses stamp on the dried-out roads.
Armies begin to march.
I too take to the road in springtime,
indifferent to peril, ineptly sealing up
a heart fissured by departure.
I suppose in springtime all men must
go to war, each in his own way.
Fong put down his cup and stared at me, his mouth gaping.
I was ashamed of trying to prove myself and yet I went on doing so, perhaps because of the wine. “I wrote that poem when I was leaving the capital, when I first took to the road.”
Fong’s brow furrowed and he scratched his head. “This isn’t the sort of conversation I was expecting,” he said.
“What were you expecting?”
He chuckled. “Oh, something about the weather. The usual complaints about the government.”
“Sorry to have disappointed you,” I said curtly and got to my feet. I wished him a good night and thanked him for the wine, then excused myself and headed for the pantry.
I was up at first light but, as I was preparing to leave, the proprietor came and told me that one of the jade merchant’s servants had asked to have me wait. His master wanted to see me. I was in no hurry to get out into the cold and so I sat myself on a stool in the kitchen.
Fong stuck his head in. “There you are,” he said.
“It’s warm here. Why not?”
“Look, there’s no doubt that you’re a remarkable specimen,” he said. “All men must go to war, each in his own way. That’s not bad. I confess it caught me. And some Lingnan jade really is just the color of hills when the first leaves come out. I thought about it last night. You could be giving me somebody else’s poem, like that trained bird we spoke of. So, I still don’t believe you’re this poet Chen Hsi-wei. He’s that magistrate up north.”
I shrugged. “As you wish, sir. We can leave it at that. But, before I go, I’d like to tell you a little story about a magistrate. It might interest you.”
“Fine. I don’t mind letting the world warm itself a little. Let’s have some tea, then, before we go our ways.”
He shouted for the innkeeper to bring tea then hollered to his servants. “Take your time getting the horses ready.”
Here is the story I told the jade merchant.
Once, in Shun, a magistrate had a problem. It was a case of robbery and assault. As he came out of a tavern, Bao Zhu-sing was struck from behind with an iron bar; he never saw his attacker. Three witnesses came forward. All had been either in or just outside the tavern and claimed to have seen Bao’s attacker. The problem was that each accused a different man. The magistrate ordered that all the accused men be arrested. He further directed the police chief to pursue certain inquiries.
Meanwhile, the magistrate questioned the three witnesses, one at a time and in private. He asked each three questions: Did your parents beat you? Have you ever broken a law? Would you call yourself wise or ignorant? Only one of the witnesses—with much blushing and staring at his feet—answered yes, yes, and ignorant. The magistrate thanked the man and told him he could be on his way. He ordered the other two witnesses held pending the result of his inquiries. Two days later, the magistrate was informed by the chief that, as he suspected, the two false witnesses were friends of the man accused by the third witness.
“So, you see, sir,” I said to the merchant, “three accused robbers, three witnesses, but only one of the former was guilty just as only one of the latter told the truth.
Fong said nothing for a minute then broke into a half-comprehending, uncertain smile and got to his feet.
“Hmm. You’re an unusual young man, even if you are a word-thief. If your travels take you to Ch’engtu, you may come to visit. We could enjoy a good dinner and, if you want to spend the night, I promise not to stuff you in the pantry.”’
Here Hsi-wei paused and took a long pull of Sogdian wine.
“And that, I take it, is your story inside a story?” I asked.
Hsi-wei wiped his mouth. “Yes, but I promised you something more.”
“That’s right, there was to be an outside story as well. Good. There’s plenty of wine left, and I’m eager to hear the rest.”
Hsi-wei resumed in a speculative mood.
