In the third summer following the death of Emperor Wen, after spending the spring in the north, Chen Hsi-wei, the vagabond peasant/poet and maker of straw sandals, made his way down the trading road to the south. He thought he might pay a visit to a man who lived in Luanzhou, the last town north of the River Xiao. This acquaintance was Gao Zeduan, a merchant who dealt in finely crafted bowls, vases, bronzes and jade work, small statues, and jewelry of all sorts. The year before, the two had met at an inn on the outskirts of Chang’an. Hsi-wei was staying in the smallest room while Gao occupied the largest. They had struck up a conversation over a jug of yellow wine, and it proved so interesting that they agreed to spend the next afternoon walking through the old capital to continue the congenial talk. What impelled Gao, who had come to the city on business, to put off his buying and selling and spend time with an itinerant sandal-maker, was the discovery this unprepossessing fellow traveler was the poet Chen Hsi-wei. By then, Hsi-wei’s verses had been circulating for years and had brought him a degree of fame. It was no longer unusual for Hsi-wei to encounter people who, on hearing his name, suspected who he was. Gao had asked Hsi-wei if he made poems as well as sandals, and the poet admitted he did. “Wonderful!” exclaimed Gao. “I not only know your poems,” he said as he refilled their wine, “I collect them.” Gao modestly confessed to dabbling in poetry himself, though he dismissed his efforts and declined to share any of them with the sandal-maker, whom he treated with great deference and insisted on calling Master Hsi-wei.
Hsi-wei passed through Luanzhou’s North Gate at midday and went directly to the bustling main square, where he bought three pork dumplings and asked the seller if she knew the way to the shop of Gao Zeduan.
The woman lit up. “Ah, Mister Gao’s shop is the finest in town. It has a porch with four red pillars.” She pointed to one of the four streets that leading away from at the square. “Just walk down there for five minutes and you’ll see it on the right.”
Traders like Gao travel frequently but, as it happily fell out, he was in his shop when Hsi-wei came through the open doorway.
Gao hesitated only a moment. “Why it’s Master Hsi-wei! What a wonderful surprise!” he exclaimed. “Come, put down your bag and sit,” pointing to an upholstered bench by the wood-paneled wall.
Hsi-wei looked admiringly around the shop, taking in the exquisite jade statuettes on the shelves, including several of the Buddha, the glazed and painted vases, the porcelain plates and bowls, the dazzling earrings, necklaces, and rings spread out on the counter atop a cloth of jet-black silk.
Gao fussed. “Are you well? You’re dusty and it’s been so terribly hot. You must be tired and thirsty. Can I get you water?”
“I’m fine, Master Gao, only overwhelmed by the lovely things in your magnificent shop.”
Gao grinned with pleasure. “Oh, my humble stock. I’m glad it pleases you. Look, there’s a room for you in my humble villa, Master Hsi-wei. Can I induce you to stay for a proper visit? I can promise a soft bed and plenty of food. It’s yours for as long as you like.”
The offer of some days of leisure enjoying the hospitality of this prosperous friend attracted Hsi-wei. He had sold so many straw sandals on his way south that he could afford the time off.
“Thank you. I’m reluctant to impose, but I’ll be more than grateful to stay two days, if you’ll have me.”
Gao was delighted. “Excellent! Then it’s settled. I’ll close the shop right now and take you to my house. You can meet my wife, Yuxi. I’ll order the maid to ready your room and ask the cook to prepare something special for dinner.”
Hsi-wei took up his bag, Gao locked up his shop, and together they walked to a park with a Buddhist shrine. Then they went into a suburb where it was cooler thanks to the shade of high bamboo stands, gingko and pine trees. Along the way, Gao asked Hsi-wei about where he had been since they were last together.
“Do people approve of the new emperor?”
Hsi-wei frowned. He was among those who believed that Yangdi murdered his father. “Some do.”
Gao nodded. “The conscriptions? The Wall, the Canal, the wars?”
Hsi-wei nodded and might have added what he had heard of the new Emperor’s profligate way of living.
“Did you know he writes poetry?” asked Gao.
“So I’ve heard.”
“I’ve seen some of his verses. Conventional, but rather good.”
Hsi-wei made up a proverb on the spot. “Even a bad poet can turn a good phrase.”
Gao smiled. “And even a bad man can be a good poet?”
“That too,” said Hsi-wei.
Gao wanted to know what objects in his shop had particularly pleased the poet.
