Hsi-wei and the Three Proverbs by Robert Wexelblatt

Hsi-wei and the Three Proverbs

Robert Wexelblatt

The Tang minister Fang Xuan-ling devotes a lengthy section of his memoirs to the week-long visit he paid the peasant/poet Chen Hsi-wei. This was near the end of Hsi-wei’s life, after the poet had given up his itinerant existence and settled in the tiny cottage granted him by the Governor of Chiangling. The place was in the middle of farmland three li outside the city gates, two rooms with a mean patio and a small vegetable garden.

Each day, Minister Fang would arrive from the city in the late morning and stay until sunset. He brought food, tea, wine, along with a scroll, an inkstone, and two brushes.

On the fourth afternoon, as they sat in the little patio taking tea, he asked about the poem Hsi-wei had titled “The Three Proverbs.”

“Pardon my ignorance, Master, but the title is obscure to me. There are no proverbs in the poem. Perhaps you are aware that people call it ‘Three Little Tales.'”

Hsi-wei grinned. “Titles are not so important to me. I was always pleased when people came up with their own names for my poor verses. I prefer them. All the same, choosing a title is a serious matter and seldom an easy one. Sometimes, a title was the real beginning of a poem; at others, a summary I added at the end. But most often, I thought of a title as a promise.”

“A promise?”

“One that the poem attempts to fulfill. In rare cases, a title can be a key to unlock hidden meaning. The poem you’ve asked about is one of those.”

“The poem is in code?”

“No, it’s not a secret message. Just a silly puzzle.”

“How so?”

“My Lord, an archer doesn’t set up his target in order to miss his aim, but I fear that is what happened with ‘The Three Proverbs,’ and you’ve confirmed it. The game was really for me more than the reader, which is where I went wrong. I was indulging myself. No doubt, people sensed this. Their title, ‘Three Little Tales,’ is better. ‘Three Pointless Tales’ would have been better still.”

Fang leaned forward. “I’m not sure I understand. When you say you were indulging yourself and that poem is a puzzle, what do you mean?”

Hsi-wei refilled their teacups before replying.

“That unworthy little poem was an exercise I set myself. Two of the proverbs I heard as a child in my village; the third I picked up while traveling along the Grand Canal, which is where I wrote the poem.”

“Ah,” the attentive Fang said with satisfaction. “Then, each of the stories illustrates a proverb.”

“Yes. And that was the puzzle for the reader, to figure out the proverbs. Unfortunately, the poem turned out to be like one of those ill-conceived jokes nobody gets. Or a lock without a key.”

“But, the title was the key.”

“As I said, a useless one. Actually, there’s more to the matter. Behind each of the little made-up stories is a true one.”

“So then, there are six stories and three proverbs?”

“Exactly. But now that you’ve gotten me thinking, I would like to say something about the difference between poems and proverbs. You could say that my relation to proverbs is one of a peasant, while my relation to poems is the consequence of my education in Daxing. So, the poem reflects my own ambiguous situation, too low-born ever to belong to the upper class, too educated to belong to the lower.”

“Another way of looking at it is that your poems appeal to both classes. That is unusual, Master.”

“You’re most gracious to say so. If you’re right, then perhaps that too is the consequence of my belonging to neither.”

Here, Minister Fang drew out his scroll and prepared the ink.

“Please go on, Master. I would like to learn more of your views on poems and proverbs.”

Hsi-wei was pleased to oblige.

“A poem is made by one person. It may be bad or good. If bad, it will be forgotten at once, maybe even by the one who made it. But if it is good, a poem may be remembered for a time. Some may memorize it and recite it at parties to divert or impress their guests. This is what passes for immortality among poets, who can be childishly vain. But a proverb comes from the people, even those sayings ascribed to Confucius or Lao-tse, because, by repeated application to their lives, the people make a proverb their own. Because a good proverb is owned by no one, it belongs to everyone.”

