ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"Hsi-wei in Huaiyang", by Robert Wexelblatt

            Luli’s family lived in Heshun, one of the villages ringing Huaiyang.  For the Spring Festival, she went to stay with her grandfather who lived in a three-room apartment in town.  When Luli woke on the morning of the New Year, her grandfather presented her with a puppy.  Luli embraced the dog ecstatically and the dog licked Luli’s face with equal gusto.

            “What’s her name, Grandfather?”

            “The one you’ll give her, little flower.”

            Girl and puppy snuggled and played together all day.  Her grandfather showed Luli what to feed the dog and how she was to be trained.  At sundown, he tucked the two into bed together, but Luli couldn’t sleep because naming the puppy was the biggest thing she had ever had to do.

            In the morning, her grandfather asked if she had chosen a name.

            “Xingfu,” Luli declared resolutely. “She’ll be Xingfu.”

            The old man grinned, delighted with the success of his gift.  “Happiness,” he said. “What a fine name!”

            After the holiday, Luli’s parents came to take her and the puppy home.  They fussed over the little dog too.  Xingfu made everyone happy.

            Shortly before the Moon Festival, while Luli was helping her mother cut vegetables for dinner, Xingfu, who was lying in the doorway, spotted a squirrel.  She took off after it, vanishing into the trees.  When Luli couldn’t find her dog, she began to wail.  She and her brother and her parents looked everywhere, calling the dog’s name, but they couldn’t find Xingfu.

            Luli was inconsolable, even when her father offered to find her another puppy.

            “No!” she said weeping and petulant, “I only want Xingfu.”

            The next week, in the nearby village of Duoyishu, a boy of about Luli’s age, Xiaodan, found the puppy looking damp and hungry.  He gave the dog food and water and begged his parents to let him keep her.  He named the dog Kuai because he thought her clever to have found him.

            Three months later, Luli went with her aunt to visit her grandfather.  Then they went to the marketplace to buy some meat and a new pillow.  A stranger had stationed himself by the well beside a wooden sign with a picture of straw sandals on it.  Luli’s feet had grown, and her aunt decided to order her a new pair.  Just then, Luli caught sight of a boy and a man buying dumplings.  The boy had a dog on a leash.  It looked just like Xingfu, only bigger.  While her aunt was still talking with the sandal-maker, Luli dashed across the square.  Before the child could lean down to embrace her, the dog leapt up and began to whimper and lick Luli’s face.

            “Hey!” said Xiaodan, pulling hard on the leash.  “That’s my dog.”

            “No!” cried Luli.  “She’s my lost dog and stop pulling her like that.  You’ll hurt her.”

            “She’s my dog.  Who takes care of her?  Me, that’s who.”

            The boy’s father told Xiaodan to calm down.

            By now the aunt had come over.  As Luli entreated her help, Xiaodan appealed for his father’s.  The adults looked at one another indecisively; the children glared.

            “Mine.  Auntie, tell them.”

            “No, mine.”

            The sandal-maker, who had trailed the aunt across the square, heard the argument, noted the perplexity of the grown-ups, the distress and clenched fists of the children.  After hesitating, he intervened.

            He introduced himself, apologized for inserting himself into the dispute, then asked Xiaodan’s father when his son had acquired the dog and Luli’s aunt how long it had been since her niece had lost her pet.  They both replied, “Three months.”

            The sandal-maker nodded then asked if he might make a humble suggestion.

            The children looked at the dusty stranger uncertainly, the adults dubiously; but no one objected.

            The sandal-maker knelt down to talk to the children.  He turned first to the boy. 

            “Don’t tell me what it is, but did you give the dog a name?”

            “Yes.  Of course I named my dog.  What do you think?”

            Hsi-wei turned to the girl, who was pouting and furious.  “Please don’t tell me what it is either, but did you also give your dog a name?”

            “Yes, I did.”

            The sandal-maker stood.  “I suggest we let the dog decide.”

            “The dog?” scoffed Luli’s aunt.        

            “How’s that?” said the boy’s astonished father. “What do you mean?”

            The sandal-maker asked if he might borrow the dog.

