The Sui Dynasty sandal-maker and poet Chen Hsi-wei lived his last years in a two-room cottage outside the city of Chiangling. The modest property was granted him by the governor of the city who declared that the property was a reward for his poems. Hsi-wei was overwhelmed by this gift and also surprised. Governor Bao Rui-hang, a former timber baron, was not known to take the least interest in literature.
Once the vagabond Chen Hsi-wei had a fixed residence, people were able to pay visits. One of these was the widow of Governor Bao, who had been struck down by a stroke. She came shortly after the end of the official period of mourning.
Lady Bao was a tall woman with a narrow face and lively, intelligent eyes. Her natural expression was severe, her customary tone one of command. She arrived at Hsi-wei’s cottage late one morning in a carriage pulled by two chestnut horses. She was escorted by two stout male servants. One drove the carriage; the other had his own mount and was armed. The widow was dressed in a gown of plain white linen, not aristocratic silk. Her hair was arranged in three elaborate braids held in place by silver combs. It was a style Hsi-wei had only seen once, decades earlier in the far south of Yangzhou. He had heard that Lady Bao was a daughter of one of the leading families of that region and that her marriage was a political alliance. He wondered if those exotic braids were a way of declaring the new independence that came with her new status, a statement that she was no longer obliged to conform to the tastes of the capital, just as she was free to leave the city on her own to visit retired peasant-poets.
The armed escort dismounted and held out his arm as Lady Bao climbed out of the carriage.
Hsi-wei greeted her with a low bow. His visitor glanced around disapprovingly. He had no idea who she was, but her first words made her identity clear.
“My husband was a mean man, but I didn’t suspect it extended to this. On your feet, Master Chen. I should be bowing to you. You’ve given me much pleasure with your verses and now I see that this is all I’ve given to you.” She ran her gaze again over the unpainted boards, the sagging roof, the tiny unpaved patio with its puddles, Hsi-wei’s exiguous woodpile. “Well, why shouldn’t you know that I was the one who nagged my husband until he agreed to give you a home? He promised me it was a proper villa, with five rooms, a kitchen, and a garden. I should have known better than to trust him. I ought to have made sure of it.”
“My Lady, I didn’t know I had you to thank for my first and last home. I assure you it suits me very well. I’ve no need of more rooms or a garden full of flowers. Please accept my belated gratitude for your kindness and my condolences for your loss.”
Lady Bao scoffed. “As you say, you didn’t know I had anything to do with it. If I’d had more to do with it, you’d have those five rooms and a decent garden. Now, Master Chen, I propose we dispense with empty courtesies. That’s something I’ve been enjoying doing of late. I’ve brought food and yellow wine, which I’m told you like. I’m not here for your thanks but to talk with you about your poems.”
She turned to her servants.
“Hongxu, bring the hamper. Rui, fetch the bronze casket.”
Hongxu set a willow hamper down on the low wall of the patio. “Open it,” ordered his mistress. It was crammed with good things—fish, beef and pork dishes with sauces, vegetables, and rice along with a stone wine jar.
The other servant held the casket until Lady Bao indicated he should lay it on the small table Hsi-wei kept in what he was amused to call his courtyard.
Lady Bao told the servants to take the food inside, put wood on the hearth, and heat it up.
The day being fine, they ate and talked outside. Hsi-wei took to the woman who was intelligent and forthright even to the point of bluntness but not at all condescending. After sending the servants to prepare the feast, she opened the bronze casket and took out a small scroll set atop dozens of others. It was a list with annotations. She handed it to Hsi-wei.
“This is a list of those of your poems I like least.” Her notes referred to passages of which she couldn’t approve and gave her reasons why. But the list was short and Hsi-wei quickly finished reading it. When he was done, she began to speak about the poems she liked, even reciting from memory her favorites verses.
“I would like to know how you came to write your poems, beginning with the one known as ‘My Scalp.’”