Fang made a few notes, then returned to the matter that really interested him.

“What are the stories behind the stories in your poem?”

“Oh, it’s been so long. Wendi was still Emperor when I made up that little puzzle.”

Fang readied his brush and begged Hsi-wei to try to remember.

“Very well, I’ll do my best for you. As you’ll remember, this was during my journey along the Grand Canal, which has made so much money but cost more lives than all the Sui wars put together. Somewhere between Suzhou and Wuxi, I came to a town, set my sign up in the square as usual, and took orders for straw sandals. The town was busy; it had a depot, and many barges stopped there. A red-faced bargeman with a body like a crate ordered a pair of sandals from me. He growled that he would buy them on condition that I had them ready by the next morning when he would be moving on. He was curt and seemed inexplicably angry.”

Hsi-wei paused. “Have you observed, my Lord, that people find it harder to conceal their anger than their sorrow?”

“Yes. That’s quite true.”

“In that respect, being angry is like knowing a humorous story. It wants to be told. Anyway, the bargeman said, ‘I’d buy another pair for my wretched assistant, but the dog’s-head can go barefoot. Let him get splinters!’

“I asked what the wretched assistant had done to merit the splinters.

“‘The fool neglected the sweep and drove us square into the dock. I have to pay for the damage. He’s barricaded himself in the cabin, the coward, or I’d have given him fifty lashes!’

“‘With respect, sir,’ I said, ‘how old is he, this assistant?’

“‘Fourteen. He’s big for his age, though.’

“‘And has he done anything of the kind before?’

“‘Yes! Last week he nearly made us collide with one of the heavy timber barges. We’d have been sunk for sure.’

“‘And what did you do?’ I asked sympathetically.

“‘What did I do? Gave him two lashings, didn’t I, one with my tongue and one with the bamboo. Both good hidings, too, though it seems I was too lenient.’

“It was obvious why the boy was hiding. The bargeman could not control his temper. I ventured to ask him if he would listen to some advice.

“The astonished fellow looked me up and down. ‘From a sandal-maker?’

“I stood up straighter. ‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘from this worthless sandal-maker.’

The bargeman scoffed but said, ‘Well, out with it.’

“At a stall close by, a woman was selling sweets.

“‘First,’ I said, ‘calm yourself. Walk around the square. Take twenty deep breaths. Then go to that woman over there and buy a paper of her sweets. When you get back to your barge, use them to coax the boy out of the cabin. Speak softly and promise him a really good meal—one with both pork and fish—if you make it to Jianxing without any more mishaps.’

“‘What? Sweets? Pork?’

“‘Yes, and fish, too,’ I said.”

Hsi-wei folded his hands and fell silent.

“What? That’s all?” asked Fang lifting his brush.

“Yes. It was seeing how incensed that bargeman was and picturing the terrified boy that made me think of the old proverb I heard as a child.”

“What proverb?”

Hsi-wei smiled slyly. “Just now, my memory seems to be working, so I’ll relate the second incident, which also concerns a bargeman. I heard the story from the drinkers in a tavern where I spent a sleepless summer night. I remember it well, a rambling, ramshackle place with gray boards and green slime, right on the docks. It was terribly hot because of the low ceiling and crush of canal men.

“The story was about a certain bargeman, of course. I can’t recall his name; perhaps it was Chin. Well, this Chin was ambitious. He used the family savings to buy a barge and was doing well, but to be comfortably prosperous didn’t satisfy him. He wanted a four-pillared villa. He wanted to be bowed to on the streets. He wanted others working for him. So, he took the easy path, said the men at the tavern. I had the impression that they all knew this path rather well.

“Chin made contacts among the disreputable and struck deals with them. He began transporting untaxed cargo to the capital, where the profits were greatest. His crooked colleagues assured him the magistrate would make no difficulties.

“Before long, Chin bought a second barge, then a third. He picked out a piece of high ground and ordered plans for his four-pillared villa.

