Note: In 593 C.E., Emperor Wen of Sui ordered the printing of Buddhist scriptures. His aim was to spread these beliefs across the Empire he had united after three centuries of division and civil war. His decree is the first mention of printing in Chinese history.
In the spring of the twelfth year of Emperor Wen’s reign, the peasant/poet Chen Hsi-wei made his way north to Yuzhou. For a few days, he stayed in the town of Huaiyang. As usual, the first thing he did was look for a cheap place to sleep. He found one at the back of an inn called the Two Medlars, a storeroom he would share with two crates of dried fish, three sacks of rice, and twenty jars of raw yellow wine. Once he had struck a bargain with the innkeeper, Hsi-wei headed for the town square. With the weather warming, he expected plenty of orders for his straw sandals. He looked for an open space among the crowd of vendors selling vegetables, fruit, and meat. There was a little opening between an old woman offering dumplings and a butcher standing behind a long table. Hsi-wei propped his sign against the wall and sat down beside it. From behind her brazier, the dumpling seller nodded welcomingly; however, even though Hsi-wei was not a competitor, the butcher scowled. He grumbled, hefted his cleaver, and might have said something unpleasant if a customer had not approached and turned his sincere scowl into an insincere smile.
Hsi-wei watched the butcher cut a hunk of pork, put it on one scale then lay a lead weight in the other. “There,” he said, “One jin exactly!” The butcher quickly wrapped the meat in a square of burlap. After the customer handed over her coins and departed, the butcher smiled slyly to himself. A second customer was greeted with a false smile and the procedure repeated, the cutting, weighing, and the sly look once the coins were pocketed. Hsi-wei was suspicious but was soon taking orders of his own.
About an hour later, a fat fellow in a leather jerkin came up to the butcher laughing. “Ho, Hulin! It’s hot and you’re in the sun. Let’s go get a drink.”
“A drink? Why not?”
The butcher Hulin turned to the dumpling-seller. “Keep an eye on my things, Granny.”
The old woman nodded.
The butcher threw a burlap over his table and left with his friend.
Hsi-wei had come across butchers in many market places and knew their tricks. He got to his feet and told the old woman that he just wanted to look at something, not to take anything.
Hsi-wei picked up the butcher’s scales. It was as he expected. A thin piece of lead had been fixed to the bottom of the scale that held the meat. Customers who paid for one jin would get only two-thirds.
The butcher returned, his gait rolling. He belched, yanked the cloth off the table, and resumed his place. Hsi-wei contemplated whether he ought to challenge the man or not. After all, the man was hostile, dishonest, probably tipsy, and armed.
Just then five boys—four full-sized ten-year-olds and one younger and smaller—ran exuberantly into the square, full of chilies and energy. They came to a stop not far from Hsi-wei, the dumpling-seller, and the butcher. His neighbors were busy with customers but Hsi-wei was free to watch the boys.
“I know! Let’s play Toad in the Circle,” cried the biggest of the boys.
The smallest boy said he didn’t know how the game was played.
“Oh, it’s easy” said the big one. “One of us is blindfolded and everybody else makes a circle around him and he has to squat down and jump around like a toad until he touches somebody else and then that one becomes the toad. I know! Since you’re new to the game, we’ll start with you and then you’ll get the hang of it.”
Hsi-wei noticed the other boys exchanging furtive smiles.
Eager to fit in, the little boy agreed and a nasty-looking rag was produced and tied over his face.
“It’s too tight,” he complained.
“It has to be or you’ll see,” said the big boy.
The boy squatted and began to bounce about with his arms extended, feeling for legs. But there were no legs because the other boys, suppressing giggles, had cleared out.
The little boy kept hopping, looking more ridiculous than pitiable. Then he lost his balance and careened into the butcher’s table, which collapsed, the heavy top just missing his head.
Hulin had two customers and both walked away sharing a laugh. Enraged, the butcher grabbed the horrified boy’s shoulder, swore at him, and made a fist.
