Hsi-wei’s Visit to Ko Qing-zhao

Robert Wexelblatt

The poet Chen Hsi-wei and the landscape painter Ko Qing-zhao had not seen one another in two years. During that time, three letters from Hsi-wei had reached Ko; but, owing to the poet’s nomadic life, the painter had nowhere he could address a reply. The one he tried to send through a mutual friend in Daxing chased the poet around Emperor Wen’s dominions in vain.

The two men had one of those friendships that are struck up in an hour and outlast even long separations. As is usual when two people instantly take to one another, their liking was initially physical. Hsi-wei and Ko detected in one another’s faces intelligence, sensibility, and honesty. Their immediate sympathy was deepened by the esteem in which each held the other’s art. As they tilled different fields, their friendship was free of any taint of competition or jealousy. They were perceptive about one another’s work, understood their aims, rejoiced in their achievements and growing reputations. Whenever one heard the other’s name mentioned approvingly, he felt gratification.

While the vagabond Hsi-wei was always in motion and his livelihood insecure, Ko was settled quietly in Hsuan where he held a minor sinecure in the office of the magistrate. His income was not handsome but adequate for a bachelor whose major expenses were for artist’s materials. Moreover, his job was not demanding and left Ko plenty of time for his real work, though less than he would have liked. Gradually, collectors began to seek him out and, when the peers of the great Zhan Ziqian were listed, Ko’s name was frequently mentioned. As a young man, Ko saw Zhan’s Spring Excursion and dedicated himself to the art of Shan Shui, mountain/water landscapes. This kind of painting does not aim at realistic representation but conveying the feelings aroused in the artist by the scenery. In Ko’s landscapes, Nature is always still; even his waterfalls appear motionless. Movement is confined to the few human figures—tiny sages climbing with staffs, minuscule fisherman pulling up nets, drovers with miniature oxen. The busyness of these humans is too small to affect the tranquility of mountains and rivers. In this way, Shan Shui painting sets the colossal extent of the cosmos and the immeasurable length of history against the paltry exertions of humans.

Ko had labored hard to become a Shan Shui master. Had he been more ambitious and less attached to Hsuan, he might have aspired to and secured a position at court.

Hsi-wei’s journey took him by slow-flowing rivers, through the forests and mountain passes of Huangshan. It was natural to think of himself as one of those little figures in his friend’s landscapes, coming from nowhere, passing into oblivion. Yet the poet’s spirits were high; the splendor of the scenery and the crispness of the air exhilarated him, honing the edge of his eagerness to see his friend.

Hsi-wei arrived in Hsuan at mid-morning, earlier than he had expected thanks to a peasant’s offer of a ride on his oxcart. Hsi-wei took his ease atop fragrant radishes, carrots, and spring onions. As they descended toward the town, the air grew sultry, shapes dissolved, and there were clouds of insects. Hsi-wei began to miss the sweet air of the mountains, the noise of flowing rivers.

When they reached the market square, the poet helped the peasant set his crops out for sale. Bowing deeply, he thanked the good man for his kindness. Across the road, he spied a passing official in a high hat and ran up to ask the way to the magistrate’s office.

The youthful official, who was trying to grow a beard without much success, took in Hsi-wei’s dusty clothes and pack. He pointed and answered curtly. “Go that way and look for a red roof.”

A guard lounged in the gateway of a low building with a steep red-tiled roof.

“You have business?” asked the guard in a tone both bored and surly.

Hsi-wei knew how to deal with such people.

“Yes, Your Honor,” he said with a medium-sized bow. “I have business with Master Ko Qing-zhao.”

The guard made a face. “You’re in luck. He happens to be here, which he often isn’t.” He escorted Hsi-wei through the gate and pointed him down one of four corridors.

At the end of the hallway, Hsi-wei came to a small, windowless chamber. Here he found Ko Qing-zhao crouched at a low desk, brush in hand, a scroll open before him. There were scrolls everywhere, both big and little.

His old friend looked up, shouted, got to his feet. The two embraced. Bubbling over with pleasure, both spoke greetings at once, then burst out laughing.

“You inconsiderate peasant! Not a word of warning. Ah, what a wonderful surprise!”

“Well, I missed you. And I want to see what you’re up to. Your work.”

“I’ve seen three of your poems. People copy them, you know, and they make the rounds.”

“Still unmarried?”

“Still making straw sandals?”

Hsi-wei shrugged. “We both have to eat,” he said, gesturing toward the low desk, the inkpot. the scrolls.”

