While making his way through Jingzhou, the vagabond peasant/poet Chen Hsi-wei stopped at an inn called The Fallen Apple, where, as usual, he asked for the cheapest accommodation—a corner of the kitchen would do, he told the innkeeper, even the stable.
It happened that a third minister from Shun, going to visit his family in Yechan for the Spring Festival, was also stopping at The Fallen Apple. He sat with great dignity drinking with his two guards. The local men watched him apprehensively. When Hsi-wei came in to the tavern to ask if perhaps anyone required a new pair of straw sandals, the minister looked the vagabond up and down.
"What's your name?" he demanded.
Hsi-wei gave his name and the slightest of bows.
The minister's eyebrows rose. "Chen Hsi-wei? And may I ask, Master Chen Hsi-wei, if you make poems as well as straw sandals?"
"My sandals are better," remarked Hsi-wei.
The third minister chuckled at this, and everyone else laughed—the idea that such a man was able to read, let alone write verses.
The minister ordered his escorts to leave and the innkeeper to bring a cup and another jug of rice wine. "Come and sit and drink with me a little."
"Life's strange," observed the minister pompously. "Only last week I had to listen to my colleague Rong Hongxu go on about the poems of some Chen Hsi-wei. He said the fellow was an educated peasant who drifted about the country leaving straw sandals and poems in his wake."
"Coincidences generally come in pairs," said Hsi-wei dryly. "Is your colleague by any chance the same Rong Hongxu who compiled The Midnight Verses of the North and South?"
The minister looked startled. "You know his book?"
"I once had the good fortune to see it, yes. Unfortunately, I do not possess a copy."
"Rong is very proud of his little collection. Poems written before our good Emperor Wen reunited the two dynasties, I believe."
"Certainly not a great period for poetry but interesting all the same. I thought the poems well-chosen and Rong's commentaries, even when harsh, both perceptive and considered."
"It's true. Rong can be harsh. He likes your verses, though, most of the ones he's seen anyway—but by no means all of them. 'This Chen must be the only peasant in China who writes poems, and he's not without talent.' That's what Rong said about you—and if it is you, I'm sure he'd welcome a visit. The man works too hard, and he could use the distraction."
"I would be honored to profit from the criticism of Rong Hongxu," said Hsi-wei.
"Well then, unless you've some other destination in mind, why don't you go back the way I've come? Go to Shun, I mean. You'll find Rong where he always is, slaving away in the Cavalry and Provisions Ministry. The place would fall apart without him."
Hsi-wei enjoyed his journey to Shun, stopping only three times to put up his sign and look for customers. Business was brisk. In springtime, peasants know they'll be needing new sandals, and it was a spring to gladden a peasant's heart. When the sun wasn't out, light rain fell on fields pale green with early crops.
The capital was festive. Magnolias were in bud and there were flowers everywhere, especially geraniums, both red and pink. Most of the people were well dressed, and even the beggars appeared to be in high spirits.
Hsi-wei had little difficulty finding his way to Rong's ministry, the one in charge of the Duke's cavalry and military provisions. The first person he asked, a jolly porter with a head as big as a melon, showed him the way.
Hsi-wei had heard that the Duke of Shun, Wu Shiyue, had some military experience in his youth before making a vast fortune in the timber trade. For special services and his business acumen, the Emperor awarded him the vacant governorship of Shun and revived the title too. The Duke was known to take particular pride in the palace gardens, his cavalry and fine horses. Whether he was a good ruler or not, Hsi-wei didn't know.
The offices of the Ministry were housed in a rambling two-story building that stood next to a dozen stables and a broad field for exercises. Statues of two mounted warriors guarded the entryway. Hsi-wei had to persuade two lower officials to lead him to the office of Second Minister Rong. The first, a young man with a rather foolish face, looked him over disdainfully.
"Minister Rong cannot be disturbed. What's your business?"
"Poetry," said Hsi-wei. He could hardly say straw sandals.
"I was told that Minister Rong would welcome me."
"Who told you that?"
Hsi-wei gave the name and title of the official he had met at The Fallen Apple. This impressed the man enough so that he conducted Hsi-wei to the office of a higher lower official.
This man, older and more intelligent looking, also demanded to know what business he had with the Second Minister.
"I have matters to discuss with the compiler of Midnight Verses of the North and South. I believe Minister Rong will not be well pleased if you prevent us from meeting."
The man scoffed. "You know the minister's book? A peasant?"
Hsi-wei stood straighter. "I would be obliged if you would ask Second Minister Rong whether he would be so gracious as to grant the humble Chen Hsi-wei the honor of an audience."
"I doubt he'll do any such thing," the official said sharply. "Minister Rong hasn't time to waste on peasants."
"As you wish, Sir. I've warned you," said Hsi-wei, and turned to go.
Made uncertain by the implied threat, the official grumbled, "Very well. I'll ask. But don't get your hopes up. Wait right here."
Hsi-wei shouted after the man. "Be sure to tell him the humble peasant's name is
Chen, Chen Hsi-wei."