Hsi-wei leapt to his feet and took hold of the man’s thick arm.
“This boy has done you a real damage,” he said calmly, and nodded in the direction of two men lounging by the well on the far side of the square. “I’ll summon the magistrate’s men.”
The furious butcher said, “Go ahead. But first, I’m going to teach this boy a lesson and then have him arrested.”
Hsi-wei leaned close to the butcher. “Very well,” he whispered. “But then I’ll ask the officers to take a close look at your scales.”
The butcher swore at Hsi-wei and called him a damned vagrant; but he let go of the boy. Hsi-wei helped Hulin set up his table then packed up his things and took the shocked boy, who hadn’t moved except to tear off his blindfold, by the hand.
“What’s your name?”
“Guoliang,” muttered the boy in a tiny voice.
“Where do you live?”
Guoliang conducted Hsi-wei to a neat but modest villa. It had a workshop in the back instead of a garden.
Hsi-wei knocked at the door. When Mrs. Teng opened it, the boy threw himself into his mother’s arms and, without pausing to take a breath, blurted out the whole story of his mischance in the marketplace, the rules of Toad in the Circle, how the big boys tricked him and he knocked over the butcher’s table and how the man was going to beat him when he was saved by the sandal-maker, who was so brave, a hero. Then he buried his face in his mother’s chest and broke into tears.
Mr. Teng, hearing his son crying, dashed around the side of the villa and took in the scene, looking from Hsi-wei to his wife. Mrs. Teng gave him a short version of what had happened and the man bowed low to Hsi-wei and thanked him.
“Please, Daddy,” begged Guoliang, “please can he stay for dinner?”
“You must,” said Mrs. Teng and her husband agreed. The boy stopped crying and turned his teary eyes worshipfully on Hsi-wei.
“Come inside,” said Mr. Teng, “and lay down that pack. Li-jing, how long before we eat?”
Mr. Teng asked Hsi-wei’s name and, when he heard it, asked if he was really a sandal-maker as his son said. Hsi-wei said he was.
“And do you, by any chance, also make poems?”
Hsi-wei was surprised by the question and admitted that he did.
“And might one of those poems be about Lake Weishan?”
Hsi-wei confessed that he had written some verses about Lake Weishan.
Mr. Teng clapped his hands and called to his wife.
“Li-jing, we have no ordinary guest! Here is the author of that poem Mingmei loves so much”
Mr. Teng explained. “Our daughter was recently married. She lives in Liang now. She knows how to write,” he said proudly. “She copied out your poem for my wife and me.”
“I’m honored,” said Hsi-wei.
“The honor is ours” said Mrs. Teng. “Imagine! What will Mingmei say?”
“I miss my Mingmei,” murmured the little boy then spoke up more brightly, “Mommy, can I cut up the vegetables?”
Mr. Teng took Hsi-wei by the arm. “Come with me while they get our dinner together,” he said. “I think you might be interested in my new work.”
The two men went around back to the workshop, a shed with stacks of wood bocks, paper scrolls, inkpots, rollers, and a stout table with at least twenty carving tools neatly laid out on it. The floor was thick with shavings. A long scroll had been nailed to the rough boards above Teng’s workbench.
“I’ve just secured a contract and there’s a lot to do.”
And that was when Hsi-wei first learned of the Emperor’s decree and how a technique he thought good only for decorating textiles was to be used to carry it out.
Mr. Teng showed him how the work was done, the painstaking carving, the spreading of the ink, the pressing. He took a scroll from a shelf. “It’s the only project I’ve completed, just a small one. I wanted to test things out.” He nodded to the scroll fixed to the wall. “As you can see, the next job is much bigger.”
Hsi-wei examined the little scroll and recognized a passage from the Tripitaka: “Purity or impurity depends on oneself. No one can purify another.”
“I can press out as many copies of that as I like,” Teng said. “The contract requires fifty copies and there are ten of the big scrolls. So much to do, Master Hsi-wei. What do you think? As a poet, I mean.”