“But then a new magistrate was appointed in Jining. He was from Qingzhou and incorruptible. After he was approached with the offer of the same bribe accepted by his predecessor, the magistrate proclaimed that a substantial reward would be paid for information about anyone transporting untaxed goods.

“Within the week, Chin was arrested and a day later was kneeling before the magistrate’s bench. There were two informants. One was the man he hired to take charge of his third barge; the other was his younger brother. The first he had paid too little, the second was not only envious but vengeful. Chin had bullied and tyrannized over him all his life, in addition to appropriating his share of the family savings.

“Chin was lashed fifty times, had to pay a heavy fine, and his three barges were confiscated.”

“A familiar story,” said Fang. “It shows the wisdom of the three-year term for magistrates and forbidding them to serve in their native province. But, Master, what’s the proverb?”

Hsi-wei smiled. “Please be patient, My Lord. There’s still one more story to tell. It isn’t either pleasant or short. This one has nothing to do with the canal or bargemen, but it does have another honest magistrate. His name was Guo Hui-liang, and I came to know him a little when I was studying with Shen Kuo in the capital. He had just passed his examination. Guo Hui-liang impressed me. He was learned and humane, a good Confucian intrigued by Buddhist teachings. Though he was from a well-off family, he showed sincere concern for the poor. Perhaps that is why he wished to meet me, the peasant who turned down a fortune for an education. As you know, I was then a curiosity, something like a trained dog. Guo and I met twice, and I enjoyed our conversations. A more upright and thoughtful man I did not come across in Daxing. That I turned up at his new post was a sheer accident.

“Magistrate Guo arrived in Yangchuan two months before I did. This was at the time of Emperor Wen’s land reform, the Equal Field system. By the way, I’m pleased that Emperor Gaozu has decided to confirm it, a good and wise decision. According to Wendi’s revolutionary system, the government became sole owner of all land in the Empire so that it could allocate it to individuals regardless of class. Land was distributed based on each household’s ability to supply labor. The system transformed the situation of the poor but was not entirely fair or without problems. For example, the lands of high officials were exempted from tax and were inherited by their families at their deaths. Taxes for all other households were the same, so the burden fell heavily on peasants and not at all on officials. Normally, when the householder died, the land reverted to the state. This was to keep the local gentry from accumulating land and the power that went with it. But there was a hole in the law’s fabric. Land could be passed down within the family if it required long-term development.

“Guo’s predecessor in the district did nothing to implement the reforms. The wealthy of Yangchuan still controlled all the good land, and the lot of the peasants was to be their share-croppers, serfs, and servants.

“Guo arrived in Yangchuan with his four constables and escorted by only six cavalrymen. With such a small force, no one expected him to change things. But they were wrong. The day after his arrival, he ordered notices to be posted and sent his constables to summon the population to a public meeting. Three days later, Guo stood on a platform set up in the square dressed in his formal robes and wearing his winged hat. He explained to a large crowd that the new system meant all land in the district would now be reallocated by him as soon as a census was taken of men, women, and livestock. Each household, he promised, would be counted and issued its land fairly, according to the new law. I was told that the peasants set up a loud cheer after he finished speaking. The well-off were silent.

“The rich did all they could to thwart Guo. They offered bribes to the census-takers, tried to intimidate the constables, and threatened their share-croppers and serfs. The most cunning of them even tried to use the law to defeat the law.”

Minister Fang, who had ceased taking notes and seemed to be losing interest, perked up at that last phrase and asked, “How did he do that?”

“You remember the exception for long-term development?”

“We’ve retained that provision. It’s sensible to let one family hold on to their land if they are carrying out projects like swamp-clearing, the cultivation of orchards, and digging irrigation systems. Those can take years.”

“Exactly. This rascally landowner instructed his friends to import eight mulberry trees each and plant two in each corner of their land. They all filed petitions claiming they were establishing a local silk industry.”

