Hsi-Wei and the Good by Robert Wexelblatt

Hsi-Wei and the Good

Robert Wexelblatt

It was high summer when Hsi-wei arrived in Bianzhou. He was footsore, thirsty, and troubled by the suffering he had observed in the counties through which he had passed on his way to the capital. In Qi, Tongxu, and Weishi, the peasants grumbled, both the poor and the well-off. In Lamkao, Hsi-wei agreed to take two apples in payment for a little pair of straw sandals. “They’re for my grandson, Bo-jing. He’s just learned to walk,” said the old woman. Hsi-wei asked how things were. “Too much rain, then too little,” she explained tersely. “We had some relief, but now they’ve made these new taxes it’s worse than ever.” People were hungry and angry.

In accord with Emperor Wen’s reorganization, the prefectural administration had recently been moved to Xingyanjun and it was here that his old schoolmate, Lu Guo-liang, lived. It had been nearly a year since Hsi-wei received, in a roundabout way, a surprising letter from him. He and Lu had not been close; in fact, though far from the worst, Lu had been among those who looked down on the upstart peasant who had refused gold for his service and had asked instead to be educated. Lu had enclosed his letter inside one to the painter Ko Qing-zhao, another former classmate, but one with whom Hsi-wei had been good friends and with whom he intermittently corresponded. Lu’s letter reached the vagabond poet enclosed in one from Ko. Lu wrote of his marriage and his appointment to an important administrative post in Bianzhou. He offered Hsi-wei a hospitable welcome, should he find himself in the vicinity, adding that he had heard of the growing reputation of the peasant/poet. “I well remember how Master Shen Kuo used to chide you for your calligraphy. If I recall correctly, he once compared your brushwork to what a regiment of grass lizards would leave behind if they’d splashed through a puddle of ink then tramped across a sheet of paper. The old dragon probably brags about you now.”

Hsi-wei noticed the contrast between the countryside and Xingyanjun at once. While the peasants were ill-fed, ill-clothed, and ill-tempered here, though there were the usual beggars, most people looked nourished, decently dressed, and busy. When he accosted a robed official in a high hat and asked the way to the villa of the Secretary to the Deputy Governor, the fellow looked at him suspiciously. Should he deign to answer a dusty vagabond with a pack on his back?

“And why would the likes of you be looking for Secretary Lu?”

“To pay the visit he requested me to make, Sir.”

The official scoffed and made to move off, but Hsi-wei stopped him.

“Perhaps you would care to see his letter?”

“You expect me to believe a peasant receives letters from a First Secretary?”

“One who can read them as well, Your Honor,” replied Hsi-wei tartly and handed over the scroll. The official took it reluctantly and then unrolled and skimmed it.

“Who’s this Master Shen Kuo?”

“The teacher of the First Secretary.”

“And of you?”

Hsi-wei wearied of this tedious conversation. “Sir, can you tell me the way or not?”

The official drew himself up. “Very well,” he said. His directions were complicated, perhaps even more than necessary. “And you can tell Secretary Lu that Under-Assessor Hsieh showed you the way.”

Night was falling when Hsi-wei found Lu’s villa. It was an old-fashioned place, not notably large but sturdy and dignified, with weathered walls, thick beams, two wide windows and a red door, at which Hsi-wei knocked.

The door was partially opened by a stout female servant who looked Hsi-wei over in a way that was not unfriendly but cautious.

“I’m here to pay my respects to Secretary Lu, at his invitation.”

“Secretary Lu is not yet home.”

A young woman came up behind the servant. She was pregnant. The wife. Looking anxiously over her shoulder was a thin old woman. Lu’s mother. “Go away,” she said. “Send that man away.”

Lu’s wife replied calmly, “Mother, he says he was invited. If we send him away, Guo-liang might be angry.”

“Invited? An obvious lie. Guo-liang wouldn’t invite a peasant here, not ever, and certainly not as things are now.”

“Mei, please let him in,” said the pregnant wife.

The servant smiled at Hsi-wei and opened the door.

The mother gave a little yelp of frustration and Hsi-wei could see this was a small skirmish in a long struggle between the women of Lu’s household. Such wars are a tradition; not for nothing is the character for strife two women beneath one roof.

“My husband is expected at any minute,” said the wife. She spoke graciously, perhaps to spite her mother-in-law; but Hsi-wei could see that, taking in his rough, soiled clothes, the woman was perplexed and a little concerned.

In the background, the old woman growled. “Close the door. Can’t you see he’s a robber? He’ll slit our throats,” growled the old woman.

Hsi-wei bowed deeply and addressed the wife. “My name is Chen Hsi-wei. Your husband and I knew each other ten years ago in Daxing.”

“In Daxing?”

“As students.”

“Chen Hsi-wei?” the wife repeated then broke into a smile. “Oh, the poet. My husband spoke about you. He said he’d sent you a letter, but that was long ago.”

“The letter took a while to reach me, and then I was not close by. If you like, I can return tomorrow.”

The woman hesitated then said, “Please, Sir. Come in. Mei, fetch us some tea.”