Left alone, Hsi-wei thought about how hard Rong must work. He would be in charge of everything from horseshoes to radishes to invoices for iron, armor, and hay, not to mention recruitment, promotions, and discipline. Even in this lower office, there were dozens of scrolls that had spilled from the shelves on to the floor.
The high low official returned in a state of bewilderment, rubbing his chin.
"The Second Minister says he'll see you at once. Follow me."
Rong Hongxu's office was on the second floor, overlooking the stables and exercise field. When the higher lower official announced Hsi-wei, he turned. He was seated on a padded bench before a desk thick with scrolls. He carefully lay down his brush and got to his feet. Rong was a tall man, thin as a boatman's bamboo pole. Hsi-wei estimated his age at between forty-five and fifty-five. He had a tired face, one that suggested a capacity for shrewdness and concentration, with disconcertingly sharp eyes, a straight nose and high brow. His green silk robe was tied at the waist with a narrow white sash.
Hsi-wei bowed low.
"I'm pleased to meet you, Master Chen. It was good of my colleague to send you my way."
"Mastery is where you find it," said Rong sternly, as if in reproach. "Where are you staying?"
"Nowhere as yet." Hsi-wei pointed at his bag, which he had set on the floor. "I came straight here."
"Then you'll stay at my villa." This was delivered as a command rather than an invitation.
"You are too generous," said Hsi-wei. "I'm sure I can find a lodging somewhere in the city."
Rong regarded him reproachfully. "I'm starved for the sort of conversation I expect from you. You'll be staying with me."
"As you wish, Second Minister."
"That's settled. Now look, I've still got a lot of work to finish. Why don't you look over the city and come back in an hour—or, better yet, two? Oh, did you know we have a menagerie? It's worth a visit. You'll find it by the river. Ask anyone."
Hsi-wei found the menagerie. He sat for a while looking at the monkeys.
Rong's villa was elegant, though neither large nor ostentatiously furnished. He had two servants, both elderly females obviously devoted to him. There was no one else.
As if to get the matter out of the way, Rong said, "My wife died young. I felt no need for another."
Hsi-wei appreciated Rong's understatement. This diligent man must have loved his wife dearly, he thought.
Hsi-wei had noticed that when he returned to Rong's office late in the day, the Second Minister was no longer wearing the white mourning sash. Discretion suggested that he shouldn't mention it there, but, now that they were alone, he asked about the sash.
"You noticed that? Hm. Perhaps I'll explain later," said his host.
They shared a simple meal of fish, bok choy, spring onions, and rice in a delicate oyster sauce, and washed it down with yellow wine. To finish, the old cook smilingly brought in a plate of sesame cakes. Either she's proud of her recipe, thought Hsi-wei, or they're Rong's favorites—perhaps one because of the other.
Over the meal, the two men spoke first of the Shijing Masters which they did with reverence. Rong happily discoursed on the work of the three Caos then, as Hsi-wei asked his opinion, dissected the formal innovations of the Jian'an. Hsi-wei did his best to attend to his host's learned discourse, reflecting on how often a lecture is best enjoyed by the one delivering it. At length, he shifted the topic. He complimented Rong for so well weighing, in his worthy collection, the respective merits and demerits of the poetry of North and South then asked if he preferred the new court style that aims to be a sort of amalgam or synthesis of both.
"Well, that was the Emperor's idea, a new merged poetry for the reunited Empire. It's an improvement, yes, but not a wholly satisfying one. In most of the recent poems I've seen coming from the capital, you can pick out the Northern harshness from the southern smoothness, like clumps of flour from bing cakes that haven't been well mixed. Your poems, I've noticed, are nothing like the new court style—or the old one either."
"Ah, my poor verses. I'm deeply flattered that you've troubled to take any notice of them."
"Mind you, I don't like them all. You're at your best when you stick to your own subjects and style—for instance in "Yellow Moon at Lake Weishan" or "The Broken Fence". Both are good. And I appreciated your handling of the classic theme of the exiled poet." Rong paused then recited, An exile is a man broken in half, living in two provinces at once."
Hsi-wei couldn't hide his pleasure that Rong should actually have memorized a line he had written. He blushed.
"But, despite its fame, I really can't approve of your 'Letter to Yang Jian.' It's brutal."
Hsi-wei lowered his head. "You're right—I mean about it being outside my sphere. My excuse is that I wrote it quickly and in a spasm of indignation. Those verses were a means to an end."
"A poor reason to write," said Rong censoriously, reminding Hsi-wei of his old teacher, the impossible-to-please Shen Kuo. Rong, he thought, is the sort of man whose good opinion would be all the more valuable because it is hard won, a rarity in a country with a thousand poets to every critic.
Rong fell silent and looked suddenly cast down. Hsi-wei recalled the white sash.
Feeling he might be overstepping some boundary, Hsi-wei nevertheless asked, "You are in mourning?"
Rong looked at him almost with suspicion. "You saw that sash so you know."