“I see. How did the magistrate react?”

“He found out which of the census-takers had taken bribes and punished them publicly. He reassured the frightened peasants that he would protect them. As for the mulberry plantings, he dismissed all the petitions, pointing out that they had planted red mulberries and silkworms ate the fruit of white mulberries, also that neither the worms nor the saplings would be likely to survive Yangchuan’s severe winters.”

“Good for him, knowing about the red mulberries.”

“The nobles didn’t give up. Instead, they slandered Guo, spreading rumors that he was guilty of three outrages. First, that he had seduced the third wife of a rich landowner. Second, that he had misappropriated government funds. Third, that he had sent his constables to burn down one of their villas. Through their connections in the capital, they managed to get these false charges into the hands of the First Minister.”

“Had they any proof?”

“The third wife was bullied by her husband into signing a false affidavit. A villa really did burn down, but because of a cook’s carelessness. As for the misappropriated funds, they claimed that Guo had bought himself a dozen silk robes and a pair of prime horses. As evidence, they submitted forged receipts.”

“What happened?”

“I arrived in time to witness the outcome. I heard the truth from Guo himself when I paid a call on him the day before the provincial prefect arrived to conduct a hearing. I attended it, of course. One rich landowner after another repeated their lies. The disgraced third wife was cross-examined but said almost nothing before breaking down in sobs.”

“Was Guo able to defend himself?”

Hsi-wei shrugged. “He did what he could.”

“Didn’t anyone speak up for him?”

“Only one person.”

“Not his constables?”

“No. One was beaten half to death, and the others were offered the choice of the same treatment or a bribe.”

“None of the peasants spoke for him?”

“None said a word. Some were clearly frightened; others may have believed the rumors, but many seemed pleased to see a magistrate in the dock, even a good one. The hearing ended with the prefect ordering Guo to return to the capital under guard. As the crowd was drifting away, I overheard one peasant say to another, ‘It’s just as well. It’s dangerous to have a magistrate who can’t be bribed.’”

“Who was the one who spoke up for Guo?”

Hsi-wei glumly looked down at his lap.

“Only this worthless maker of straw-sandals and useless poems.”

After that, the two men sat quietly for a while, watching the sun set. Fang was shocked by what that peasant had said about upright officials. Then he spread out his scroll and took up his brush.

“So, Master Hsi-wei, I understand these are the stories behind the three in your poem. But what are the proverbs?”

Hsi-wei counted them out on his fingers.

“Strike with a meat bun. Water floats a boat but also sinks it. Virtue is more persecuted by the wicked than loved by the good.”

The Three Proverbs

Fu discovered Dao chewing a pair of his breeches.

He bawled at the dog and beat him with a stick.

Dao hid himself behind the pig shed all afternoon.

Just before supper, Dao dragged off a sandal.

Fu swore at the dog and threw a brass ladle at him.

Fu’s old mother watched from the hearth.

She held a meat bun out toward the cowering Dao

then called him close and quietly stroked his head.


Dreaming of fishing, trade, warm starry nights

on the canal, Dingxiao and his son decided to build

a sampan, one with comfortable quarters for two.

They laid the first plank flat, affixed two for the sides,

smoothed and sealed it all with tar. Two weeks hard work.

“Let’s launch!” begged the son. Dingxiao tied the prow to a willow.

The hull floated. Proud and weary, they slept through the

cloudburst. Come morning, only the rope was above water.


Bingwen was diligent, the smartest, best behaved.

Master Shu praised him relentlessly. “Admire Bingwen’s

calligraphy! See how neatly he keeps his brushes!

Hear how perfectly he recites the Shijing Masters!”

Every day the other boys found new ways

to torment Bingwen. They tore off his cap,

pummeled his ribs, tripped him up, and the angriest

cursed his ancestors to the eighteenth generation.

About the Author

Robert Wexelblatt is a professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published seven fiction collections; 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.