Hsi-wei willingly obliged and enjoyed reliving his travels, describing the places in which he’d written this poem or that and what had prompted them. He also took pleasure in Lady Bao’s perceptive comments. While her criticisms had hurt, he felt that they were all justified—in fact, more than her numerous compliments. Here was a sympathetic reader and a learned one as well. She knew the classics which he had emulated or to which he had alluded. “You use old forms and you make new ones,” she said.
She explained why she rated Hsi-wei’s most famous poem, “Yellow Moon at Lake Weishan,” as inferior to “The Sadness of the Emperor”.
“I even prefer ‘In Praise of Magistrate Jun Ti-an,’ though that might only be because you tell how those monks chastised the unruly schoolboys of Chiangling. I’ve had to deal with a few of that type myself,” she said acerbically. Hsi-wei was glad not to have been one of those boys.
“Now, my collection is incomplete,” she went on, “a deficiency I expect you to remedy. I’m curious about the poems I don’t yet know. For instance, it’s obvious that you’re fond of children, so I wonder if you ever wrote a fairy tale in verse or a fable.”
Hsi-wei often forgot his poems; in fact, he liked them best when he picked one up and read it as if it had been composed by somebody else. Had he really written such things? But then he might recollect not when, but where and why he had done the writing. Lady Bao’s question brought back a memory.
“Yes, long ago I did write a fable, though not for children and not for the usual reason—not as a thing on its own.”
“You mean the fable was a means to an end? It seems to me that quite a lot of your poems are exactly that—just like your ‘Famous Letter to Yang Jian’.”
“But that was a public plea, a protest, a call for justice and action against a murdering bandit. I never dreamed it would reach its august addressee. Yet what you say is true. I did often make a poem in the hope it would accomplish something in the world. But the fable was different. It was written just for one occasion. The others, even the ones meant to do something, were also intended to stand on their own even if they failed to change things in the world.”
“Which means you wanted them to stand outside the world?”
Hsi-wei sighed. “In my opinion, My Lady, the world of poetry exists without a place and inside its own time.”
“I’d never thought of it that way; perhaps you’re right. . . . But, it’s getting late. First business, then your fable.” Lady Bao opened the bronze casket and took out a sheet of yellow paper which she handed to Hsi-wei. “This is a list of all the poems I have in this casket—that is, all the poems of yours I have. When I come back next week you will lend me all the ones I don’t have. I’ll see the scrolls are returned to you once I’ve had copies made. Now, pour me another cup of wine and tell me how you came to write Master Chen’s one and only fable.”
Hsi-wei obeyed, remembering what he could and reconstructing the rest.
After spending the last week of winter with a friend in Yuzhou, I decided to make my way to a mountainous area in the westernmost part of Liangzhou. I had heard the region praised for its good air, the beauty of its mountains and old forests. I thought it would make a good destination for a springtime trek. The district was also said to be a prosperous one with vast estates. The local landlords were said to possess almost as much land as the dukes did in the days of weak emperors.
The journey took me nearly two months and, by the time I arrived, spring had turned to early summer. One night, I stayed at an inn at the crest of a mountain road. As the place was nearly empty I was able to negotiate a low price for a small room. At this inn, I met a young man named Chan Zihan, a boy really; he was still in his teens. Zihan had black hair as thick as my own, keen eyes, and a temperament that was both fiery and sympathetic. He invited me to share a jug with him. It was obvious the boy was troubled, lonely, and eager to talk.
“Are you on your way to Wuyan?” he asked.
I said I didn’t know, that I was just following the road, and asked if he were from Wuyan.
“From it? Very much so. I’m in exile from Wuyan”
“My father sent me away. I’m going to ask Ho Chang-li for refuge. He’s the landlord on the other side of these mountains. I’ll do any work he will set me to. When I was little, Ho Chang-li came to visit my father a couple of times. He and I got on well. I’ll miss Wuyan, though. I have many friends there among the peasants. And there’s my mother too.”