The old woman raised her voice. “Daughter, what can you be thinking? He’s a stranger, a peasant? Just look at him.”

“Enough, Mother,” said the wife evenly. With a cry of protest, the old woman retreated inside the house, clutching her robe tightly. Hsi-wei never saw her again, not even at dinner, which was served shortly after Lu came home.

With apparent delight and a bit of irony, the silk-robed Lu greeted Hsi-wei effusively. “Chen Hsi-wei. Is it really you? Yes, of course. Same face, same weight, too, I notice. So, you got my letter? Well, it’s a pleasure to see you. I hope you’ll be able to grace us with your presence for a day or two? I’d like to introduce you to my superior.” Then, to his wife, he said, “Wouldn’t you say our peasant/poet looks the part? Order Mei to prepare the spare room.”

As soon as they sat down to eat, Lu began to reminisce about their days in Daxing, speaking as if they’d been the best of friends, telling his wife how badly Master Shen had dealt with Hsi-wei and claiming that he had been treated with the same brutality.

“Congratulations on your position,” Hsi-wei said to Lu, then, to his wife, “and on the child. I hope you are well?”

“Perfectly well, thank you.”

“Yes,” said Lu with satisfaction. “I think I can say that I’m a fortunate man.”

“You enjoy your work?”

“Very much indeed,” said Lu. “My superior, Deputy Governor Du, an excellent man, is not only wise but decisive. And we’ve a great deal to do, now that he’s become Acting Governor.”

“The peasants I saw on the way are suffering.”

“Yes. That’s regrettable, but there’s a crisis.”

Lu didn’t inquire about Hsi-wei’s departure from the capital, his ten years on the road, or his poems; however, he spoke with relish about the emergency with which he was assisting his superior who was now Acting Governor. He went on at length, taking pleasure in the details.

“Of course, the source of our difficulties is the weather. Floods in early spring gave way to drought in early summer. Crops failed. But the problem was compounded by the mistaken policy of our soft-hearted Governor, Hou Bo-qin.”

“I’ve heard about the weather, but not Governor Hou’s policy, nor why he’s been replaced by your superior.”

“The latter’s simply explained. When the governors of all the prefectures were summoned to the capital to be informed about the new administrative arrangements, of course Governor Hou, though in frail health, undertook the journey. But, on the way back, he fell ill and was taken to Chiangling where he’s been ever since, hovering between life and death. Before he left, though, Governor Hou took an unfortunate measure. He declared that, in view of the hard times, the tax on grain, the zu, would be cut in half. He went still further and suspended the tax on textiles as well, the diao. The consequence for our city has been catastrophic.”

“But,” said Hsi-wei, “the people in the city look well-fed and they’re not wanting for clothes either. It’s the peasants who are famished and in rags.”

Lu smiled condescendingly and raised his forefinger, a gesture Hsi-wei recognized, as it was often used by Master Shen.

“That’s so, but only because of our store houses. To give him his due, Governor Hou kept them full. However, the populace has been eating through the stores for months and now they’re nearly exhausted. You see the problem?”

Hsi-wei did. He also foresaw what Secretary Lu and his admired superior would be likely to do about it. He reviewed what he knew of the Empire’s method of taxation, the so-called Equal Field System. The word equal seemed to suggest something equitable but, in Hsi-wei’s view, that is just what it was not. The officials he knew at Daxing and those he had encountered during his travels all approved of this system and believed it was good for the Emperor’s military needs and his vast civil projects. Hsi-wei, however, assessed it with the soul of a peasant.

Under the prevailing system, the unit of taxation was the household. All peasant households—no matter how prosperous or poor—had to pay the same tax. Nobles and high officials were exempt. Those peasants who had no household, a considerable portion, paid no tax in grain or textiles. They subsisted by working for the rich landowners as servants, laborers, or tenant farmers. But there was a third tax in addition to the zu and diao, a tax all had to pay, the yong. Every peasant owed the Emperor twenty days out of the year to be paid in either military service or labor on the Grand Canal. More returned from the former than the latter.

“And what does Acting Governor Du propose?”

“As I told you, he’s wise and decisive. The moment he received word of Governor Hou’s incapacity, he revoked the ruinous tax remissions and, in consideration of the impending crisis in the city, he increased the grain tax by half. To this urgent measure, he added a long overdue innovation, which shows his genius. It’s aimed at the fat landlords. They’re all to pay a head tax.”

“A head tax?”

“That’s right. So much for every servant, worker, and tenant farmer.”

Hsi-wei, controlling himself with some difficulty, said sharply, “But doesn’t he realize that the well-off landowners will simply dismiss their landless dependents.”

Lu rubbed his belly. “Oh, don’t believe it. They can’t do without their servants and the others. They’ll pay up. Anyway, they all have secret storehouses of their own, no doubt crammed with rice and millet—yes, and good cloth, apples, and root vegetables, too.”

Hsi-wei was indignant. “So, the plan is to rob the peasants to feed the city?”