“Just so. But I’ll have you know I sold two pictures last month.” It was a proof of their friendship that Ko did not try to conceal his pride.

“I’m not surprised. I’ve heard your name mentioned in the same sentence as Master Zhan Ziqian’s. More than once.”

Ko blushed. “Truly? Famous, am I? Like you?”

Hsi-wei scoffed, blushed, and again the two laughed.

“You must be starved,” said Ko. “Let’s get some rice and dumplings in the market then go to my place and talk and talk.”

“What of all this?”

“What? This copying? It’ll keep. Come, let’s eat and then I’ll show you my real work.”

As they strolled to the marketplace, the friends summed up their lives since they had last met. At first, each felt there was far too much to tell but then found there was not. Ko said he copied documents, took down the testimony of witnesses, and painted his pictures. Hsi-wei said he traveled, met all sorts of people, made sandals out of straw and poems out of words. Though one was always on the move and the other planted fast in Hsuan, it seemed to them both that their outer lives had settled into routines. As for their inner lives, these could hardly be described quickly in the marketplace over dumplings and rice.

“Now,” said Ko as they finished their meal, “we’ll go to my place. It’s not quite finished, but I want you to see my new picture.”

“Is it a big one?”

“Huge, like its subject. Autumn in the Yellow Mountains. I’m putting everything into it.”

As they walked toward the western edge of Hsuan, Ko fell silent. When Hsi-wei inquired if something were disturbing him, Ko replied that a troubling case was to come before the magistrate that week. Though it would involve personal risk, he said he felt compelled to intervene.

“And that would be dangerous for you?”

“The contestants are wealthy landlords with few scruples.”

“I see.”

“More to the point, as an official in the magistrate’s office, I have no standing to participate. Even asking to do so would be deemed improper. I could lose my post.”

“And yet you see a likely injustice?”

“That’s it exactly.”

“I want to hear all about the case. But only after I’ve seen your autumn painting.”

Ko lived in a rambling old farmhouse. Ko explained that it had once been at the center of wide fields but had been overtaken by the town’s expansion. Yet the building stood on what was still a considerable plot of land, some of which was cultivated. There were five fruit trees and a small but attractive stand of white pines. Ko had a lease on two rooms and also a long, narrow outbuilding by the pines which served as his studio.

Ko’s painting was indeed large. It leaned against the shed’s wall, matching its length and nearly its height. If Hsi-wei had seen Zhan’s Spring Excursion, he would have recognized the work as both an homage and a sequel. The composition closely echoed Zhan’s. A broad stretch of river runs diagonally from the top left to lower right. The stillness of the river is magically emphasized by many fine black lines. A white sampan with a standing boatman floats in the middle of the river at the very center of the picture. To the left juts a triangle of riverbank on which sit two female figures almost hidden by elms and pines. Where it is free of fallen leaves and pine straw, the ground is invitingly mossy. On the right of the picture, the opposite bank rises steeply to rocky hills behind which the Yellow Mountains extend in ever more misty waves to an empty background. Nothing of the sky to be seen, as in a map.

Hsi-wei was immediately attracted by the size and beauty of the picture. After taking in the whole, he stood close to examine its details. He felt he could hear the sound of the river in the delicate pattern of water lines. He took note of Ko’s cleverness about the crookedness of the branches, was delighted to make out the nearly invisible pair of red footbridges below the water falling from the sheer rock faces. A minuscule peasant on his donkey and a brace of doves high in the branches of a pine were charming touches.

All the while, Ko was trying to look through his friend’s eyes; he wanted to direct them to this or that patch of the painting. But there was no need, as Hsi-wei missed nothing, nor did the poet have to pretend to praise the work. He was astonished by how far Ko had advanced in his technique and full of admiration for such a large work, one fit for an imperial palace. Yet he said nothing until Ko begged for his reaction.

“It gives me two feelings.”

“Yes?”

“The gladness and also the melancholy of—”

Ko finished the sentence with pleasure. “Of autumn,” he said.

“Yes, autumn’s just like this, or it ought to be. You’ve chosen the perfect moment, with the leaves in color and the air clear of humidity, bracing rather than cold.” Hsi-wei stood back, looking from right to left, up to down. “It’s splendid. But. . .”

“But?”

“But how will you ever outdo it?”

Ko laughed with gratification and relief.

The afternoon being fine, the two men took tea outside. Hsi-wei told Ko about a few of his adventures and showed him the poems they had provoked. Ko was bound to praise them, of course; but he did so sincerely and with insight. Yet Hsi-wei grew impatient and said he was eager to hear about the case that was troubling his friend.

