Hsi-wei and Matchmaking – By Robert Wexelblatt




It was Lady Bao’s third visit to the retired sandal maker and poet, Chen Hsi-wei.  The first came after the end of the official mourning period for her husband, the former Governor of Chiangling.  Hsi-wei believed he had the Governor Bao to thank for the two-room cottage three li from the city, his first and last home.  Lady Bao, who liked Hsi-wei’s poems and collected them, told him bluntly that her late husband was a philistine and the gift of the cottage was her doing.  But the meanness of the place shocked her.  It was, she said, nothing like the five-room villa with a pillared portico and spacious garden her husband had promised.  Hsi-wei assured her he was content with his home, and, when she asked for the loan of his manuscripts so she could have copies made, delighted to fulfill her request.  He liked the imperious but generous noblewoman from a high-ranking southern family.  She regarded widowhood as a liberation that freed her to be candid, independent, and indifferent to convention.

Prior to her second visit, Lady Bao sent men to repair the cottage’s tile roof, paint it walls, install some decent furniture, lay out a small garden, and pave up the muddy patio Hsi-wei called his courtyard.  When two days later she came herself to return his scrolls, they discussed many topics but chiefly marital fidelity, prompted by Hsi-wei’s poem known as “Yuang-Yang.”  Both were aware of Emperor Wen’s oath to Dugu to have children only by her, by his unprecedented lack of concubines after he assumed the Mandate of Heaven.  They also knew of the Empress’ obsession with monogamy.  The subject was of interest to the new widow, who had little respect for her spouse but a great deal for fidelity.

On this third visit the Lady Bao once again brought a banquet from her kitchen in Chiangling.  This time it was baked whitefish, shui jiao dumplings, a dish of cabbage with sausage, sweet bean rolls, along with a jug of Hsi-wei’s favorite yellow wine, of which Lady Bao too was becoming fond.

Once they were settled in the patio, the meal heated and served by her attendants, Lady Bao launched the conversation in her peremptory fashion.  “Master Hsi-wei, I want to hear your opinions on marriage.”

Hsi-wei gave a modest bow.  “As you know, My Lady, I’m unqualified.”

“I wasn’t asking about your non-existent marriage,” she replied sharply.  “I want to know whether you think arranged marriages, like most, including mine, are better or worse than love matches.  One of my servants is leaving me to marry a fellow with whom she claims to be in love.  A porter!”

“Well, My Lady, the orthodox opinion is clear.  Marriages founded on duty are more stable than those based on love because duty is durable as stone walls and love fleeting, like a house built on quicksand.  The Confucians believe married couples are the bricks out of which a good society is built, and that marriage is a union of two families, two clans, not merely two infatuated people.  Confucius himself said that marriage is to cultivate virtue, not passion.  The Daoists are not so different.  They see marriage as simply a matter of civil law, a contract to stay together and rear children.  But they don’t particularly value monogamy and their monks usually marry.  Buddhist monks don’t marry; they preach non-attachment to themselves and unconditional acceptance of that is to everybody.  That would include a spouse.  They say the Buddha was like Empress Dugu, all for strict fidelity.”

Lady Bao did not look pleased.  “Thank you for this superfluous little lecture, Master, which I will regard as a refresher course but not an adequate reply to my question.  I didn’t ask about Buddhists or Daoists.  I asked for your opinion, not that of Laozi or Confucius.  Do you take a dim view of arranged marriages, like Xin-yi, my romantic servant?”

“No.  Xin-yi’s marriage may turn out well.  I hope it does.  There’s no reason duty shouldn’t spring from love, as love often does from duty.”

“It didn’t in my case.  I was dutiful but never happy.”

“I regret to hear it,” said Hsi-wei, who had heard it before.

Lady Bao scoffed.  “No need.  Women of my class don’t expect to choose their husbands.”

“Yet the Emperor Wen and Empress Dugu are said to have married for love.”

“Perhaps so, but it was an exception.  Besides, they weren’t yet on thrones.” 

“Political and commercial partnerships cemented by marriage bring many benefits to families and clans.”

“And to the Empire too, I suppose, but what of individuals?”

“To them as well—at least sometimes.”

“Oh?  I would say that the happiness of individuals is hardly a consideration.”

Hsi-wei took a sip of wine.  si-=Hsi“May I tell you a story to make my point?”

“I prefer stories to lectures.”

“And poems to stories because they’re generally shorter?”

Lady Bao, unused to being teased, could not suppress a smile.  “Very well, Master His-wei.  Let’s have your story then.”

