Note: In the year that Yang Jian declared himself Emperor Wen of Sui, the Turks and Tuyuhan breached the Empire’s northern border and overran the local garrison. Once the invaders were driven out, the Emperor had the neglected fortifications quickly repaired. Over the next six years, he extended the Wall, conscripting thousands of laborers to complete the massive project. Wendi’s aim was to defend the Empire. Two decades later, his second son, successor, and likely assassin, the profligate and unscrupulous Yang Guan, ordered costly expansions of the Wall merely to flaunt his power. He raised taxes to unbearable levels and sacrificed countless peasants to his own glory. The price of the Wall, along with the thousands of lives lost digging the Grand Canal, Yangdi’s personal extravagance, and the military disasters in Goguryeo, led to the uprisings that provoked the Emperor’s ministers to assassinate him and end the Sui Dynasty.
As a boy, the peasant Chen Hsi-wei served the Emperor as a courier on a perilous mission. Rejecting the customary rewards, he asked instead to be educated. Under the strict Shen Kuo, he copied out the ancient masters and began writing verses of his own. As a young man, he left the capital and went on the road. After giving up a life of wandering throughout the Empire, leaving behind him poems and straw sandals, Chen Hsi-wei was offered a small cottage by the Governor of Jiangling where he spent his final years. What follows is an extract from the memoirs of Fang Xuan-ling, a minister of the new T’ang dynasty and an admirer of Hsi-wei’s work. When he learned of the poet’s retirement, Fang paid him a visit that lasted almost two weeks. Each day, he inquired about many of the peasant/poet’s verses and recorded what Hsi-wei told him.
• • •
As usual, Fang Xuan-ling arrived on horseback from Jiangling late in the morning. The weather was fair; April sun glinted off the puddles in the nearby field. Fang and Hsi-wei settled down in the small cobbled area the poet was pleased to call his courtyard. Fang was a guest in the villa of the Governor and always brought a lunch from his host’s kitchen. That day, there were two courses: a cucumber soup with mushrooms and spring onions plus rice with stewed beef.
As soon as they finished he meal, Fang took out his brush, inkstone, scroll and began the day’s interview.
“Master, I’m curious about the poem people call ‘Walls Have Two Sides.’ You remember it?”
Hsi-wei gave a little groan. “It’s an old poem but yes, I remember it.”
Fang tilted his head to the side quizzically. “And with some compunction, it seems?”
“It’s true. I’ve never been happy with that poem; or rather, I’m of two minds about it.”
“So,” said Fang, “the poem is also two-sided?”
Hsi-wei nodded to acknowledge the witticism. “The poet even more than its verses, My Lord.”
“I noticed the ambivalence in the poem. That’s why I wanted to ask about it. You seem to criticize the Wall but also to acknowledge its necessity.”
“Many bad things appear necessary. The reverse is no less true, but some things really are both.”
“Can you recall why you wrote it as you did?”
“I was still young and keenly aware of how much I was like the poor peasants who had to carry out the work. My heart was with them, even if my Daxing-educated mind appreciated why Wendi pushed them so hard.”
Fang nodded. “In the poem you say little about anything that happened during your journey. It’s all empty villages and fallow fields, desolation and solitude.”
“That was for effect, I’m afraid. It wasn’t all like that. Not every village was abandoned. I did meet people. I remember finding many customers for my sandals in Hengshan and, no doubt, some in the little hamlets along the way. When the weather was bad, I bedded down in stables and barns, even in taverns. But I also did something of which I’m both proud and ashamed.”
Fang was intrigued. “More ambivalence! Would you tell me the story?”
Hsi-wei hesitated then said he would on condition that Fang made no notes. The Minister agreed and laid aside his brush. But that night he wrote down the story from memory.
“West of Hengshan, not far from where the work was going on, I happened on three frightened peasants, all about my own age. They were wretched; their clothes were ragged and they begged me for food. I carried little. As I recall, I gave them all I had in my bag. I usually carried a couple of rice balls, fruit, perhaps a cucumber or pickled radish. Whatever I had, I gave. I could see it cost them something not to snatch what they could and cram it into their mouths, but they divided everything up before wolfing it down.
“I guessed at their predicament.
“‘You’re on the run, aren’t you?’ I said. ‘From the work?’”
“They exchanged terrified glances, then attempted to look menacing. But I could see they were perplexed. I’d just given them all my food. How could they threaten me?
“I asked if they were being pursued.
“One nodded. Another asked if I’d seen any soldiers. The third, the youngest, began to cry.
“‘They took the lot of us—all the young men in the village. We’re the only ones still alive. If we’re caught we’ll be tortured. They do it as a lesson to others.’
“I wanted to help these young men. I began to think of a plan, one as desperate as they were. I asked if their pursuers would recognize them. One said he didn’t know, but another said he didn’t think so.