“What’s it about?”

“It has to do a large piece of land ten li to the west. Chin, the landlord, was an exceedingly good but unfortunate man. He took his wife and son to see the work on the Grand Canal. They hired a boat. A sudden storm overturned the boat, and only Chin survived. He was a broken man but still a good one, perhaps even a better one.

“Chin died unexpectedly two months ago. The two neighboring landowners, Cao and Lu, who are quite unlike the virtuous Chin, both filed claims saying that he had left his land to them. However, I heard a different story from a friend of mine. According to him, Shao-sing, Chin’s oldest servant, visited the inn and drank too many toasts to his deceased master. In his cups, he said that, shortly before his death, Chin invited Cao and Lu to dinner and informed them that, when his time came, he meant to leave his land to his tenants. Evidently, he died before drawing up a will to that effect. At least none has been found.”

“I see.”

“It gets more complicated. In fact, there are two wills. Cao and Lu both submitted wills in their favor, claiming they were written by Mr. Chin. Both have also produced witnesses, former servants in the Chin household. I believe the witnesses were bribed and both wills forged.”

“Well, at least one must be. Why do you say both?”

“Because I think I know who forged them.”

“And can this forger be produced in court?”

“Well,” said Ko slowly, “that’s unlikely. You see, I’m almost certain the work was done by Ouyang Xun, a calligrapher. Though we were not close friends I knew him well enough. He’s a learned young man, a good doctor as well as an exceptional calligrapher. He lacks connections and his parents left him nothing. He was unhappy here in Hsuan, desperate to get away to the provincial capital where his talents would be better appreciated and rewarded. Shortly before the false wills were submitted, he paid me a farewell visit. He said that he’d come into some funds and would be leaving for the capital the next day. If I’m right, the last thing Xun would want is to return here.”

Hsi-wei made up a proverb. “Liars don’t always lie, just as honest men don’t always tell the truth. Do you think this Xun would lie about the forgeries?”

“What can you mean? Forgeries are lies.”

“Quite true, but not quite his lies.”

“Ah, I see what you mean.”

“Might a sworn statement from Xun be secured, perhaps by someone he knows and respects?”

“It’s not impossible. He is not really a bad man.”

“Could you yourself go to the capital and try to obtain such a statement?”

“Even if I succeeded, it would take a week and the hearing is in two days.”

“Can the hearing be delayed?”

“Someone would have to come forward with a good reason for such a request.”

“The old servant?”

“Shao-sing? He’s frail and his position is insecure. He is likely to be dependent on either Cao or Lu. I think he’d be too frightened to speak up. Besides, even if he’s suspicious of Cao and Lu, our good but prudent magistrate is unlikely to take the word of a servant over that of two powerful landowners.”

Hsi-wei slapped his thigh. “Very well. I understand. You can’t argue the case and the old servant won’t request a delay. However, I can think of one person who is willing to do both.”

Ko smiled. “You mean yourself?”

Hsi-wei, the peasant who was also a poet, the poet who was also a peasant, grinned.

“Are you willing to try?” he asked Ko.

“Without you, no. With you, yes.”

When Ko asked how he planned to identify himself to the magistrate, Hsi-wei insisted he would say nothing that was untrue. “I’ll say I’m a traveler who has heard of the perplexing Chin case and may be able to produce evidence that would resolve it. Then I’ll say that this will require a week’s delay. I suspect your magistrate will be eager to grant it.”

“In that case,” said Ko, “we’ll have to dress you properly, in an official’s robe. I can borrow one. Our magistrate is a decent and fair man, but he’s insecure and has an irrational fear of other officials.”

Ko arranged for Hsi-wei to meet with the magistrate who greeted the poet courteously. Just as Hsi-wei had guessed, the man was only too willing to have the case resolved in a way that would relieve him of a difficult decision, one that could make him a powerful enemy. He did not hesitate to grant the delay.

Ko requested leave to visit a sick uncle in the nearby village of Yagong but, before he left for the capital, the two friends paid a visit to Shao-sing, the old servant who had overheard what his master said at the dinner with Cao and Lu. The other Chin servants had returned to their families or found new jobs, but the faithful Shao-sing had appointed himself caretaker of the villa. He was still hale enough to sweep the rooms every day and see to the vegetable garden, which is where the two friends found him.

When Hsi-wei asked if he would be willing to testify, the old man shook his head.

“I wouldn’t dare to do such a thing. I’m over sixty and I’ve never had to stand before a magistrate. Not once. I’d dissolve into a puddle. The law’s a terror, your honors. Besides, I can’t go against either liar since one of them is going to become my master—if I’m lucky enough to have one at all.”