“In the year that Emperor Wen died—or was killed—and Yangdi took the throne, I paid a visit to an old friend and his wife.  Ko Qing-zhao is a landscape painter, a master of Shan Shui, who made his living as a clerk in the magistrate’s office in Hsuan.  This work left him little time for painting, but through it he made the acquaintance of a fine young woman, Mai-ling, whom misfortune had left without resources.  He assisted her, fell in love with her, then married her.  I visited them shortly after and found both happy.

“In the same month that Wendi died, a letter from Ko reached me.  Ko had double good news.  He had been promoted to deputy magistrate and Mai-ling had given birth to a child, a boy.  He wrote that they had named the child Hsi-wei.”

“Oh, that must have pleased you.”

Hsi-wei hesitated.  “It gave me a strange feeling, hard to describe.”

“Even for a poet?”

Hsi-wei nodded.

“So, I understand that your friend married for love, but his wife may not have.  You said she was without resources and without a family either, I suppose?”

“All dead.  You’d like to know whether Mai-ling married Ko for love or out of gratitude and need.  I can’t be certain.  Perhaps she herself would find it hard to say.  But I do know the marriage was a happy one.  My belief is that she loved Ko, that she wouldn’t have married him only for security.”

“It seems improbable to me.”

“With respect, My Lady, you haven’t met her.”

“Very well, but this story of your friend his Mai-ling hardly shows how arranged marriages are good for those most concerned.”

“Just so.  It is only a story to lead to the story I want to tell.  It explains why I paid a visit to Hsuan and, more importantly, when.”

“When we changed from a good emperor to a bad one?”

“Exactly.  As you’ll recall, one of the new emperor’s first acts was to change the law regarding property.”

“You mean his forbidding women to own any?”

Hsi-wei cleared his throat.  “Yes, that.  And the magistrate assigned the task of executing the new law in Hsuan to Ko.”

Hsi-wei cleared his throat again, and Lady Bao considerately suggested a bit more wine.  The poet filled their cups, moistened his throat, then resumed his tale.

“Ko and Mai-ling received me warmly, proudly showed off my little namesake.  He smiled at me, and I presented him with a panda cub carved in wood and covered with fur.  He laughed and bit it.  Over dinner, Ko told me about his work, how much he disliked it, and spoke especially of an elderly widow, a Mrs. Jia.  The woman’s husband had been a carpenter who owned some property, a wedding present from an uncle.  There was a small house and enough land to support three tenant families.  Under the new law, this land and the widow’s home would be taken by the government and sold to a male buyer.  Ko was deeply disturbed. The poor old woman had outlived her two children, her in-laws, and all her other relatives.  She would be homeless and, without the tenants’ rent, destitute.”

“A bad law from an even worse emperor,” grumbled Lady Bao.

“I agree on both counts.  The next day, while Ko was at work and Mai-ling was napping with the baby, I walked around Hsuan.  In the marketplace, I came on a beggar, an old man in a shabby robe seated by the well.  It was his robe that drew my attention.  Beggars, alas, are not uncommon, but beggars in tattered silk robes are.  I gave the man a coin and sat down beside him.  The man’s name was Mr. Huang.  He told me that he had once been a timber merchant with a thriving business and two sturdy sons to help him run it.  Eight years earlier, he received the biggest order he’d ever had from a furniture maker in the capital.  The buyer wanted a cartload of rare and costly zitan wood.  Zitan grows only in the south and it is so dense that it doesn’t float.  The money he would have to advance to buy the zitan was beyond his means, but the profit would be colossal.  He found a seller, settled on a price, borrowed the sum needed to buy the wood, and sent his sons to the south to bring it back.  While ferrying their precious load across the Nen, the sons were attacked by river bandits in sampans swarming from both banks.  His sons tried to defend the cargo.  In the struggle, both his sons lost their lives and the ferry capsized.  Mr. Huang explained that he couldn’t pay either his taxes or repay his debt so, between them, the government and his creditors divided up what little was left.  “I lost everything,” he said, “except those debts and this wretched life.’”

“Poor man.”

“Poor and barefoot too.  I told Mr. Huang I’d bring him a pair of good straw sandals the next day.  On the way back to Ko’s villa, I began to form an idea.  That evening I asked Ko if I might visit the widow he was compelled to dispossess, Mrs. Jia.  He asked why and I said I wanted to judge her character.  ‘You’re thinking up something, aren’t you?’ said Mai-ling.  She loved hearing the story of how her husband and I had once conspired to reverse an injustice by bending the law. ‘It’s possible,’ I said, ‘but I need to think it through and to meet Mrs. Jia.’  Ko laughed and said he hoped his own Hsi-wei wouldn’t turn out to be as mysterious as this one.  Then he told me how to get to the widow’s property. 