A certain cynical sage once observed to another that the greatest part of people’s thinking is devoted to rationalizing their needs. The other sage replied that the secret of success is convincing oneself that what is necessary is also virtuous. I can’t say that I agree with either; however, some weeks after the encounter at the inn, I arrived in Ch’engtu. I was shivering, hungry, and had sold three pairs of sandals in the previous ten days. I suppose accepting Fong’s invitation amounted to a necessity; and, though I didn’t care for the man’s arrogance, loud voice, or how he had provoked in me a shameful vanity, I did try to make a virtue of necessity, to rationalize my needs. I told myself that it would be impolite to refuse an offer of hospitality that was, after all, graciously extended.
After making a few inquiries in the marketplace, I found my way to Fong’s home. It was a rather showy villa, with much gold paint and a brace of stone lions at the gate that were both hideous and pretentious. I knocked and the door was opened by a young woman, modestly dressed and quite pretty. She looked me up and down with a mixture of contempt and interest. I explained why I was there.
“I’d better fetch the Master,” she said and turned, then casting a suspicious look over her shoulder, she told me to wait outside the door, which she closed.
Fong appeared soon after.
“Ah,” he said, “so it’s the peasant who makes sandals out of straw and a poet out of himself. You’ve come, then.” It was obvious that he hadn’t expected I would.
“Brrr,” he said rubbing his hands together, “it’s cold. You’d better come in.” He pointed to a corner. “Put your bag over there. Chunhua!”
The serving girl returned at once. “Master?”
“It appears we’ll have a guest for dinner. Tell cook to prepare something a little special. Leave the choice to him.” He turned to me. “Will you be staying the night?”
I explained that I had just arrived in the city and had as yet no lodging. I told him frankly that I would be grateful for any warm space.
Fong told the girl, who was staring at me with perplexed interest, which room to prepare and she ran off.
Fong called for his wife. She was a slim woman, dressed rather like a child’s doll, and much younger than her husband. This didn’t surprise me. She didn’t look happy. Even the modest smile she gave me was melancholy.
“Her parents named her Qiao, but I call her Meifen, because she’s sweet and fragrant as a plum. Aren’t you, my dear?” Fong said this the way he might have praised a jade carving to one of his customers.
“Meifen, this fellow is our guest for the evening. I met him on the road. I know he looks like a common peasant but he’s an educated one, if you please. He even claims to be a poet. And not just any poet, my little plum, but the author of that poem about Lake Weishan everybody was talking about last year—you know, the one Shuchun liked so much.” He laughed. “I wouldn’t believe much any poet has to say, mind you, but still less one who isn’t really a poet but a vagabond who makes straw sandals. Still, he’s a clever fellow. We were drinking and I invited him to visit and he took me at my word.”
Meifen bowed to me. “You are welcome,” she whispered modestly.
After she left us, Fong told me that Meifen was his second wife. “The first one died and this one is young enough to see me through. And, if not, I can always get another.”
Just then the door opened and another young woman appeared, followed by a servant carrying two long boxes wrapped in burlap.
“My daughter Shuchun, the apple of my eye,” said Fong, who was evidently in the habit of comparing women to fruit.
“Who’s this, Father?” the girl demanded, looking hard at my clothes.
“A guest. And what are those? More silk gowns?”
“Only two, Father. The colors are new and anyway I needed them. So, who’s our dusty guest?”
As Fong explained, Shuchun looked at me pertly. She was perhaps two or three years younger than the wife, about the same age as the serving girl. “Ah, I’ve always longed to meet a poet,” she said merrily. “I’d have loved to spend an afternoon chatting in a garden with Tao Yuanming, for instance, just listening to him talk about trees and grass. But I suppose even a pretend poet is better than no poet at all.” She threw me a challenge. “You know Tao’s poetry?”
I replied with a bow and these verses:
Only by wine one’s heart is lit,
only a poem calms a soul that’s torn.
“Ah,” she said with wide eyes, obviously surprised and pleased. “Father, I know how improbable it is, but perhaps you’re wrong. Maybe he really is a poet.”
Fong scoffed. “Why? Because he can recite somebody else’s lines? He did the same with ‘Lake Weishan’ when we met. He even claimed to have written it.”