            “What?  You want to steal my dog too?” Luli protested loudly.

            “She’s my dog,” insisted Xiaodan, pulling even more tightly on the leash.

            “Only for a minute,” said the sandal-maker and turned to Luli and her aunt.  “Would you please go and stand by that vegetable seller over there?”  Then, turning to Xiaodan and his father, he said, “And would you please stay here by the dumpling stall?”

            The children looked beseechingly at the grownups who nodded at the sandal-maker.

            “Then, if you’ll permit me, I’ll take the dog over by the well.  May I?”

            Xiaodan’s father told his son to hand the leash to the sandal-maker.

            “Thank you. Now, children, when I release her leash, I want you both to call her name. Then we’ll see which of you she chooses.”

            Neither child was pleased with this idea.

            “But it’s been such a long time since I’ve seen her. It’s not fair,” Luli complained.

            “No, not fair. She’s only been mine for three months,” said Xiaodan.

            But the girl’s aunt said it was fair enough and the boy’s father that he couldn’t think of a better solution.

            So, it was agreed to let the dog decide to whom she belonged.


            In his travels through Yuzhou, Hsi-wei stopped for a few days in the town of Huaiyang.  First, he found a rundown tavern and rented a place to sleep.  It was only a storeroom with a pallet that smelled of vinegar and mold, but it was cheap.

            Next, he strolled through the town which appeared prosperous. The people were well dressed and there was plenty of food for sale.  Gentry as well as peasants from the countryside crowded the streets.  With summer just beginning, Hsi-wei could expect many customers for his sandals.

            He made his way to the town’s marketplace where it seemed anything could be had.  There were stalls selling everything from whole pigs to bolts of silk, jade carvings to porcelain teapots, bedding to pipas and liuqins.  Hsi-wei found an open spot beside the well, lay down his bag, and set up his sign.

            He took several orders, bought a bundle of straw from a peasant who was unloading produce from a cart, and returned to the tavern.  The place had a small stable and behind it was a clearing with a warped wooden table.  It would do as a workshop.

            It was the following day that he interceded in the dispute over the dog.

            “Huai!  Huai, come here, girl!” cried Xiaodan as Luli yelled “Xingfu!  Xingfu!”

            The dog didn’t hesitate.  She tore across the square and jumped into Lilu’s arms.

            After begging Xiaodan’s father’s permission, Hsi-wei bought the boy two red bean buns to soften his disappointment and sweeten his mood.

            The story of the children, the dog, and the sandal-maker provided an entertaining tidbit of gossip for Huaiyang.  It soon spread from the marketplace.  Chao Jing-hua, the wife of the new magistrate, heard the tale from her cook and told it to her husband over dinner.

            Chao was amused.  “This sandal-maker might make a decent magistrate.  But I’ve got a more difficult case to settle, two claims to the same land.”

            “I wonder. . .” Jing-hua began to muse.


            “You remember my friend Daiyu?”


            “Well, she was a lover of poetry.  She told me about a young peasant who had become a poet and travels around selling straw sandals.  She read me two of his poems.  They were good.  In fact, as a parting gift, she had a copy made for me of one of them.  It’s about Lake Weishan.  The poet’s name is Chen.  Do you think this sandal-maker might be that Chen?  If so, perhaps we could invite him to dine with us.”

            Chao, who liked to indulge his wife, said he would have inquiries made.  While he had met some peasants who could read, he had never heard of one who wrote poetry.  He was curious to see one, as he might be to see a horse that could dance.

            The magistrate’s men quickly tracked Hsi-wei down at the tavern.  They asked him sneeringly if he made verses as well as sandals and, when he confessed he did, conveyed the invitation to dinner at the magistrate’s villa, though they made it sound like a summons.

            Hsi-wei cleaned himself up as best he could and arrived at the imposing villa at the time he was told to.  Jing-hua herself greeted him warmly at the door.  She was a woman of about thirty with the sort of round face that seems made to frame smiles.  Hsi-wei liked her at once.  She conducted him into the reception room and introduced him to her waiting husband.  Chao Guo-zhi also made a good impression.  He was tall and dignified without being remote.  He surprised Hsi-wei by responding to his low bow with a small one of his own, an unusual gesture for a high official meeting a peasant.