Hsi-wei said he had seen was nothing unworthy of praise, but he was drawn to a certain vase with a fine blue glaze and a little wooden Buddha.
“The vase was made in Yongzhou, but the blue glaze—it’s called sumali qing—is very rare. It comes from the West, a place called Samarra. The little wooden Buddha is from India. It really is fine. It makes you think the Buddha really looked like that.” Gao paused. “Master, are you a Buddhist?”
“Only an admirer,” said Hsi-wei dryly. “And you?”
“Well, I’ve thought hard about it.”
Embarrassed, both broke into laughter.
Though not the largest or most imposing, Gao’s villa was among the most handsome in Luanzhou and the newest. It was well-proportioned and harmonious. It reflected Gao’s taste for the modest but exquisitely made. Hsi-wei asked if he had taken a hand in its design and the merchant admitted that the plan was his work.
As they stood before the portico, Gao took Hsi-wei’s arm. “I’ve read your poems to my wife. She likes them, especially the ones about children. The poem people call ‘Mei-ling’s Good Idea’ is Yuxi’s favorite. I try to make her happy but, unfortunately, we have no children, at least not yet. If you notice that she sometimes she appears a little sad, it’s not because she isn’t dearly loved. If I take a second wife, Master Hsi-wei, it will only be to get an heir. I won’t love Yuxi the less. I wanted you to know this.”
“I understand, and I appreciate your confidence.”
Gao nodded. “By the way, the garden is Yuxi’s pride. She tends the plants like children. Ask her to show it to you and she’ll be delighted.”
Gao Yuxi had a slim figure and a face both pleasing and intelligent. Hsi-wei guessed she was at least five years younger than her husband, not yet too old to bear children. When the men came through the vestibule, she was speaking with the maid. She rushed to greet her husband, surprised to see him home early and with an ill-dressed stranger. Gao explained and Yuxi smiled and greeted Hsi-wei with a formal bow. “It is an honor,” Yuxi said with downcast eyes.
Hsi-wei returned her bow and thanked her for welcoming a dusty sandal-maker to her home, complimented the villa, then asked if he might see the garden about which her husband had boasted.
Yuxi bushed with pleasure. They went through the tidy house to the kitchen then out sliding doors to a little garden, splendid with spring blossoms. It was the week in which peonies are at their height, and the poet bent down to smell the pink flowers.
“Your peonies smell as lovely as they look,” he said.
“Maybe that’s why there are so many poems about peonies. Do you have one, Master Hsi-wei?” asked Yuxi.
Hsi-wei stood up and recited.
“All day we’ve questioned the flowers, but the flowers do not speak.
For whom do they shed their petals and leaves, for whom do they bloom?”
All three were silent for a few moments, then Gao said, “That is rather sad. Do you like Hsi-wei’s verses, Yuxi?”
The woman looked perplexed, even pained.
Hsi-wei looked meaningly at Gao. “The verses are sad, but they aren’t mine.”
“No? Whose then?”
“As you mentioned, our new emperor writes poems. They are his.”
“Do you like them, then?”
Hsi-wei shook his head.
Hsi-wei replied with a bitter smile. “Because the poet is posing, and not only questions.”
“I don’t understand,” said Yuxi.
“My apologies for speaking obscurely and perhaps unwisely. The vast garden the new emperor is constructing in Luoyang is already famous. Everything in it blooms for him. I believe that, if he could, he would make us all his flowers. In my travels I’ve certainly seen how the people shed their leaves for him.”
Gao nodded solemnly. “The conscriptions again?”
“And the new taxes.”
Yuxi looked frightened by what Hsi-wei and her husband were saying.
Over supper, the poet noticed how, in repose, anxiety crept over his hostess’s comely face. It might have been fear prompted by what Hsi-wei had said in the garden and her husband’s sympathy with it. But it could have been due to a longer-standing worry about losing her husband’s love because those flowers that did not speak, the unborn children.
Only an hour after dawn the roof tiles of Luanzhou were already shimmering with the heat. Over a breakfast of rice balls flavored with ginger and scallions, Yuxi announced that she had work to do in the garden and, if the men allowed, she would start at once, before it became too hot.
“Don’t forget to wear a hat,” Gao admonished her lovingly. “Well, I have plans, too. The shop will be closed for the day. We’re going to the river, Master Hsi-wei. It’s not far, just half an hour’s walk. It should be cooler by the water; and, if it isn’t, we can dive in. I have something marvelous to show you.”