“Well,” said Shuchun casting me a sympathetic look, “just as you say, Father. As always, I bow before your wisdom.”
Fong growled, but not angrily. “Go put your things away, child. Our guest will be staying to dinner.”
“Oh, good! I’ll put on one of my new gowns! The peach one, I think.” And she was gone.
The dinner was a feast, with both fish and pork dishes, five different sauces, as well a plate of mushrooms and tiny bok choi. The serving girl, Chunhua, was attentive and made sure that I tasted everything. The daughter, Shuchun, commended the fish and ate a great deal of it. Meifen, the wife, was quiet, but appeared a little less miserable.
Perhaps Fong was showing off for the women or trying to impress me; he dominated the table talk. He spoke of his close friendship with the governor and the sound advice he’d given him about building a new bridge. He recalled youthful adventures in which he appeared both brave and able. He even attempted to quote the masters—but did so incorrectly. His daughter ventured to correct him, earning a paternal frown and an indulgent growl.
Meifen urged me to tell something of myself. I told how, as a boy, I had carried the Emperor’s message to the southern army and how this service led to my education. The women, who had scarcely paid attention to Fong, seemed keenly interested. They asked me all sorts of questions about the South, the court, the dangers I had passed through, what the Prime Minister had looked like, my village, and why I had chosen to go on the road making straw sandals. When Shuchun wanted to know if I had left a sweetheart in the capital her father interrupted.
“Enough,” he declared. “It’s time you women retired.”
As soon as they were gone, he brought out the wine. Fong continued talking about himself for at least an hour before he noticed my yawning and my half-closed eyes.
“Can’t be the company,” Fong snapped, “must be the hour.”
And so, I was dismissed to the spare room at the back of the house. Chunhua had thoughtfully lit a fire in a small brazier and made up a bed with many cushions. In minutes, exhausted and a little drunk, I fell asleep.
Here Hsi-wei paused and rubbed his chin. “I wonder. Do you think if we could see inside our minds there would be any difference between a dream and an actual event? Isn’t it only when we wake, when we look around and see a chair, our foot, the sky, that we make the distinction? But then we don’t always wake, not fully, do we? And then the distinction turns into a muddle.”
“You mean like Zhuangzi’s dream of being a butterfly and the butterfly’s dream of being Zhuangzi?”
“Yes. Well, something of the sort happened to me in the middle of that night. I felt my shirt lifted and warm hands on my stomach—or it was a dream of hands and stomach. There was a smell of fruit, too. Plums, apples, apricots. I thought I glimpsed a half moon with winter clouds drifting across it like cobwebs. But that too could have been part of a dream. Then there was a rustling of clothing and more than hands were on me. My trousers seemed to fall away and then there was quick breathing, breasts, a low moan, smooth, entangling legs, an urgent mouth. The room was unnaturally dark—or, just as likely, I never opened my eyes. In any case, when I woke at dawn and looked about me, the cushions were scattered over the floor and under my blanket I was only half-dressed.
“I was drenched in shame. I knew what had happened but not exactly what, or with whom. Was it Chunhua the servant who had come in the night, Shuchun the daughter, or the young and unhappy wife, Meifen? Or was it none of them?
“While the household still slept, I gathered up my things and, without leaving even a short note of thanks, I fled the house and then the city. . . . Liu, you’re looking amused.”
I said I was amused. Hsi-wei’s chastity was well known. I thanked him for the story.
“Oh, he said, that’s not the story. Not the outside one. That I made later, when I was back tramping on the road—truly outside. I wonder if you’ll see the connection. Pour out the rest of that wine and, if you like, I’ll tell it to you.”
And then Hsi-wei told me the following tale which I’ve titled Licking Dragons.
When he was little, the landlord Lin’s mother cautioned him sternly. “Changpu, you were born in winter. You must never forget that you have a Major Yin nature and so the Year of the Rat will always be dangerous, the most likely to heap misfortunes on your head.”