Ko wanted to argue with Shao-sing, but Hsi-wei stopped him.

“What do you say we all have some tea? Would that be possible?”

The old man said he had some freshly made and went inside the villa to fetch the pot and three cups.

When they were settled, Hsi-wei spoke to Shao-sing gently, with respect, but to the point. “I’m told your son, your daughter-in-law, and your two grandchildren were tenants of the honorable Mr. Chin.”

“That’s true. The kind master rented the land to them for my sake”

“Well then, what if they owned that land?”

“What?”

“If, as I have reason to hope, we can win our case against Cao and Lu—”

“I can see that you know little of the world, young man. They’re big men, rich. The law’s made for the likes of them.”

“With respect, at least one of them must lose; however, I think both will lose, as both deserve to. And, if they do, then you’ll be free of both. In fact, if you help with the case, there’s no reason why you and your family shouldn’t move in here, into Mr. Chin’s villa, as its new owners. Wouldn’t that please you? Wouldn’t that be worth the risk?”

The old man gawked at Hsi-wei, then turned to Ko.

“Who’s more deserving?” said Ko. “And just think how your son will bless you, how your grandchildren will dote on you. Think how your daughter-in-law will wait on you!”

After Ko rushed off to the capital, Hsi-wei busied himself with making a few inquiries in the marketplace where he took orders for straw sandals and worked out how, if Ko succeeded with Xun, he would manage the hearing.

Six days later, a triumphant Ko returned with a sworn statement from Xun declaring that he had been hired first by Cao and then by Lu to prepare the two false wills. “I am a scribe,” his statement concluded, “whose services are available to all.”

The hearing was set to begin in the morning. Hsi-wei arrived in the borrowed official’s gown. Cao and Lu entered the magistrate’s court promptly, each accompanied by two witnesses, all former servants of Mr. Chin. Cao and Lu looked determined and angry; the four witnesses trembled and avoided looking at one another.

The bailiff pounded the butt of his pike on the floor three times and called the hearing to order. The magistrate entered through a high door and, with dignity, took his seat on the dais. He proceeded to take two scrolls from the wide sleeves of his yellow gown, the false wills. Speaking gravely, he reviewed the facts of the case. Looking first at Cao and then Lu, he reminded them that, as they had been informed, a delay had been granted when a stranger presented himself promising new evidence. With the authority granted by himself, that stranger, Mr. Chen Hsi-wei, would be serving the court as an examiner.

Hsi-wei stood before the dais and gave a low bow.

“Thank you, sir, for granting the delay and permitting me to pose some questions. It shouldn’t take too long.”

Hsi-wei turned around and asked which was Mr. Cao.

“Over here,” Cao barked impatiently.

Hsi-wei strode over to the landlord. Cao, a man of about forty, had sharp eyes and a pointed gray beard.

“Good morning, Mr. Cao. A few questions, if you please. Do you believe the document submitted to the court by your neighbor Mr. Lu to be a forgery?”

“Most certainly.”

“And that his two witnesses, lamentably now unemployed, were bribed?”

“That’s obvious.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Hsi-wei approached Mr. Lu, a short, fat man of sixty with a wide face. He looked as if he’d just swallowed a cup of vinegar.

“Mr. Lu, good morning. Do you believe the document submitted by Mr. Cao to be a forgery?”

“Clearly. It’s just what the greedy rascal would do.”

“And his witnesses bought?”

“Naturally, and probably cheaply.”

“But, as you’ve just heard, Mr. Cao says precisely the same of your document and your witnesses.”

“The difference is plain. Cao’s lying and I’m not.”

“It’s the other way around, you old scoundrel!” shouted Cao.

“Very well,” said Hsi-wei calmly. “So, we have two irreconcilable versions of the truth. But there is a third.”

“What do you mean?” roared Lu.

“What did he say?” growled Cao.

“Obviously, the third possibility is that each of you is telling only half the truth. Mr. Cao, you are correct in saying that your neighbor is lying, but so are you, Mr. Lu. Both documents are forgeries and all four witnesses have—in their desperation—succumbed to temptation and fear. In fact, you both agree with me about one another. I make that two votes for double fraud and only one for either of you.”

“But that’s preposterous!”

“And offensive!”

“It might be a preposterous offense if we didn’t have this statement.” Hsi-wei drew a small scroll from the sleeve of his official’s robe. “This is a sworn declaration from the calligrapher Oyuang Xun, former resident of Hsuan. Please note that it is officially stamped by the prefect of police in the capital.”