Hsi-wei knew that he was seeing something important, something with far-reaching implications, something that would change the world.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “It can bring so much good.”
Teng looked questioningly at Hsi-wei. “But?”
“Well, isn’t it possible that there might be some bad as well?”
“What if a lie is printed a thousand times and spread across the whole Empire?”
Teng was almost offended. He shook his head. “A lie? But we only print Buddhist texts and charms, as the Emperor commanded. No lies.”
“No. Not yet. But I have to say how much I admire your work. Your characters are so clear and regular. I think more people will learn to read, like your daughter.”
“And that is good!”
“Yes, it is. Very good.”
“And yet? You still have something to say against it?”
“No, not against it, not at all. But I worry.”
“I don’t want to suggest anything but good will come from your work. Still, I wonder. Will memories shrink? Will people record everything and remember nothing?”
Mr. Teng scoffed. “I see you like to worry, Master Hsi-wei. Perhaps you’re right and someday we’ll print more than Buddhist charms. Well, in that case, think of those future people who will be able to read the Emperor’s edicts—think of peasants who will be able to read the Shijing Masters!”
The dinner was wholesome and tasty. The Tengs were full of questions for Hsi-wei, about how he had come to be a poet, who taught him to make straw sandals, what he had seen in his travels. The little boy sat beside Hsi-wei and, afterward, insisted on showing the poet his toys.
“Will you be here for some time?” asked Mr. Teng.
“I took many orders today. I’ll be here the whole week fulfilling them.”
“Good. Will you do us the honor of coming back to see us before you leave?”
Hsi-wei promised that he would.
It was Hsi-wei’s habit to leave a poem thanking those who showed him hospitality but, on this occasion, it was the other way around. When he stopped to see the Tengs before going back on the road, Hsi-wei gave Guoliang a pair of sandals and Mr. Teng presented a poem to him, a handsomely printed copy of “Yellow Moon at Lake Weishan”.
Yet Hsi-wei’s visit did result in new verses, ones he wrote later, after reflecting on the innovation of printed texts. He didn’t give the poem a title, but people did. They called it “Wood-Block Wisdom”.
The Emperor is wise. He knows that to
unify his lands words work better than war.
What once was used to press peonies on
court ladies’ gowns will now strew the Vinaya
and Abhidharma from Sanxi to Sichuan.
Innkeepers will hang the Four Noble Truths
in their vestibules. What you are is what you
have been, a girl will recite; her sister will
giggle and retort, What you will be is
what you do now. Then their mother raises
a finger and admonishes both,
Wear your selves like loose-fitting garments.
Peasants will learn to read, buy scrolls as
readily as dumplings. There will be histories,
books of remedies, tales of ghosts,
stories of revenge and wonder with new
heroes, fresh villains. The sound precepts of
Kon Qiu, the subtle sayings of Lao-tse,
the eccentric advice of Zhuang Zhou
shall be in a million hands. If people care
to print them, poems will be cheap as straw.
Mothers will read to open-mouthed toddlers
and children to their purblind grandparents.
But what of calligraphy? Will those
scratchings for which Master Shen Kuo beat
me be forgiven because they are obsolete?
All characters will stand at attention
uniform as the pikemen of General Gao.
But will people no longer admire the
elegant brushstrokes of the great Wang Xizhi?
Will people record all but remember nothing?
What if a falsehood should be pressed a thousand
times, spread through Shun and Lignan? Mightn’t
it be like the butcher’s leaded scale,
a deceitful mismeasure believed by all?
Might that far-off bad outstrip this nearby good?
Could it be that when the Son of Heaven
proclaimed his decree some counselor—
I picture the oldest and most cautious—
felt some compunction and mumbled in
his beard, recollecting the old legend
that, in a playful hour, the Buddha
loosed a few words from his golden mouth
and that ever since Heaven and Earth
have been choked with entangling briars?
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.