Lu frowned. “You put the matter in the worst way, Hsi-wei. There’s no robbery. As Acting Governing Du has explained, it’s the social and economic function of the peasantry to support the higher culture of the cities. In the same way, the country supports the Court and the Emperor himself. It’s regrettable that peasants suffer when the weather goes against them and the harvest is wanting. But it’s in the natural order, as is the precedence of the city over the countryside.”

Hsi-wei forced himself to stay still for a few moments, though he would have liked to shake his complacent host.

“You said Acting Governor Du is a good man?”

“It’s a privilege to serve him.”

“And his motives are virtuous?”

“Certainly. He always acts out of duty.”

“Only that?”

“What do you mean?”

“Consider our old Master Shen Kuo.”

“What’s he got to do with it?”

“When Master Shen ridiculed us, when he beat me, don’t you suppose he too believed he was doing his duty?”

“Very likely. So what?”

“You didn’t observe the pleasure he took in tyrannizing over us? You never noticed the old man’s lust for power?”

Lu gaped at Hsi-wei.

“You’ve heard the saying that we love the good?”

“Something from one of the sages, I suppose. I can’t recall which.”

“Do you think that sage was blind to all the evil done in the world?”

Lu’s face darkened. The two men faced each other alone. Lu’s wife had excused herself long before, and her mother-in-law had never come out of hiding.

“You mean to impugn our Acting Governor?”

“No. Merely to understand him. When I arrived, you said I hadn’t changed. Neither have you, Guo-liang. You flatter your superior and are indifferent to the suffering he imposes on the peasants. It was just the same in Daxing.”

With that, Lu struck the table.

Hsi-wei got to his feet. “Thank you for this meal, which I regret eating and will have a hard time digesting.”

Then the poet took up his pack and went out into the dark city.

Hsi-wei spent the rest of the evening walking the city’s streets. He slept a little on the grounds of a small Buddhist temple. When dawn broke, he headed into the countryside. In Tongxu, he paid a peasant family for lodging in their shed by making them all straw sandals. Po Ling-xi, the father, was a good man and took to the sympathetic sandal-maker. He confided that, when they learned of the new taxes, the people had gathered what grain they had left and filled clay jars which they buried on the wooded hillsides. They also chose representatives to carry an appeal to the new governor. The wealthiest landlords put themselves forward. Hsi-wei was still in Tongxu when these suppliants were beaten and thrown in prison. Du then ordered troops into the rural areas to confiscate the grain he was certain the peasants had in abundance. When his troops returned empty-handed, he was infuriated and declared that he would burn villages until the grain was forthcoming.

Those convinced of their own virtue are always the hardest to dissuade. In fact, it is rare that foolish self-righteousness is corrected or its bad deeds forestalled. But that is what happened in Bianzhou. Hsi-wei had been on the road south for a week when the news from Xingyanjun reached him.

Governor Hou had recovered and arrived from Chiangling before the troops fired the first village and before the desperate peasants grabbed their rakes and scythes to resist. The first thing the Governor did was to rescind the new taxes. The second was to have his deputy transferred to the far west. The third was to reinstate his lenient tax policy, except now he eliminated the grain tax altogether. These things were easily accomplished. But the problems of famine and the taxes owed the state remained and called for real ingenuity. What Governor Hou did was add ten days to the labor tax. He then used this measure to barter for grain from Jingzhou, which had a surplus, as he had learned in the capital. In return, the labor tax there was cut by the ten days added in Bianzhou. The Emperor was not cheated.

“Hardly perfect,” mused Hsi-wei, “but not bad either.”

Being a modest poet, Hsi-wei would probably not have rendered a better judgment on the verses inspired by his visit to Bianzhou. The poem has become popularly known as “We Love the Good.”

Even sober, Heng thought it good to revenge himself 
by murdering Lin who’d insulted him right in the tavern. 
Didn’t everybody detest that troublesome braggart, that sot? 
Didn’t everyone know Lin beat his wife and cheated at weiqi?

Captain Fu was sure it would be good not to wait for 
the reinforcements promised by General Shao 
but rather to attack at the hour just before dawn. 
The enemy would still be asleep, their pickets drowsing.

The Emperor’s nephew resolved it would good to remove 
the Son of Heaven. He could rule far more wisely. 
He would economize, take fewer concubines, win wars, 
appoint less corrupt ministers. The peasants would adore him.

Bai-du was certain it would be good to leave the garlic 
frying in her wok a little longer, just one more minute 
so the cloves would soften and turn a deeper brown. 
Then the dish would taste sweet rather than harsh.

Heng was dragged weeping to his execution. The would-be 
usurper was stripped and beheaded, his wives and lands seized. 
Before the sun was up, Fu led his men into a lethal trap. 
Bai-du scorched the garlic and ruined her husband’s dinner.

We love the good, says the sage, meaning all, no exceptions. 
He didn’t need to add that most of us are sleepwalkers 
all-too-certain of our crooked ways, or that, should we wake, 
each of us would swear that next time we’ll know better.

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 NeighborhoodThe 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.