            The dinner was a success.  The fare was sumptuous: spicy Manchow soup followed by mushroom fried rice with water chestnuts, bok choy and carrots in a honey black bean glaze, and braised pork belly.  Hsi-wei ate as much as he could while answering questions, starting with one from the magistrate about how he had secured an education.  Hsi-wei gave an abbreviated account of his service carrying a secret message to General Fu in the south, then declining the customary rewards in favor of an education under the stern Master Shen Kuo. Jing-hua wanted to know more about his time in Daxing, how he had become a poet, and his most memorable adventures on the road.  She called her servant who brought her copy of “Yellow Moon at Lake Weishan”.  The scroll astonished Hsi-wei, who had not yet encountered many people who knew his poems.  It made him blush.  The magistrate said he had read the poem and was impressed.  Jing-hua asked if Hsi-wei would sign the scroll which, after the maid returned with brush and ink, he did, apologizing for his deplorable calligraphy.

            “Master Kuo compared my writing to the marks left by a lame crow that had stumbled through a puddle of ink.”  He didn’t mention the beatings his calligraphy had earned him.

            Magistrate Chao called for a jug of yellow wine and, after the first cup, his wife said it had gone to her head and demurely retired, thanking Hsi-wei for coming and accepting his gratitude.  And so began the second half of the evening.

            The magistrate had taken to the young sandal-maker, judging him articulate, intelligent, and modest, hardly at all like a dancing horse.  He said he had heard of how Hsi-wei managed the affair of the lost dog and praised his solution.

            “There’s a similar case, though a much more complex one, that’s been troubling me.  It would be a relief to speak of it,” he said.  “It might help me clarify my thinking.”

            Hsi-wei asked if it was perhaps a dispute over the ownership of land.

            Chao raised his eyebrows.  “How did you know?”

            “Emperor Wen’s land reforms are good, but the Kaihuang Code has given rise to disputes.  I’ve heard of many in my travels.”

            “You’re familiar with the Code?”

            Hsi-wei said that he had read it.  “It felt like a duty for a peasant lucky enough to become literate.”

            “Extraordinary,” murmured Chao, thinking again of the dancing horse.  “Well, perhaps this case of mine isn’t exceptional, but it’s still a quandary.  Both sides have good claims and sound arguments.”

            “So did the children in the marketplace.”

            Chao chuckled.  “Yes, but this case is more serious.  I’ve just begun my three-year term here and a bad decision could upset people.  In fact, even a good verdict is bound to leave some disappointed and angry.”

            “That’s true.  But a just decision will upset few people in the short-run and win you the respect of many later.”

            Chao was surprised that he could feel comforted by a young peasant.  He refilled the wine cups.

            “An encouraging bit of wisdom,” he said.  “Of course, I want to arrive at a sound verdict.  The problem is knowing what it is.”

            “I understand, Your Honor, and I would be pleased to listen to the facts of the case.”

            “Very well.  You know the new Code, but are you also familiar with Huomai?”

            “A conditional sale?  As I understand it, the Huomai principle is, wherever possible, to keep land in the hands of one family.  It makes for stability.”

            “Just so.  A conditional sale means that a family compelled to sell its land has the legal right to buy it back at the original price and without interest.”

            “Yes.  That’s also how I understand the law.”

            “Good.  Here are the facts of the case. For generations, the land in question belonged to the Wu family.  The grandfather of my petitioners fell into debt and sold the land to a man named Li.  The petitioners claim the sale was conditional, the other side contends it was made permanent by agreement of the parties.  However, the matter is moot as there is no surviving bill-of-sale, no evidence either way.  Is that clear so far?”


            “Well, when the purchaser, Li, died the land passed to his son.  The son had only one child, a daughter.  She married a man named Shen and so, when his father-in-law died, the land passed into the possession of the Shen family.”

            “I see.”

            “The petitioners are two Wu brothers, Bo-quin and Chong-lin.  Twins.  For years they hired themselves out as tile-layers and field workers, saving all they could to buy back the family land.”