“I don’t wish to intrude on family matters, and I hope there’s no offense in asking, but why did your father send you away?”
Zihan was quiet for a moment then the words came.
“Father owns of the whole district to the west of here. It’s large. It includes four villages. When he was a young man, he did good service in fighting off an incursion by the Turks. The land was his reward. It was a lot of land, but in those days it wasn’t prosperous. Too rocky and hilly to farm easily. Wuyan is where he chose to build our—his villa. It’s the largest of the villages and, in recent years, it’s become rich. It’s because of the pigs. This sudden wealth changed my father and led to him to do things I didn’t like and then to sending me away. Have you ever tasted Wuyan pork?”
I admitted I hadn’t, that I hadn’t even heard of it.
Then, feeling the wine, the young man stretched out his legs and told me the whole tale of Wuyan as he understood it.
“About six years ago, Li Xiang, a good and honest man as well as a clever one, had the idea of feeding his eight pigs acorns instead of swill and slops. As you must have seen, the forests here are thick with oaks, sawtooth and Daimyo, so there’s no shortage of acorns. Xiang’s pigs thrived and their meat was to ordinary pork as Mount Wutai is to an anthill. The peasants increased their herds, built large pens next to the forest, and began breeding pigs and feeding them on acorns. It was also Xiang who thought of providing pork to all the local inns, including this one, so travelers would learn of it. Before long, buyers from all over the province were showing up in Wuyan. They bid up prices. The peasants grew rich and none failed to pay their rents to my father right on time. That might have been enough for him.”
“But something went wrong?”
Zihan struck the table with his fist, overturning our wine cups.
“What went wrong was Father’s greed and his pride. He couldn’t bear seeing the peasants becoming wealthy—‘my peasants,’ as he always calls them. He fumed that they had too much and he had too little. So, he doubled their rents. There was grumbling and a few of the peasants came humbly to object. My father’s response was to hire five tough veterans.”
“There was violence?”
“The threat was sufficient. Everybody paid up and the grumbling quieted down. But even that wasn’t enough for Father. Now that he had extra money, he bought himself a second wife. Liling grew up in Qingyuan, the daughter of a scholar—a scholar with debts. She’s accomplished. She can write, sing, play the liuqin, and recite old poems. She’s likes city things, expensive ones. My father’s infatuation and his need to buy her things made him still greedier. A weeks ago, he decreed that he was ending rents and that instead every pig and piglet on his land would now be his personal property. The peasants could keep their homes and cultivate their own plots only if they continued raising and selling pigs—that is, working for him. Last week, Xiang Li led a small group of men to our house to put his case. My father refused to reconsider his decision or even discuss it. Your arrogance is inexcusable. I can throw you oafs off my land and replace every one of you in two weeks! That’s what he said to the good Xiang Li. That night, the poor man was dragged out of his cottage and beaten so severely that he died the next day. Xiang had a wife, Chu Hua, a little boy and a little girl, Wei and Ai. That’s when I had it out with my father. And now you know why I’ve been banished.”
“If what you say is so, even leaving aside the beating of Xiang, what your father’s done isn’t only unjust but, under Emperor Wen’s land reform, illegal. Has an appeal been made to the magistrate?”
Zihan scoffed. “As the saying goes, Heaven is high and the emperor is far away. Here, the landlords are in charge. Here, the magistrates are timid. They serve out their three-year terms and never interfere.”
Shortly after that, we went to our beds.
I passed through the gate of Wuyan early the following afternoon. Because the pens were at the foot of the mountains, on the edge of the forest, the village was free of the stink of pigs. Wuyan looked more like a prosperous town than a village. Every building was freshly painted, and the central street was paved with stone blocks. I only felt the tension when I reached the marketplace. Children were chasing each other around while their elders engaged in arguments. Tempers and voices were high. Over and over, I heard the name of Chan Yuxian, Zihan’s father, invoked with bitterness. His second wife also came in for some harsh talk. “Things weren’t so bad until that city girl showed up,” I heard one woman say. Instead of setting up my sign and soliciting orders for straw sandals, I approached her group and asked the way to the villa of Landlord Chan.