Lin had reason to recall his mother’s warning. It was during the last Year of the Rat that his beloved wife caught a fever and died.
Now, as the new year approached, Lin grew anxious. Bad enough that it would be a Rat Year; worse still, he was about to turn forty-four and, as everybody knows, four is the unluckiest of numbers.
Normally, Lin was not superstitious—less than most, at least. Though he could be soft-hearted, he was a hard-headed man. He was deemed a good landlord, fair-minded and never mean; he was proud of that. So, he was worried not just for himself, but for his household and tenants as well. He was also anxious about his son, off in the capital preparing to take his examinations.
Lin’s oldest servant, Deshi, who had served Lin’s father, observed how his Master cringed at the sound of thunder, the way he stared fearfully at the sky. He was troubled when Lin forbade the cook to prepare dishes with mushrooms, as mushrooms were formerly among his favorite foods. He also noted that his master was constantly asking the women to check the outbuildings for signs of fire.
Though he had known his master since his infancy, Deshi always preserved the formalities. He asked Lin for permission to speak with him privately.
“But of course,” said Changpu, who felt affection and respect for the old man and indulged his ways. He invited Deshi into the little study where he kept his accounts.
“What’s the matter? I hope you’re not unwell.”
“Someone’s not well, Master.”
“Who is it? Not the cook? Oh, it’s not little Meiling?”
“No, sir. It’s you.”
“Forgive my forwardness, but you haven’t been yourself of late, Master. I can see something’s got you worried. Perhaps I can help.”
Lin was embarrassed to confess to the old man his worries concerning the coming year and the bad fortune it was likely to bring. There was no one else to whom he would do so and he found it a relief.
Though not himself given to superstitions, Deshi knew all about their power.
“I believe I have a remedy,” he said.
“You do?” asked Changpu hopefully.
The old man nodded. “The best way to provide against bad luck is to ensure the good. When I was young, I heard a wise woman say that to possess a dragon made of green jade can avert both flood and drought, that it brings gentle rain and good harvests.”
Lin looked at Deshi hopefully. “Really? Must it be a big dragon?”
“No, Master. The size of the statue doesn’t matter, but it must be made of genuine Lingnan jade, solid through and through.”
If Lin was skeptical, he gave no sign of it. The next day he dispatched a messenger to his agent in Ch’engtu. A week later three merchants arrived at his home, each offering a green dragon. The sizes and prices were different and so were the dragons—one looked ferocious, another indifferent, the third was smiling. Changpu was uncertain which to buy. The old servant begged permission to offer his assistance.
“Please do,” said Lin.
Deshi hefted the first statue and made a disapproving face. “Too light,” he said, then licked it. “Too light and not from Lingnan either.”
The merchant swore it was from Lingnan and not hollow at all.
Deshi ignored him and picked up the second statue. He licked it as well. Again, he frowned.
“Not from Lingnan?” asked Lin.
“But I found it there myself,” said the merchant indignantly.
By way of reply, Deshi took a small knife from beneath his shirt and, over the protests of the merchant, scraped the statue. Flakes of green paint fell to the floor.
Deshi picked up the third carving, the smallest and most expensive, the one of the smiling dragon. He weighed it in his hand, gave it a friendly rub, then a good lick. Smiling, he presented it to Lin.
“Choose this one, Master.”
Hsi-wei stopped there.
The story made me laugh—the story and a quantity of Sogdian wine.
“You see the connection, then?” the poet asked.
“Three witnesses, three women, three dragons,” I replied. “And jade merchants from Ch’engtu.”
My old friend laughed, pleased. “And, Liu—who knows?—maybe there are three Hsi-weis as well.”
The Empire is vast, its population beyond counting; nevertheless, in my opinion, there is only one Chen Hsi-wei.
For more on Robert Wexelblatt, please see our Authors page.