            “So, I take it the Wu brothers are not well off.  Are the Shens?”

            The magistrate frowned.  “That is legally irrelevant.”

            “Yes, but do you know?”

            “Of course, a magistrate is obliged to know the tax records.  Shen inherited land from his own ancestors, quite a lot, almost a thousand mu.  He also owns a timber business that is doing well.”

            “Thank you.”

            Magistrate Chao took a long drink of wine.  “Now,” he said raising a finger in the manner of a learned judge, “the Wu brothers contend that, according to Huomai, they should be able to purchase the land at the original price, which could be determined by searching the records of sale from the time of Li’s purchase.   Shen argues that the land would have doubled in value by now and such a price would be unjust; however, his chief point is that the land belongs to him and, through his wife, has been in the same family for three generations.”

            “And the Huomai principle isn’t clear about how many generations ensure ownership?”


            “It’s certainly a conundrum.”

            “And there’s no dog to decide,” joked Chao.

            The case interested Hsi-wei.  He had a notion that there was a flaw somewhere in the arguments but needed to think it through.

            It had grown late, and he saw his host stifling a yawn.  Hsi-wei stood up.

            “Thank you for your splendid hospitality, Magistrate Chao.  And please thank your wife for receiving me so graciously and for her interest in my poor verses.  One thing more.  May I ask a favor?”

            “What can I do for you?  It’s gone quite late.  We could put you up for the night.”

            “That’s very kind, sir.  But no.  I have accommodations and a good deal of straw to turn into sandals.  The favor is your permission to visit you tomorrow.  It’s about your case.”

            Chao looked puzzled but said that he would be at the magistracy all day and Hsi-wei would be welcome to visit him there.  He then escorted Hsi-wei to the door where they wished each other a good night.

            Hsi-wei set to work on his sandals early in the morning.  Sandal-making is hand work, intricate but almost second nature to him, leaving his mind free.  Many of Hsi-wei’s poems were composed while weaving straw.

            The inchoate idea of the night before became clearer to him.  He knew there was something the matter, a legal point; but in the morning his thinking became firm enough to present to the magistrate.  He knew the official might justifiably dismiss what he had to say and resent Hsi-wei’s presumption. Nevertheless, just after noon he went to the marketplace and asked the way to the magistracy.

            The guard at the gate looked Hsi-wei up and down.

            “Oh, so you want to see the magistrate.  Why is that?  Have you been summoned? If so, you need to present yourself to one of the deputies.”

            “Magistrate Chao asked me to see him today.”

            The guard laughed. “Ha!  And when did His Honor do that?”

            “Last night at dinner.”

            This reply made the guard laugh even louder.

            Hsi-wei drew himself up.  “Please let Magistrate Chao know the sandal-maker is here to keep his appointment.  If you send me away, he won’t be pleased.”

            The guard hesitated.  “Very well,” he said doubtfully.  “You stay right here.”


                        Magistrate Chao’s office was spacious and well-appointed.  Scrolls were neatly stacked on a wall of shelves.  There were both chairs and cushions and a handsome teak desk at which the magistrate sat before an open scroll.  He stood and greeted Hsi-wei.

            “I’ve been reading more of your poems,” he said unexpectedly.  “It seems they are circulating.  My men found three of them, including the one people call your ‘famous letter,’ the one addressed to the emperor when he was still regent of Northern Zhou, the one about the bandit Yuchi Jiang.  It’s very powerful and, according to what I’m told, it had an effect.”

            “I didn’t know that poem had found its way into the world, let alone to Huaiyang.”

            “It seems the people like your poems and those who can’t read them like hearing them.  You may become famous for more than your sandals, Master Chen.”

            Hsi-wei blushed.  “Master?  That is pleasant to hear, Your Honor.  Thank you.  But I’ve come about something else.  It’s about the case you described last night.”

            “So you said.  What is it you want to tell me?”

            “I was trained in the classics, not the law.  But, as you know, I’ve read the Emperor’s Code.  I would like most humbly to offer a suggestion about the dispute between the Wu brothers and Mr. Shen; that is, about how it might be decided.”