“I’m at your service. What is this wonder?”
Gao smiled. “Very well, no surprises then. It’s the new bridge and it’s nearly finished. I haven’t met the architect, but I think you’ll have heard of him. It’s Li Chun.”
“Indeed, I have heard that name. He is a favorite in the capital, much celebrated.”
“Have you met him?”
“Well, perhaps we’ll meet him today. He was here when the construction started, then for two days when it was half-complete. Now I’m told he’s back, camping out at the bridge to oversee the last of the work.”
As the two men made their way between the dry ruts of the cart-road, Gao explained that the river was the source of the town’s prosperity. “A valuable commercial waterway but an impediment to land traffic, which has greatly increased. A year ago, after many petitions, the Gong Bu Ministry commissioned Li Chun to design a bridge, select its location, and supervise construction.”
“Li has a reputation for innovation. I take it his bridge is something out of the ordinary?”
“Unlike any in the Empire. You’ll see.”
On the eastern side of the road, through a willow grove, Hsi-wei caught sight of water. It was soundless and hardly moved.
“The river is low,” said Gao. “All this heat and little rain, but it will be good for seeing the bridge. Everything will be exposed. We’re nearly there.”
The road widened as it approached the bridge. The first thing Hsi-wei noticed was the whiteness of the stone; the second was the low slope of the arch, nothing like the steep rise and fall of the bridges he was used to.
Gao said, “You can’t really see it from here. You have to go to the side, down there.”
They waded through high reeds down to the muddy bank.
“Well?” said Gao.
“You told the truth. It’s a marvel.”
Four men were working on the nearest span, smoothing out the stone. Seated on a chair fitted with a parasol, was a man of late middle age. He held a staff and watched closely.
“That must be Li Chun,” said Gao. “Mr. Shu told me he’s lame.”
Suddenly, one of the workmen shouted a curse, dropped his iron tool, and brought his hand to his mouth.
“Imbecile! You’ve gouged it!” screeched the architect. “This is the third time!”
“The first for me, you old slave-driver.”
“You! No pay today. What’s your name?”
The man stood his ground and calmly replied, “My name’s Fung. What’s yours?”
With a bellow, Li rose from his chair and, leaning on his staff, and started to charge at the fellow. As he raised the staff high in both hands, he slipped in the mud and slid into the water.
All the workmen laughed, none louder than Fung.
Gao and Hsi-wei ran to help the architect out of the river. He spluttered and swore, all muddy and soaked. “Fetch my staff,” he ordered. They half-dragged him through the reeds and laid him down on the bank of brown grass.
There was no polite exchange of names, no thanks, just more swearing and cursing at the workmen who took up their tools, climbed the bank, and headed up the road still laughing.
“Fools and donkeys!”
When Li finally calmed down, Gao said, “Just stay here, Master Li. The sun will soon dry you.”
“I told you to fetch my staff.” Gao did.
Hsi-wei was now able to see the bridge in full.
“I’ve never seen such a bridge,” he said admiringly.
“Of course not,” growled Li Chun. “There isn’t another like it.”
“Master, I would be grateful to learn about the design
“Why not? Nothing else is going to get done today. Well, as you can see, it’s a segmented stone arch but different from any other, and better.”
“And far more beautiful,” said Gao, handing Li his staff.
The architect scoffed. “Beauty has nothing to do with it. I wanted to disprove what my teachers and everybody else believes, that only a semi-circular arch can support the weight of a substantial span. My design not only shows they were wrong but solves two problems. You see those arched openings at either end, the small one and the large? No one’s ever made them so wide and high. They reduce the weight of the bridge, the cost of materials, and make it possible for the entire span to have a low trajectory is more efficient to cross.” About these technical matters, Li spoke with enthusiasm and pride. “My open spandrels have another advantage. They provide space for a flood to pass through the bridge instead of battering against it, which is the cause of so many collapses.” He concluded with a boast. “My bridge is going to outlast all the others.”
“I do appreciate how practical it is, of course,” said Gao, “but what strikes me is how graceful your bridge is. It seems almost to float above the river. It makes me want to write a poem. The gentle curve makes me think of the hip of a woman asleep on her side.” He appealed to Hsi-wei. “Don’t you agree?”
Hsi-wei did. “I thought of a metaphor too, the back of a yawning cat. But it really is poetic. In fact, it’s made me recall one of the gathas of the late Fu Ta-shih.”