A wiry man with a scraggly beard replied. “Don’t go there, stranger. They’ll only yell and drive you off—or worse.”
“Is that so? Well, nevertheless I’ll go,” I said. “Please show me the way.”
The fellow rolled his eyes and shrugged. “Suit yourself,” he said and pointed the way.
Two big men in leather tunics stood on either side of the red door of Chan’s spacious villa. They leaned on long qiangs, and jians, short swords, hung from their belts.
“Go away,” shouted one, looking at me with contempt.
“If that’s the wish of your employer, of course,” I said. “But I think he might not be pleased if he finds you’ve sent me away.”
“Oh, and why’s that?”
“Because his friend and neighbor, Landlord Ho, sent me to see him but especially his new wife.”
The two looked at one another. “Stay put,” one ordered then went inside. He returned with a slim, overly dressed young woman. She wore long earrings made of gold; they were shaped like little bells. Liling.
I bowed to the new wife.
Her voice was high and thin but firm, even commanding, like that of a spoiled child. “What brings you here and who sent you?”
“Your neighbor Ho Chang-li suggested I visit. He said you’re fond of poems and poets.”
She took in my dusty clothing, the worn leather bag over my shoulder.
“And you are a scholar?” she asked suspiciously. “A poet?”
“I have studied and yes, I have written some poor verses.”
She examined me doubtfully. “What’s your name?”
“No! The author of ‘Yellow Moon at Lake Weishan’?”
I nodded. “I’m flattered you know it.”
“But it’s one of my favorite poems!” She paused, looked up at the sky, and prettily recited, Weishan lies cool and still as a forgotten bowl of tea. I’d heard that was written by a peasant who travels all over making straw sandals, but I didn’t believe it.”
I opened my bag, took out my sample sandals and a small scroll with my most recent poem on it. She took the scroll, read it and smiled.
As I’d hoped, I was invited to dinner. I spent the rest of the afternoon in the marketplace learning more about Wuyan and its landlord. The peasants were not only angry about the death of Xiang and the expropriation of their pigs but also the sending away of young Zihan, whom they liked and regarded as one of their own.
Chan Yuxian presided at the table. He was a fat man whose sour expression sweetened whenever he looked at his young wife, which he did from minute to minute. The first wife, Lan, a heavyset woman of about forty, sat like a statue of the Buddha, if not as serenely then as quietly. She was a model of self-restraint, giving no sign of resenting either the presence of Liling or the absence of Zihan.
The table talk was almost entirely a dialogue between me and an excited Liling. The young woman recalled that one of my poems was read to her when she was little.
“It was the one people call ‘Mai-ling’s Good Idea’. Could you recite some of it for me?”
I said I couldn’t recall it well and so she rattled off some verses.
Her husband beamed as if she’d just levitated or cooked a perfect duck.
After her recitation, Liling said, “I was fond of poems and stories from the first.”
I asked if she had also liked the fables written for the instruction of children.
She shook her head. “No. I didn’t care for most of them just because of their morals. Always respect your elders. Don’t give up what you’ve got to get something you don’t. Fire makes a good friend but he’s a terrible enemy. Ugh. But I did like the ones that were clever and didn’t try to teach me anything, like the one about the tiger and the fox.”
Chan Yuxian, looking at her fondly, said he didn’t know the story. I also pretended never to have heard the fable so that Liling could have the pleasure of telling it.
“A ferocious tiger corners a vixen. He’s about to eat her up. Thinking fast, she warns the tiger not to try anything because she’s the most feared animal in the whole forest and can prove it, too. The tiger laughs. ‘Oh, and how can you do that?’ ‘Just follow me,’ says the vixen and prances off into the woods with the tiger right behind. As she approaches, all the mice and squirrels, all the rabbits and monkeys—run away in terror.”