“‘We’re all the same to them. So many oxen.’
“I said I hoped so.
“I always kept two small scrolls in my pack. I laid one out on the ground and used my knife to cut four squares from it then took out my brush and inkstone. The peasants’ mouths fell open. I wrote out four copies of a document declaring that the bearer was on official business and not to be detained. I made use not only of what Master Shen taught me but his name as well. I signed each paper Shen Kuo, Magistrate of Meishan and affixed my chop at the bottom, being careful to smudge the ink so that it might be taken for an official stamp.”
“I asked the men the name of the city nearest their village.”
“Why four copies instead of three.”
“Out of prudence, my Lord. One was for me.”
“Ah, I see. And what happened?”
“I told the peasants that we should continue on and not to worry about the soldiers. They were shocked.
“‘Are you mad?’ they said. ‘You know they’ll take you too.’
“I explained my plan and why I thought it might work. I cautioned them that it was essential not to appear afraid of the soldiers when—or if—they caught up with us.”
“And did they catch up? The soldiers?”
Hsi-wei nodded. “Only an hour or so later. Three men with lances and a captain with a sword, all mounted.”
Fang was as fascinated as a child listening to a fairy story. “And what happened then?”
“The peasants behaved just as I’d told them to. They tried to look at ease. The captain told his men to put ropes around our necks. I did the talking. ‘Your Honor,’ I said, ‘you’ve clearly mistaken us for someone else. We’ve been summoned on urgent business by the Magistrate of Meishan.”
“‘Meishan! Some story,’ growled the captain. I was relieved that he didn’t recognize the men.
“I took my document out my bag. The others took theirs from their shirts. ‘Here,’ I said with all the confidence I could muster, ‘you can examine our passes for yourself.’
“We all held out our squares. The captain took mine and examined it suspiciously. My legs were trembling but I smiled and held my breath. If he could read, he might be deceived. If he couldn’t read and we all kept our nerve, he might be impressed and unwilling to take the risk of ignoring an official order.
“He stared at the paper but I observed that his eyes didn’t move which meant he wasn’t reading it. He handed it back to me.
“‘Well, there are four of you,’ he said sternly. ‘We’re looking for three men. Have you seen them?’
“One of the peasants surprised me by speaking up. He did so cunningly, too. ‘Yes, Your Honor. About two hours ago. Heading south.’
“The captain, still unsure, frowned and, motioning his men to follow, set off to the south at a gallop.
“So,” said Fang assuming the harsh tone of a displeased Minister, “you deceived an officer of the Emperor.”
Hsi-wei bowed his head.
Fang laughed. “It was risky indeed. I wonder that the officer fell for what sounds like a crude forgery.”
“With respect, it’s not difficult to explain, My Lord.”
“It never occurred to him that a peasant could read and write, especially when he couldn’t do either himself.”
Fang laughed. “Well, as this was decades ago and the Sui Dynasty is no more, I suppose I can pardon you.”
“Thank you, My Lord. Though I’m glad of what I did and proud that it succeeded, I still feel remorse.”
“More ambivalence!” said Fang and got to his feet. “It’s grown late, more than time for me to return to Jiangling. But, with your permission, Master, I’ll be back tomorrow.”
Hsi-wei also rose and bowed deeply. “It will give me great pleasure,” he said.
“I hope so,” said the Minister, well pleased. “Tomorrow, I’ll bring both pork and fish.”
• • •
Here are the verses about which Minister Fang was so curious. As with most of his poems, the title of this one was not chosen by Hsi-wei but by the people.
Walls Have Two Sides
Last summer I walked the length of the Wall
from the Huang Ho west beyond Hengshan.
It looked like an uninteresting city, cut up
then sewn into a narrow never-ending scroll
unfurled over the length of the north,
a moral in stone dividing good from bad.
On one side, thickness and height frustrate
hard horsemen hungry for pillage; on the other,
it rises high as the taxes and lethal as the toil.
The Wall oppresses those who build it but
is meant to protect their children’s children.
I understand why the Emperor is devoted to
the Wall; nevertheless, I wonder if it has
cost more lives than it will save. Who can say?
There’s a story that, in his later years, the
Duke of Xu fell in love with the peerless
beauty Ehuang and made her his third wife.
When told that a young man had
managed to send a secret message to Ehuang,
the jealous Duke built a little palace for her,
erected high palings around it, and set guards.
No matter how often the Duke reminded
Ehuang what he was keeping out, she cried
that she was being kept in. In the end, the
poor girl grew depressed, sickened, died.
In his grief, the Duke buried her where she perished,
made her palace her tomb, the tomb a temple.
My journey was not agreeable, all heat and dust,
dead stone always to my right. I trekked through
many deserted villages, beside abandoned fields.
By the time I reached Jingian, I’d seen enough.
Robert Wexelblatt is a professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published eight collections of short stories; 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.