"My mourning is private."
Hsi-wei kept quiet, waiting for his host to do what he obviously wanted to do.
"The late Lord Lyu Xinghui was my chief. I've never known a better man."
Rong looked away. "He was executed. Beheaded. The injustice eats at me, Master Chen. There's no one here with whom I can share it. Not safely."
"It's hard not to express one's indignation."
Rong smiled ruefully.
"But you're a stranger and you'll soon be on your way."
"That's true. Tomorrow."
"No. Stay until the day after."
Hsi-wei nodded. "As you wish."
"Very well. I'll tell you what happened. It won't be a consolation, perhaps a relief."
"If it will do you even a small good, I'll gladly listen."
Rong cleared his throat then drank some wine. He took a deep breath and dove in.
"Before becoming First Minister, Lord Lyu commanded the Duke's cavalry. He was an experienced captain, honest and trustworthy as a squared-off beam, an incomparable horseman. As you'll know, four years ago the Turks made serious incursions in the west. After slaughtering the border guards, they defeated the local army. When the bad news reached our Duke, he offered the Emperor the services of his cavalry. The offer was accepted and Lord Lyu was put at the head of all the forces of the Emperor in the west. He led his horsemen across the country, joined with two detachments infantry, engaged the Turks, beat them soundly, and returned with many spoils. Among these was an exceptionally beautiful princess. Her name was Burcu. On his return, the Duke made him First Minister of Cavalry and Provisions. The post had fallen open while he was gone. His predecessor had fallen off a horse and broken his neck."
"Were you at all disappointed?"
"Disappointed? Not in the least. To tell the truth, I was relieved. I had feared the Duke might appoint me and I had no wish for higher rank. As the saying goes, the wind bowls over the pines but leaves the shrubs untroubled. Lord Lyu made Burcu his second wife. The couple were happy and the ornaments of the Court, our Duke's favorites. But Lord Lyu's good fortune and proven merits made a dangerous man jealous, the Lord Han Yun-peng, First Minister of Rivers and Roads, a cousin of the Duke's. The exotic beauty of Burcu had much the same effect on his wife, Cuifen. Together, these two devised a wicked plan to eliminate the couple. I learned of it only after the catastrophe. It's likely that others know as well, but it would be lethal to say so—or even to display mourning."
Here Rong paused to call for his servant and order more wine. Only after she left, did he resume.
"Lady Cuifen launched a rumor. Claiming she had it from one who would know, she whispered it to the Lady Dangmei who would be certain to run to her friends with the story, the Ladies Lanten and Huiqing. They both resented Burcu as much as Cuifen, and would rush tell their other friends. In this way, the story spread among the court ladies, all of whom passed it on to their husbands. No one thought to trace the story back to its source and it wouldn't have been easy even if they had bothered."
"What was the rumor?"
"A horrible one! That Lord Lyu and Burcu were plotting to murder the Duke and take his place, one out of unbridled ambition, the other to revenge her people's defeat. The devilish plot succeeded. The couple were arrested, a secret trial held that very night. How could the good Lord Lyu defend himself? What could he do but deny the charge? Both he and Burcu were beheaded the next morning."
"A terrible story!" said Hsi-wei.
"I could do nothing," sighed Rong. "I didn't even know until it was all over. And I was never questioned."
They were quiet for a minute or two, finishing the wine in their cups.
"You have a new chief?"
Rong scoffed. "Oh yes. A nephew of Lady Cuifen. First Minister Guo is a diffident and incompetent man with no military or administrative experience but also no ambition. He's indifferent to our work; his chief interest is his jade collection. The man's actually afraid of horses. He has two wives and one concubine, and no one would call any of them an exotic beauty. First Minister Guo is nobody's rival."
"So then, all the responsibility for the Ministry has fallen on you?"
Rong didn't reply.
Hsi-wei spent the night at Rong's villa, where he was made more than comfortable. The following morning, his host took him to see the palace's celebrated gardens.
And this is how Hsi-wei came to write this poem, the one known as "In the Gardens of Shun":
I passed through Shun last year in the
month of blossoms when new leaves made
the katsura branches look like mist.
The Duke's Second Minister entertained me.
We talked through the night and the next day
he showed me the palace's renowned gardens.
The learned Minister, my host, spoke of
the Orchid Pavilion Gathering and asked if
I had ever seen the calligraphy of Wang Xizhi.
Behind the peonies stood a small pagoda,
an elegant thing, feminine and blue.
There the noblewomen of Shun stood together
swaying silkenly, like willows, shy as foals.
I found it hard not to look at them.
With a bitter smile, the Minister remarked
that, as Shun's ladies spoke only in demure
whispers, one would have to draw quite
near to hear their slanderous gossip.
Robert Wexelblatt is a professor of humanities at Boston University's College of General Studies. He has published seven fiction collections; two books of essays; two short novels; two books of poems; stories, essays, and poems in a variety of journals, and a novel awarded the Indie Book Awards first prize for fiction.