She laughed and turned to her husband. “It’s because they see the tiger behind her, of course.”
For a moment, I wondered if this rather silly young woman—to whom every peasant in Wuyan must bow—ever thought she was the vixen and her overbearing husband the tiger. Chan certainly looked as if he would like to gobble her up. I don’t believe it would have occurred to her, though. Liling was one of those people for whom poems and stories are ways out of reality, not windows on it. . . . But I’ve gone on far too long and you wanted to know about my fable. I’ll come to it now.
Liling asked if I knew a fable too, a fable that was also a poem.
I said I knew an ancient one that’s attributed to Jie Zhitiai, a nobleman of the Zhou Dynasty, and that there was a story attached to it. Jie met a tragic end and the Daoists later made him a saint. I explained that Jie lived during the period of the Five Hegemons, those powerful dukes who reigned over their domains like emperors. One of these was especially tyrannical, the Duke of Mu. After brutally putting down a peasant uprising, the Duke imposed a new penal code with all sorts of grisly punishments. It required dismemberment for all political crimes, which meant not only any criticism of himself but of even his lowest-ranking official. Worse yet, the children of such people were also to be executed—those under the age of five by strangulation, all others by decapitation. On the day that twelve children were to be executed, the court and hundreds of peasants gathered in the palace courtyard to bear witness to the event. Just before the sentence was carried out, the duke’s eldest son who was seated beside his father leapt to his feet and loudly protested. The duke wanted to execute his son, but the boy’s mother begged him on her knees to commute the sentence to exile. The exiled boy was taken in by the Duke of Qin. Only days after these events, The Duke of Mu held a banquet. The poet-courtier Jie was requested to entertain the guests with his latest poem. Jie was known for elegant but conventional verses, poems about gardens, landscapes, and the seasons. But that evening he rose and recited his latest work. It was a fable.
“Can you recite it?” asked Liling, interested by the story.
This I could easily do as I had made up Jie’s fable that afternoon.
Deep in the Forest of Yu,
in the trunk of an old beech,
bees built their village.
They worked hard making
lots of fragrant honey.
Wandering through the woods,
Daxiong, his two wives, one
son and three daughters,
came upon the bees’ hive.
They all made for the honey.
The sweet combs so intoxicated
Daxiong that he lost his head.
With his huge claws,
he swiped at his two wives
and growled at his three children.
Angry bees swarmed all over him
wielding stingers like little swords,
but Daxiong’s fur was thick.
Only his son dared stand up to him
accusing him of selfishness and greed.
Infuriated, Daxiong reared and roared.
His family ran and he ate up all the honey.
Now he lurches through the forest alone,
an old bear with just four rotten teeth.
I went on. “A year later, the banished son of the Duke returned from Qin with a small force that, after being swelled by thousands of peasants, overthrew his father.”
Lady Bao yawned. “And did your fable have any effect?” she asked.
“Oh, an immediate one. Lan, the first wife, applauded, Liling, the second one, looked perplexed, and Chan himself summoned two of his men to toss me out. I left Wuyan that night.”
Lady Bao gave a little sigh. “Do you know what happened to the landlord’s son, to Zihan? Did he too try to overthrow his father with the help of the swineherds of Wuyan?”
Hsi-wei smiled. “As it happens, I learned later from a traveler that Chan Yuxian had died of an apoplectic stroke. Liling was sent back to her father by Lan and Zihan returned to become the new landlord. He rescinded his father’s pig policy, restored the old rents, did all he could to promote the town’s industry, and was beloved by the peasants. At least, that’s what I was told.”
“Perhaps,” said Lady Bao, getting to her feet, “I’ll try to get hold of some of this wonderful Wuyan pork. I’m assuming you didn’t invent that as well, did you?”
“No, my Lady.”
“Well then, if I can find some, we’ll have it when I come back next week for those poems. Make sure you have them ready.”
With a little bow, Hsi-wei assured her he would.
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.