Hsi-wei and the Little Straw Sandals

Robert Wexelblatt

The most durable achievements of the Sui Dynasty were the rebuilding of the Great Wall and the construction of the Grand Canal. But the brief Sui reign accomplished more. Emperor Wen’s reinstatement of the examination system, his penal, land, and currency reforms, along with his promotion of Buddhism, can be justly said to have laid the foundation for the glories of the Tang Dynasty. To carry out the vast Sui construction projects and fight their many wars, thousands were conscripted and countless lives sacrificed. The high taxes were paid in labor or military service. It is not surprising that these losses figure in many of the poems of Chen Hsi-wei, the peasant/poet who spent his life traveling throughout the empire, leaving behind him straw sandals and poems. Hsi-wei lived to see the fall of the Sui Dynasty and the start of its successor. A minister of the new regime, Fang Xuan-ling, an admirer of Hsi-wei’s verses, paid a visit to the poet in his retirement and kept a record of their conversations. Fang questioned Hsi-wei about the origins of many poems, including the one people called “The Little Straw Sandals.”

***

As a special gift, Fang Xuan-ling had brought three cakes of green tea, which, he said, was becoming popular at court. After Hsi-wei brewed a pot, they settled down to drink and talk in the tiny cobbled patio Hsi-wei called his courtyard.

Hsi-wei, always courteous, complimented the tea. Fang asked if Hsi-wei recalled a poem popularly known as “The Little Straw Sandals.”

The poet put down his cup. “I remember it. It’s one where I tried to say something by not saying it.”

“Saying and not saying. Something you picked up from the Chan Buddhists?” Laying his cup aside, Fang reached for his brush, prepared to make a note as he sententiously recited the well-known Chan principle, “Never tell too plainly.”

Hsi-wei chuckled. “Oh, nothing so spiritual as that, My Lord.”

“Well then, can you tell me how you came to write that poem?”

“I can. In fact, I remember it very well. And who knows? Perhaps if I tell you, you’ll see what I wasn’t saying.”

“As you say, who knows?” Fang finished his tea. “Please proceed, Master Hsi-wei.”

“Very well. That summer, I was making my way through Liangzhou when I came to a little village called Yanshi Kun. The place was in a pitiable state, like so many others I saw that year. No dogs barked when I came down the road. All the peasants’ hovels were in states of disrepair; the fields were choked with weeds; skinny, half-dressed children ran around or slumped under trees looking exhausted and despondent.”

“What was the matter?”

“Yanshi Kun was a village populated by those too old to do much work and those too young to do any at all. The whole district was poor, but Yanshi Kun was destitute.”

“Ah, that explains the lack of dogs. They couldn’t even afford to feed them.”

“My Lord, I’m afraid it was rather the other way around.”

Fang, a city man who had always been well off, blushed. “Ah. I didn’t think of that.”

Hsi-wei, embarrassed to have embarrassed his guest, continued. “Though it wasn’t likely I’d find customers, I set up my sign by the village well. People gathered around, not to order sandals but to beg for news. Of course, I couldn’t tell them what they really wanted to know—about those who’d gone away. I shared with them what I could, things I’d picked up along the way, but not everything. I didn’t tell them about the many deaths at the Canal or the latest reverse in Goguryeo. Things for these people were bad enough as they were.”

Fang tried to brighten the mood. “Did you sell any sandals?”

Hsi-wei grinned. “My Lord, you know I did. One pair.”

“Then I suppose you had little to do in the village.”

“Oh, I was very busy in Yanshi Kun. I made myself useful. I remember fixing a leaking roof and replacing rotted boards on a shed. Though it was late in the season, I even planted some rice for an ancient farmer who couldn’t bend over anymore. He kept nodding and smiling at me. I remember tearing weeds from an old woman’s vegetable plot. Also, I entertained the children.”

“Did you gather them up, or did children just come to you?”

“Some of them had never seen anybody my age, and others must have had happy memories of their parents. It’s no wonder they flocked around me. It certainly wasn’t due to any merit in me.”

“And how did you entertain them?”

“I recited a poem I thought might divert them. It’s about a smart little girl named Mai Ling. I don’t suppose you know it?”

Fang made a serious face, concentrating. “I think I might. Do you have a copy?”

“I do. Would you like to read it?”

“I’d like it even better if you read it to me.”

The poet rose and went into his two-room cottage and returned with a small, not very clean scroll.

Saying “As you wish, My Lord,” Hsi-wei unfurled the scroll and read the poem people call “Mai Ling’s Good Idea.”

Long ago, there was war between Night and Day.

They taunted and insulted one another, all spite and spleen.

Like a woolen blanket, Night tried to blot out Day

while Day, like a bonfire, toiled to outshine the stars.

From these mighty battles, people and animals suffered,

enjoying respites only at noontime and midnight.

 

With Winter and Summer, it was much the same.

They detested each other and all the more

for being so evenly matched. Midsummer and Midwinter

were calm, but, in between, the seasons’ wrestled ceaselessly;

raising tempests and earthquakes to afflict the world.