I had some straw in my pack and that night I made a pair of sandals for Mr. Huang.  The next morning, I paid my visit to the widow.  Mrs. Jia welcomed me and made a good impression.  At first, she thought I was from the magistrate’s office.  I could see she was frightened but she bore up with dignity.  I explained that I was sandal maker making the rounds.  She said she didn’t need sandals but offered me tea.  We spoke for a while.  She asked about my travels rather than complaining about her peril.  Before returning to town, I exchanged some words with the wife of one of Mrs. Jia’s tenants.  She told me that that Mrs. Jia was kind, often looked after the children, and was much loved.  She cursed the new law and said she was distressed not only on the widow’s behalf but also her own, certain that a new landlord would raise the nominal rent Mrs. Jia charged her tenants. 

In the afternoon, I returned to the marketplace, found Mr. Huang in his place by the well, bought us each a dumpling, and gave him his new sandals.  The man took my hand and wept.  To be honest, I nearly did too.”

“In my experience, not all poets are so soft-hearted as you—or sandal makers either.”

“And not all magistrates approve of the laws they have to administer, My Lady.  That night, I told Ko and Mai-ling the plan I’d worked out.  Both thought it might work if it could be carried out quickly and if everybody agreed.”

“And your plan was?”

“Quite simple, actually.  Mr. Huang would marry Mrs. Jia.  The land would then become his and the widow could go on living on it.  Mr. Huang would have a roof over his head and their modest needs would be met by the rents from the tenants.”

“Hmm.  You said the beggar was old.  What if he should die before his new wife?”

“My idea was that Ko would draw up a will for Mr. Huang leaving the land to my friend, who solemnly undertook to maintain it for the widow and not to raise the peasants’ rent.”

“And when the widow died?”

“Ko would keep the land, not raise the rents, and pay the Emperor his taxes.  Good for the widow, good for the beggar, good for my friend and his family—good even for Emperor Yang.”

“And did everybody agree to this extraordinary plan?”

“Wouldn’t you, My Lady, in their circumstances?”

Lady Bao nodded, admitting she would.  “There are times when the law needs circumventing,” she said sharply.  “It’s true.  And your story does show that an arranged marriage can be good for both bride and groom, even those long free of desire and sitting on death’s doorstep.  So, did it happen or not?”

“Mrs. Jia and Mr. Huang were both shocked at first.  I had to explain my idea to them more than once.  I asked Mai-ling to invite them both to dinner.  They were charmingly shy with one another; but, after sharing the stories of their misfortunes, they agreed.  And so, of course, did Ko.  The tenants, relieved that Mrs. Jia would keep her home and that their rents would not go up, held a wedding feast.  The couple were very formal with one another but clearly pleased. 

“I was happy to arrive in Hsuan but, after kissing little Hsi-wei and hugging Ko and Mai-ling, I departed even happier.”

Lady Bao filled their cups with the last of the wine.

“And did you write a poem about it all?  That was your usual practice, wasn’t it?”

“I did.  It was among the scrolls you borrowed.”

“It was?”  Lady Bao furrowed her brow and looked at Hsi-wei pensively.  “Ah!  I think I’ve guessed.  I thought it was just another of your moralistic children’s verses.  It’s the one about the two boys and the beetles, isn’t it?”

“Just so,” said Hsi-wei, and drank down the last of the wine.

Here is Hsi-wei’s poem the one people call “Two Boys, Two Beetles.”

Jun caught a pair of beetles, 
the kind with long antennae.
The boy was not kind to his beetles.
He took a vegetable crate and put
a chunk of rotting wood at one end, 
the favorite dish, he knew, of beetles.
Then he used some spare bricks 
to build a maze inside the crate/
It was what he pictured when his father 
told him about the one in Wanhua Garden,
except Jun’s maze had no way through.
Jun put the beetles in a jar.  He starved
them, leaving them out in sun and rain.
Then he put them in the crate far away 
from the fragrant wood they craved.
He enjoyed watching the baffled beetles
feeling futilely with their whiplike antennae,
growing weaker, dragging themselves 
this way and that from brick to brick.
Some boys are like Jun, innocently cruel.
And too often poor peasants feel like those 
beetles, confounded in the labyrinth of law.  
The Chins’ little son Kai came by and
Jun proudly showed the younger boy his maze.
Kai was not pleased. He didn’t find it funny
and rebuked Jun for being mean to the beetles.
Jun called Kai a baby and drove him away.
But when Jun’s mother called him in to dinner,
Kai crept back to the crate and removed,
one by one, all the bricks, opening the way.
And when Kai’s mother called him in to dinner,
he wished the beetles a good appetite.  And so
the beetles, Jun, and Kai all had their dinners.

More Hsi-wei tales:
About the Author

Robert Wexelblatt is a professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published ten 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.