“A Buddhist monk and gifted poet. Fu likes to poses contradictions, as the Ch’an say, to awaken the mind and free the spirit. Empty-handed, I hold a hoe. Walking on foot, I ride a buffalo.”
“What nonsense!” growled Li scornfully.
“And the bridge?” asked Gao.
“A man passes over the bridge. The bridge not the water flows.”
“Yes! That’s it exactly,” said Gao, nodding.
“Your bridge moves lithely, Master Li. By comparison the water looks clumsy.”
“Absurdities! My bridge doesn’t move at all, you fools. And it won’t for at least a thousand years.”
“It certainly draws the eye,” said Gao, “as if it were moving. Whether you like it or not, I have to thank you. It’s a gift of beauty to our district.”
The architect made a dismissive gesture, as if brushing away a wasp. “Poets and monks,” he mocked, “they see what isn’t there. Your comparisons are fanciful. I assure you I had nothing in mind but to lighten the structure, lower the pitch of the arch, and provide against floods—not cats’ backs or women’s hips, and not what you flatteringly call beauty.”
That evening, as the sun set and the air cooled. Hsi-wei and Gao sat with Yuxi in her garden. Gao told his wife about what had happened at the bridge. To please her, he made it into an amusing anecdote about an imperious man losing his temper and winding up in the water.
Hsi-wei was in a reflective mood and spoke more thoughtfully. He pointed at Yuxi’s yellow tulips and fading pink peonies.
“Li Chun is like nature in one sense. I mean he makes beauty but is indifferent to it. He insisted to us that his bridge is designed for function not for beauty. Couldn’t the same be said of these flowers? Yuxi, you have laid this garden out charmingly, as Li has did his stone spandrels. The difference is that here the loveliness is intentional while that of the bridge is inadvertent. Master Gao, you made a good analogy when you compared the slope of the bridge to the hip of a sleeping woman. Like a tulip, the woman is unconscious, not a seductress thinking of how she looks.”
Gao gave a little chuckle. “I’m gratified the poet admires my simile. Yes, quite gratified. I like Li Chun’s bridge,” he said, “I just don’t care for him.”
Hsi-wei pointed at the peonies. “Nature sends us flood and drought, snow and storm. It is indifferent to what we see, how we suffer. But look at what nature has accomplished. Peonies. Li Chun is cold-hearted, hard-headed, narrow-minded, vain, boastful, and probably cruel—but look at what he has accomplished.”
Hsi-wei took his leave the next morning With many thanks to continue on his way south.
“So, I’ll be among the first of millions to cross Li’s eternal bridge,” he joked.
A week later, a well-dressed young man entered Gao’s shop.
“Yes? What can I show you, sir?”
The young man removed a small scroll from his sleeve.
“I’ve been traveling from the south, from Sh’an,” he said. “Along the way, I met a sandal-maker who turned out to be the poet Chen Hsi-wei, author of one of my favorite poems. I’m sure you know it, ‘Yellow Moon at Lake Weishan.’ Anyway, we drank together at a tavern and, when I told him I would be passing through Luanzhou, he said I’d be saved the price of a ferry and commended the new bridge over the Xiao and asked if we could meet in the morning. I agreed and he gave me this. He begged me to seek out your shop and hand it over to you personally.”
This is the letter- poem Hsi-wei wrote to Master Gao and his wife Yuxi.
Two perfect summer days I spent with you,
Cool pearls on a necklace of burning gravel.
Friendship turned the torrid weather temperate
And your gracious hospitality gave me leisure.
Your home taught me what a villa ought to be,
Your shop that mastery is where you find it
And Yuxi’s garden how nature is best framed,
These memories will warm me when winter comes.
The snow-peaked Meili Mountains are beautiful as are
The larches in the Emerald Forest of Xing’an.
But no one made them to be so gorgeous.
We think unintended beauty is nature’s gift,
That it is made for us. But it is not. It merely is.
Flowers smell sweetly to move pollen from one to another,
Trees reach blindly up to grasp the sunlight, and the Xiao
Didn’t plan its pleasing swerve around that mossy bank.
And so it is with Li Chun’s bridge, a set of problems
Solved with no thought for the delight of those who see it.
The beauty of carved jade and glazed porcelain,
The harmony of a finely fashioned home, show what
Pure intention can achieve. But poems and gardens
Contrived to show off the maker, not the made, ring false.
They lack the harmony of peonies and Anji Bridge.
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.