            The magistrate’s smile was indulgent but also a little chilly.  “Take a seat.  If you have an opinion about the verdict, tell me what it is and how it can be supported.”

            Hsi-wei chose a cushion, sat, and did as he was asked.

            “According to the Kaihuang Code and Huomai, where possible land is to stay with the family who traditionally held it.  If it is sold, then the family can regain it by paying the new owner the original price.”

            “Yes.  We agree on that.  But Shen claims his family has owned the land for three generations. Even though the Wu family held it longer, that claim has real force.”

            “But it isn’t quite true that the Shen family has owned the land for three generations—or the Li family either.  As I understand things, the land was sold to Li and eventually came into possession of his granddaughter, the wife of Mr. Shen.”

            “Yes, on her marriage, the property naturally became the possession of her husband.  But Mrs. Shen is still a member of the Li family.”

            “That’s so.  But I believe there is a technical problem with Mr. Shen’s claim, Your Honor.”

            “Oh?  And what’s that, Master Chen?” said the magistrate with some severity.

            “Under the Kaihuang Code, it is not legal for a woman to own land directly.  I personally don’t agree with that rule, but that is the language of the law, no woman can own land directly.  Land is to pass down by male primogeniture.  Therefore, the wife of Mr. Shen did not legally own the property when it passed to her.  And, that being the case, it was not owned by the Li family when she married, so Shen’s three-generation claim is not valid. On the other hand, the claim of the Wu brothers is clearly in accord with both the Code and the spirit of Huomai.  The land, you said, had belonged to the Wu family for many generations.”

            Magistrate Chao looked hard at Hsi-wei and rubbed his chin.  “This is the outcome you wanted, isn’t it?  It’s because Shen is rich and the Wu brothers are not.”

            This was perceptive.  Hsi-wei did want the hard-working brothers Wu to best the rich timber merchant Shen, but he knew better than to admit it.  He lowered his head.

            “As you said last night, Magistrate, the wealth or poverty of the parties is legally irrelevant.”

            Chao spoke with some asperity.  “It’s bold to quote me back to myself.  Some might even call it insolent.”

            “Nothing could be further from my intention, Your Honor.”

            The magistrate paused.  He still looked displeased but not so angry.  “Well, I’ll admit you’ve given me something to think over.  For that, I thank you, but I will have to review the Code for myself.”  Chao rose from his desk.  “I will say nothing of the quality of your legal reasoning, but if your sandals are as good as your verses, at least you won’t starve.  Will you be leaving us soon?”

            “Very soon.  Tomorrow.  Thank you for receiving me today, for last night, and please give my regards to your kind and generous wife.”

            “Of course.  Then farewell, sandal-maker.”

            Hsi-wei bowed deeply and departed. 

            He never learned how Magistrate Chao decided the property dispute but that night he wrote the following poem, a copy of which he left with Chao’s wife before continuing on his travels through Yuzhou.  As usual, Hsi-wei did not give the poem a title but people have given it two.  Some call it “In Huaiyang” and others “To Have and to Be”.

Out of those woods, warns the sage, springs danger.
Yet who is like the Buddha?  Some may fell a tree
but how few clear the brush and raze the forest of desire?

The child hugs her pet, the farmer fences in his plot,
his wife cherishes her favorite wok, and the Son of
Heaven himself jealously safeguards his mandate.

What is it to own?  Only selfishness and ruinous
attachment?  All should aspire to be like the Buddha
yet isn’t it as human to want to have as to want to be?

The law is often harsh, but gentler far than lawlessness.
As virtue sometimes means committing the lesser offense
so justice may lie in choosing the slighter injustice.

In Huaiyang I twice intervened in disputes that weren’t mine.
Have I done as the Buddha prescribes and, like a bee, taken
the nectar and fled without harming the scent of flowers?


Author Robert Wexelblatt is a professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published nine collections of short stories; two books of essays; two short novels; three books of poems; stories, essays, and poems in a variety of journals, and a novel awarded the Indie Book Awards first prize for fiction.  

Return to Offcourse Index.