 

One day, as her grandparents were complaining of it all,

Mai Ling spoke up, a little girl of just eight years.

“Nobody can tell me what time is or how much there is of it.

So, why not just make more? Then Uncle Winter can have

his time and Auntie Summer hers; then Day can be day

all day and Night can be night the whole night through.”

 

Mai Ling’s grandfather laughed indulgently, as old men do.

But her granny reproached him. “Listen to the child.

New eyes see better than old ones.” And so the people

convened a parley with Day and Night, and invited

Winter and Summer too. When all were settled,

Day and Night and Winter and Summer glaring

At one another, Mai ling got up explained her idea.

 

“Uncle Day, when you get sleepy, you shouldn’t struggle.

Auntie Night, when you’re worn out, you ought to go to bed.

You shouldn’t rub your eyes and spite each other.

Neighbors need boundaries, little walls, not too high.

We can make new time if only you’ll agree.

We’ll set fences between you: Dusk and Dawn.

 

“And as for you, Uncle Winter and Auntie Summer,

you should do the same and not crash into each other

ruining our rice with untimely heat and blasts of cold.

Let’s set new seasons between you, just little ones, low walls.

As Winter tires, we’ll have Spring, and as Summer fades, Fall.

 

That’s my idea. In the night, people and animals can go

to sleep and during the day we’ll work and play.

In Spring, we’ll sow, and in the Fall, we’ll harvest.

Then you can stop this nasty wrangling and enjoy yourselves.

Then we shall all be grateful to you, blessing

Each day and every night, each season and every year.”

 

“I’d forgotten how charming it was,” said Fang, smiling at the picture of happy youngsters in his head. “The children must have been delighted.”

Hsi-wei didn’t reply at once and, when he did, it was in a somber tone. “My Lord, the village was very poor; the children were terribly hungry.”

“I can imagine.”

“With respect, I’m not sure you can. Those children didn’t have enough strength to express delight. But they did sit quietly, so I was able to give their grandparents a little time to themselves. And the people were generous with me, as the poor usually are. The less they have, the more they share. The old couple whose thatch I repaired wanted to give me their bed, though it was only a burlap rice sack stuffed with rushes. ‘We’ll sleep on the floor beside the children. It will be a pleasure for us.’ I declined, of course, and took myself to the shed I’d repaired. The pigs were long gone.

“The next day, I did some more work, mostly lifting things, as I recall. An old woman watched me, impossible to say whether with approval or suspicion. A tiny, barefoot toddler was clinging to her. He kept saying ‘Zumu, Zumu,’ as he tugged at her skirt. It sounded like a whine, a plea. He was as thin as the others, but his stomach was swollen.”

“Ah, a big stomach? Then he was well fed?”

Hsi-wei shook his head, again embarrassed to have to explain. “No, My Lord. It’s what happens to children who are starving.”

Fang had nothing to say to that, and Hsi-wei quickly resumed.

“In the afternoon, it grew hot. The old woman led the boy over to a dusty willow tree and sat him down with a group of children lolling in the shade.”

“The old woman in the poem?”

“Yes. Mrs. Chu. Another old woman told me later that Mrs. Chu’s son had been lost in Goguryeo and, to pay the tax, her daughter-in-law went to the Canal. That was the year before, when the boy was barely two years old. No one expected his mother to come back except Mrs. Chu. Though the boy was falling asleep, I could hear him still murmuring ‘Zumu,’ but quietly now, with resignation. That was when she approached me.

“‘You make sandals?’ she asked. I said I did.

“She nodded toward the willow. ‘My grandson is walking now. His mother will be so surprised. I’ve been thinking. I want to buy him a pair of sandals. How much would that cost?’

Hsi-wei stopped, and the two men were quiet.

“Another cup of tea?” Hsi-wei offered.

“I know what you were telling without telling,” said Fang.

“Yes?”

“The verses are present, also Mrs. Chu, the boy, and the sandals. I remember you also said something interesting about your feelings concerning your work. But the poem’s really about what’s missing, isn’t it? About who’s missing. The dogs, the pigs, but most of all the parents.”

Hsi-wei smiled, got to his feet, collected their cups, and went to fetch more green tea.

***

The Little Straw Sandals

 

Mrs. Chu ordered sandals for her grandson

Wanglei. She beamed, proud that the boy could

Already walk. “They’ll be his first,” she said.

She took something from the pocket of her skirt.

It was a little Wanglei-sole-sized cucumber.

“This is how small you’re to make them.”

 

Fashioning such tiny sandals isn’t simple.

I used the finest straw, pulled the strands

Taut, made the knots tight, and carefully sliced

off the loose ends. I made them sturdy too.

Wanglei was bound to be rough on them.

Straw sandals are humble, useful, honest,

Like Mrs. Chu, who tried to pay me.

 

I’ve had more customers than readers.

I like when people admire their new sandals,

Hold them up, turn them this way and that,

And say it must have been hard to make them.

But I’m even happier when they say that

Making straw sandals must be easy for me.

To tell the truth, it’s no different with my poems.


About the Author

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.