Hsi-wei handed Xun’s affidavit to the magistrate, who read it and frowned.

“This would appear to be conclusive.”

“I agree, sir. But, that’s not quite all,” said Hsi-wei.

“What? There’s more?”

“Yes, sir. We have now ascertained that Mr. Chin did not give his land to either of his neighbors. But we also know to whom he intended to give it. Indeed, so do these two honorable gentlemen.”

“How’s that?” asked the magistrate.

Hsi-wei nodded to Ko who left the chamber briefly and returned with their star witness.

“Sir, this is Shao-sing, loyal senior servant to the late Mr. Chin. He has something to say.”

The old man was shaking and wringing his hands. “It was a dinner, Your Honor,” he mumbled.

“What’s that?” said the magistrate. “Speak up.”

Shao-sing shuddered but pressed bravely on.

“It was a dinner, Your Honor. A good one, with both pork and fish.”

“Never mind the menu. What about this dinner pertains to the case?”

“Well, Your Honor, you see the girl was sick and that’s why I was serving, which usually I wouldn’t do. Mr. Chin had invited Mr. Cao and Mr. Lu. They talked a lot about crops and rents, and the weather too. And they drank a lot of yellow wine.”

“Get to the point, man.”

“Yes, Your Honor. Well, you see, since they were eating and drinking so much, I was always being called to bring in more of this or that, especially more wine. And, because I was in and out of the chamber the whole evening, I couldn’t help overhearing what was said.”

“And what was said that has a bearing on the matter before us?”

“Well, Your Honor, you see, it was at this dinner that Mr. Chin told his neighbors that—being childless—he was going to turn the land over to the peasants when he died. That is to say, his tenants. He said he thought they ought to know.”

Cao and Lu, who had fumed and grumbled with feigned indignation at Hsi-wei’s questioning, scowled at Shao-sing’s testimony and looked at him with disdain and fury. Finally, neither could contain himself.

“He swore he would give it to me!” insisted the one.

“To me!” cried the other.

At this, Hsi-wei turned to the magistrate, smiled, and delivered an eloquent shrug. Shao-sing looked around in distress. Ko barely stifled a laugh.

The judgment was delivered the following morning. Deeds would be drawn up for the peasants and, in accord with a suggestion Hsi-wei made privately to the magistrate, ownership of the villa would now be assigned to the family of Shao-sing. As for Cao and Lu, both were soundly rebuked by the magistrate and required to pay substantial fines.

Ko and Hsi-wei celebrated that night with a large meal and plenty of yellow wine. They were pleased with what they had done and with one another.

After a pleasant week’s stay, Hsi-wei prepared to depart.        

“A most satisfactory visit,” said Ko. “It’s been fun. You’re the ideal guest, Hsi-wei.”

“And you, the perfect host. And we managed something good. You can believe the traveler who says that such justice is rare. And I’m excited about your work, the huge new piece in particular.”

“Your praise is a great encouragement to me. And our collaboration on behalf of Chin’s tenants really was a special pleasure.”

“About collaboration.”

“Yes?”

“I’ve had a thought about collaboration.”

“What?”

“If there can be Shan Shui painting, why not Shan Shui verses as well?”

“Why not indeed. That’s a splendid idea!”

“I’m glad you think so,” said Hsi-wei and handed a small scroll to Ko Qing-zhao. On it, he had written the poem that is known by the same title as the painting universally acknowledged as Ko Qing-zhao’s masterpiece.

Autumn in the Yellow Mountains

 

Deep in a golden grove on the riverbank

a slender lady in a silken gown sits with her maid.

Both look out at a drifting sampan; the

inattentive boatman has dropped his oar.

The lady holds her hand to her mouth.

If I were that boatman I too would fail

to see the laughing lady and her maid

among the vivid leaves and twisting boughs.

My gaze too would be fixed higher, on the

waterfall like molten silver, the crooked

Huangshan pines, the rocks upholding all.

Leaves turn and fall. We laugh and drift

and soon are gone. Mountains endure.


About the Author

Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University's College of General Studies. He has published the story collections Life in the Temperate ZoneThe Decline of Our Neighborhood, The Artist Wears Rough Clothing, and Heiberg's Twitch; a book of essays, Professors at Play; two short novels, Losses and The Derangement of Jules Torquemal, and essays, stories, and poems in a variety of scholarly and literary journals. His novel Zublinka Among Women won the Indie Book Awards first-place prize for fiction. A collection of essays, The Posthumous Papers of Sidney Fein, is forthcoming.